“The Mystery of Mysteries”:  Part 2: Anah’s Mule and Torah’s Darwinian Experiment

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“God is the source not only of order but also novelty.” – John Haught, God after Darwin (Boulder: Westview, 2000) p. 182

Anah’s mule

The Book of Genesis tells the story of how Esau met his twin Jacob (Israel) after twenty years, apparently forgives him for cheating him out of his inheritance from Isaac, and then goes down to Seir, where Jacob agrees to meet him … eventually.

Jacob’s in no rush to get there. He doesn’t trust Esau, and in any case, he and his expanding tribe have several adventures that delay them, including the rape of his daughter, annihilating a city, and burying his beloved wife Rachel.

While Jacob dawdles, Esau’s tribe (collectively known by his nickname, Edom, ‘red’, or ‘bloody’), has had the time to breed many generations alongside the tribe of Seir. The Bible, like many ancient epics, gives an extended genealogy of these two families and the eight kings of Edom, a seeminglyanti-climactic end to an otherwise dramatic portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

However, in the middle of the dry account of begats and sires, one comment sticks out like a sore thumb:

“The sons of Zibeon were these: Aiah and Anah—that was the Anah who first found mules in the wilderness while pasturing the asses of his father Zibeon.” (Gen 36:24)

Continue reading ” “The Mystery of Mysteries”:  Part 2: Anah’s Mule and Torah’s Darwinian Experiment”

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem.

Darwin admired mules in general and his own mule in particular, but as hybrids between horses and donkeys, like all other animal hybrids, they’re sterile. The apparently universal sterility of hybrids posed a fundamental challenge to his theory of how new species arise. Darwin stated the problem succinctly:

“How can we account for species, when crossed, being sterile and producing sterile offspring, whereas, when varieties are crossed, their fertility is unimpaired?4

If only two individual varieties of the same species can reproduce but two individuals from different species never can, then how does a new species ever arise? Combined with the other great paradox – that no “transitional” species had ever been observed – Darwin saw nearly-fatal gaps in his theory that even today continue to present insoluble paradoxes for evolutionary biology.5

Surprisingly, the Jewish Bible also struggles with the mule in remarkably similar ways. Though only one mention is made of mules in the Five Books of Moses, that single instance challenges its sense of cosmic order. The mere existence of the mule violates categories of order and acquires surprisingly powerful – and negative – transcendental significance. The Torah abhors mixing species and has several injunctions against it, including some that carry the death penalty. The very fact of the existence of the mule is so transgressive that later commentators in the Talmud tell the story that just at sundown before the very first Shabbat, in the very last moments of Creation, God considers showing Adam the idea of mule breeding along with other scientific secrets, but decides not to. The implication of the sages is that it is too abhorrent.

For both Darwinian science and traditional Jewish theology, the mule stands on the border between two versions of cosmic order. If God created all the different species and constrained them to be fertile only within their type (for good metaphysical reasons of His own), then the mule is a violation of this order. If, on the other hand, species emerge and proliferate over time on their own, interbreeding and evolving in order to create new ones without divine intervention, then how come hybrids like the mule are always infertile?6  Though the proliferation of species from earlier forms is obvious, evolutionary biology seems to stop at a wall erected by some force beyond what its current paradigm can explain.

As Darwin and Torah wrestle with their mule problem, they have some profound things to say to each other. After all, Torah and science share the same world and both are good faith attempts to explain it, and though they serve different premises about how that world exists and why. it should not be surprising that they have mutually illuminating things to say to each other.7

In what follows, I am not refuting or questioning evolution or its general picture of the evolution and proliferation of species. But I do focus on frailties and important unanswered questions about how, precisely, speciation occurs that leave the door open to considering an alternative model, one I address in Part 3 of this series of blogs.

Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”

The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters in its significance, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to create skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired.

Most people when they read the Bible see that its epic stories don’t fit modern standards of artistic coherence. Great dramas are interrupted by anticlimactic lists of genealogies. Completely disparate segments are roped together or interrupt each other without apparent rhyme or reason. In the middle of a gripping biography of a major figure, we get distracted by jarring digressions and non-sequiturs. All this feeds more intense scrutiny by textual and linguistic scholars, especially over the last century or so, who note changes in tone, inconsistencies in lexicon, even names for God. They have theorized that the Five Books of Moses is a concatenation of texts redacted – put together – by several editors over centuries. These authors had other axes to grind, such as laying claim to Israel as the Promised Land or affirming the political power of the priests in the Temple. Collectively, this challenge to the belief that Moses wrote the Torah as a transcription of God’s revelation to him is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

On the other hand, as centuries of explication uncloak the Torah’s hidden meanings, thematic, even transcendent, integrity come into view. It has yielded its secrets slowly. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and and subtlety that cannot be simply explained away as the projections of eager scholars over-scrutinizing and over-interpreting a text like Shakespeare’s plays. Subtleties ripple backward and forward across the whole text of the Bible and tie the whole text together. They are cloaked so well, so deeply buried, and it has taken so many centuries to unearth them, that it is hard to believe they were placed there by human authors seeking to score political or rhetorical points. Even today, the Torah, especially in its original Hebrew, continues to reveal a poetry, a literary depth, and an integrity or coherence that almost demands we acknowledge a single intelligence at work keeping  all parts in mind from beginning to end. At the same time, the cross-references and layers of meaning seems so complex and layered, that it seems to speak of a talent beyond what seems possible from a mortal mind, however inspired.

Eight hundred years after Moses putatively wrote it, the Torah was divided into fifty-four weekly parshiot (segments, singular = parsha, not to be confused with numbered chapters used in all Bibles today) during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE). Keepers of the faith worried the Jews were losing touch with the story of their peoplehood and nation, and so instituted weekly public readings. But we can thank them, because the chapters often focus the reader’s attention on themes that we otherwise might miss. One of these deeply buried bits of linguistic archeology lies buried in the chapter Vayyeshev – “And He Settled” (Genesis 37:1-40:23).

Joseph’s story

Vayyeshev tells the biography of Joseph from the time he lived with his eleven brothers, the sons of Jacob (later named Israel). It’s a kind of familiar picaresque tale or bildungsroman, like Tom Jones, about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned into the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to heroic adulthood.

Jealous of the fact that he is Jacob’s favorite (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, a “dreamer,” they throw Joseph in a pit, consider murdering him, and instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. He is carried to Egypt and sold again. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph is blessed in everything he does and elevates him to his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, there’s a problem: the tale is interrupted for no apparent reason by a lurid digression about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. [1]

Judah and Tamar

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, he “spills his seed,” for which God also kills him. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the household only until Shelah grows up and then she must leave. Judah is worried that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.

But Tamar seeks to right this wrong, being deprived of a levirate marriage that will save her honor and status. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a trip, and gets pregnant. She confronts him with a signet and a staff he gave her as collateral for her services. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story, but what’s it doing here? It could make a cool movie, too, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat romcom. It even has a happy ending.

Veyyeshev’s literary coherence

On closer inspection, the literary eye is caught by a remarkable oddity. The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.

The single prop that stands out in the first part of Joseph’s story is his coat. It is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with Joseph.  (And yes, as if to prove the metonymic point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of wordless Jewish bereavement forever after). [2]

The props that stand out in the detour to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items. Judah’s signet and staff are accessories that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department, but then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.

Beged, the macguffin

The Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story. Again, the prop for the story – what screenwriters call a MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon”)  –  is an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.  We can’t help but notice the episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a treacherous lie. Yet it also works. Joseph lands in jail. And somewhere in there we have a allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.

As we unpack its imagery, Vayyeshev starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.

One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the chapter. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore and then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.

Sure enough, lurking inside it lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.

Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.

Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.

Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.

In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, cloak, disguise, or hide another meaning. It’s a pun, squared. [3]

Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double meanings that weave the text together:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. [4] There’s a poem about appearances here.

Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob. But fate is stronger. Just as she ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning disguised in a word

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes in Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dina.

But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.

Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’.”[5]

In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this chapter, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. whose elaborate tribal genealogy is recounted in the verses just before this chapter begins.

The evolution of beged and Design in the Torah

The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning change as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife) and remind them of Torah. (Numbers 15:38). The word mysteriously simplifies by losing its alternative, cloaked meaning.

Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever.

“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)

We are subtly being reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out a pretty odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.

The word beged then does something even stranger: when we reach Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely from the Five Books of Moses, with only one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)

The word calls out here, without prefix, suffix, or declension. It appears in its simple noun form without adornment. Beged. It has already shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to the story of that other widow from four books ago, Tamar

This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.

What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer? When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?

Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety, integrity, and transcendent coherence in the Torah that only a single Author could possibly have held it in His mind?


[1] Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).

[2] The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.

The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.


It is hard to believe a set of authors across the centuries BCE posited by the various Documentary Hypotheses could have anticipated a tool like Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, or the potent combination of the computer, Internet and hypertext. These open the entire text of the Torah and all its commentaries to inspection, cross-reference and explication, especially via the genius of Sefaria.org.  And only this level of inspection enables us to completely appreciate the depth and number of layers of meaning in, and coherence of. the Torah. Why would human authors have embedded and hidden these intertextual gems if they had no conception of how those connections might have been unearthed and appreciated, if at all? This is my way of saying I’m grateful to these tools and their authors.

It will take another prolix blog to explain why I am biased against the Documentary Hypothesis from the get-go and then expose the many holes in it. I will only say here it offends my literary sensibilities to suggest that disparate human authors, writing in a committee separated by centuries, cultural contexts, and goals could achieve such artistic complexity and coherence in a text. It also insults whatever rationality I have left, inculcated by decades of scholarship and an MIT education. The number of symbols, meanings, metaphors and cross-references that exist in the text of the Torah is so exponential, it suggests an intellect vaster than anything humanly comprehensible was at work composing it. The whole DH affair seems a desultory, cynical and arrogant attempt to sacrifice the inspired poetry of the original Hebrew on the altar of what passes for scholarship and so called philological science. Not to mention, suck the spiritual life out of it.

I also think rejecting Divine Authorship of the Bible dooms Jews – or any culture or civilization – to drift and inevitable extinction. It’s a bad business model for any religion to suggest that moral behavior comes solely from human judgements and imperatives. It leads ultimately to moral relativism and chaos. We humans, unmoored from any allegiance to an Authority beyond our ken, inevitably fall to bickering over the meaning and application of terms like justice.

Torah as Blast: Did the original have spaces between words?

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One Torah, without spaces?

The default assumption of Judaism is that there is only one Torah. It is eternal and immutable because God is its Author. Yet slowly revealing and understanding the meaning of what God told Moses on Sinai is also the essence of Judaism. Clearly, our understanding of the Torah evolves over time, dancing with the God of Becoming Who constantly creates the universe. Along the way, thousands of years of commentary, without challenging the integrity of a God-given Torah, worry the bone of precisely who composed the Torah at which point. How and when did Moses transcribe God’s words?  How did it look? How were its chapters, verses, words, and letters laid out on the page? Did the layout change?

Here, without challenging the Torah’s authority as the immutable Word of God, I would like to entertain only one small, seemingly ridiculous question about the layout of the Written Torah: Did Moses write the original Torah without inserting the spaces between words that we see today?

My motivation for considering this question is simple: to reconcile history as best we know it today with the Torah. Of course, tugging at this thread unravels a broad cloak of considerations.

Torah as autograph

Even as it relays the profound narratives of the origins of the world, the birth of the nation of the Jews, a new code of laws and so much else, the Torah is also an autobiography. It is keenly aware of its own status as a written text, and it takes the time to tell us lots of stories about how and where it was born as a written thing. Call it not an autobiography but an autograph, literally a ‘self-writing’.

Almost lost in the cinematic epic of the liberation of slaves, the ten plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea is the the story of the birth of universal literacy.[1] The Bible is the first and greatest document in the new medium of the phonetic alphabet. It hints that God revealed that new communications technology to Moses on Sinai so he could use it for liberation and revolution of the Hebrews. The Torah dramatizes what happens when a whole nation of slaves suddenly learn to read and write while their masters reserve writing for a priestly class. Slaves get a new, agile, simple-to-learn communications app, the phonetic alphabet, while their Egyptian oppressors are stuck using hieroglyphics, an ossified, cumbersome, inflexible, inefficient communications technology. What could go wrong?

Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh by staging a demo of the vast superiority of the Hebrew alphabet in his court. When Pharaoh doesn’t acknowledge its true power, they weaponize it into plagues. Pharaoh finally realizes he must let this newly threatening population go, armed as they are with their irresistible and disruptive new tech. Imagine if slaves in the old South got Twitter and smartphones while plantation owners had only ink quills, paper, and the Pony Express?

The newly-liberated Hebrews flee to the desert. They know at any moment Pharaoh can – and does – change his mind. They evade him to meet their awesome new God at Sinai. The powers of mighty abstraction that He commandeered to inflict the plagues is now turned to delivering a whole new template for humanity written in that alphabet.  Slaves are liberated, leave their homes of hundreds of years, and after seven weeks get a whole new personal, civic, cultural, cognitive, and cosmological operating system that they can now read and appreciate with their new communications app. It’s the most momentous, abrupt revolution in history.

As to be expected in a document that is the first in a new medium and laden with such heavy freight, the Torah’s autography gives multiple versions of  how and when it is born. These accounts are complex, apparently redundant, and even self-contradictory. They beg to be untangled.  An anthropologist would note that the Hebrews are in transition from an oral culture to a literate one, so they are getting critical instructions in two channels simultaneously, in speech and writing.

It’s a confusing communications scenario, to say the least. It raises profound questions about the authorship and provenance of the Torah, even by its own testimony. The most important one rattles the very foundations of Jewish belief: Does the Torah want us to understand that all its versions of itself are exactly the same? Or does something change as Moses transcribes God’s speech and then one version into another? Which is more important? Which is to be believed? Do God’s or Moses’ spoken words have more authority than their written ones?[2] Is the scroll we read in synagogues an exact copy of Moses’, unchanged from Sinai until today?[3]


When did writing with spaces first appear anywhere else?

If the spaces were indeed there in Moses’ 1313 BCE Torah, then it represents a miraculous revelation, a singularity, that deserves mention, for the archeological record shows no evidence of any document in the alphabet that uses spaces until at least five hundred years later. But the Torah, sages and rabbis are silent about it until Ramban, twenty-four centuries after Sinai.

God gives the Torah to Moses in 1313 BCE. This coincides closely with the archeological record of the birth of writing in the phonetic alphabet. Writing systems prior to the alphabet were all based on picture-writing like early Sumerian or Egyptian hieroglyphics (pictograms). Later writing systems through the second millenium are stylized descendants of them like the cuneiform Linear A (logograms or ideograms. There were also cruder syllabaries which anticipate the alphabet, but these also lack spaces).  For obvious reasons, they all used spaces: one picture or bunch of wedged cuts in clay or stone equalled one discrete word or idea, so they were of course separated by spaces. But when the alphabet is born, there is no trace of this technique carrying over.

The first known inscriptions in the earliest Hebrew (the technical terms for this earliest alphabet are proto-Sinaitic, paleo-Semitic or paleoHebrew) were written by Hebrew slaves working for Pharaoh in Sinai (at Serabit el-Khademin the 15th-14th c. BCE. There are no spaces between words on this artifact, although they seem crudely and even hastily inscribed.

Some artifacts from as soon as a century later than Sinai do show divisions between words in formal writing, but these are lines or dots, not spaces. (For a longer discussion see Joseph Naveh, “Word Division in West Semitic Writing” .[4]) The Amorites, who lived just north of ancient Israel in the 14th c BCE, the same time as Moses, wrote in a script called Ugaritic. Ugaritic was first a logographic cuneiform, wedge-shaped writing in clay that evolved from pictograms (Naveh, 206). Ugaritic was also a consonant-only alphabet, just like ancient Hebrew. While most archeologists agree the phonetic alphabet spread from the south, in Sinai, to the north of Canaan, the truth has been obscured by the usual wrangling over anything concerning Biblical archeology: Jewish vs. Arab partisanship over whose tradition came first, secular or Christian biases against the Torah’s exceptionalism in its time, atheist partisans who doubt that the Bible has any historical basis at all. They deprecate the Jewish tradition as a primitive compendium of legends and rules borrowed from neighboring societies, written in a primitive, deficient (implying barbaric) script.

Nonetheless, the concept of dividing words visually did exist at the time. The Ugaritic alphabet used a slashed line between words. This slash line two centuries later became shortened to a dot between words. Shards and fragments of Phoenician alphabetic inscriptions from the 10th c BCE show the use of three dots in a row instead. In any case, if the contemporary convention of a slash line was used in Moses’ transcription of the Torah, wouldn’t the Oral tradition have preserved such knowledge?

The Phoenicians, a commercial sea-faring nation who occupied what is now Lebanon, (the original “Palestinians”) also added other innovations to the paleo-Hebrew alphabet in the 11th c. BCE, especially new letters for vowels. They carried this “perfected” alphabet to the Greeks around the 8th c. BCE. It led to the birth of Western civilization. But even the Phoenicians didn’t use blanks spaces to separate words.

In short, none of the early inscriptions in any alphabet show blank spaces between words for at least 500 years after Sinai![5] If the Hebrews had used this marvelous idea of little spaces to separate words, wouldn’t the surrounding nations, who learned the alphabet from the Hebrews, also have picked up on the innovation? Of course, it is possible that the Torah was absolutely singular in using spaces as it is in so many other ways (theologically, ethically, socially). Possibly the Hebrews copied the idea of spacing between pictograms from the Egyptians. Yet the Jewish tradition is silent about this miracle of spaces. It doesn’t even boast that its secret was kept from the other nations.

The seven Torah transmission events

After telling how the Children of Israel escape from Egypt and go to Mount Sinai, Exodus weaves in and out of accounts of how and when the Torah was transmitted to the Israelites (Ex.19-34). Deuteronomy suggests one or two others and there may be an additional one in Numbers. Let’s read the plain sense of these accounts without the help of thousands of years of explication:

  1. GOD FIRST[6] PERFORMS[7] THE TORAH AS ONE AWESOME MULTIMEDIA BLAST: God blasts out the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in a dialogue with Moses atop Mount Sinai. “Moses would speak and God would respond with thunder [or “voice”].” (Ex. 19:19). Their nice little chat is accompanied by thick clouds, thunder, lightning, billows of smoke, the shuddering of the mountain itself, and an impossible, crescendoing shofar blast. This is also called a “voice” (Ex. 19:16). According to various commentaries, this was one long utterance.[8] The Talmud describes it as five distinct voices.[9]
  2. MOSES RETELLS THE ISRAELITES WHAT GOD JUST SAID: The Children of Israel are terrified by the awesome, incomprehensible sound. They beg Moshe to intercede: ” ‘You speak to us and we shall hear; let God not speak to us lest we die.’ ” So Moses recounts in his own human words God’s performance, first by summarizing and, I suppose comforting them: God has spoken “In order to elevate you…” (Ex. 20:16-17)

2a. MOSES RE-RE-TELLS GOD’S WORDS: The Torah digresses for four chapters to list some commands. When it returns to Moses, it again says he relays all the commands (or “words” or “things”) that God told him, “and the rules.” The people famously respond, Na’aseh v’nishma – “All that He says we shall do.” (Ex 24:3) This may be a continuation of the same telling above, or it may mark a new, separate event.

  1. THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT WRITTEN BY MOSES: Then the Torah tells us something that is often overlooked: Moses writes down his own, presumably perfect transcription, of what God told him on Mount Sinai.

“Moses wrote all the words of God… He took the Book of the Covenant (Sefer Ha’brit) and read it in earshot of the people.” (Ex. 24:4 and 24:7).

According to the plain sense, this must have been when Moses was back encamped at the foot of Sinai. Rashi tells us that this Book included all the Torah from Genesis through the Ten Commandments.[10] Ibn Ezra says Moses tells them all of God’s words but writes only the laws and judgements. Midrash has many more discussions about what this Book actually was.[11]

  1. GOD WRITES THE FIRST TWO TABLETS OF THE COVENANT: Nonetheless, in an apparently separate sequence of events, Moses goes up the mountain yet again, and stays forty days and nights (Ex. 24:18).

As if to keep us in suspense, the Torah narrative then goes on another digression: it recounts seven chapters of detailed technical instructions about how to build the Sanctuary for God and the Tabernacle for the stone Tablets that He is about to give Moses to bring to them, so that God “will have an abode among you.” (Ex 25:8-16).

Finally, we return to the narrative of Moses. He carries down Two Tablets of stone written by Etzbah HaShem, the Finger of God Himself: “The Tablets were God’s handiwork, and the script was the script of God, engraved on the Tablets.” (Ex. 32:16). Midrash explains that this was “black fire on white fire.”

When Moses descends, he finds the Israelites sunken in idolatry, worshiping the Golden Calf, and he furiously smashes these original works written in God’s own script by His Finger.

  1. GOD’S PERFORMS IT AGAIN: God and Moses sort out how the Israelites should be punished, and then Moses ascends Sinai again. God promises Moses, “I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets, which you shattered.” (Ex. 34:1). Moses carves out the new Tablets. God then sets the stage for His second performance of the Torah. He hides Moses in the cleft of a rock because He is going to pass by Moses in all His glory and no human can live through this experience. During this passage, God announces His thirteen holy attributes (mercy, etc), gives a transcendent definition of His Covenant with Israel, warns about mixing with other nations, and describes how the Israelites will be forever metaphysically distinguished from other people.
  2. MOSES WRITES THE SECOND TWO TABLETS OF THE COVENANT: God says to Moses, “Write these words for yourself because with these words I have entered into a covenant, and with Israel.” (Ex. 34:27).  Moses stays on the mountain another forty days and nights, fasts, and then, despite God’s former pledge to write them again, Moses instead transcribes the Ten Commandments on this second set of Tablets himself (Ex. 34:28). What endures on the second two Tablets is therefore Moses’ transcription of God’s voice and presence during this second Divine Performance. (As a footnote, Talmud says that Moses collects shards of the first Tablets he smashed and deposited them in the Ark alongside the new ones.)
  3. MOSES WRITES THE WHOLE TORAH SCROLL: Towards the very end of the Torah, in Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses first to “Write down this song (poem) and teach it to the Children of Israel (Deut 31:19). Then He tells Moses: “Take this Torah scroll and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant” (Deuteronomy 31:26). The Torah in two sentences marks the momentous transition of civilization from Oral (song) to Written Torah. It also hints that until this moment, maybe the Torah was not complete. The Talmud discusses this (Menachot 30a:7-8) and Ramban reinforces it (in his preface to his Torah Commentary).

Where is the version control?

One of the problems they make you study in literature grad school is version control. If there are various versions of Shakespeare, which were composed first? Who introduced the differences? If someone heard the play as it was performed once and changed the text to incorporate a staged version or an ad lib, should we give it any credence? If Shakespeare himself was responsible for more than one version, which one was closer to his true intention? Did he just change his mind, or try to improve a play, or change it to appeal to the audience or appease a patron? The computer age multiplies this problem to dizzying proportions. Version control issues plague corporations and authors alike. If a text flies around a company and everyone is editing it, they can diverge rapidly and drastically. How do you know which edits to include, which came first, whose version has authority, and worst of all, how to combine them? Finally in the 1990s, applications like MS Word introduce change trackers. In the 2010s, sharing texts in the cloud with clear time stamps and authority to make and track changes help reduce issues. God and Moses had no such app (though the cloud solution inspires interesting metaphors).

The Talmud notices that these seven editions introduce questions, if not outright contradictions.[12] The Sages debate precisely how and when Moses composed the Torah. Many favor different piecemeal theories: Moses wrote it verse by verse or scroll by scroll from memory of God’s oral revelation(s) on Sinai. By definition, these must be additional to what he wrote on the Two Tablets. They also debate whether the Torah was only partly written and left mostly oral, or vice versa. Spitzer in “Did Moses Write the Torah,” writes,

Interestingly, according to Rashi, Resh Lakish is not implying that the entire Torah was given all at once on Mount Sinai, but rather, as each passage was told to Moses, Moses wrote it down, and … at the end of the 40 years of travel through the desert, Moses compiled them and sewed them all together.[13]

Rabbi Levi specifies eight sections that were written at a different time entirely (upon the erection of the Tabernacles[14]). Finally, and most problematically, the last verses of the Torah describe what happens after Moses dies. If Moses wrote Torah, many sages reason, how did he compose these stories?[15]

Midrash Rabbah says that what was written on the first set of Tablets were only the Ten Commandments. But they implicitly included the entire revelation from God. Because of the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel distanced itself from the perfect collusion of Written and Oral understanding, Therefore, the Second Tablets included the whole Torah explicitly, including the elaborations to come in the millenia since Sinai. The Sanhedrin debates when and why, but not if, the Torah switches back and forth between Ivri (Hebrew) and Ashuri (Assyrian) scripts.[16]

The Talmud also debates at some length the right way to write a Torah scroll.[17] For instance, must all Torah scrolls always write its very last letter – lamed (a pun on lomed – learn) –  at the end of the last line of a full column? Or can it end in the middle of a line? Must the line come at the end of a column or in the middle of a column? The important takeaway – besides the ruling of which is the right way (in the middle) –  is the premise of the discussion in the first place: What’s the debate if the layout and spacing weren’t absolutely fixed and certain in the 1500 years since Sinai?

In short, if the Sages debate all these other issues of version control, it is not out of bounds to contemplate a Torah without spaces. Is it possible these divisions were made over time, after Sinai, as they were revealed and transcribed from the Oral Torah, as Rashi, the Talmud, and the Torah itself suggest?

Spaces in the Torah

There are more than 80,500 spaces in the Torah. Now finally, having clearing some room in the tradition to permit ourselves to do so, let’s gaze into their mystery. Who put them there? Was it Moses? In which of the seven or so iterations of the writing of the Torah did he do it?

Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about spaces and says, “Everything is susceptible to midrashic interpretation, including the physical appearance of the Torah text.”[18] He notes there are 669 spaces, including line breaks, between discrete literary units like lists, songs, narratives of the days of Creation in Genesis. Were these sophisticated visual cues in one or all of the originals Moses wrote?

There are also 52 longer spaces between almost all of the weekly chapters except for two, which run into each other. Did Moses also divide the Torah into parshiot, or were they introduced later?

The first record of the Torah being divided into weekly chapters for public readings came in the 6th or 5th century BCE in response to the fear of losing knowledge about the Torah. We know for sure that for about 900 years, from the destruction of the Second Temple to the 10th century CE, there was enough variety in these divisions and enough debate about where words themselves were to be divided, that a family of scholars, the Masoretes, were commissioned to reconcile the differences.[19]

On the other hand, as centuries of explication unfold the Torah’s hidden meanings, these chapters show beautiful thematic, even transcendent, integrity as separate entities. They challenge the easy assumption of human editing. The chapter entitled Chukat celebrates water. Korach, fire. Vayeitzi, fertility, Vayishlach meditates on the dangers of interbreeding. Its key is hidden in the image of a mule, which also stands out as a very unusual non sequiter. The Hebrew word beged rings like a bell through Vayeishev. It means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (cloaked motives). As the pun repeats, it explains why an otherwise inexplicable story of Judah and Tamar interrupts the story of Joseph. The word uncovers a transcendent connection between the two tales. It harks back to Jacob, the father of both Joseph and Judah and forward to Joseph’s integrity that helps him rise to prime minister of Egypt. These and thousands of other examples reveal a masterful and subtle Authorship at work. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and intertextuality that cannot be explained away by millenia of eager scholars scrutinizing the text. In short, the parshiyot show a literary coherence that is complex and layered beyond any human works like Shakespeare’s or James Joyce’s or Thomas Pynchon’s or the poetry of Wallace Stevens or Adrienne Rich. Those mortal works are dense with play among images, words, themes and sounds. The Torah even involves individual letters, and letters as numbers, creating a skein of arithmetic-semantic puns that speak to a level of inspiration even a skeptic would call divine.

Finally, there is the matter of human editing even in the signification of letters strung together as words. The Torah is written in Hebrew without vowels. Those and other diacritical marks were a made canonical 2000 years after Sinai, again after centuries of scholarship by the Masoretes. Without these vowels, the same set of letters signify many alternate words. The letter C-T in English can signify cat, cut, cot, acute, or act, depending on which vowels you suppy.  The Hebrew letters דבר  [D-B-R] can signify speak, word, thing, act, plague, matter, declaration, category, lead, join, seize, pasture, cause, reason, or wilderness. If attached or detached from other letters, it may also signify hundreds other words. For instance, if you add a M to D-B-R you get M-D-B-R, what the Torah calls the wilderness (midbar) the Hebrews wandered for forty years. If you add an H to the end you get D-B-R-H, Deborah, the prophetess.[20]

There are 79,847 words in the Torah scroll, so there must be about 79,846 short spaces between them. You can still find arguments about where scribes (soferim) should put some of them.[21] Did Moses supply them all definitively?

Now imagine the whole Torah as one long string of 304,805 letters without spaces. It would be infinitely more difficult to decipher than it already is. Scholars would labor over and have to agree not only on the various meanings of words, but the right words to even discuss as they inserted cuts in different places. Interpreters and mystics would find many other layers of meaning multiplied by the different options.

Ramban illustrated this difficulty, and the promise of new exegetical depths to plumb, in the 13th century: What if we read the Torah’s very first letters not as they are cut now

בראשית ברא אלהים (“In the beginning God created…”)

but instead

ברא שיתברא אלהים (“God created [what] is to be created…”).[22]

This reading suggests a wholly new cosmological flavor of creation, a new mystical horizon that accords with kabbalistic visions: God’s creation of the premise of creation was His first act, preceding all the rest. Or alternatively, it was circular, a cosmic tautology. Ramban entertains the question as he expands on the Talmud’s comment and kabbalistic visions in Zohar: the Heavenly Torah was written in black fire on white fire that included the ineffable Names of God. To make that true, the Heavenly Torah must have been written without spaces he notes.[23]

Meaning in the blanks: The compelling message of a Torah without spaces

So if we envision the original Torah as one long string of letters, it open for us a deeper mystical comprehension of the origin of the Written and Oral Torah as twins, yin and yang, black fire on white fire, halves of a single whole that is incubated in and captures God’s Mind, transmitted to Moses both in sound and writing. Maybe this Torah without spaces would have been a better, truer representation of God’s intention as Author, a better more profound translation of the human experience of His “voice,” and a fuller expression of the impenetrable mystique of God’s awesome performance atop Mount Sinai. It would complement the idea that the Torah began as one long song, suggested in Deuteronomy (31:19-21), amplify its poetry, and multiply its potential interpretations exponentially.

This is what the Ramban meant, says one commentator, when he wrote that God’s Torah was written with no spaces:

The Ramban [in Kitvei HaRamban II,142] then presents a second theory, which he explicitly labels as being mystical. He states that the “original” Torah, written with black fire on white fire, did not have any spaces between words. Our way of reading the Torah, parsed according to the tradition of the Sages handed down from Moshe, is just one way of many. For instance, read in another way, given to Moshe orally, the entire Torah consists of the names of God. This implies, though the Ramban does not state this explicitly, that there could be countless ways to read the Torah, each with more secret contents. We relate to the Torah, the repository of all possible wisdom, only through one subset, but in fact the Torah is far vaster and all encompassing than we can imagine.

– Rav Ezra Bick, “Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban”[24]

Moses’ singular task, then, was to use the brand-new medium of the phonetic alphabet to represent that original overwhelming sound of God’s voice announcing the Ten Commandments and everything else He communicated to him on Sinai. How could he best capture that singular increasing shofar-like blast, the rumblings, thunder, smoke, fire and lightning? What would have been the most accurate written representation of that tremendous mystery?

Visually, a long string of letters, unbroken by spaces, punctuation, or any other marks mimics, if only faintly and dimly, this awesome, incomprehensible event. Further, this image of an unbroken string of partly incomprehensible signs evokes the most profound visions of the Torah’s true nature expressed in the Jewish tradition. The Jerusalem Talmud poetically compares the First Tablets to a vast, rolling sea. (Shekalim 6:1) The Bavli Talmud tells us the two tablets correspond to Heaven and Earth; the stones were cubes of sapphire written by fire in letters that cut through the block; the engraving was equivalent to freedom (a play on the Hebrew). The Zohar tells us the Torah was inscribed as black fire on white fire, written two thousand years before Creation. God Himself read it to create the world. Therefore the Torah and the world are congruent, the same thing. The Talmud and Zohar both equate the Torah with God’s ineffable Name and His complete nature.

The vision of the long string of letters invokes these mystical depths and endless unfolding interpretation of their meanings. It tells us reading the Torah is a dance and tango and tussle with uncertainty, an incomplete, groping understanding that unfolds in every hour of study and yet across the millenia since Sinai. The Written Torah is a teasing invitation to play an impossible, evolving, aspirational game of telepathy as we continue to read God’s Ineffable Mind.

San Mateo, California

Chanukah 5779


Thanks to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad of Northern Peninsula (San Mateo, CA) for inspiring this blog by asking me for sources to support my earlier contention that the original Torah was written without spaces. Also thanks to him for identifying the author of the video cited below (Betzalel Basman, R Yale’s former classmate), and for tracking down and translating the Ramban discussion of the Zohar’s view of the written form of the Torah and sources related to Ramban’s statement that the Torah was written without spaces.

I am also grateful to Michael Morazadeh and Jonathan Choslovsky who challenged me to look at various documentary hypotheses about the Torah and keep me on my game, as well as to other members of my informal chavrusa, including but not limited to Ron and Elise Kardos, Yael and Eddy Berenfus, and Marcos Frid for suggestions and emendations.

Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha of Palo Alto from whom I learned the daf of Sanhedrin cited herein, as well as to the rest of my chavrusa there, including but not limited to Boris Feldman, Sam Tramiel, Izzy Rind, Josef Joffe, Dr. Jack Brandes, Eli Monarch, Dr. Michael Wulfsohn, Jotham Stein, and Sy Hoff.

Notwithstanding my gratitude, please know these cockamaimie opinions and various flights of fancy, as well as all errors in thought, fact and judgment, are my own.

I am indebted to a video posted on YouTube by Betzalel Basman, Chabad scholar, “The Torah scroll without spaces,”  Daas (March 5, 2014). He mentions many of the traditional sources for the idea that the Torah was written initially without spaces between words. In particular, he references Ramban (1194-1270), who interpreted kabbalistic teachings that the Torah was written without spaces as one long string of letters, at least in Heaven. His video references these sources:

  • The Zohar, Shemos 87:a
  • Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (aka Nachmanides or the RambaN), Hakdomato Chumash
  • Ramban,  Drash Beshvach HaTorah 14b
  • Talmud, Tosefot Chagiga 11b
  • Talmud, Tosefot Yom Tov (Sukka 4:5)
  • Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (aka Der Alter Rebbe), Lekutei Torah, 4:67a (1848)
  • Menachem Mendel Schneerson (aka the Tzemach Tzedek), Or HaTorah Shemos, 7, p. 2602 (1860?)



[1] See The Origin of the Alphabet, Part I, II, and III and IV.

[2] See “Hearing vs. Reading the Bible,” https://davidporush.com/2018/02/07/hearing-vs-reading-the-bible/

[3] For an excellent discussion of these competing theories about the Torah’s composition, see Jeffrey Spitzer, “Did Moses Write the Torah?” My Jewish Learning   https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-torah-of-moses/

[4] The complete citation to Joseph Naveh’s article is  Joseph Naveh, “Word Division in West Semitic Writing”, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4 (1973), pp. 206-208.

[5] While the Greeks and Romans classically wrote without spaces between words, a practice called Scriptio Continua, this went in and out of fashion over the centuries, probably in response to the use of more fluid handwriting and scripts. and may have been used in the centuries between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE. In any case, this would still be five hundred years later than Sinai.

[6] Kabbalah suggests the Torah existed before Creation itself and God reads in it to bring the universe into being with The Word. Call this the “Zeroth” Transmission Event.

[7] I’d like to introduce this verb as best capturing the multimedia events which God enacts on Sinai.

[8] (Mechilta, Gur Aryeh)

6 What is his reward if he causes the groom to rejoice? He is privileged to acquire the Torah, which was given with five voices, as it is stated: “And it was on the third day, when it was morning, there were sounds [kolot], and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of the shofar (Exodus 19:16). The plural kolot indicates at least two sounds, while “the voice of the shofar” is one more. The passage continues: “And when the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice” (Exodus 19:19). Along with the three previous voices, the second shofar and the voice with which God answered Moses amount to a total of five voices at the revelation at Sinai. SEFARIA https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.6b.30?lang=bi

[10] Rashi, Perush Rashi al HaTorah, Shemot

[11] For an excellent discussion of many of these competing theories about the Torah’s composition, see Jeffrey Spitzer, “Did Moses Write the Torah?” My Jewish Learning   https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-torah-of-moses/

[12] The extensive discussion is in Gittin 60a-b.

[13] Spitzer, “Did Moses Write the Torah?” https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-torah-of-moses/

[14] Gittin 60a-b): “Alternatively, this verse serves to allude to the sections of the Torah discussed in that statement of Rabbi Levi, as Rabbi Levi says: Eight sections were said on the day that the Tabernacle was erected, on the first of Nisan. They are: The section of the priests(Leviticus 21:1–22:26); the section of the Levites (Numbers 8:5–26); the section of the impure (Leviticus 13:1– 14:57); the section of the sending away of the impure (Numbers 5:1–4); the section beginning with the words “After the death” (Leviticus, chapter 16);

[15] See Spitzer, “Did Moses Write the Torah? Op. cit.

[16] In Sanhedrin 21a-22b, Mar Zutra (some say it was Mar Ukva) holds that the Torah was originally given in Hebrew (Ivri) script, but later the standard was changed to Assyrian (Ashuri) by Ezra. Rebbi says that it was given in Assyrian script, but after the Jews sinned (probably with the Golden Calf?) it was switched to Hebrew script. Later when they repented, it switched back. Rav Elazar HaModai says it was always in Assyrian script, and Hebrew script was likely just a common handwriting used by the people but not in Torah.

[17] Again in Menachot 30a: “The Gemara cites another opinion: The Rabbis say that one may finish writing a Torah scroll even in the middle of the line, but one may finish writing it at the end of the line as well. Rav Ashi says that one must finish writing the Torah scroll specifically in the middle of the line. And the halakha is that it must be ended specifically in the middle of the line.”

[18] The full citation to Rabbi Schorsch’s drash on the form of the Torah is well worth reading, and the data on spaces in the Torah comes from his essay. See Ismar Schorsch, “Meaning in the Torah’s Layout: VAYEHI,”  (DECEMBER 25, 1999 / 5760) http://www.jtsa.edu/meaning-in-the-torahs-layout accessed November 19, 2018

[19] In response to the diaspora after the destruction of the Second Temple, the sages decided the risk of introducing variations into the Torah through scribal error was too high. The family of ben Asher was commissioned to create a definitive text by adding vowels, diacritical marks, and cantillation notes. They also marked the definitive spaces between most parshiyot. For their work, they consulted the Oral Torah as revealed to the sages in order to make these editorial additions over generations. Their work wasn’t finished until about 1000 CE. (See this from the Biblical Archeology Review.)  

[20] See F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. (Houghton Mifflin, 1906) pp. 180-184.

  1. Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature (Hendrickson Publishers, 2003, 2nd Printing) orig NY: 1943) pp. 278-279.

See also Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, entries 1697-1700, most easily accessed here https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1697.htm

[21] For instance see this two discussions and the one preceding it at https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/78882/must-the-spacing-between-words-in-a-written-torah-be-consistent , which seem to have some authority:


“In response to R’ Azarya Basis, Rav Moshe mentions that it is not a disqualifying break (pun intended) from tradition to put some more space between p’sukim than between words, as a visual aid to Torah readers (as opposed to an implicit claim about the correct version of the written Torah, which would come through by adding some notation and not just some extra space). He seems to take for granted that if the spacing just fell out as uneven for less deliberate reasons that that should be fine. Vol. 3 Yore De’a 117:1 – WAF Jan 19 ’17 at 1:02


“Technically, there should be no more space between מאד and ויחי than there is between ויחי and יעקב. However, this makes things difficult for בעלי קריאה so sofrim seem to have come up with a solution that remained outside of the halacha books. Old Sifrei Torah used to leave two spaces (yud’s widths) at the end of each verse, as per רמ”א. We don’t do that anymore, except for the beginning of ויחי.” answered Jan 18 ’17 at 15:47


[22] [Drash Beshvach HaTorah 14b].

[23] The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) repeats Ramban’s statement that when it was in Heaven, the Torah didn’t have spaces, but adds that Moses wrote the words with the spaces as they are written today, except for the last eight verses which recount his death in the past tense.  This paradox bothers almost all commentators. It is discussed in the Talmud, as we mentioned above. Rashi’s solution is extraordinary: Moses wrote the verses but didn’t comprehend them, because they were strung together and spaced incomprehensibly. It fell to Joshua, he says, to put in spaces in their proper places. (See this section of Aderet Eliyahu at Sefaria.org).

[24] Rav Ezra Bick, “Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban” Shiur O2: Torah (The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash) https://etzion.org.il/en/torah




Hell for Jews? The Case of the Epikoros

How do Jews get to hell?

The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

 “They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]

In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.

Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus.  [1]

The three eternally fatal heresies

Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat [2]

#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]

#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine

#3: Be an “epikoros”

When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.

And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later,[3] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” –  in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.

So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

How to lose your portion in the world to come

Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment?  All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death.[3] In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.

But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.

Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[7] We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.

Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).  Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).

For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?

Breaking the circuit

The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure”[9] like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).

In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,”, and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property [11]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …

If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.

David Porush

San Mateo, CA 2018



[1] My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017].

[2]  Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[3] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )

[8] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[9] [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek  ]

[10] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/

See https://www.etymonline.com/word/epi- and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%90%CF%80%CE%AF#Ancient_Greek

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros

Torah as Song

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”  Deutoronomy 31:19-21

“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)

The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו  [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria


When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.

The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?

But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 5.25.13 PMTorah sings its own birth

The Torah is the first and greatest document written in the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. It is only natural that a new disruptive communications tech, exulting in its new-found powers of expression, would narrate its own birth story (“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you”), show off what it can do, and surround its revolution with transcendent awe.

So one of the recurring themes of the Torah is the power and centrality of writing in the birth story of the Jews. God writes the first tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai with His Own finger. Moses writes the second version, taking dictation from God. Every king is commanded to write two Torah scrolls, one for himself and one for his people. We each have to write the words and keep them as frontlets between our eyes and next to our hearts, and write them on the doorposts of our homes, perhaps imitating the first act of literacy by a general population, the smear of a secret sign in blood on the doors of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so the Angel of Death would read it and pass over.

And finally all Jews are commanded to “write down for yourselves this song [shirah] and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness” (Deut 31:19-21). This commandment comes as part of Moses’ farewell address and might be taken to refer to the Moses’ final song of victory and admonition he will soon sing. But it seems more likely, and becomes so much more powerful, if the Torah is here referring to itself as a whole. This is, after all, the very last of the Torah’s commandments. Doesn’t it make sense that the Torah’s author is ensuring that His words “shall not be forgotten”? Wouldn’t the Torah want itself to stay an eternal best seller and remain always number one on the hit parade by commanding everyone to write it themselves and then commit it to memory by singing it?

If we take this “song” to refer to the Torah itself, it is also encapsulates the entire monumental revolution that the Torah has staged: an illiterate, oral culture of Hebrew slaves becomes a nation forged by writing almost overnight, and that act of writing is the transcription of a song.

Exodus tells us God’s original pronouncement is one long utterance from atop the mountain, like one long shofar blast. But it’s too mind-boggling to be comprehended by the newly-liberated slaves, so they beg Moses to write it down for them.

A scholarly approach to the Torah’s media revolution

As I have noted elsewhere, even from a scholarly perspective, it is not farfetched at all that the Torah is the story of the moment the Children of Israel convert from an oral to literate culture and marks the birth of its own means of transmission, the first alphabet. Exodus is now a story we can relate to today in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moses is staging a media revolution! He brings a new, disruptive tech, the phonetic alphabet, that is so powerfully new that it seems divinely inspired.  He then he delivers it exclusively to a huge population of slaves. The alphabet is so simple to learn, needing only 22 signs to master, that a newly literate population is armed with a new power almost overnight. It poses a viral, plaguey, counter-cultural threat to Pharaoh’s hegemony which is founded on a hierarchical, hieroglyphic-based communications, one that has become ossified and enslaved to an obsolete, 1000-symbol writing system controlled by a narrow class of scribe-priests.

Moses stages a war of writing apps in Pharaoh’s court, a demo of the alphabet’s superiority, besting the hieroglyphic scribes, who throw up their hands to declare, “This must be the Finger of [a superior kind of] God!” He then leverages the threat of this dynamic weapon, this new communications technology, to liberate the slaves.  Pharaoh realizes, against his own will, that he cannot resist this upwelling tide, and for the first and just about the only time in history, an absolute ruler lets a huge slave population go, even at the risk of imperiling his empire. Imagine putting the iPhone in the hands of every slave in the Old South, but denying it to their masters. America might have been spared the Civil War.

The phonetic alphabet, like a smart phone, also grants to the Hebrews new powers of imagination and communication. They conjure a new kind of abstract God, completely the opposite of the many, image-dependent, literal idols of the cumbersome, pictographic Egyptian culture. It gives the Hebrews access to feel as if they can read the will of that God directly, as He expressed it Himself in the Torah, in their native tongue, written in the new medium.

That archeologists trace the most likely birth of the alphabet to slave scrawls in the South Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadem) during the 14th century BCE, about the same time of Moses in the Hebrew chronology of the world (1312 BCE) makes this story compelling and vital.

It is also not farfetched to think that the Torah was one long song of 23,000 verses that was meant to be committed to memory. One of the great breakthroughs in understanding Homer’s epic poetry is that it also marked the moment the Greeks became literate in the 8th century BCE. Harvard professor Milman Parry studied the balladeers of the illiterate cultures of Serbo-Croatia of the 1930s. Able to recite thousands of lines from memory, these singers told epic tales of heroes and wars. They mixed the distant past with current memory and family genealogies like those in the Torah. They reciting the shared cultural histories of the tribes and towns they entertained and connected it to their audience personally.

Parry showed that the structure of these epic songs – their repetition of musical themes, melodies, consistent line lengths and accented syllables, rhyming patterns, stock phrases, and larger thematic patterns — all worked together as mnemonics, enabling the stupendous feats of memory by these illiterate troubadours. His student, Albert Lord, then elaborated Parry’s insight in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales, showing that the structure of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, more than 15,600 and 12,000 lines long respectively, deployed the same interwoven devices of song. The conclusion was clear: the singer of the ancient Greek epics was oral and probably illiterate, and the epics were transcribed by someone in the newly-literate Hellenic tribes.

No wonder the last commandment of the Torah is that every Jew should recapitulate this awesome moment for themselves by writing a personal copy of the song, and then “put [it] in their mouths…for it shall not be forgotten.” Write the song down, then perform its music. In some ways, this is as fundamental to being a Jew as the acknowledgement that God is One and re-enacting the Passover story.

Torah as Art

Reading the Torah as a song also transforms our interpretive approach to it. We know from the beginning that the multiple interpretations of the text aren’t competing for which is truest, but that many or all can be true at once and supplement or complement or even gainsay and negate each other. Like a great poem in the college anthology, that only enhances the awe we have of it. The fruit multiplies and the tree is stronger for it. This isn’t just a manual, or code of laws, or history, or a cryptogram. It’s art.

This explains why the Oral tradition, which gives authority to our millenia-long rabbinic and interpretive traditions, is as important as the written Torah. Reading the Torah as a song embraces our millions of words of scribbled commentaries and much else that liberates us. Scholars read the text and parse every jot and word to discover its original singular intended meaning, playing a millennia-long game of telepathy with its Author. They are trying to read God’s mind. A noble endeavor that keeps Jewish law and tradition alive and ever-growing.

But now we are freed to also embrace a much more accessible and personal job description: the Torah, like a great poem, was also an aboriginal musical performance that we all should try to resurrect and perform.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes many of these points in The Torah as God’s Song,[1] building on Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s[2] insight into the Torah as poetic:

Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. … The whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.[3]

Rabbi Sack also quotes R. Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) from his Arukh ha-Shulchan.[1]

The rabbinic literature is full of arguments, about which the sages said: “These and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the reasons the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.

There is room now for the instruction manual version of the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch [4] and its description of how to follow the 613 mitzvot. There is also room for all the many volumes of the Talmud and all its commentaries and footnotes, not to mention the thousands of books, essays, blogs, sermons written since. There is room for this and also that, for Talmudic legislation and its stories – are they mere illustrative anecdotes? Parables? Metaphors? Flights of fancy? Casual comments and throwaway lines? All of the above?

And there is plenty of room – in fact there is a demand for – elucidations of hidden, syncretic, hieratic knowledge like Kabbalah.

Finally, the difference between the performance of a song and its written score is the latter’s silence. This gap opens a vast space not only for all interpretation but for silence, for biting our tongues and for lifting our fingers from the keyboard to withhold saying what we think lurks in the text. There is room for the silence of humility or discretion or doubt. There is room for the silence that comes from the inability to say anything at all in the face of this infinite task.

The Lost Music

Moses was the only human who could hear God’s first original awesome utterance of the Torah and still have the wit to retain and transcribe it. All the other Israelites, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, quaked with fear and begged Moses to transform God’s voice into the new medium, like vinyl to MP3, or illuminated codex to printed book. Today, so much of this song has been lost before we even begin to approach the text: the original cadence, rhyme, melody, voice, sound of the original singing. Even if the Torah trope (melody) and the vocalizations given us by the Masoretes are aboriginal from Sinai, we missed that long blast from high.

None of us can be Moses. We are all sentenced to yearn for, but never attain, perfect comprehension. That we can only capture snatches of the original tune demands respect for silence, even as we noisily and merrily try to recreate that sound from Sinai by singing the Torah (trope) and wordless Chassidic melodies (niggunim).

Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. … Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.[5]

Yet if we do treat the Torah as a song or poem, we can’t perform the original with fidelity. Sadly, musical notation wasn’t included in the revelation on Sinai along with the alphabet, and we weren’t there to hear it. In its stead, though, comes a pleasure of the text, as French critic Roland Barthes[6] phrased it, if we approach the Torah with our ear tuned to its music and poetry.

This pleasure transcends the many joys of scholarship: it opens something prayerful in the primitive Hebrew of the Scriptures that we lose when we erect rational understanding – clarity – as the goal of all interpretation. If the Torah is the Supreme Poem or Song, every syllable has a secret melody.


David Porush, San Mateo

Erev Yom Kippur 5779

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Torah as G-d’s Song,” https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2308716/jewish/The-Torah-as-G-ds-Song.htm

[2] The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), Preface to Ha’emek Davar, Parag 3

[3] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[4] The Set Table. Codification of the laws of the Torah – halacha – written by Joseph Caro in 1563

[5] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[6] Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Editions du Seuil, 1973.

Hearing vs Reading the Bible

The play between orality and literacy in Jethro

When did the Israelites become literate?

If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai.  It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “ the letters” that God shows him.  Moses quails at his assignment.

But don’t worry, God reassures him, “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign.”

The Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses:  a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.

But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to  the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention.  God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”

The Origin of the Weekend: The Slave’s Lesson

shabbat candles in the windIt‘s only Monday, and I‘m already looking forward to the weekend. But since I’ve got a ways to go, it got me to thinking, Where did the idea of the weekend come from? 

The fact is, it took a nation of former slaves, the Jews, to invent the idea around the 14th century BCE. Moses liberates them from bondage in Egypt. They flee as quickly as they can, knowing Pharaoh is likely to change his mind again. He does, and while pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, safely across into the Sinai desert, the wasteland east of Egypt. They come to Mount Sinai and camp at the bottom while Moses ascends to get further instructions from God. After 40 days, he brings down the Ten Commandments. One of the ten is this incredible innovation: set aside one day a week to rest and worship God and keep the day holy. Since then, the Shabbat, as Jews call it, has become one of the Jews’ extraordinary gifts to world civilization.

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It’s an abstract, positive commandment that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the don’ts (don’t commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) nor the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts since it commemorates the seven days of Creation. It is the foundation of how Jews measure time, and it originates with them.

This is not an example of cultural borrowing. The Sumerians, Akkadians, nor the Babylonians had nothing quite like it. Although there is fragmentary evidence they may have counted seven day periods from the new moon, their “week,” if it existed at all, was unstable. The Egyptians used a ten-day cycle. The Sabbath was created ab novo by Jews. If you cannot accept that it’s divinely inspired, then it’s admittedly – like those two other Jewish inventions at Sinai, the phonetic alphabet and monotheism – at very least an invention so extraordinary and transformative that it inspires the world.

Jews place such importance on the Sabbath that their calendar is fixed around the stability and sanctity of the seven-day week, and they go to great lengths to preserve it. A lunar cycle is actually 29.53 days. If you don’t add an extra day now and then to the lunar calendar (called intercalation) to catch up with the sun’s rhythms, it will soon be a mess as it gets out of sync with the annual seasons and the solar year. Instead of adding a day to the week, rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath, Jews loosen the concept of a month and subjugate it to the week, adding an extra day to certain months. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the sanctity of the week. 

Considering this: there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week. The Sabbath is a complete abstraction. Further, it arises in an agrarian world where work never ceases and the rising and setting sun or the waxing and waning moon are much more efficient and important markers of time. Why would any other culture adopt it? The Sabbath is so distinctively Jewish, and so intimately bound to the original revelation of God and the Bible that give the Jews their identity, that it is part of the traditional proof of the distinctiveness and validity of their religion.

Around 740 CE, Bulan, King of the Khazars – a vast nomadic Turkic nation controlling all of Eastern Europe – had a mystical revelation that he had to embrace the one true religion. He interviewed a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In the end, he chose Judaism and converted his entire people. Four centuries later, Rabbi Judah HaLevi recounted the Jew’s audience with the King in his book, The Kuzari, still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.

The Rabbi in his speech to the King makes several arguments defending Judaism, but one of the most persuasive, because it is indisputable, is the worldwide acceptance of the seven-day week culminating in a Sabbath.

Rabbi: Did you ever hear of a nation that does not accept the standard seven-day week, beginning on Sunday and ending on the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China agree with the inhabitants of the westernmost islands on this matter, without some initial contact, collaboration, and agreement?

King: It is improbable….unless we are all the descendants of Adam, Noah, or some other ancestor from whom we received the seven-day week.

  • R. Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari (1140)

Even if we regard the Sabbath as a merely cultural practice, devoid of any religious significance, it indisputably marks one of the most monumental social revolutions in history.

By forbidding work on one day every seven, the Sabbath distinguishes humans from beasts, who have a very different notion of time, if they have “notions” at all.

It distinguishes free people from slaves, who don’t control their time or their work. This must have been especially and immediately poignant to the Jews, slaves just a short time before they receive the Sabbath. And now thirty-five hundred years later, its transformations of work, play, time, freedom, and self-determination still resonate globally.

Jews light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown Friday. In my home, we turned down the lights and lit the candles to mark the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary. Even the kids, when they were babies, instinctively understood it. We called it, properly, a birthday party for the world. The Sabbath gave them a sense, even before they could talk, that there may just be something beyond all the material stuff in life, something inexpressible, filled with light. We turned off its competition in light-making, the tv. I now see my grandchildren, all under five years old, getting it. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time itself is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.

Gift of the Desert

In memory of my father, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman, Z”L

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe chapter of the Torah called Chukat [Numbers 19:1-22:1 – “Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confusion, contradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification which no one has convincingly explained: the red heifer. It is followed by calamity after calamity.  Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national tragedy for the Israelites but an inconceivably painful personal loss for Moses. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt. Yet, his grief isn’t even mentioned, maybe because the story has to move on to a lot more dismal news for Moses. In the same chapter, God delivers what is tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, the well which sustained Israel in their thirty-eight years of prior wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. When the people protest their thirst, Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the duress Moses was under in his grief not to mention after facing four decades of rebellion, God counts Moses’ anger as a failure: He commanded Moses merely to talk to the rock. Thus the death sentence. Seems like a petty infraction, right?

Wait, there’s more! The Israelites look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with opposition and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

Poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere to attack and kill them.

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland, especially after decades of wandering dispossessed, besieged by enemies from without, plagued by rebellion within, tortured by private despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible commandments like the Red Heifer. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of the desert.

The Chukat Countercurrent of Water

But if we look closely at Chukat, there is a counter-theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive streambed through the story, revealing a hidden depth and a surprising counter-narrative. The central scene is emblematic of this countercurrent: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. The rabbis of the Talmud are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of the preceding chapter Korach [Numbers 16:1-18:32]. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows the leader of a rebellion and 250 of his followers. The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach.

Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.

Chukat by contrast is like the rock from which water gushes forth. Water, mayim, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water. The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.

So which is it? Is Chukat a dispiriting narrative of defeat, death, and despair? Or is it a tale of thirst slaked and pilgrims rewarded? Is it meant to afflict us with the feeling of wandering desolated wasteland, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, ‘living water’ as the Torah calls it here?

The answer of course is both, but if we read the calculus of themes correctly, I believe the Torah tells us – even commands us with the force of a transcendent and mystifying statute – to trust in and celebrate the water of life. Or to put it more plainly, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life.

The 614th Commandment: “Sing, O Israel!”

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

Gather the people together [at the Well of Be’er], and I will give them waterThen Israel sang this song: 

Spring up, O well

sing ye unto it.

The princes dug the well,

the nobles of the people dug it,

by the direction of the Lawgiver,

with their rods.

And from the desert it is a gift.

Num 21:16-18

The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water would be the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection like the red heifer formula. The red heifer seems to be dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, but the line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling sacred boundaries and categories washed away by a torrent of paradox.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Enemies block the paths to quench our thirst and reach our goals. We try to get by, but nations wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of nowhere to torment us. Innocents and great people and loved ones die. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we, when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions  at a time?

But Chukat prescribes the cure to this nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water even in the most parched desert. It is the gift of the desert. Though we are left poised, in suspense, at the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of life, promise, and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe) Moses himself exemplifies this lesson. At the end of his turbulent life, 120 years old, you would think he would be reconciled, even ready, to succumb to death. If anyone has earned the right to rest from rocky conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant and begs God for more life.

L’mayim chaim!