Shemini 5770

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Scott Greenberg

How often do you remember your half-birthday, that magical moment when you’re just as far away from the last anniversary of your birth as the next one? I know that I forget my half-birthday on a regular basis, only to remember it a couple days later.

Funny enough the Torah has a half-birthday as well – not just when the Hagbah favors the ambidextrous or when Simchat Torah is six months away. The Torah’s official half birthday actually comes in this week’s parshah, Shemini.

Many people who have read a Torah text have come across little footnotes, written in Hebrew, beneath or on the sides. Known as Masoretic notes, these are annotations of the Torah text. They come in various forms – some tell us when a letter in the Torah scroll is bigger or smaller than usual, some tell us when a word in the Torah is read differently than it is written, some tell us when a word is specially dotted, and some tell us when there is an unusual grammatical, spelling-related, or musical feature of the text. They make an excellent field of study if you’ve got some spare time.

The coolest thing that Masoretic notes do, in my opinion, is that they count. In many editions of the chumash, though not the Etz Chayim, after every parashah and book, they will provide a verse-count – how many verses were in that parashah – and a helpful mneumonic device to remember that count (usually one connected to the theme of the text being counted). In one parshah, Miketz, it even says how many words were in the parashah.

So what’s the connection to the Torah’s half birthday? These notes happen to point out not only the exact middle word of the Torah, but also the exact middle letter. Think of it! Somebody counted through all of the words and letters in that giant huge scroll to find the exact center! The Torah has 5,845 verses and 304,805 letters; it’s a huge task. Funny enough, both of these “middles” come in this week’s parashah, Shemini.

The middle words of the Torah, according to the Masoretic tradition (and backed up by Kiddushin 30b in the Gemara), are darosh darash, or “inquired,” in Leviticus 10:16. They come from the story of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron who died by the hand of God after offering a “strange fire.” In the chaotic aftermath, we see Moses inquiring about what happened to all of the offerings that would have been offered if not for the tragedy (hence, “inquired”).

The middle letter of the Torah comes a chapter later, in Leviticus 11:42. The verse says, “You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination.” This passage comes near the end of an extensive section dealing with kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, in Leviticus 11:42. By the Masoretic tradition, the vav in the word for belly is the middle letter of the Torah; in fact, it is enlarged in the text of the scroll.

If we think of the midpoint of something as capturing its essence, then what better way to capture the essence of the Torah than these two midpoints. The first, the word “inquired,” shows the spirit of studying the Torah – asking tough questions and finding answers. As the Etz Chayim chumash puts it, “The essence of Torah is continued inquiry and study.” The middle letter of the Torah, on the other hand, comes in the middle of a section of boring laws. What can this teach us? Maybe it’s that the Torah isn’t supposed to all flash and glamour – that it’s true “middle” can be found in the nitty-gritty legalism.

All of this would be a fitting “half-birthday” for the Torah – if it were actually true. For rabbis and scholars have discovered that these words and this letter cannot actually be the midpoints of the Torah for numerical reasons. So what do we make of this? Like so much of our tradition that is self-contradictory, we Jews must try and make sense of the lessons behind it – that we must continue to inquire into the Torah’s mysteries, even if it means sorting through complicated rules and texts.

Happy half-birthday, Torah!