Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reader Question on Ancient/Modern Hebrew Script Usage


Hi Avielah, I have a question. In Ki Tisa we read about the Luchot with the Aseret Dibrot originally written michtav Elohim, the script of HaShem, and then the second version b'yad Moshe. What, if any, do you think the difference of script was - any Midrash you can guide me towards? Thank you, thank you.

Hi, L! Re your question about the first Luchot being written be-ketav Ivrit be-yad Ha-Shem, and the second set of Luchot being written be-ketav Ashurit be-yad Moshe, (or about all the Luchot and original Sifrei Torah written in ketav Ivrit and the switch happening sometime between Matan Torah and Ezra Ha-Sofer) there's lots - mostly in Hebrew:

Sanhedrin 21b-22a notes that this subject is of Tannaitic dispute and that there are three different opinions; Menachot 29b; Shabbat 104a; Teshuvot Ha-Ge'onim (responsum 358, fully quoted by Margolis Ha-Yam to Sanhedrin 21b); RaMBaM's Commentary to Mishnah, Yadaim 2:5; Ha-Mikra Ve-Ha-Mesorah by R' Reuven Margulies; Yerushalmi Megilah 1:9.

Quti'im (Samaritans) still write their Sifrei in ketav Ivrit, and Yemenite Jews up until recently wrote their Sifrei in ketav Ashurit, with only Y-H-V-H written in ketav Ivrit. Since their gradual exposure to the broader Jewish world, they've ended that practice.

There is an academic article at about the Hebrew AlefBet and it's transition, and Omnigot has an interesting page on "Paleo-Hebrew", ie ketav Ivrit.

Hope you like the juicy references - enjoy researching!
Love you :)

Cross-posted on Facebook

Wednesday, January 13, 2010



“And All Your Children Shall Be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History" – Shoshana Pantel Zolty
1993 Jason Aaronson

Page 145 reads:

There is also indirect mention of a... female scribe in the Genizah documents: we are told that the Jewish community of Daquq (today called Tawuq), Iraq, was headed by Azarya, ‘son of the female copyist.’ He was praised by the Hebrew poet Yehudah al-Harizi for his noble descent and character as well as his munificence.”*

* Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, vol. 2, p.184

Copyright © A. Barclay
Originally published January 2005 at Netivat Sofrut: the Diary of a Soferet
Cross-posted on Facebook

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Female Torah Scribes = Old News, But Still Good News


When I was certified to write Sifrei Torah back in 2003 after many years of work and study, the client for whom I was to write my first Torah scroll wanted to generate media attention to raise money for their project. Fair enough. This, however, introduced me to The Media Idol, to which so many fame junkies will worship and sacrifice. Very sad.

The Media wanted to bill me as the first soferet in history, the only female Torah scribe of all time. But I couldn't let them. That's a big claim to make, if you can't prove it. Especially when other people's money is involved. So I had to deflate their balloon a little. I had to say, well, I was the first soferet in history as far as I knew. That I might be the only female Torah scribe of all time. It wasn't as tasty a story, but at least it was true.

Sometimes The Media would still make these claims on my behalf, so I began correcting them on my blog, so the public knew I wasn't trying to deceive anyone. After all, a first is something to celebrate because it opens the door for others - it's a position of service. But how could I let the media run with a story which would get so many people excited, only to then have to retract it five, or ten, or forty years later? How embarrassing and irresponsible.

At the end of the day, I had to live with myself, so I kept emphasising the fact that perhaps women came before me whose names and work had been lost or hidden, and that I wasn't willing to take the credit they deserved. Besides, wouldn't it be better if there was some kind of precedent? Wouldn't it be good for all Jewish women - and not just me - if we had the firm foundation of a women's scribal tradition on which to stand?

Well, duh.
Besides, there's nothing wrong with being "the first in a very long time".
It has a ring of renewal to it.

This inspired me to do research on the topic, which eventually lead to the discovery of a few handfuls of women who had indeed written or repaired Torah scrolls through the generations. Yay us. You can read about it more at my old blog. I had great fun discussing these women with other male and female scribes too, as they began cropping up.

The text in Devarim Shebichtav refers to a woman who wrote a Sefer Torah generations ago, so she, or perhaps one of her predecessors whose name we will never know, deserves the credit for being the first woman to write a Torah scroll.

The translation of this excerpt into English by my husband, Mordechai Pinchas Sofer StaM, reads as follows:

[Regarding] a woman WHO WROTE a Sefer Torah, if there is a male or female orphan to marry, it is better that she give it to them than give it to a Synagogue, but this is [only] in the case where the Synagogue [already] has another Sefer Torah to read from. But if it has no other Sefer Torah, then study comes before action [i.e the Synagogue gets the Torah].’

Some of his further notes include:

This single paragraph:

a) accepts that women can write a Sefer Torah

b) that it can be sold to (one assumes other Jews) to provide funds for an orphan to marry, as opposed to being buried or stored away – which would be the case if it was declared pasul and

c) implies that such a Torah would be acceptable for use by a Synagogue

Everyone please remember: Yisra'el ve-Oraita ve-Qudesha Ha-Berikh Hu Chad Hu; Torah Orah, HalleluYah! - "Israel and the Torah and the Holy One are all ONE; Torah is Light, Praise G@D!". We're all on the same team, so we must never attempt to cover the accomplishments of others who came before us with our own claims veneered over theirs. If I had tried to obscure them, our Scribal Foremothers, I would've obscured my Self and a part of the Jewish People for the benefit of my own fragile ego.

Each one of us is on Planet Earth for a particular purpose: our Mitzvah Meyuchedet, the reason for our being that only we can complete. If we all shine with our own unique light, we'll light up Creation, and G@d willing open the way for Moshiach, bimheyra beyamenu. So don't forget Holy Rabbi Zushya, who worried that when he died and G@d would call on him, The Holy One would ask: "Why weren't you more like Avraham? Or Moshe?" when really what the Divine question was: "Why weren't you more like Zushya?"

Copyright © A. Barclay
Cross-posted on Facebook

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Forward's Sisterhood Blog


Thanks to Andrea for sending me this link: please see the comment I left (I don't like to take credit for what I didn't do).

"Shalom! I'm humbled that you should include me in this list. I thank you on behalf of all the people who supported my learning and work over the years.

I'd like to point out that I'm only the first female Torah scribe in living memory, not the first one ever. The text in Devarim Shebichtav refers to a woman who wrote a Sefer Torah generations ago, so she, or perhaps one of her predecessors whose name we will never know, deserves the credit you are honouring me with.

For more information on some of the female scribes in our history, please see

Blessings and thanks for the work you do!"

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Scribal Space in Our Story


I had a question after last Shabbat from an overseas client, which I found of great interest and would like to share here:

hi there. what can you tell us about the 3 spaces instead of the 9 spaces btwn last weeks parsh & this week's. we've read some commentary, wanted yours. we actually read a chassidic commentary on this, last week & wanted to see what you knew about the blending of the parshiot, as one whole. thanks for your input

Hi there, XX!
Nice to hear from you - how are you & R' X doing?

There are 2 pages of commentary on this question in The Gutnick Edition Chumash Qol Menachem, the one that Chabad uses. You can find their take on your question on pages 318-319.

As for my thought: there actually shouldn't be ANY spaces between these two Parshi'ot. We checked various Tiqunim le-Sofrim we own (including Yemenite!) and nobody leaves any spaces. So if you have a Sefer with 3 spaces, then that is a scribal error. According to the strictest rules of sofrut, this could passul the Sefer, but there are disagreements about petucht & s'tumot...

RaMBaM ruled that no space should be left in between, ie there would only be one "space" (a Yud-width). The Yemenite Tiqun Le-Sofrim also said that there should be no gap, however noted that in later generations some non-Yemenite scribes left one "space" the size of a large letter (like an Alef), which is two additional Yud-widths to the one existing Yud-width.

So although there should only be one Yud-width between these Parshi'ot, like there is between any words, some have a tradition to leave 3 Yud-widths, but that is all. If your "3 spaces" is wider than 3 Yuds, then you may have a problem with the kashrut of the scroll.

Marc and I found some commentary on this lack of space by the Ba'al Ha-Turim. He says that there is a s'tumah rather than a petuchah because the first two words of Parashat Va-yechi is juxtaposed with the final two words of Parashat Va-Yigash to show that Ya'aqov lived to see 30 myriads of his descendants.

Marc also thinks that the two Parshi'ot may well have been all one originally, since the Parashah divisions are not organic.

Hope that's helpful! Always happy to be of assistance!

Copyright © A Barclay
Cross-posted on Facebook

Thursday, December 10, 2009



לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי...

Lo ve-hayil ve-lo ve-choah, ki im be-ruhi . . .

Not by power, not by might; but by My spirit . . .

- Zechariyah 4:6

May all our earthly goals be realised in this way, ameyn selah.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Parshat Va-yeshev: Dotted Letters Alef and Tav


Be-reshit/Genesis 37:12 reads:

וַיֵּלְכוּ, אֶחָיו, לִרְעוֹת אֶת-צֹאן אֲבִיהֶם, בִּשְׁכֶם

And once, his brothers went to pasture their father's flock in Shekhem.

Va-yeilekhu, echaiv, lire'ot et-tson avihem, bi-Shekhem

The word את et has two dots, one over each letter, teaching that Joseph's brothers did not go to pasture the flocks in Shekhem but to "pasture" themselves: to eat, drink, and indulge in all pleasures, the "Alef-to-Tav" suggesting they tried everything! From A to Z! (AR"N 30b)

Shekhem is a 4,000 year old city. It was the first Israeli capital and the largest, most central city to our ancestors at that time and place in history, not a pastoral place. The dots appearing over the word for the direct article indicate the boys didn't go to feed and water their sheep, they went to feed and water themselves. They didn't graze their flocks in the big city, they partied.

Shekhem (known as Neopolis later by our Greek invaders and now called Nablus in Arabic) also had another name: Tel Balatah.
The root בִּלָּה means to have a good time, to enjoy life; to spend time hanging out.

So what this verse is really telling us is that Joseph's brothers parked their father's flock outside Shekhem, went inside and had a good time! "Wasting away again in Margaritaville..."

The narrative tells us that Jacob is sending Joseph to check up on his older brothers and report back, and it is on this trip that Joseph's brothers turn on him and he ends up enslaved in Egypt. So what had Jacob heard, and what did Joseph catch them doing in Dotan (דָּת means justice/sentence) that they had to dispose of him?

In the end, Joseph's brothers were sick and tired of the favouritism their dad showed him, and snapped. The Torah refers to Joseph here as a נַעַר na'ar, or youth, and Rashi tells us that his childish behaviour was de rigeur.

Jacob was concerned his elder sons were not properly looking after his sheep (vital investment property he had worked hard for many years over), and Joseph's repeated spying on them finally ended in his catching them at doing something really bad (the dotted letters Alef and Tav), being sold to foreigners and taken away to Egypt.

Rashi tells us that Shekhem is a place of misfortune for the Jewish People: Joseph was sold into slavery there, Dinah was raped there, and the kingdom of the House of David was divided there. STAY AWAY FROM THIS PLACE.

Shekhem history:
Dothan Project:

Copyright A. Barclay, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Hebrew Word Gifts


My friend Rory & I did these t-shirt designs together - ok, all I did was the Hebrew script, my own design called "Qeset Ha-Soferet" & first published by MySpace. & I did the writeups on the tags, but everything else was her idea - she's the brainchild.

Anyway, each shirt sports a powerful Hebrew word, as an intention the wearer wishes to put out into the world or carry within themselves. They're meant to be inspirational spiritual gear.

Just in Time for Chanukah at my original blog, Netivat Sofrut: the diary of a Soferet.

Notice that all the shirts are modestly cut so those of us who cover up for religious reasons can wear them! There is a line of baby wear in the making as well...

Chappy Chanukah!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Care and Feeding of Your Torah Scroll


Classic and practical booklet written by Brilliant Sofer Husband, Mordechai Pinchas Sofer ST"M, a few years back to help everyone look after their Sifrei well, and avoid little accidents which cause expensive trips to the sofer/et for repair. Please do have a browse :)

Care of Your Torah by Marc Michaels, Sofer ST"M

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ Dotted Kiss in Parashat Va-yishlach


Be-reyshit/Genesis 33:4, Parshat Va-yishlach has a scribal peculiarity in the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ va-yishaqeyhu, "and kissed him". It can be found here in the following Chumashim:
Plaut p.219, Cohen p.201, Hertz p.125, Sforno p.181, JPS p.52, Jerusalem p.38, Stone p.176

Here we have Ya'aqov and Esav reuniting after decades of separation, having spent their lives competing against each other and defining themselves as so different from the other. The last time they saw one another was when Ya'aqov bought Esav's Firstborn Birthright for a bowl of lentils, after which Ya'aqov usurped Esav's blessing from their father Yitz'chaq and then hightailed it back to Paddan-Aram, to his mother Riv'qah's family, about ten miles east of Damascus.

Ya'aqov was returning home from exile to Israel, and to mend his relationship with his only sibling. A sibling with whom he defined what he was not. What am I? I am not him. It took twenty years of being away from each other for the brothers to finally meet as who they were, instead of who they were not. An intense narrative which many of us share.

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיִּבְכּוּ.

And Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him; and they wept.

Va-yaratz Eysav liq'rato va-yechab'qeyhu, va-yipol al tzavarav va-yishaqeyhu; va-yiv'ku.

The word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ va-yishaqeyhu has six dots, one over each letter. Why?
What does this mean?

We are taught by several sources (Avot deRebbe Natan, Rav Hayim David HaLevi, among others) that where dots appear in our Holy writings that it means we are meant to either erase the word from the text altogether, or to apply its opposite meaning.

For example, perhaps the pasuq, the verse, is meant to read only, "And Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck; and they wept", with no mention of a kiss.

Or, maybe this brotherly kiss was really something else? It is explained by the Rabbis that Esav did not sincerely kiss his brother Ya'aqov, rather he would have preferred to (Ba’al Ha-Turim; Avot deRebbe Natan 30b) give him a נְשִׁיכָה neshikhah, a bite - these two words have a similar sound. This was not a true reconciliation on Esav's part.

The root of the word "kiss", נִשֵּׁק, can also mean just to meet up with someone, or to get together casually (נָשַׁק). However, it can also mean "weapon", נֶשֶׁק, which is a word you'll be familiar with if you've ever entered an Israeli shopping mall, because the security guards with the metal detectors you have to pass through will search your bag and ask you if you have a nesheq, gun. It can also mean "to sting", like a scorpion.

Sibling rivalry is tough! Be-reyshit/Genesis 25:22-23 teaches us that these two boys had been fighting in utero! And now they embrace after so many years, and it stung them...

Alternatively, according to R' Shim'on ben Eleazar, this was the only time Esav was genuinely expressing his affection for his brother, and all other times it had been insincere.

So what do we do with this word? What do you think?

Copyright © A. Barclay.
Cross-posted on Facebook

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

This Month, Six Years Ago


This month, six years ago, my Globe And Mail interview with Cori Howard:
(pls note - I'm not the first woman to be a soferet like the article states, as women have been occasionally doing this work for generations)


Fighting for the right to write

Vancouver's Aviel Barclay is the first woman ever to become a Torah scribe. But some authorities say she is violating Jewish law by doing it.

By Cori Howard

There are 4,000 rules to writing a Torah, the holiest book of the Jews. There are rules about spacing and size and at least a dozen on how to write the name of God. And 35-year-old Aviel Barclay is becoming intimately familiar with every single one.

. . .

"I'm carrying the torch because someone stuffed it in my backback," she says, unpacking in her modest Vancouver apartment after a recent trip to Israel. "If I was male, I would have gotten loans and there would have been no question about it. I could've done it 10 years ago. But for me, all I can hope is doing this will educate people about an obscure area of Jewish law and open the way for other women who want to do this."

. . .

"It was all very Zen," she says. "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." The rest of her journey was not so peaceful. In Israel, she was also studying at a yeshiva, a Jewish school. After they found out what she was doing, they harassed her, demanded the sofer's name and threatened to kick her out. She left.

At a second yeshiva, she heard people talking about the woman who wanted to write a Torah. They said they were lucky not to have such a heretic. She left before they found out she was there. A third yeshiva told her to deal with her feminist issues or leave. She left.

. . .

"I have not found within our traditional legal sources sufficient grounds to validate women writing Torah," says Rabbi Ross Singer of Vancouver's Shaarey Tefilah synagogue. He has spent more than a year studying this matter and consulting renowned Torah scholars. But he does support women writing a Torah for educational purposes, learning or as a reference.

While that may sound like conditional support, to Ms. Barclay, it's amazing that in the last major area where Jewish women haven't gained equality, she's getting any support at all from an Orthodox rabbi. "I respect difference of opinion," she says.

. . .

For now, Ms. Barclay is preparing herself for that state of higher consciousness. She prays every day. She meditates. She writes in her journal. She gets really excited thinking about going into the world of the letter nun and tackling the challenge of the letter aleph.

"I guess I'm a bit of a nerd that way. But really, I've wanted this honour my whole life, as grave as it is. And it's happening now and I'm ready to do it."

Originally posted at Netivat Sofrut: the Diary of a Soferet

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Parashat Va-yetzey's Enlarged Final Peh


In this week's parsha, Va-Yeytzey Be-reyshit/Genesis 30:42, in a Chassidic Sefer Torah one will find an enlarged letter Fey Sofit in the word u-ve-ha-atiF.

וּבְהַעֲטִיף הַצֹּאן, לֹא יָשִׂים; וְהָיָה הָעֲטֻפִים לְלָבָן, וְהַקְּשֻׁרִים לְיַעֲקֹב.

’...but when the flock were feeble, he didn't put them in; so the feebler were Lavan's, and the stronger were Ya'aqov's."

This word עטיף atif is traditionally translated as "weak" or "feeble", and the shoresh, root of this word, עָטַף ataf, means to wrap, to cover, to package, or to envelop. So we have sheep and goats which are not weak in the normally understood sense of being fragile or undependable; rather, we have sheep and goats which are עֲטִיפָה atifah, bound or restricted by something: perhaps a sickness, or a genetic condition.

This pasuq, verse, is part of the story where Ya'aqov is preparing to separate himself and his household from the indentured servitude of his father-in-law/uncle, Lavan. Starting in verse 25, right after Rachel finally gives birth to Yosef, Ya'aqov approaches Lavan to negotiate a separation settlement/agreement.

They agree that Ya'aqov can leave with his wives, children, servants, and livestock, provided that he only takes the sheep and goats which are striped, spotted, speckled, or dark. Why? Because their wool, hair and hides are worth less than those with a consistent and/or lighter complexion. The lighter and more even the goat's hair or sheep's wool, the easier to dye whatever colour you please, and sell in the markets. Also, spotted and striped in many breeds (perhaps the breeds Lavan was husbanding) are recessive genes, so Ya'aqov was claiming a very small percentage of Lavan's flocks as his compensation. Greedy Lavan agrees.

So what does Ya'aqov do to ensure his family's financial security? He does some hishtadlut which some may simply call "sympathetic magic". He takes the soft, new branches of almond and poplar trees and peels designs in the thin bark: stripes and spots. Then Ya'aqov sticks them in the earth around Lavan's flocks' watering toughs where the animals drink and mate, and like a shaman suggests that they produce more striped and spotted offspring.

Then comes our verse: when the sickly animals were at the troughs, he didn't put the sticks around, but when the robust animals were there, they were surrounded by these sticks. This was Ya'aqov's way of pulling the recessive striped and spotted offspring out of the strongest and best of Lavan's flocks for his wage.

So, what's with this enlarged final letter Feh?
Peh means mouth - and this enlarged letter is G@d's open mouth telling Ya'aqov in Be-reyshit/Genesis 31:3, "Return to the land of your fathers, and to your family, and I will be with you." Now that I've helped you get ready, Ya'aqov, it's time to move.

G@d was the shepherd here - the letter resembles a shepherd's crook which is enlarged to show that G@d was helping Ya'aqov in his task by making sure all the sick came to water together and all the healthy came to water at the same time so there was no mixing of the ill and the strong, so Ya'aqov would get only strong, healthy animals to take back with him to Israel. G@d was showing Divine chesed, loving-kindness, in aiding Ya'aqov in shepherding his animals, and then shepherding Ya'aqov and his family back home.

Copyright© A. Barclay

Friday, November 20, 2009

Parashat Tol'dot Diminished Letter Quf = Familial Desperation


In Bereyshit/Genesis 27:46, Parshat Tol'dot we have a letter Quf (ק) which is written very tiny - it's also the leading letter in its word. You can find this pasuq/verse in the following Chumashim:
Plaut p.188, Cohen p.157, Hertz p.101, Sforno p.147, JPS p.42, Jerusalem p.31, Stone p.140

וַתֹּאמֶר רִבְקָה, אֶל-יִצְחָק, קַצְתִּי בְחַיַּי, מִפְּנֵי בְּנוֹת חֵת; אִם-לֹקֵחַ יַעֲקֹב אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת-חֵת כָּאֵלֶּה, מִבְּנוֹת הָאָרֶץ--לָמָּה לִּי, חַיִּים.

And Riv'qah said to Yitz'chaq: 'I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Ya'aqov marries a Hittite woman, such as these local women, why should I go on living?'

Va-tomer Rivqah el-Yitz'chaq qatz'ti ve-chayai mip'ney b'not Cheyt im-loqeyach Ya'aqov ishah mi-b'not Cheyt ka-eyleh, mi-b'not ha-aretz, lamah li chayim?

The Quf in the word קַצְתִּי qatz'ti - "loathe" - is written smaller than its neighbours because Riv'qah was hiding her true reason for sending Ya'aqov away from his father Yitz'chaq. She didn't really dislike her Hittite daughters-in-law – wives of Esav - as much as she pretended. Riv'qah is lying to her husband. She asked Yitz'chaq to send him away to protect him from Esav's veangence, under the pretense of finding a wife. Because what does the pasuq/verse previous to this one say? That Esav was hunting Ya'aqov down in order to kill him.

This is the last pasuq/verse in the pereq/chapter – what happens next? Yitz'chaq sends Ya'aqov away to Riv'qah's family to find a wife...or two!

Why did Rivqah lie to her husband?
Because had she told Yitzchaq the straight truth, he wouldn't have acted. Yitzchaq loved Esav so much. So much. He could never have believed that Esav would ever harm Ya'aqov, so he would not have sent him away to the safety of Rivqah's family. In those days and at that time, the Code of Hammurabi reigned supreme in the Middle and Near East, so if a father did not give his adult son permission to leave, he did not leave. Period.

Yitzchaq, we learn in 21:1, is old and blind:

וַיְהִי כִּי-זָקֵן יִצְחָק, וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בְּנִי, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּנִי

And it happened that when Yitzchaq was old, and his eyes were dim, and he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: 'My son'; and he said unto him: 'Here I am.'

Is that why it was so easy for Rivqah and Ya'aqov to fool Yitzchaq? A midrash teaches us that when Yitzchaq was bound on the altar and his father Avraham was about to slit his throat, he was so traumatised and terrified - and who wouldn't be? - yet he kept it all inside, and braved the experience. As he refused to express his terror, and did not cry, the angels gathered all around the scene felt his terrible pain and cried themselves - crying the tears of angels into Yitzchaq's eyes- so he would be blinded, shielded from what was about to happen. It was then that Avraham stopped and let him go.

The Akeidah, Yitzchaq's binding and emotional torture, left him with a serious case of PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is why he was only comforted from his mother's death by getting married, this is why he prays to El-Shaddai alone in the twilight out in the field, this is why he is a quiet, passive figure in the rest of his narrative. This is why he is forever emotionally distant and can only sometimes connect with Rivqah. This is why he cannot see - not because he is physically blind, but because he cannot tell one son from the other most of the time, because of his own unhealed brokenness, because he is still blinded by the tears of angels.

Sometimes we do things out of desperation to move barriers which cannot otherwise be moved. It's dangerous and always causes damage, but how much greater the damage to do nothing? Rivqah made a very difficult decision here, and chose the lesser of two evils: deceive her husband or let one son murder the other thereby and destroy the family and our future.

So why the letter Quf?

Although Riv'qah, a leader in her family as this letter is in its word, saved one son's life and prevented her other son from becoming a murderer, and although she saved her family and the future of the Jewish people by lying to her husband, she still lied. And this last lie in the string of deceptions she'd engineered is the one which finally made her realize that her קְדֻשָּׁה q-edushah had been diminished. And that she would have to make a great sacrifice, a קָרְבָּן q-orban, by sending her favourite child away, in order to begin to mend the damage.

What do we know about Riv'qah? We know she was the kind young girl who offered to water Eliezer and his camels. We know Yitz'chaq loved her as much as his life. We know she desperately wanted to be a mother. We know she was blessed with twin sons who struggled – קְרָב q-arav - against each other their whole lives. We know she received prophecy about the future of her family. We know she acted with the right intentions. And we know that she never saw Ya'aqov again...

Copyright © A. Barclay

Sad Lamed: Be-reyshit/Genesis 27:30 Parashat Tol'dot


וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלָּה יִצְחָק לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וַיְהִי אַךְ יָצֹא יָצָא יַעֲקֹב, מֵאֵת פְּנֵי יִצְחָק אָבִיו; וְעֵשָׂו אָחִיו, בָּא מִצֵּידוֹ.

And it happened that as soon as Yitz'chaq had finished blessing Ya'aqov, and Ya'aqov had barely left the presence of Yitz'chaq his father, that Esav his brother returned from his hunting.

Vayehi ka'asher kilah Yitzchaq l'vareykh et-Ya'aqov vayehi akh yatzo yatza Ya'aqov mey'eyt p'ney Yitzchaq aviv v'Eysav achiv ba mitzeydo

In most types of Torah Ketav or script, the letter Lamed has what is called a Tag or a Keter, a single crownlet. Normally - in fact in all cases - the Tagin point upwards. Very rarely some scribes will, in the word that says Yitzchaq "was finished" - כִּלָּה kilah - blessing Ya'aqov, the Tag of that Lamed is written by the Sofrim/scribes pointing downward and curled (Sefer HaTagin, Torah Sh'lemah).

This is the only instance in our tradition where this is done - and it's hardly ever done at all anymore, even though it's a standard agreed-upon feature.

From this we learn that this particular brakhah/blessing was transmitted through Yitz'chaq to Ya'aqov from The One Above and did not simply come from Yitz'chaq to Ya'aqov. Therefore, it was no mistake that the younger brother, Ya'aqov, was raised above the elder brother, Esav, and the deception which the Prophetess Our Mother Rivqah engaged her favourite son in was Divinely inspired.

Now we can all stop feeling guilty!

Copyright © A. Barclay.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Diminished Letter Khaf in Be-reyshit/Genesis 23:2, Parshat Chayey Sarah


This week's Torah reading has another diminished letter - Khaf - which tells us something of the complexities of family relationships.

Depending on which Chumash you're using, the verse we'll look at can be found in Plaut p.156, Cohen p.118, Hertz p.80, Sforno p.115, JPS p.32, Jerusalem p.23, and Stone p. 106.

Let's set the scene: Avraham has just come within a hair's breadth of slaughtering his and Sarah's only child, Yitzchak, for a sacrifice to Ha-Shem. Luckily for everyone Ha-Shem saw that our devoted Patriarch was going through with it, so sent an angel to stop the knife from cutting the lad's throat.

However, on returning home, Avraham and Yitzchak find that Sarah has died. Pirqei de Rabbi Eliezer xxxii tells us this is because the seductive Sama'el, Angel of Death, came to Sarah and told her that Avraham had killed and rendered their son a burnt offering. The shock and confusion of this grievous news finished her.

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן--בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

And Sarah died in Qiriat Arba - which is the same as Chevron - in the land of Kena'an; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

" Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah ve-liv'kotahh."

Khaf (כ) derives its name from kafuf, "bent". "A kafuf" in particular means a person bowed down in humility. Also, due to it's pictographical shape, Khaf symbolises the palm of our hand, kaf yad כַּף יָד.

After Sarah's death, Genesis 23:2 reads, "...Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her." The small Khaf in the word ve-liv'kotah tells us that Avraham contained his grief, bearing his pain in his heart and not making himself a spectacle due to his sense of modesty (Midrash: Kol Ha-Torah). You can just see him gathering his robes up to his heart with this small, tight Khaf, his kaf yad, to enclose and control his feelings. How heart-breaking.

Other reasons are given for the small Khaf: Avraham may have restrained his grief because Sarah lived a full and successful life (Ba'al Ha-Turim), or possibly because Sarah's hearing the news of the Akeidah killed her, and Avraham didn't wish to publicly share his regret, lest others would conclude he felt guilty for causing her death from a broken heart.

Now, if you take this small Khaf out of the word entirely, what do you have left?
Ve-liv'kotahh, "to weep for her" becomes ולבתה u-le-vatah, "and for her daughter". Instead of " Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah ve-liv'kotahh", "...and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her", we get " Avraham lis'pod le-Sarah u-le-vatah", "...and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her daughter". What?

The Roke'ach (Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah ben Kalonymus of Worms, the husband of a Soferet Rebbetzin Dulcie*) offers the idea based on the Gemara in Bava Batra 16b that Avraham and Sarah also had a daughter, who died at the same time as Sarah.

What is a Khaf? It's name means the palm of your hand. An enclosure. It's shape is two similar things joined, which bend together to meet and marry.

Avraham's hand/agency/power, home/presence, his כתר keter, crown of Torah, his כהנות kohanut, priesthood, was diminished by losing his wife. Why? Because, according to Sh'mot/Exodus Rabba i. 1, Sarah was closer to Ha-Shem and superior to Avraham in her gift of prophecy, and he knew it. This is why he pitched Hagar and Yishma'el out at her insistence, against his own wishes (Bereshit/Genesis Rabbah xlvii. 1). This is how they got so many new souls together and brought them to The Land with belief in the Holy One (Bereshit/Genesis 12:5). They were a team.

Sarah was Avraham's crown. And he'd lost her forever. Perhaps this is why Midrash Tanchuma Chayei Sarah 4 tells us that Avraham wrote Ayshet Chayil to eulogise Sarah.
May her memory be for a blessing.

*Rebbetzin Dulcie or Dulcina of Worms was a learned wife and mother who used to repair the Torah scrolls of her husband's synagogue in Worms, and translate the prayers into the vernacular so that she could lead the women in their own services. She was murdered at age 26, along with her daughters, by Crusaders on their way to Israel.

Copyright© A. Barclay

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Dotted Letters Example #2b: Be-reyshit/Genesis 19:33, Parshat Va-yeira


Be-reyshit/Genesis 19:33, Parshat Va-yeira relates the time when Lot is drunkenly seduced by his own daughters, after they escape the destruction of Sodom. You can find the verse in the following Chumashim:
Plaut p.132, Cohen p.98, Hertz p.69, Sforno p.99, JPS p.28, Jerusalem p.19, Stone p.90

וַתַּשְׁקֶיןָ אֶת-אֲבִיהֶן יַיִן, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא; וַתָּבֹא הַבְּכִירָה וַתִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-אָבִיהָ, וְלֹא-יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ.

And they had their father drink wine that night. And the elder daughter went in, and slept with her father; and he didn't know when she lay down, nor when she got up.

“ yada be-shikhvahh u-ve'qumahh.”

The root of the word וּבְקוּמָהּ, u-ve'qumahh, is קם. This is translated here as "arose" or "got up". It can also mean to be established or built, to be realized (as in a plan) or to persevere. And this is just what happened. The previous two verses, 19:31-32, read:

וַתֹּאמֶר הַבְּכִירָה אֶל-הַצְּעִירָה, אָבִינוּ זָקֵן; וְאִישׁ אֵין בָּאָרֶץ לָבוֹא עָלֵינוּ, כְּדֶרֶךְ כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.

And the elder daughter said unto the younger daughter, "Our father is old and there isn't a man in the world to come into us in the way of all the world.

לְכָה נַשְׁקֶה אֶת-אָבִינוּ יַיִן, וְנִשְׁכְּבָה עִמּוֹ; וּנְחַיֶּה מֵאָבִינוּ, זָרַע.

So, let us have our father drink wine, and we'll sleep with him so we can preserve the seed of our father.'

So why is u-ve'qumahh such an important word? Because not only did each girl rise up after having intercourse with her father, but each girl did indeed realize her plan to establish herself through re-building their family by preserving their father's seed. They would persevere.

And that is why the scribal oddity in 19:33 is a dot above the second letter Vav in וּבְקוּמָהּ.

The dot tells us of one of Lot's great failings.

Lot's name (לוֹט) means covered, wrapped, concealed, you never really knew the true man. He spent his whole life being mentored and supported by holy tzaddiqim Avraham and Sarah, yet when given the choice, he chose a life in Sedom and gAmorah.

Lot is like No'ach, only “relatively righteous” compared with the people around him. He may have been the most righteous person in Sedom, but that sets such a low bar...

Talmud Bavli Nazir 23a and Be-reyshit Rabah 51:8 say that the dotted Vav tells us that Lot was unaware of his elder daughter's lying down but by the time she'd finished with him he was aware of her getting up, and acted as if he wasn't.

Lot was innocent of the first incest incident, but the next night he still knowingly allowed himself to be seduced a second time, by his younger daughter. He knew and he didn't stop it.

This second Vav in וּבְקוּמָהּ is dotted because Vav means “hook”, and it is the letter of connexion. So this being the second Vav in the word and his being guilty of the second inappropriate connexion, it gets a dot to make us aware of this dimension of the story.

Shame on you, Lot. You were responsible to look after your traumatised children, not breed with them. You deserve grandchildren named Ben-Ammi ("son of my people/family") and Mo'av ("from Dad").

Copyright© A. Barclay

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dotted Letters Example #2a: Be-reyshit/Genesis 18:9, Parshat Va-yeira


In Be-reyshit/Genesis 18:9, Parshat Va-yeira (Plaut p.123, Cohen p.87, Hertz p.64, Sforno p.87, JPS p.25, Jerusalem p.17, Stone p. 80) the word אֵלָיו eylav has three dots, one dot each over the letters א Aleph, י Yud, and ו Vav. We read:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו, אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל
And they said to him: 'Where is Sarah your wife?' And he said: 'There, in the tent.'
“Va-yom'ru eylav ayeyh Sarah ish'tekha? Va-yomer hineyh va-ohel.”

What are these dots for and what do they teach us? The angels who wished to announce Yitzchaq's conception actually knew where Sarah was; they asked this rhetorical question of Avraham out of courtesy, so they would not appear to be men approaching his wife unannounced, and also so that they wouldn't give their game away.
(Avot deRebbe Natan 30b)

Also, Alef-Yud-Vav spells איו ayo, a scholar. Nice.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dotted Letters Example #1: Be-reyshit/Genesis 16:5, Parashat Lekh Lekha


Be-reyshit/Genesis 16:5, Parshat Lekh Lekha has a letter Yud which is naqud, dotted above, in the word "u-veynekha". This word can be found in the following Chumashim: Plaut p.111, Cohen p.76, Hertz p.56, Sforno p.77, JPS p.22, Jerusalem p.15, Stone p. 70...

וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל-אַבְרָם, חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ--אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ, וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ; יִשְׁפֹּט יְהוָה, בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ.

And Sarai said to Av'ram: 'This outrage (Hamas) against me is your fault: I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was lowered in her eyes: may G@d judge between us.'

“Va-tomer Sarai el Av'ram chamasi alekha – anokhi natati shif'chati be-cheyqekha va-teyre ki ha-ratah va-eyqal be-eyne'ah; Y'shepot YHVH beyni u-veynekha.”

Sarah intends her words to remain a private conversation between her and her husband as words between them should be of no concern to others. (Avot deRebbe Natan 30b)

Names in Tanakh are really roles; the expression of that person's neshamah/soul.
Sarai/Sarah = female ruler/noblewoman; to struggle, to wrestle, to overcome.
Av'ram/Avraham = Big Daddy
Hagar = the stranger/outsider

Sarah used Hagar as a means to an end. According to the code of Hammurabi, the common law at that time and place, Hagar remained Sarah's property and any children Avraham had through Hagar would legally be considered Sarah's. So Sarah was within her rights to beat Hagar for belittling her, which Avraham supported in the narrative. However, any wife would expect her husband to defend their relationship against another woman intruding on their marriage, which is why Sarah blames her actions on Avraham. Had he protected Sarah's vulnerability from Hagar, she wouldn't have had to take matters into her own hands.

That Yud is dotted because of agency - it's a yad, hand! This is a power struggle. And not just a cat fight between rivals, but a revisitation of the balance of a long, lovingly established marriage which, like all marriages, has its challenges.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eytz Chayim Hee - The Torah of Idolatry



New York City's underground fashion's latest darling, bad-boy wild child Levi Okunov, is dressing women up as Torahs.

Now, I'm not the smartest person in the world. Sometimes it takes me a while to fully get an idea. I need time to process so I can fully appreciate the impact of a situation or an event. But not with this. This I got right away. Just not in the way you think.

For a little background, please see Jay Michaelson's Jewcy article and this 1:22 minute film on YouTube.

Okay, it's interesting - sort of. As for his actual auto-didactic fashion designs, nothing special there. It's a bit of a simplistic rebellion, and therefore boring. And empowering the Torah as a focus of fetish (in the religious or veneration-of-the-animal sense) is not new, as Michaelson's article pointed out. Neither is heresy new - nor necessarily offensive or threatening. "Heresy", after all, is just a Greek word for "choice".

So Okunov is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was raised in a Chassidic family which he has broken away from for the sake of expressing his art (hello, Asher Lev!). And he obviously has issues - but don't we all? What he's done here isn't as simple as it appears.

So because I'm a Jungian-influenced Jewish Orthodox Feminist, or rather, a Femandrist (a neologism I coined earlier this year), you're expecting me to write a long rant about how women's bodies should be covered and certainly not drawn attention to with objects and designs normally reserved for awed worship, blah, blah, blah. Well, yeah, that's the p'shat, the surface reading, but there's more to it than that. I'll leave the modesty rant up to the fundamentalist "Tsni'us Police".

The problem here is this:
Levi Okunov is exiling the Shekhinah.

Isn't that a little far-fetched? I mean, everything we do in this world must be Be-Shem yichud Qud'sha B'rikh Hu u-Sh'khinte for the sake of the unification of The Holy One and His Shekhinah. So isn't Okunov using these female models wearing his designs to connect us to his conceptions of the Divine Feminine? Is this not a way of re-imagining the sacred, humanity, and re-awakening a sense of awe? The reclamation of Shekhinah, the Divine Mother?

No, that's what Leonard Nimoy achieved with his 2002 book, "Shekhina".

But these are just revealing outfits made from Torah covers. Aren't they? He's only expressing שכינה, the Shekhinah, the Feminine In-Dwelling Presence of G@d, associated primarily with feminine imagery, such as the Shabbat Queen, and the Bride. Okunov is simply letting her rise to the surface of Torah like a powerful wave of subconscious breaking on the shores of our minds, reminding us she's always just there under the facade we've built over G@d to enable us to commune with the Divine. Okunov is liberating us from the Patriarchal male-only G@d through iconoclasm.
Isn't he?

But is this really iconoclasm, image-breaking, or is it actually image-building? Isn't it avodah zarah, idolatry? Isn't this a reincarnation of הָאֲשֵׁרָה, (the) Asherah? Yes, that's it. Levi Okunov has turned his models into Asherah trees.

Asherah, or עַשְׁתֹּרֶת Ashtoreth, was a Middle-Eastern goddess also known as Astarte or Ishtar, and she was all about love, sex and fertility. All nice and necessary stuff. She was very popular with us before the days of the Nevi'im, the Prophets, to the point where King Solomon set up a place of worship for her outside of Jerusalem, where her ritual equipment included large carved poles, or even living groves of trees. An Asherah pole was even featured in our Holy Temple until King Hezekiah destroyed it. Why? Because Asherah was sometimes regarded as Y-H-V-H's consort, but the official Y-H-V-H religion was not regarded as purely male, so did not need a female partner. This compromised our worship of Y-H-V-H for a very long time, so her worship is repeatedly condemned in the Bible.

What I see in Okunov's art is the whole person/image/Torah being split into components (deconstruction) but also the transfer of an idea of Shekhinah plastered superficially onto a place where it doesn't belong (construction). Kind of like Asherah. Asherah wasn't idolatry because she was female and the "real" G@d of Israel was male, she was idolatry because she was pulled out of G@D (who is everything and all, there is nothing else but G@d) therefore weakening the whole אל-והות G@dhead - not in actuality, but in people's minds, which damages the holy I-Thou relationship.

אל-והות El-ohut, the G@dhead or אין סוף Ain Sof Infinite Divinity, is G@d expressed fully who S/He is. Y-H-V-H. IS-ness. The verb To Be. The Self-Existent One. And Shekhinah is a part of that name: she is the last letter Hey in G@d's Four-Letter Name, the Yud being the Supernal Father, the first letter Hey representing the Primordial Mother, the Vav being the Son/Groom, and the last Hey the Daughter/Bride. She is Shekhinah. Not Asherah.

Shekhinah is Internal to G@d, intrinsic, while Asherah is redundant. Not external, as nothing exists outside of G@d, but excessive.

The reason why Asherah poles and trees were considered avodah zarah, idolatry, and why they needed to be destroyed is not because they represented a different small-d deity competing with our Big-D Deity, but because Asherah was meant to be representative of the feminine aspect of G@d separated out - and the whole purpose of Creation and for Tiqun Olam, Repair of the World, is to re-unite the masculine and feminine aspects of G@d.

We weren't allowed to plant trees in the Beit Ha-Miqdash (Temple) courtyard because they represented Asherah. Not that all female energy is considered "bad" in Judaism, but because to put the feminine there - Outside, in exile - would imply that only the masculine was in the Qodesh Qodashim (Holy of Holies), that only the male aspect was behind the curtain - on the Inside.

But the K'ruvim (golden winged figures facing each other atop the lid of the Ark who were of one form) themselves show us that there were both male and female in the most sacred physical space that G@d occupies, and that they embraced sexually (Talmud Bavli Masekhet Yoma 54a, Bava Batra 99a). So it's not that appreciating of the feminine is wrong or that femaleness is lesser or that recognizing that G@d is half female is idol worship - indeed, the undermining of the Feminine is a chilul Ha-Shem (diminishment of G@d's Presence in the world) and to claim that G@d is exclusively masculine is also.

It's that any human's mental separation of G@d's unification is harmful to not only that person's soul, but to all of Creation. Either gender acknowledged in a vacuum is a misrepresentation of Divinity. The direction of the Universal flow is toward total yechidut - unification. But the way things have been translated and interpreted through the generations, well, this is how it comes across. It's damaged all the Abrahamic faiths. Time to heal that and thereby move a little closer to a planet of shalom.

וְהָיָה יְהוָה לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-כָּל-הָאָרֶץ; בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, יִהְיֶה יְהוָה אֶחָד--וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד.
"Ve-ne'emar ve-hayah Ad@nai le-melekh al kol ha-aretz, be-yom ha-hu yihiyeh Ad@nai echad u-shemo echad."
"And it is said: And the L@RD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the L@RD be One, and His name one."
- Zechariah 14:9

Let's work to reunite G@d's El-ohut, G@d's Self and G@d's Name with Shekhinah, the true Etz Chayim, Tree of Life, not the transgressive counterfeit Asherah, so G@d and all humanity can be fully who we are.

In the meantime, don't call me for any repairs or alterations to your parchment and Hebrew embellished clothing...

Cross-posted as "Okunov and the Asherah" at Jewschool and as "Eytz Chayim Hee - The Torah of Idolatry" on Facebook

Monday, October 19, 2009

Parashat No'ach: Intercessory Prayer


Although there are several peculiar scribal oddities found in this week's Torah portion (according to Yemenite tradition, Sefer Taggin, the Machzor Vitri and various other sources and opinions), they generally have not been written into Sifrei Torah for some time now - a few hundred years. So instead I'd like to say a word about the origins of intercessory prayer in Judaism. I'll write about these ancient, disappearing "visual midrash" later, when I've done more research.

The first human intercessor according to Torah was No'ach ben Lemekh (לֶמֶך), known to the English speaking world as Noah, who built the ark. No'ach's name is generally spelled נֹחַ, but spelled with a letter Vav (ו) in Modern Hebrew, no'ach נוֹחַ means comfortable; taking it easy. נָח, nach, means to rest or relax. In Hebrew grammar it also indicates a mute letter; it doesn't say anything.

As with all people of the Bible, Noa'ch's father Lemekh's name is in fact a role. If we translate his name, לֶמֶךְ, into colloquial Modern Hebrew, it can mean a fool, schlemiel, or a clumsy person. The root letters Mem-Khaf (מך) mean "impoverished" in Biblical Hebrew. So his name, No'ach ben Lemekh, could be interpreted to mean Comfort son of the Foolish Pauper.

Maybe because he was taught to make do, and accept even bad situations, No'ach never became an activist. He didn't develop the sensitivity required to notice when something wrong is happening and to do something about it. He never disturbed the status quo. He was always comforable. He didn't say anything.

We find No'ach's story recorded in the Torah in Sefer Be-reyshit/Genesis 6:9-9:29 Parashat No'ach. We learn that everyone on the planet has just gone too far, they are irredeemable, that they have filled the world with violence (the word Scripture uses for "violence" is חמס, Hamas). We also learn this from chapter 6 verse 9:

אֵלֶּה, תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ--נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה, בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ.
These are the generations of No'ach. No'ach was a just man and perfect/whole-hearted in his generations; No'ach walked with G@d.

No'ach ish tzedeq tamim hayah be-dorotav. He was a sincerely righteous man in his generation. And that is the key. He was righteous only compared to all the degenerates around him. He was not empirically righteous, only relatively righteous. No'ach didn't even know that there was a problem until G@d came to him to say He was going to destroy all flesh because it had corrupted itself.

And what was No'ach's reaction to this news? Did he act surprised? The Torah doesn't say. Did he argue with G@d to try to intercede like Avraham would? The Torah doesn't say. All we are told is that Noach obeyed G@d's command to build the תֵּבָה teyvah (ark). So he did exactly what he was told, and nothing more.

But that's all G@d needed to save the world...

No'ach doesn't intercede until Be-reyshit/Genesis 8:20-22, when he builds the altar and makes the sacrifice. Only then is G@d appeased.

כ וַיִּבֶן נֹחַ מִזְבֵּחַ, לַיהוָה; וַיִּקַּח מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה, וּמִכֹּל הָעוֹף הַטָּהוֹר, וַיַּעַל עֹלֹת, בַּמִּזְבֵּחַ. 20
And No'ach built an altar to Ad@nai and took from every ritually pure beast, and of every ritually pure bird, and offered burnt/rising offerings on the altar.

כא וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי. 21
And Ad@nai smelled the fragrant scent and Ad@nai said in His heart: 'I won't curse the earth again for humanity's sake; because the instinctive tendency of humanity's heart is broken from youth; and never again will I strike down every living thing, as I've done.

כב עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה--לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ. 22
For eternity, all the days of the Earth, sowing and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night will never end.'

Noah's Sacrifice and G@d's Response: What worked?
The word used to describe a burnt offering type of sacrifice is עוֹלָה, olah, "that which rises or ascends". The root עלה means to rise, ascend or go up, to increase, advance, to mount or get up onto, and to immigrate to Israel (because it is the highest point of the world, spiritually).

This very first sacrifice recorded in the Torah, which became the basis of our Temple worship in Jerusalem which, except for the hide, must be consumed entirely by fire on the altar. No part of them may be eaten by the worshipper, whereas both priest and worshipper partake of the sacrifices known as זְבַּחים zevachim (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:27). This olah goes up to G@d while the zevach stays with the priest and worshipper. This teaches us that we must ascend to G@d to intercede.

No'ach builds an altar and brings rising, intercessory burnt offerings on his own initiative. We don't know how he prepared or what he said, if anything, but he didn't stop attempting the intercession when G@d responds in the positive. The outcome of No'ach's intercession is G@d's promise to never wipe out virtually all life again using nature as a tool, provided that we accept His re-ordering of the new society (ie., when He gives permission to eat meat but puts a blood prohibition on it, and prohibits murder). For prosperity he puts a rainbow in the sky to seal the covenant. Now that the Earth has been purged of its evil, sacrifice symbolizes the restoration of harmony between G@d and humankind.

What can we learn from these stories about the qualities an intercessor needs?
Obedience to and acceptance of G@d. To be (comparatively) righteous/blameless. I say comparatively because Noach was only "righteous in his generation", so perhaps he was the best of what was left on earth, but not ideal - the only thing G@d had to work with, so He did His best with what He had.

You will note that he did not intercede on the Earth's behalf when G@d told him He would destroy everything. He waited until after the horror had been executed on all beings except those who had inhabited is teyvah to ask G@d to never do that again and thank Him for making an exception for him and his family. He may have cloistered himself and his family from the Earth's lawlessness, but he simply withdrew from the world and did not try to change it. Therefore, G@d had to intervene.

We can learn from this that we have a responsibility to be activists, ie., we cannot stand by the blood of our brother...G@d wants us to participate in struggling with our own tendencies and to bring about Tiqun Olam *with* Him...this is why I agree with Rebbe Yochanan's interpretation of No'ach's story rather than Reish Lakish's (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). HAD Noach been better than average, he could have fought to corruption, but because he was a beynoni, a weak or easily influenced person, he could only cloister himself and remain in his integrity that way.

So what does it mean to "walk with G@d" (Be-reyshit/Genesis 5:24; 6:9)?
To shape the agency of your own salvation (ie., build your own ark rather than wait for G@d to save you through Divine intervention)...and what qualities can you find in yourself which No'ach used? Voluntary offering/negotiating. Occasional submission...

At the end of the day, we shouldn't be too hard on poor old No'ach. What more can we expect from the world's first intercessor? If nobody has yet acted as one, then Noach has only his own instincts to follow and no example...

Many thanks to Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan for inspiring this piece during our learning together in 2005.
R' Chaim Potok in JPS's Eytz Chayim: Torah & Commentary
Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a
The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Small Letter Hey in בְּהִבָּרְאָם Parashat Bereyshit


This letter Hey balances out the enlarged Hey which can be found in Parashat Ha'azinu, Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:6. You can read more about that here.

Parashat Bereshit, Bereshit/Genesis 2:4 reads:

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם: בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים--אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.
These are the generations of the Heaven and the Earth, when they were created in the day that Ad@nai, G@d, made Earth and Heaven.

The letter Hey of בְּהִבָּרְאָם be-hibaram, "when they were created", is written smaller than all the other letters. So we have a small Hey at the very beginning of the Torah, and a large Hey at the end. And when we read from the end and then cycle back to the beginning again on Simchat Torah, we meet both Heys on the same day.

The world was created with the letter Hey. How do we know this? Because we can read be-hibaram, "when they were created", as be-HEY-baram, "with Hey He created them". These are the generations of the Heaven and the Earth, with Hey they were created.

We also know this by Hey's shape: it reeks of teshuvah, repentance. There are two ways we see this: The Gemara in Menachot 29b tells us that this world is like the letter Hey - very easy to fall out the bottom (sin). But G@d has left a little space which we can climb up to, and squeeze through, to "get back to the Garden". That is teshuvah.

Menachot 29b also teaches that this letter Hey is G@d's sacred breath - as in Tehilim/Psalms 33:6:

בִּדְבַר יְהוָה, שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ; וּבְרוּחַ פִּיו, כָּל-צְבָאָם.
By the utterance of Ad@nai the heavens were made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.

What is the sound of Hey? Exhale. That's it. Just like G@d blowing this holy breath of spirit into humankind, speaking all of Creation into existence, the letter Hey shows us G@d's creative power.

The other way is this: Hey is in fact made up of two other letters - Dalet and Yud. Dalet (דלת = door) is the doorway to G@d, to teshuvah, while Yud (יד = hand) is our own will to transform ourselves and getting closer to G@d by pushing open that door...

Both Rashi and the Lubavitcher Rebbe indicate that there is a question and a response (teshuvah) here. The little Hey in Genesis requires and anticipates the large Hey in Deuteronomy. Also, as we accepted, then transgressed the Torah (again Hey, as there are five books to the Torah and the number for Hey is five), we were given an extra gift from G@d to fix everything with. Teshuvah.

This is a new thing in the Universe, the Fifth Element, if you will. Since G@d made Creation to have four elements, four directions, et cetera, Teshuvah is the "fifth dimension". It is with this tool that we repair our lives and the World around us. And it comes straight from G@d.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bereshit 2:25 and 3:1 - the ayin t'luyah


A scribal post by my husband, Marc Michaels (a.k.a Mordechai Pinchas, sofer stam):

So one of my favourite kabbalistic touches happens in Bereshit where Adam and Eve are found to be [arumim] naked (2:25). In a number of sifrey Torah I have checked I have seen the ayin t'luyah - suspended ayin. My teacher's teacher Eric Ray also noted a few sightings in various scrolls.

[Picture] Both 2:25 and 3:1 close together in a kabbalistic scroll showing the ayin t'luyot.

I did search high and low for an explanation of these and eventually found something that explained that actually this represented Adam stretching up his neck from behind the bushes to look around to see if the coast was clear. Love that image! Can't find my original note with the source though.

In chapter 3 verse 1 the serpent too is described as arum - this time meaning cunning. And I guess the serpent's long neck is also looking up to see what mishief he can get up to.

Copyright © Marc Michaels
Link to his original Facebook post, complete with pictures, here:
See his comprehensive scribal arts page at:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Oy gib mir a heym vu di bufloksn geyn - Enlarged Letter Bet in Parashat Be-reyshit


That would be Yiddish for "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam..."
Thanks to Marie Jaffee for her translation and hat-tip to Rebecca Boggs for her transliteration.

I'd like to talk about home in this post in relation to this week's Parsha, Be-reyshit! Yes, this Shabbat we being the cycle of reading the Torah all over again. We got a preview on Simchat Torah, which was yesterday, Sunday, when we read the very end of the scroll and then rolled it back to the beginning again to read some more! This week we're getting back to The Garden.

Sefer Be-reyshit parashat Be-reyshit/the Book of Genesis 1:1 begins thus:
בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
Be-reyshit bara Eloqim et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-aretz:
"At the beginning of G@D's creating of the heavens and the earth:"

The first letter, Bet (ב) should sport 4 crowns, called taggin or ketarim (unless you are Yemenite). These represent the Four Winds, the holy breath of G@d with which the entirety of Time and Space were brought into being.

As with many, but not all, sefarim/holy books, the first letter is often enlarged. However, here also is an example of an action taken from the next world, by G@D. The act of creation warrants a large Bet. According to Rabbi Chayim Dovid Halevy, z"l, a great Kabbalist and the former Chief Sefardi Rabbi of Tel Aviv, any time we see an enlarged letter anywhere in our canon (TaNa"KH), we are to understand that G@d has disturbed the staus quo with great חסד chesed, kindness, and אהבה ahavah, love.

Because the letter Bet carries the gematrial value of 2, it reveals to us the Divine creative mother-father energy within it, beginning the whole universe.

So, why was the world created with the letter Bet?
Just as Bet is closed on three sides and open only in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above (the Heavens) and what is below (the deep), what is before (the six days of creation) and what is (to happen) after (the world’s existence) - you are permitted only from the time the world was created and thereafter (the world we live in) [Genesis Rabbah 1:10. This may refer either to space or to time, or to both space and time. See Tosafot on Talmud Bavli Hag 11b, s.v. yakhol].

Some say that the Torah begins with the letter Bet to make the statement that the force that G@d used to initiate Creation was בינה Binah - with feminine understanding the world was created. . “For you shall call Understanding a Mother.” so says The Bahir. Binah means processed wisdom or deductive reasoning

Binah is in the world of יצירה Yetzirah, the formative dimension of "just Being". IS-ness. The letter Bet also begins בריאה B'riyah, the world of knowledge whose world is creative. Note that בריאה B'riyah and בְּרֵאשִׁית Be-reyshit have the same shoresh, root. For more on this, see

Reish Lakish taught that The Holy One made a deal with the rest of Creation, that if Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return you to nothingness (Shabbat 88a). How do we know this? Because the first word in the Torah, בְּרֵאשִׁית Be-reyshit, is an acronym: "Ba-rishonah Ra'ah Eloqim Shey'qab'lu Yisra'el Torah" - "From the start, G@D saw that Israel would accept the Torah" (Ba'al Ha-Turim).

In Judaism, G@d has many names, allowing us to attempt to express all the holy qualities of the Creator. One of those names begins with a letter Bet. בת קול Bat Qol, which literally means "Daughter of a Voice", but can also mean "Voice from Heaven", "echo", "Divine inspiration" or even "prophesy".

Just as with a ketubah, the traditional Jewish wedding contract, we begin this with a letter Bet which is often enlarged (but not always - that depends on the calligrapher). But we may have a similar situation here that requires a large Bet in a ketubah for the same reasons as in a Torah.

Many Jewish couples today enter their first marriage without their virginity (both literal and symbolic). There have been intimate relationships and home-building exercises, most often with people who now dwell in the past. Assuming these experiences have been dealt with, grown from and their lessons integrated into wisdom, there is no need to revisit them after the marriage begins.

All that came before, like lovers, homes, experiences, relationships...were only to bring each member of the wedding couple to this point and need only be included in the wedded relationship in their appropriate place. It's not that they get wiped away, or made to magically disappear. But from that large Bet which begins the building of this new, committed home, like the large Bet, the Bayit or "home" for all of Creation, we walk forward together and leave the rest behind.

...where seldom is heard a discouraging word...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Parashat Ha'azinu #3 - Diminished Letter Yud (י)


In Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:18 there is a letter Yud which is written very small compared to all the rest of the letters. It's the last letter in the word תֶּשִׁי teshi, meaning neglected or unmindful.

צוּר יְלָדְךָ, תֶּשִׁי; וַתִּשְׁכַּח, אֵל מְחֹלְלֶךָ.
The Rock that birthed you, you neglected; and forgot G@d, who bore you.

Yad, hand, indicates a means of action. Agency. The universe is set in motion by the movement of the Yad Chazaqah - the strong hand of G@D - being the symbol of creative and directive energy.

The Zohar Va-yiqra 147 explains that the letter Yud consists of three parts: a point rising upwards to The Holy One above, a point directed downwards to Earth, and the middle part uniting both. The shape of the Yud is symbolic of a person in prayer. Our eyes are lowered in humility as we stand before The Holy One, while our hearts are turned upward, toward heaven (Talmud Bavli Yevamot 105b). This is how Yud shows us the power of self-nullification.

All three parts of the Yud are of equal importance halakhically, according to Jewish Law. The Talmud notes that it is "obvious - peshita" that a mezuzah q'laf or Torah scroll is invalid if it lacks even a qotzo shel Yud, the point or serif of the Yud (Talmud Bavli Menachot 29a; Rashi).

The letter Yud also represents G@d's thought and hand (yad), which is the seminal origin of all Creation, and the Jewish soul. We see this expressed in the Hebrew Alefbet, as the beginning and end of every letterform reveals G@d's Omnipresence. Each letter is made up of a series of Yuds: some stretched, some diagonal, but they're all Yud. The seed, the sperm, the primordial force initiating the flow of life. The catalyst. Master writing this letter, and you've mastered the Universe.

Yud may be the smallest of the otiyot, letters, but it's the only one capable of suspending itself in mid-air and of birthing All Else. This is why Yud is known as The Little Who Holds Much. And with it's gematrial number of ten, it holds the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments, and the Ten Sefirot or Spectrums of the Tree of Life. It powerfully channels G@d's infinite light into a finite, limited reality for us to experience.

This Much refers to how G@d can hide His Infinity within the Yud/iota/jot of Divine Revelation, yet still possess Infinite potential to expand to all finite time and space.

This diminished Yud is written so because of our own failings. G@d had been expansive with us, so therefore we should have returned to Him in expansiveness. Instead, however, we contracted from Him. Contracted our agency, our power, our yad, hand. G@d had opened His hand to us, but we closed our hand to Him. We did not nullify ourselves and cleave to Him. We made a fist.

This tiny Yud also alludes to the Ten Battles of Yehoshu'a/Joshua. If we had responded appropriately to G@d, relaxed and trusted Him, then we wouldn't have had to fight ten battles to gain the Eretz Ha-Qodesh, the Land of Israel. We could've waltzed in and set up house, but instead we had to fight long and hard, relying on G@d's miracles to help us win. All that violence and those miracles wouldn't have been needed had we just...had faith. And not forgotten G@d.

This tiny Yud was listed in Midrash Rabbah Aqim as one of the letter oddities which must be written into a Sefer Torah for it to be considered kosher for ritual use.
R' Chayim David HaLevy, who is a Kabbalist rabbi I quote often, wrote that a letter written in miniscule indicates that a person or people in the narrative have somehow missed the mark; that they could have done better.

Among the many gifts that Ha-Shem has given us is the power of שִׁכְחָה shikh'chah — forgetfulness. Moshe Rabeynu said this to us right before he died. This is the last sheet of parchment in the Torah, people! Our problem is that va-tishkach Keil mecholelekha — we're using our power of forgetfulness to neglect Ha-Shem, Who gives us each breath straight from Divine compassion. Is that any way to act?

It's so hard to be human. & G@d knows just what a hard job we have. That's why we got Torah. But if we forget, then our agency, our yad, is diminished. So here we have a small Yud to remind us...not to forget :)

May we all be blessed with consciousness enough to become good humans this year, with humble hearts and open hands, like the letter Yud.

Copyright © A. Barclay
Based on "A Small Yud in Ha'azinu" originally posted Spetember 2006 at Netivat Sofrut: and cross-posted at Radical Torah

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parashat Ha'azinu #2 - Enlarged Letter Hey (ה)


The letter Hey of Ha-le-Ad@nai in parashat Ha'azinu, Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:6 is a standard letter written enlarged according to Midrash Rabbah Aqim. This parasha is almost always read on Shabbat Shuvah, during the Ten Days of Repentance, and it is taught that Hey represents repentance. Why?

הַ לְיְהוָה, תִּגְמְלוּ-זֹאת-- עַם נָבָל, וְלֹא חָכָם: הֲלוֹא-הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ, הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ.
Is this how you repay Ad@nai, O foolish and unwise people? Isn't He your Father who has gotten you? Hasn't He made you and established you?

This Hey is also special in that it's not just the prefix of the definite article ("the"), as the letter Hey at the beginning of a word can be, but it's to be treated as a separate word and therefore should be spaced (Talmud Yerushalmi Megilah 1)

The Ba'al Ha-Turim teaches that this Hey is an indictment against Am Yisra'el, the Jewish People, being so ungrateful to G@d. He had generously gifted us with the original self-help book (Torah), not for His sake but for the sake of our own self-improvement and growth through service. Our Sages taught that the Torah was given to us only to purify the people. The enlarged Hey is referring to the five books of the Torah, as Hey has a gematria of 5.

This Hey also balances out the diminished Hey which can be found in parashat Be-reshit Be-reshit/Genesis 2:4. This pasuq/verse reads:

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם: בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים--אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.
These are the generations of the Heaven and the Earth, when they were created in the day that Ad@nai, G@d, made Earth and Heaven.

The letter Hey of בְּהִבָּרְאָם be-hibaram, "when they were created", is written smaller than all the other letters. So we have a small Hey at the very beginning of the Torah, and a large Hey at the end. And when we read from the end and then cycle back to the beginning again on Simchat Torah, we meet both Heys on the same day.

The world was created with the letter Hey. How do we know this? Because we can read be-hibaram, "when they were created", as be-HEY-baram, "with Hey He created them". These are the generations of the Heaven and the Earth, with Hey they were created.

We also know this by Hey's shape: it reeks of teshuvah, repentance. There are two ways we see this: The Gemara in Menachot 29b tells us that this world is like the letter Hey - very easy to fall out the bottom (sin). But G@d has left a little space which we can climb up to, and squeeze through, to "get back to the Garden". That is teshuvah.

Menachot 29b also teaches that this letter Hey is G@d's sacred breath - as in Tehilim/Psalms 33:6:

בִּדְבַר יְהוָה, שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ; וּבְרוּחַ פִּיו, כָּל-צְבָאָם.
By the utterance of Ad@nai the heavens were made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.

What is the sound of Hey? Exhale. That's it. Just like G@d blowing this holy breath of spirit into humankind, speaking all of Creation into existence, the letter Hey shows us G@d's creative power.

The other way is this: Hey is in fact made up of two other letters - Dalet and Yud. Dalet (דלת = door) is the doorway to G@d, to teshuvah, while Yud (יד = hand) is our own will to transform ourselves and getting closer to G@d by pushing open that door...

Both Rashi and the Lubavitcher Rebbe indicate that there is a question and a response (teshuvah) here. The little Hey in Genesis requires and anticipates the large Hey in Deuteronomy. Also, as we accepted, then transgressed the Torah (again Hey, as there are five books to the Torah and the number for Hey is five), we were given an extra gift from G@d to fix everything with. Teshuvah.

This is a new thing in the Universe, the Fifth Element, if you will. Since G@d made Creation to have four elements, four directions, et cetera, Teshuvah is the "fifth dimension". It is with this tool that we repair our lives and the World around us. And it comes straight from G@d.

This enlarged Hey being five also shows us G@d's open hand (five fingers) open to receive our repentance and generously forgive.

We only have Ten Days between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kipur. Please, let's use it.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Friday, September 18, 2009



30 Elul

My Hebrew birthday is tomorrow. Alef Tishrei, or Rosh Ha-Shanah as more people know it. The following is a list of events which happened in Jewish history on that date:

Death of Sarah Imeinu/our mother and Akeidat Yitzchak/the binding of Isaac, 1676 BCE

Birth of Rav Yisroel Abuchatzeira, the Baba Sali (1890-1984)

Death of Rav Yaakov Dovid ben Ze’ev Wilovsky of Slutzk, Chicago and Tsefas (the Ridvaz), one of the great European scholars to come to America. As a consequence of the halachic standards of kashrus that he attempted to impose in Chicago, he eventually had to flee for his life (1845-1914).

Death of Rav Meir Yeudah Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim). (1809-1879). He was born in Volhynia and was still a child when his father died. He studied in his native town until the age of 13. He then went to Warsaw where he was known as the ‘iluy (prodigy) from Volhynia.’ From 1838 to 1845 he was rabbi of Wreschen, district of Posen, and in the latter year was called to the rabbinate of Kempen, where he remained until 1860; he was thereafter known as "der Kempener." In 1860 Malbim became chief rabbi of Bucharest, Rumania. But he could not agree with the rich German Jews there; they wished to introduce the Reformed rite, and did not shrink even from violence in the pursuit of their aims. By intrigues they succeeded in throwing him into prison, and though he was liberated through the intervention of Sir Moses Montefiore, it was upon the condition that he leave Rumania. He became Rav of Moghilef, on the Dnieper in 1870, but his lack of subservience provoked the resentment of the richer Jews, who denounced him as a political criminal. The governor of Moghilef ordered him to leave town. Malbim then went to Königsberg as chief rabbi of the Polish community, but there he fared no better than in Bucharest and Moghilef; he was continually harassed by the German Jews. His fame and immense popularity rests upon his widely esteemed commentary to Tanach, in which he details the close reationship between the Oral and the Written Law.

Death of Rav Amnon of Mainz, who died Qidush Ha-Shem (was martyred), while composing the Rosh Hashanah prayer, Unesaneh Tokef (1012).

Death of Rav Yitzchak Meir of Kopycznitz (1931).

Death of Rav Shefatia, author of the selicha, Yisrael Nosha Ba-Ha-Shem, (886)

Committed Inquisitor Cardinal Caraffa (later to be Pope Paulo IV), with the backing of Pope Julius III, publically burns sefarim, including the Talmud, in Rome, 1553
(this list is chiefly from another website whose name & URL I have long since forgotten & I'm sorry)

As my thoughts turn to teshuvah/repentance, for which we Jews are given the gift of these 10 "daze", I'm publicly encouraging anyone reading this blog who I may have hurt & owe an apology to, to please contact me privately.

May 5770 bring you blessings from the flow of G@d of good health, happiness, love, laughter, joy and peace! May all your plans and desires be fulfilled for the good! May we see the Moshiach rise bimheyra be-yameynu, Ameayn selah!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Parashat Ha'azinu #1 - Enlarged Letter Tzadi (צ)


This week's Torah portion (read at Minchah prayers Shabbat Rosh Ha-Shanah) may or may not have an enlarged letter Tzadi (צ) which can be found in Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:4. The word הַצּוּר Ha-tzur, The rock, which may contain this enlarged letter, is referring to G@d.

I say a Torah may have this letter enlarged because those scribes who practice Kabbalah in particular areas of the world write this way. If the scribe is not a mystic, then he doesn't enlarge this letter.

This feature helps identify a scroll's origins. For example, a Torah written in Germany would never boast this enlarged Tzadi, but one from Poland or Russia could very well have it.

הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ, כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט: אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל, צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.
The Rock, His work is perfect, because all His ways are justice; a G@d of confident faith and without iniquity, just and right is He.

Why is this letter Tzadi, in צּוּר tzur, sometimes enlarged?
What does the letter Tzadi (צ) look like? It's a pictogram! Tzadi comes to us in the shape of a Mystic bent in humble prayer, arms extended and hands raised. According to our tradition, the only time of the year we take this position is during the Aleynu prayer in the musaf, early afternoon service, on Yom Kipur.

The name צַדִּי Tzadi grows from the same root in Hebrew as צְדָקָה tzedaqah, which is often referred to as "charity". To give tzedaqah (or tsedakah) is to donate money, in the mundane sense of the expression, or to give of your time, resources, etc in the general sense. But the root of the word, Tzadi-Dalet-Quf, has a broader attitude.

The consonants צ–ד–ק, Tz-D-Q, mean the following:
To be right, just, or correct; fairness; to have integrity. So from this we learn that to perform an act of charity is to do an act of justice. To make something right. To be kind. Balance.

Look at the verse: at the end it says tzadiq ve-yashar hu, just and right is He. G@d is a Tzadiq. The Tzadiq. The Source of upright, perfect, righteousness. Fully present in every moment, whose consciousness includes the totality of All. Everything G@d does is appropriate, correct, and for the best.
Midrash on this holy symbol tell us that Tzadi was the first letter formed by The Holy One, for "Deeds of giving are the foundation of the world." Tzedeq, "justice".

Tzadi is here enlarged to remind us that G@d our Rock, tzur, is a tzadiq we can rely on always. With His total Divine consciousness of all souls, containing the Universe in which we live, we know we can entrust Him with anything, that our faith invested only in the One G@d is safe. The gematria of tzadiq is 204, which is double the gematria of the word emunah, faith - 102.

The form of the letter Tzadi is made up of a letter Yud (י) activating a letter Nun (נ). The Nun symbolizes Am Yisra'el, the Nation of Israel, where the Yud represents this tzadiq, G@d, our leader and guide.

The letter Tzadi also begins the word צלם, tzelem, which means image or shadow. This is the Divine, transcendent "image" in which G@d created humankind. This shows us that we can emulate and thereby draw closer to G@d, aiming to be that tzur of a tzadiq.

The letter Tzadi also has a gematria of 90, which teaches us that if we lead such high, holy lives as to take the opportunity to say "ameyn" ninety times per day, it can provide that structure on which we can build our own integral lives, supported by Ha-Shem.

Copyright © A.Barclay

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parashat Nitzavim - the Mysterious Dotted Letters ...לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד...


Sefer Ba'al Ha-Turim notes that Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:28 has letters which are מְנֻקָּד menuqad (dotted), despite the general rule that a Torah scroll must be without vowel points, any punctuation marks, cantillation symbols, etc., a dot is inscribed above certian letters:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
The secrets belong to the Ad@nai our G@d, but that which is revealed are for us and also for our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.

The phrase "...lanu u-le-vaneynu ad..." (...for us and also for our children until [forever]...) exhibits a total of eleven dots, one over each letter of these three words with the exception of the last letter, Dalet (ד).

What does this teach us, and why is the last letter not dotted?
Some commentary in Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3, 13 states that these eleven letters are dotted because they are not the ones which should be dotted. One popular interpretation of why some particular letters are dotted in our Sifrei Torah says these dots mean effacement, ie. that the dots indicate there is either a scribal error which has been incorporated into the traditional text or that there is a disagreement about whether these letters or words belong in the text at all.

Avot de-Rabbi Natan 30b explans that these dots were written to call attention to extrapolations on the words, however, they may indicate that the words or letters were doubtful and were to be deleted, presumably when Eliyahu Ha-Navi comes to resolve all the scribal variations before the coming of the Moshiach..

Ezra the Scribe is quoted as saying that if Eliyahu asks, “why have you written these words?”, indicating that they are incorrect, Ezra will reply, shrugging, “well, at least I've placed dots over them”, but if Eliyahu says, “you have written them correctly” then Ezra will remove the dots!

So when Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3, 13 states that these letters are dotted instead of the actual ones which should be dotted, what letters or words were meant to be dotted in the first place? And why can't they be dotted themselves? Why do these words carry the dots instead?

Because the letters which should be dotted are לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ. And because the dots are meant to efface, cancel, or annul, you can not cross out the Name of G@D...

So ChaZaL teach this pasuq, verse, is telling us of our accepting responsibility for each others' public sins, and to agree to be punished for not preventing them or not supporting each other sufficiently to avoid committing those sins.

Rashi explains that the way these letters are dotted means this deal we made with The Holy One only came into effect after Am Yisra'el crossed over the nehar ha-yarden, the River Jordan, and made the vow at the mountains of Har Gerizim and Har Eival.

So why is this last letter not dotted?
The Ba'al Ha-Turim writes about why there is a lonely dot over the letter Ayin (ע) of the word עַד ad, but not the Dalet (ד). It is because from the time that Moshe Rabbeynu began to expound the Torah at Arvot Mo'av, the Plains of Mo'av, until we crossed the Yarden was a total of seventy - the numerology of Ayin is 70 - days. This also hints at the seventy years of galut (exile) we would experience in Babylon, the collective punishment that the whole Nation of Yisra'el had to suffer for the shortcomings of those who were unrepentantly guilty.

But wait a second. If the letters are effaced by the dots, then we're off the hook, right?
No, sorry. G@d wanted to emphasise how much we could help our fellow Jews, and how important that is. We must learn from the very human mistake made by Qayin, Cain, in Be-reshit/Genesis 4:9: we are our brother's (and sister's!) keeper. We're all Jews and we must take responsibility for each other. We must take up the slack when they can't continue, help them when they're falling away from G@d. Kol Yisra'el areyvim zeh ba-zeh, each one of Israel is responsible one for the other. Go Team Jew!

And by embodying this directive of kindness, we can raise our interactions with each other, according to the mitzvot of beyn adam la-chaveiro (between a person his/her friend), and hopefully provide a security network for our family which is all Israel.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Parshat Nitzavim - Enlarged Letter Lamed in וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם


This week's Parashah, Nitzavim, runs from Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20. What I'd like to show you in Devarim 29:27 is the enlarged letter Lamed in the word וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם - va-yash'likheym, which means "and throw them out". This word has the same shoresh/root (שלכ) as tashlikh, what we do the afternoon First Day Rosh Ha-Shanah with our sins.

וַיִּתְּשֵׁם יְהוָה מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם, בְּאַף וּבְחֵמָה וּבְקֶצֶף גָּדוֹל; וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם אֶל-אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת, כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.

and the G@D rooted them out of their land in anger, and in rage, and with great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is until today.

Now, what is this verse talking about? Who is "them"?
"Them", unfortunately, is us. The Jewish People. The context of the pasuq/verse is this: just as we're preparing to enter the Land of Israel, the Eretz Ha-Qodesh, for the first time since Ya'aqov and our people left it so many generation previoulsy, G@d is foretelling of a future generation consisting of our descendants who rise up, along with foreigners from a distant land, and that they shall see the punishment directed against the Land (Israel), and the plague with which G@d has struck it...

A loose translation of the pasuqim/verses leading up to verse 27 read as follows:
29:23 "All the nations will ask, 'Why did G@d do this to the Land? What was the reason for this great display of anger?'"
29:24 "They shall answer, 'It is because they (the Jews) abandoned the covenant that G@d, L@rd of their ancestors, made with them when He brought them out of Egypt.'"
29:25 "and went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods that they knew not, and that He had not allotted to them;"
29:26 "therefore the anger of the L@RD was kindled against this Land, to bring upon it all the curse that is written in this book;"

So we're being warned that even though we have finally merited national and individual redemption from G@D, and are about to come home, like being on the brink of our wedding night, that in the future our descendants will be exiled because they will turn away from The Holy One and give their focus away. How sad.

So...why the word Sh-L-Kh? And why the letter Lamed?
The pictographic shape of Lamed is that of a goad - that's an instrument with which we coax animals to go in the direction we want, rather than the direction that they want. Sort of a non-electric cattle prod. So here we see that Ha-Shem is goading us away from the direction we would choose to go and instead take the better path which G@d wants for us.

The shoresh/root of "Lamed" (למד) is talmud or limmud, to learn or teach. And this is a big teaching, as my Holy/wholly good friend Chayim Rothschild Lev once said to me about this. What is the teaching?

R' Chayim Dovid Ha-Levy, z"l, the former Chief Sefardi Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was a great scholar, posek & Kabbalist. He said that anytime we see an enlarged letter in our writings, that is a place where G@d takes over the direction. That Ha-Shem steps out of the status quo and is proactive about something, always with great kindness and benevolence.
Example: the enlarged letter Bet which begins the Torah. Be-reyshit bara Eloqim...

So how is cursing our Holy Land of Israel so that we're forced to flee into exile an act of kindness?
The rabbis in Talmud Bavli Masechet Sofrim argue that this word should be read as lakhem, to you (plural), implying that G@d will be a personal G@d to the individual exiled Jews even after we're vomited out of the Land. Why is this relevant? Because in the ancient religions of the Fertile Crescent the gods and idols were very much tied to the local area where they were worshipped, and were only believed to have power in their own neighbourhood, so to speak. But we wouldn't have to worry, because wherever G@d scattered us, the Holy presence of the Shekhinah would be there too.

So this image of The Holy One driving us out is a violent one, but remember that Lamed is a goad, not a whip, it doesn't just punish, it coaxes. We would be taught a very hard lesson by our exile from our home, the Land of Israel, but only because we had first exiled G@d from our hearts.

Talmud Bavli Yoma 29a refers to 22 saintly women in our history, each with a quality which represents a letter of the Hebrew alefbet. The letter Lamed is the symbol of Devorah (Haftarah Beshallach, Shofetim/Judges 4:4-5:31). Who was Devorah? She was named after Rivqah's wet nurse, who died at the same time as Rivqah (Be-reyshit/Genesis 35:8 Par'shat Va-yishlakh) and was buried in that area.

And what did Devorah do?
She judged us and decided questions of law for the whole nation - a posek, or poseket. She was considered to have been a vessel for the ru'ach nevu'ah/spirit of prophesy. She also goaded Baraq - who was commanded by G@d to go to war with Sisera. Ha-Shem guaranteed Baraq would be victorious and yet he, feeling unworthy of such a miracle, refused to go to war unless Devorah accompanied him.

Baraq felt that only her merit would guarantee his success. Devorah's response:
"I will go with you, but the path you have chosen to go will not be for your glory. Ha-Shem will deliver Sisera into the hand of woman." Silly Baraq. You always get second best when you deviate from what G@d asks you to do.

In Devorah's song, Shofetim/Judges 5:1 - 31, she sings of how when the people of Israel devote themselves to Ha-Shem, they travel safely, the land blossoms and there was no war made against us. But when we forget G@d, we experience calamity.

This enlarged Lamed prophesies the coming of Devorah ha-Neviyah. Just to remind us about being very careful of the path that we choose.

Copyright © A. Barclay

Monday, September 07, 2009

Tehilim/Psalms Chapter 27


My loose translation of Tehilim/Psalm 27, traditionally recited daily during this Jewish month of Elul prayers...

לְדָוִד: יְהוָה, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי--מִמִּי אִירָא;
יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי, מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
Of David: Ad@nai is my light and my saviour; who will I dread? Ad@nai is the stronghold of my life; who shall I be scared of?

בִּקְרֹב עָלַי, מְרֵעִים-- לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-בְּשָׂרִי:
צָרַי וְאֹיְבַי לִי; הֵמָּה כָשְׁלוּ וְנָפָלוּ
When malicious people caught me to devour my innards, my antagonists and my opponents, they tripped and fell.

אִם-תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי, מַחֲנֶה-- לֹא-יִירָא לִבִּי:
אִם-תָּקוּם עָלַי, מִלְחָמָה-- בְּזֹאת, אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ
If an army sets up against me, my heart won't fear; even if war rises up against me, then I'll still be confident.

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-יְהוָה-- אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְהוָה, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְהוָה, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ
One thing I've asked of Ad@nai, that I will pursue: that I may rest in the house of Ad@nai all the days of my life, to contemplate the pleasance of Ad@nai, and to visit early in His temple.

כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי, בְּסֻכֹּה-- בְּיוֹם רָעָה:
יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ; בְּצוּר, יְרוֹמְמֵנִי
The Divine will hide me in the sukah on the day of broken-ness; conceal me in the shade of His tent; raise me up on a rock.

וְעַתָּה יָרוּם רֹאשִׁי, עַל אֹיְבַי סְבִיבוֹתַי, וְאֶזְבְּחָה בְאָהֳלוֹ, זִבְחֵי תְרוּעָה;
אָשִׁירָה וַאֲזַמְּרָה, לַיהוָה
And now my head is raised up above my enemies surrounding me; and I will offer sacrifices with trumpet-blast in His tent ; I will chant, I will sing to Ad@nai.

שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא; וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי
Listen, Ad@nai, when I call with my voice, and be merciful to me, and answer me.

לְךָ, אָמַר לִבִּי--בַּקְּשׁוּ פָנָי; אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ
To you my heart has said: 'Seek you My face'; Your face, Ad@nai, I'll seek.

אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי-- אַל תַּט-בְּאַף, עַבְדֶּךָ:
עֶזְרָתִי הָיִיתָ; אַל-תִּטְּשֵׁנִי וְאַל-תַּעַזְבֵנִי, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעִי
Don't hide Your face from me; don't reject Your servant in anger; You've been my help; don't cast me away, and don't forsake me, my G@d of my salvation.

כִּי-אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי; וַיהוָה יַאַסְפֵנִי
For despite my father and my mother abandoning me, Ad@nai will gather me up.

הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ: וּנְחֵנִי, בְּאֹרַח מִישׁוֹר--לְמַעַן, שׁוֹרְרָ
Teach me Your way, Ad@nai; and lead me on a strait path, because of those who lie in wait for me.

אַל-תִּתְּנֵנִי, בְּנֶפֶשׁ צָרָי: כִּי קָמוּ-בִי עֵדֵי-שֶׁקֶר, וִיפֵחַ חָמָס
Don't deliver me over to the will of my tormentors; for liars have arisen against me, and they exhale HAMAS, violence.

לוּלֵא--הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְהוָה: בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים
If I hadn't believed to envision the goodness of Ad@nai in the land of the living!

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה
Hope for Ad@nai; be strong, and let your heart feel encouraged; await Ad@nai.