Parashat Beha’alotkha

The Seven Books of Moses

Hazzan Marcia Lane

There’s a very famous story from the Talmud regarding Rabbi Akiva. When Moses ascended into heaven, he saw God occupied in making little crowns for the letters of the Torah. Upon his inquiry as to what these might be for, he received the answer, “In the future there will come a man named Akiva ben Joseph, who will deduce halakhot(laws) from every little thorn and crown of the letters of the Law.” Moses asked to be allowed to see this man, and was instantly transported to Akiva’s classroom. But he was dismayed as he listened to Rabbi Akiva’s teaching. “Rabbi,” his student asked, “from where do we get this (law)?” Akiva explained, “This law is from Moshe, received at Sinai.” (Menachot 29b)

Of course poor Moshe couldn’t understand a word of their conversation!

Whenever I look at a Torah scroll I am reminded that, even if I don’t understand them, every mark has meaning. I love the ideas of Torah, but I also love the physicality of Torah. I love the smell of the scroll, and the strange anomalies, and the look of eachsofer’s (scribe) handwriting. I remember reading from one scroll that had tiny, elaborate peacock’s feathers at the tops of certain letters! It was gorgeous. I remember how powerful it felt when I was first able to take out a scroll and find my way around the columns and paragraphs. When I explained to a student how to look for signposts without having to read every word, I said, “Now we have to look for the upside-down nuns. Then we’ll know we’re in Beha’a’lotkha.”  

Plunk in the middle of this parashah, in Chapter 10, there is one of the most curious mysteries of the Torah. Framing verses 35 and 36 are a pair of upside-down or inverted nuns, called nun hafuchah (reversed nun), looking for all the world like brackets. What do they mean? Why are they there? They frame the following verses:

And it would be, whenever the ark set out, Moshe would say, “Arise, Lord, and may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You.” And whenever it came to rest he would say, “Return, Lord, to the myriad thousands of Israel.” (Num. 10:35-36)


Perhaps this typographical mark means we are supposed to ‘cut-and-paste’ these verses to somewhere else in the Torah. Maybe they should be eliminated altogether. Although there is certainly speculation, no one knows for sure. A mystical interpretation is found in the Zohar, in which the nun is seen as representing theShekhinah, the feminine aspect of the Divine.

R. Eleazar said, “What is the meaning of the inverted letter nun here introduced twice? We explain it thus: We read a little before, ‘And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days’ journey, to seek a resting place for them.’  Now, as soon as the ark set off the nun accompanied it, with its face turned toward Israel…The nun remained inseparable from [the ark]…yet turned her face away from the ark and toward Israel…‘And when it rested’ the nun turned its face again towards the ark.” Said R. Simeon, “Oh, Eleazar, surely it is as you said, except that when the ark rested, the Shekhinah did not turn her countenance away from Israel. This is clearly shown by the second nun, which is also of an inverted shape. The truth is, when Moses said, ‘Return, O Lord,’ and the ark rested, the Shekhinah turned back and stood on the other side of the ark, but her countenance turned toward Israel and towards the ark. Israel, however, caused the turning away of the Shekhinah from them. So we read “And the people were as murmerers (k’mi-ton’nim).” (Zohar III:155a)

That last comment points to the fact that the word for ‘murmerers’ — or more contextually, complainers — has two nuns that are made the usual way, facing to the left/west, away from the Land of Israel. So in this interpretation our inverted letters are facing Israel and the people muttering complaints are facing away from the correct path.

Another intriguing possibility is expressed in Talmud. The sages are discussing under what circumstances must a Torah scroll be saved from a fire. They decide that you should save a scroll if 85 contiguous letters remain, and to give an example, they cite our passage, which has exactly 85 letters. Then there is this comment:

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yohanan: “She hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9,1) — these are the seven books of the Pentateuch; according to whom? According to Rabbi [Judah Hanasi]. (Shabbat 115b-116a)

So if that were true, then these two verses might represent a fragment of a lost book of the Torah, which would be called “Va-Y’hi Binsoa” — “When it set out.” Therefore our seven books would be: Bereishit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), VaYikra (Leviticus),B’midbar (Numbers), VaY’hi Binsoa (When It [the Ark] Set Out), K’miton’nim (When They Complained), and Devarim (Deuteronomy). But it still raises the question, where is the rest of this book of Torah? 

One idea makes use of the fact that the letter nun is used for this piece of punctuation. Not reversed lameds or gimmels, but nuns. If we look at Psalm 145 — the one we typically call Ashrei, we see that the alphabetical acrostic is missing a verse for the letter nun. Perhaps the verse fell out of use — in Hebrew, nafal — and some day we will have gained the merit to complete the psalm. Similarly, perhaps our inverted nunscome to suggest that there is more to come of Torah. Maybe on the day when all Israel merits this additional book, we will open the scroll and there it will be; a whole new reason to say, “Hafoch-ba v’hafoch-ba, d’kula-ba.” Turn it and turn it, for everything is within it.”


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.