Thursday, June 11, 2009

Parshat Be-Ha'alotekha Parte Deux: Nuns Sealed Shut


Did you really believe yesterday's post, that I would refuse to comment on the two backward Nuns (those would be Hebrew letters (נ), not ladies dressed modestly and wearing crucifixes)?
How could I resist? I mean REALLY?

Before and after Sefer Be-midbar/Numbers 10:35-36, there is a backwards letter Nun surrounded by space:

וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה: קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
לו וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר: שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Now it was, when the coffer was to march on, that Moshe would say: 'Arise (to attack), O Y-H-V-H, so that Your enemies may scatter; and that those who hate You may flee before You!'. And when it rested, he said: 'Return, O Y-H-V-H, You of the ten thousands myriad/families/clans of the divisions of Israel!

These verses preserve the invocation prayers in connection with the going forward and the resting of the Ark on our jouney through the desert to the Land of Israel. They are chanted to this day at the opening and closing of the ark and/or parokhet, whenever the Torah is read in the synagogue.

These two verses are enclosed with a long space, a letter Nun hafukh or mezuneret (isolated), then another long space on either end. I've seen thousands of Torah scrolls in my sofrut career, and I've noticed that these two Nunim can be written not only backward, but upside down, or even facing front, looking back over their shoulders. הָפוּךְ hafukh can mean reversed, inverted, inverse, in disarray, or even in slang "cafe au lait"!). There are many scribal rules about these spaces and letters, but no universal agreement.

Why are they here? Were they originally written into the text by hand by Moshe Rabbeynu atop Mount Sinai as dictated by The Holy One? If not, then do these addition graphic signs present a Halakhic or historical problem, since we are forbidden by Torah to add anything to the Torah?
Sefer Devarim/Deuteronomy 13:1 states:

אֵת כָּל-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם--אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת: לֹא-תֹסֵף עָלָיו, וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ.
All this word which I command you, that you will observe to do; do not add to it, nor diminish from it.

The RaMBaM, Maimonides, writes:

The intent of this prohibition is that we not add to the words of the Torah nor subtract from them, thereby permanently establishing the addition or subtraction as part of Scripture. This applies to both the Written Law and the Oral Tradition (transmitted to Moses on Mount Sinai).

So when the Rabbis institute a new law, they have to be clear that they aren't adding to the Torah at all, only building a fence around the Torah, to help the rest of us avoid breaking the Torah's laws.

When we trace these two Nunim and their wide spaces back through to our oldest surviving Torah scrolls and manuscripts - Rashi commented on this so we know this scribal feature of Torah scrolls is at least 1,000 years old - we find that there has in fact been a change, that there was some kind of metamorphosis. Here are the verses in a 700-year-old Torah scroll. Does this look like any of the Sifrei Torah you have in your synagogue? NO!
Forgive me for sounding apikorsodox when I ask: did our great Sages enact this change in text, or did the Scribes? Or both? Are these signs, added later, a fence around the journey of our Holy Ark?

So how is this a fence?
The backward Nuns could be written here like this to indicate either that they are not in their original place: Both Rav Ashi and R' Shim'on ben Gamli'el explain that when the Messiah comes in the future this section will be removed from here and written in its proper place.

Another traditional idea is that they are taken from another source (possibly from "The Book of the Wars of the Lord", Numbers/Be-midbar 21:14 [parshat Chuqat]) and form a distinct section, scroll, or even "book" of the Torah. Some of the Rabbis thought of the Book of Numbers/Sefer Be-midbar as consisting of three parts (Chapters 1 - 10:34; Chapter 10:35 - 36; Chapters 11 - 36), and, in consequence, counted seven books of the Torah.

Thus, according to Rabbi Yochanan, Mishley/Proverbs 9:1

חָכְמוֹת, בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ; חָצְבָה עַמּוּדֶיהָ שִׁבְעָה.
Wisdom hath hewn out her seven pillars.

referred to the Seven Books of the Torah. R' Shmu'el ben Nachman agrees.

There is a supporting baraita for this idea: Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi said the strange layout of spacing and inverted Nunim isn't because these pasuqim/verses are in the wrong place, but because they are an important book standing on their own.

Why the letter Nun?
There are no less than ten words, or letters, or groups of words or letters appearing in the text of our Torahs which carry a dot above their heads. That discussion is too broad for this particular article, so I'll deal with them at another time. The point here is that the word "dot" in Hebrew is נקד, naqud, and the initial of that word, obviously, is the letter Nun.

Many opinions suggest that in this instance every single letter of these two verses was dotted, causing a very problematic result: difficult to lay out, to write, and to read. This would also mean that G@d's name would be dotted, which is impossible, since dotting traditionally indicates a erasing or effacement of the letters which are dotted (which I'll explain in a separate article). All Very Bad. Instead, a letter Nun was placed on either end, at the beginning and at the end of the journey of the Holy Ark, but written irregularly, to reflect the irregularity of the dots, the placement, or otherwise, and to ensure that they were never inadvertently entered into the text permanently, over time.

The gematrial value of the letter Nun is 50.

There are fifty Gates of Understanding or Wisdom in our tradition. The same gates which we pass through as we count the omer between the second day of Pesach and Shavu’ot, invoking the presence of each S’firah as we walk the Tree of Life. Each Gate refers to the nature of each of the fifty references to our Exodus in the Sefer Torah, and to the fifty queries into the nature of Creation which G@d poses Job. These verses are gated off from the rest of the Torah.

Why Fifty?
One way of solving mysteries in Judaism is of course to turn to numbers. Words which share the same numerological value are considered to be connected in a very deep way, a way that is not so apparent on the surface. So what can I do with this number? A word which also has a value of 50 is spelled Alef-Tet-Mem Sofit (אָטַם): atam meaning "seal" or "shut" or even "water-tight". These two verses are sealed off from the rest of the Torah.


The word נֶאֱמָן ne'eman, "faithful", begins and ends with a Nun just as these verses do. This could be an indicator that we can rely on the information communicated in these verses. That as long as we keep ourselves under the protective wings of the Shekhinah, G@d's Holy Sheltering Presence, by keeping our commandments and staying true to our covenant, that we have nothing to fear. For G@d is One, there is nothing else, so all that denies this One Universal Truth will surely נָס, disappear.

Talmud Bavli Masekhet Shabbat 115b; 116a
Talmud Bavli Masekhet Sofrim (the scribe's tractate) 6, 2
"The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud", by Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin
RaMBaM, "Mishneh Torah, Book Fourteen: Sefer Shofetim, Laws of Rebels" 2:9
Rashi's commentary on Rosh Hashannah 17b as related by Rabbi Solomon Luria in his Responsum #63
Nehama Leibowitz, "Studies in Bamidbar"

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