Parashat Shemini / The Torah’s Center

We do not know why these scribes counted the letters in the Torah or whether they used their mathematical findings for the purpose of creating some virtuoso commentary.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The following passage appears in the Talmud: “The ‘First Ones’ were called sofrim [scribes, but also counters], because they counted all the letters in the Torah. They said that the letter vav in the word gahon was the midpoint of the Torah with regard to the number of letters it contains, that the words darosh darash are the midpoint of the Torah with regard to the number of words it contains and that the verse starting with vehitgalah is the midpoint of the Torah with regard to the number of verses it contains” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kidushin, 30a).

In this week’s reading, Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47), as it lists various dietary prohibitions, the Torah states, “Whatsoever goeth upon the belly [gahon], and whatsoever goeth upon all fours, or whatsoever hath many feet, even all swarming things that swarm upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are a detestable thing” (Lev.11:42). The ancient scribes or “counters” referred to in the above Talmudic passage counted the letters in the Torah and found that the letter vav in the word “gahon” is the letter at the exact midpoint of the Torah. They also found that the middle words are “darosh darash,” which appear a little earlier in the portion, in the verse, “And Moses diligently inquired [darosh darash] for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Eleazar and with Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left... ” (Lev. 10:16). Finally, they found that the middle point in terms of verses is in next week’s reading, Parashat Tazria: “then he shall be shaven, but the scall shall he not shave; and the priest shall shut up him that hath the scall seven days more” (Lev. 13:33).

To find the Torah’s center, these ancient scribes had to remain completely oblivious to the cognitive meaning of the text, and to regard the letters, words and verses as arithmetical series. We do not know who these individuals were. Nor do we know in what era or in what part of the world they lived. Furthermore, we do not know why they counted the letters in the Torah or whether they used their mathematical findings for the purpose of creating some virtuoso commentary or any other purpose. Obviously, these individuals cannot be identified with the figure of Ezra the Scribe, who is depicted in the Book of Ezra 7:6 as “a ready scribe in the Law of Moses,” and who “had set his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (7:10). Ezra’s activities required a profound understanding of the Torah’s contents, although not necessarily of the mathematical functions that can be applied to the text.

Rabbi Joseph questions the nature of the three textual findings of the scribe/counters: “Rabbi Joseph asks, ‘Does the letter vav in gahon belong to the first half of the total number of letters in the Torah or the second half?’” One could, of course, count the letters in a Torah scroll, the Talmud replies, but “They [the counters] were sufficiently versed in the precise text of the Torah but we [students of the Talmud] are not.” Thus, the Talmudic scholars are unable to discern the answer to Rabbi Joseph’s questions. Rabbi Joseph then asks, “Does the verse starting with ‘vehitgalah’ belong to the first half of the total number of verses in the Torah or the second half?’” Abbayei replies that he and his fellow scholars lack the ancients’ expertise regarding the division of the Torah text into verses and are thus also unable to answer this question either. Similarly, the ancients’ calculations are incongruent with the criteria of modern-day computer inspections of the present Torah text.

Although Rabbi Joseph’s questions can be read as a straightforward attempt to understand the mathematical meaning of the Torah’s center in terms of letters and verses, it seems that his questions can be better understood if we read them in a cynical tone of voice, as an expression of mockery with regard to the ancients’ silly (from Rabbi Joseph’s perspective) attempt to locate the Torah’s mathematicial center rather than its substantive one. After all, the ancients’ three findings are completely meaningless as far as the cognitive meaning of the Torah’s words are concerned.

The responses to Rabbi Joseph’s questions emphasize the fact that the counting of the number of letters in the Torah is not only a project without any cognitive meaning, it is also an impossible task to reconstruct because today – as was the case in the era of Rabbi Joseph, who was a third-generation Babylonian Amorai – we do not know the precise number of letters that the Torah originally contained. All that we have today are the ancients’ perplexing findings.

Nonetheless, an in-depth examination of the ancients’ approach to the text permits a glimpse into their theological working assumptions. They were interested not in the Torah’s meaning but in the counting of its units. They distinguished between the counting of the Torah’s letters, the counting of its words and the counting of its verses. However, in each instance, they never referred to the total number of letters, words or verses but simply pointed to the Torah’s midpoint. In mathematical terms, the ancients created a textual symmetry that is non-verbal in the sense that it does not relate to language. They decided to totally ignore the Torah text’s basic function as a sacred instruction manual, as a text with cognitive meaning, and instead focused on its aesthetic features. In other words, they looked at the text as a symmetrical, uniform continuum of signs with an identifiable center. The marking off of a center point creates a textual equilibrium on either side of this center point, an equilibrium that enables the reader to hold the entire text from beginning to end. Although the “read” text is completely cryptic, it is also absolute. In this sense, the identification of the Torah’s midpoint is an expression of the power of the reader, who can, with one finger, hold the entire Torah, from beginning to end, and thus hold its entire cryptic and divine continuum.

This anti-reading has an additional function. Although Rabbi Joseph might choose to mock it, this anti-reading, over the years, has become a critical factor in the history of Torah commentary because it transforms the text into a fetish – that is, a text whose chief features are contained not in the message it seeks to transmit but rather in the symbolic features that the reader can find in the textual material. The transformation of the Torah text into a fetish turns it into an object whose value is greater than the sum total of its components, that is, the sum total of its letters and words. Thus, the textual continuum itself, rather than the Torah scroll, in the sense of a parchment on which physical letters have been inscribed, becomes a sacred object.

This transformation into a fetish is given its loftiest expression in Nachmanides’ commentary on Genesis 1:1: “We have in our hands an authentic tradition that the entire Torah consists of God’s various names, that the words can be divided into units that have a very different meaning. For example, the words in the first verse in the Torah can be divided differently, so that this verse can be read not as ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’ but rather ‘God, to a certain extent, creates himself first.’ Similarly, in addition to the various combinations of words and the various numerological meanings of its words, the entire Torah text can be viewed in the above manner.” In this sense, the ancient scribes or “counters” have defeated Rabbi Joseph.

Torah scroll.