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Parashat Shemini

March 29, 2019

The Center of the Torah
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini
By Rabbi Len Levin

“The Masoret (textual tradition) is a safeguarding fence around the Torah.” (Avot 3:13)

What is the core of the Torah? At several places in this week’s Torah reading and in adjacent readings, the astute reader will see notes indicating that this or that verse is the center of the Torah counting by verses, by words, or by letters. What is this about?

The Talmud relates: “The earlier authorities were called soferim [scribes] because they counted [soferim] all the letters of the Torah” (Kiddushin 30a).

From this they concluded that the center of the Torah, counting by letters, is the vav in the word gahon (belly) in the verse, “You shall not eat anything that crawls on its belly” (Lev. 11:42). Counting by verses, it is the verse “[The leper] shall shave himself” (Lev. 13.33). And counting by words, it is the pair of words darosh darash: “Moses inquired, yea, inquired [why Aaron and his surviving sons had not eaten the sin-offering]” (Lev. 10:16). In contrast to the counting of the Soferim, the Masoretes later determined that the middle of the Torah by verses was the verse relating how Moses put the breastplate on Aaron in the course of the investiture ceremony conferring the office of the priesthood on him (Lev. 8:8).

What does all this mean? And who were the Soferim and the Masoretes?

The history of the text of the Torah prior to Ezra is shrouded in mystery and subject to learned debate. But the Jewish tradition and modern historians are agreed that Ezra, who himself was a scribe, presented the Torah to the Israelites assembled in Jerusalem in the fifth century BCE and instituted the practice of reading the Torah in public that continues to this day (Nehemiah 8:1–8). From that point on, the integrity of the text of the Torah was entrusted to the Soferim, the scribes who succeeded Ezra for the next several centuries.

The word sofer is related to sefer (book) and describes the occupation of the scribe who, prior to the invention of printing, produced the book by his own hand and pen. But the rabbis noted that the word sofer also means to count (related to mispar, number). They deduced that one of the ways that the scribes insured the integrity of the text was by counting the verses, words, and letters, for if the number of verses, words, and letters is established, then the authenticity of a new copy of the Torah can be confirmed if the number of its verses, words, and letters comes out correct—an ancient anticipation of the modern “check digit” security used in financial account numbers and data communications protocols.

The Masoretes were a group of scholars who lived much later, in the sixth to tenth centuries CE. We owe to them the system of vowels and cantillation symbols found in written texts of the Hebrew Bible from their time to the present day. The Masoretes also added notes indicating unusual features of the text, such as letters written extra large (such as the vav in gahon in Leviticus 11:42) or small, or words spelled with an extra letter or missing a letter, or intended to be read aloud otherwise than as written). (See an example of the detailed Masoretic notes on a small passage at this link.)The Masoretes continued the Soferim’s habit of calculating the verses, and their count of the verses, words, and letters in each book of the Bible is recorded at the end of each book in some editions.

Why does it matter what we determine as the midpoint of the Torah? It is perhaps noteworthy that each of the midpoints described focuses on a different topic.

If we take the investiture of Aaron to the priesthood as the center, then the Torah is about sanctity, especially the hierarchies that establish higher and lower degrees of sanctity in the Israelite nation and in human society generally.

If we take the dietary rules as the center, then the Torah is about regulating behavior through a detailed code of conduct touching every aspect of our daily lives.

If we take darosh darash to be the center, then the Torah is about Midrash, intellectual inquiry, analyzing every nook and cranny of Torah and about life generally for the insight it can bring us.

We should also mention that we are only a few weeks away from the verse ve-ahavta lere’akha kamokha—“love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), which Rabbi Akiba declared to be an all-embracing principle of the Torah (Sifra Kedoshim 4, cited in Rashi on Lev. 19:18). This needs no elaboration.

As this week is Shabbat Parah, we take out a second Torah scroll and read the Law of the Red Heifer (Numbers Chapter 19). At first sight, this portion seems to be devoted solely to the purification rituals after contact with a dead body. But the rabbis found in verse 14 an allusion to the study of Torah: Ve-zot ha-Torah adam ki yamut ba-ohel—“This is the way of Torah: when a person mortifies himself in the tent [of study of Torah]” (Talmud Shabbat 83b).

Taken together, all these core samples suggest that the Torah is a complex fabric of study and practice, of ethical and ritual, all woven together with the common purpose of the sanctification of life on the individual and communal levels.
Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism: Honoring the 60th Anniversary of AJR.