'A Flame Attached to a Burning Coal' / Simhat Torah

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

According to some interpretations, the mystical work “Sefer Yetzirah” depicts the universe as having been created from textual materials: specifically, the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 digits of the decimal numeral system. The Ten Sefirot represent − according to a literal reading of “Sefer Yetzirah” ‏(if one can use the term “literal reading” with reference to this mystical text‏) − the 10 numerals, which, together with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, constitute the 32 Paths of the Wonders of Wisdom that God has legislated. The building blocks of the decimal system undergo a process of mystification and become the foundation stones of all reality.

Special importance is attached to the cyclical nature of numerals: “The beginning of the 10 Sefirot is firmly attached to their end and their end is firmly attached to their beginning, just as a flame is attached to a burning coal; there is only one God and what can you count before ‏(or beyond‏) the One?” ‏(“Sefer Yetzirah” 1:6‏).

The 10 digits are organized consecutively, with their “beginning ... firmly attached to their end and their end ... firmly attached to their beginning,” like a snake biting its tail. The decimal system, however, does not follow the model of a ring, but is instead an infinite series. The series’ beginning, the numeral 0, is firmly attached to the last numeral, which is also 0.

In order to depict the dynamics of this close association, “Sefer Yetzirah” employs the image “just as a flame is attached to a burning coal.” The image of the flame and the coal describes the place where the numeral 9 ascends, becoming 0, and where the numeral 1 is born out of the numeral 0. The flame extends itself above the burning coal and ignites, becoming an independent tongue of fire; however, it can never detach itself from the burning coal and become a separate entity. Similarly, the coal can never detach itself from the flame because, if the fire is extinguished, the coal will become a mute lump of charcoal. Whereas the burning coal embodies the end of the process of burning, the flame is the beginning of the new process; one process ends and collapses into a new one, which is identical with it.

The cyclicity of numerals is compared not with the cyclicity of life but rather with fire, a destructive, consuming, annihilating fundamental element, which is not part of a process of multiplication or even replication but rather one in which there is a collapse and return to the starting point. In contrast with the infinite cyclicity of the Ten Sefirot, “Sefer Yetzirah” presents the sole exclusive entity in the universe: “There is only one God.” And his power is said to lie in his oneness and in the fact that it is impossible to count beyond the divine numeral of One. In comparison with the decimal numeral system, the uniqueness of the Almighty is seen as a numerical miracle: God’s oneness is not the first element in an ascending series of numbers, but rather a unique phenomenon that exists on a different numerical scale − a unique phenomenon before which any possibility of replication is nullified: “What can you count before ‏(or beyond‏) the One?”

The holiday of Simhat Torah, which will be celebrated beginning tonight in Israel ‏(and tomorrow night in the Diaspora‏) is a day on which the annual cycle of Torah readings ends and a new one begins. The reader in the synagogue will come to the final passage of the last weekly portion, the passage that also contains the Torah’s marvelous eulogy of its greatest prophet: “And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12‏). The Torah scroll is then rolled back from its final verses to its very beginning, the first verse of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” ‏(Genesis 1:1‏).

This is a moment that has a magical quality. It is as if the Torah is extinguished and is collapsing into a new beginning: The end of the Torah is firmly attached to its beginning, the burning coal is attached to the flame − and a new series of readings now begins. The renewal of the annual cycle of Torah readings has crucial narrative ramifications: The end of the story, the entry into the Promised Land, lies beyond the last verse of the Torah, and, from the threshold of the desert, the reader returns to the chapters depicting the creation of the universe.

The deciphering of the Torah as an arithmetical system that continually repeats itself also has other ramifications. The Torah’s weekly portions are replicated in an infinite series that repeats itself over and over, year after year. The differences between the readings of these portions from one year to the next stem from their chance meeting with different readers, with what is happening at the time in the world, with fresh ideas and with new intellectual trends − a meeting that creates a dynamic field of texts and interpretations that change from one year to the next.

The writing of new commentaries on the weekly Torah portion is apparently the most widespread genre on the classic Jewish bookshelf. The arithmetical series itself, however, remains unchanged. The passage of time has no effect on the numerical sequence, and, after all the various commentaries, the Torah remains a solid pearl that shines and is indecipherable. According to Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov − the 18th-century rabbi who is the legendary founder of the Hasidic movement − the words “The law of the Lord is perfect” ‏(Psalms 19:8‏) mean that no person has ever touched the Torah. After all the interpretations that were written about them, the Torah’s words are just as pure as they were on Sinai.

Multiplication is built into the series of weekly Torah portions and, just like the decimal system of numbers, it paradoxically emphasizes the uniqueness of the Torah’s creator, the one and only God, about whom Sefer Yetzirah says, “What can you count before ‏(or beyond‏) the One?”

Simhat Torah in Tel Aviv. The annual cycle of Torah readings ends and a new one begins.Credit: Alon Ron