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,”

[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

[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

[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

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

[13] Spitzer, “Did Moses Write the Torah?”

[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) 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

[21] For instance see this two discussions and the one preceding it at , 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

[24] Rav Ezra Bick, “Introduction to the Thought of the Ramban” Shiur O2: Torah (The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash)




Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time

“Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them; but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee.” – Jeremiah 7:27
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:9-10

I was the first person on Earth to predict the Trump presidency and explain why he was going to win in my blogs of March, June and July of 2016. My friends are still in awe at my 127.3% accuracy prophesying current events, up 12.6% in the last fiscal quarter. In fact, just this morning (October 8, 2018 at 9.07 am), I collected the downpayment on my Tesla ($20.25) from the bets my classmates made with me last Wednesday (Oct 3 at 10.34 am). Even though Senators Flake, Collins and Murkowski looked like they were going to vote against his nomination to the Supreme Court and the FBI was in the middle of its investigation, I still confidently assured them Judge Kavanaugh absolutely would be confirmed. I could have gotten really good odds at the time, but that would have been taking candy from a baby and anyway, I’m forbidden to benefit from my gift. No Tesla. It’s part of the deal I made with the same Divine force that granted me my power.

In a moment, I’m going to tell you what else is going to happen. In fact, I’m going to lay out a complete prophecy describing the future of the Trump imperial reign and its impact on centuries to come. But first let me tell you how I knew the outcome of the Kavanaugh Kerfluffle. Prophets and magicians shouldn’t reveal their secret methods, but I don’t mind because you’re not going to believe me anyway. At best, you’re going to dismiss me as a formerly smart person who went whacko, or a religious nutball, or a paranoiac, or as my sore loser buddies did this morning, just someone who keeps getting lucky.

How to be a prophet in your spare time

Here’s how to be a prophet, too: Ignore the empirical, factual, rational analysis that afflicts educated, civilized, modern people. Instead, commune with the forces that really move history as revealed in the kabbalah. It’s that simple, folks. You can do it at home. But be warned: having prophetic vision is painful. You will lose friends and family. I always thought the curse on prophets was they were nuts. But it’s really their lack of market share. Cassandra knew calamity would happen, but no one was listening. It was a real Greek tragedy.  No one listened to Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the Jews lost their kingdom for their heedlessness. No wonder Jonah fled.

Far from being insane, the prophet is the only one who isn’t crazy. Everyone else is driven mad by current events. Like today’s Trumpomania. The din of public apoplexy is deafening. Everyone is too outraged by the crimes of the other team and crazed with indignation by the insults to their team to hear the horse hooves approaching. Only today, I heard the following allegations on the news:

The Democrats Are Waging War on Men With Dirty Tricks!

The Republicans Rigged the System to Put a Rapist on the Supreme Court!

Feinstein Made It Up!

Trump Called the Victim of Sexual Abuse a Liar!

But this very fog and frenzy of distrust and division is what helps enable the prophesy to come true by drowning it out. The frothing surf and crashing waves of today’s headlines whisper nothing about the ocean’s deep currents miles off shore. Trust me, folks. A tsunami is coming.

Kavanaugh Was Confirmed Because of the Messiah

The easiest way to do this is to work backwards, step by step.  Start with the end of the story, my writing teacher A.R. “Pete” Gurney told me in college.

Here’s the end of the story:

  1. The Messiah is coming. He’ll be here in exactly 221 years, in 2339 as predicted in Kabbalistic mysticism.[1] It will be a Tuesday. Or, it could be much much sooner, if we deserve it. Like in 2025.

See, I just saved many of you a lot of time, because you can get off the bus right here and call the paddy wagon. But for the rest of you, treat it as the a priori of a logical proof (after all, most people don’t mention their a prioris like, The universe can be explained by logic, or More money is better. They just assume you share it). So you can just ignore it and follow my steps backwards until we reach current events. Stick with me here:

2. When he comes, the Jews will be completely free of subjugation to other kingdoms or nations, or even the threats of subjugation, oppression, and war. Other than that, there won’t be an immediate change in reality, the laws of nature are not going to be disturbed, people will still be going about their normal business. No Rapture, no resurrection of the dead, no paradise on Earth.[2] In other words, it’s going to be a political, not cosmic, bifurcation in reality.

3. That means all the exiles will be gathered with the rest of the Jews in Israel.

4. In order for that to happen, Israel has to be a safe and secure homeland for the Jews.

5. For it to become a suitable homeland, the current geopolitical order of reality will have to be disrupted so completely that two things that were formerly unimaginable two years ago but are now clearly possible will have to happen simultaneously:

  • Somehow, Israel will become the attractive, safe and secure option for all Jews. Right now it is the most reviled nation on earth, beleaguered by a billion neighbors sworn to destroy it. Even some Israelis flee it. Many Jews around the world believe what they are told by the media and see it as a scary, politically-compromised war zone.
  • Somehow, America will become an uncongenial, inhospitable, hostile, violent, impossible place for Jews. Currently the U.S., land of religious freedom and almost limitless opportunity, is the most attractive and cushy homeland for Jews. Almost as many Jews live here as in Israel – about six million – out of a worldwide total of 14.5 million.  Yet somehow, Israel will have to become the ONLY option for them all.

If you heed my prophesy, you will try to be on the first, not the last, train out.

But enough Jewish mysticism. Let’s get down to current events.

TRUMP 2024

6.  Someone is going to have to be powerful and pathological and corrupt and divisive enough to make #5 happen. Trump fills the bill. He has successfully accomplished two previously unthinkable things, both of which are at complete political and logical odds with each other: In just two years, he has made Israel more congenial and the U.S. less congenial for Jews. [3]

  • He has effectively rendered Israel’s worst enemies – the Iranians, the Palestinians, and the UN – toothless. He moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem as promised in prophecy.
  • He has unleashed forces of chaos, hatred, and bigotry in the U.S.. I’m talking about not only the old racial and ethnic hatreds, and the Left vs. Right, Dems vs. Reps, rich vs. poor, but he’s summoned from the depth of his own sexual pathology and appetite the most fundamental human division: he’s unleashed a war between the sexes. He’s gotten men and women hating, vigorously and loudly, on each other. The American press is filled with their acrimony. Just this morning, I heard crazy vitriol from otherwise placid, loving, educated, sophisticated people, folks who are dear to me: A woman yelled that Trump, Kavanaugh and the Republican Party showed that all men were intrinsically rapists. A man yelled that the Democratic Party’s fake indictment of Kavanaugh and Christine Ford’s psycho testimony provoked by Dianne Feinstein prove that all women are conspiring to screw and castrate[4] all men in public life, making it impossible to be a real man. [Their words, not mine.]

7. Despite what my sophisticated friends in the Republican bubble hear and think, these forces will eventually, as they have in every other nation everywhere in the world throughout history, unleash animus on the Jews. As I said in my blog of Sept, 2016, “Don’t think Trump’s Jewish grandchildren will protect you.” One of the clearest proofs that my people are caught up in a prophesy they can’t see is that otherwise sensible Jews who know history quite well and who would otherwise be quick to say, “It can happen here, too” suddenly seem hypnotized by current events and don’t believe it is going to happen here.

History isn’t something that happens elsewhere and elsewhen. We all are in history together, right now, brothers and sisters.

8. Despite what my sophisticated friends in the liberal bubble hear and believe, Trump is not going to be removed from office. Mueller may or may not indict him, and his former allies may reveal tax fraud and worse. It won’t be enough. Even if he is impeached by a Democratic-controlled Senate and Congress, IT WILL TAKE 67 SENATORS TO REMOVE HIM FROM OFFICE. So get real, folks. Hope is not a strategy.

9. He will win the 2020 election. (That’s an easy one.) The Democratic party will jerk to the left and tear itself apart in a frenzy to prove who is the more righteously radical.

10. But Trump’s dominion will have to persist long enough to pave the way for the Messiah by fulfilling Prophesies 6 & 7 above. To do this, he’s going to have to hold the reins of geopolitical power and disruption for more than the six more years allowed him by the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment. I know he’s accomplished so much in such short a time and perhaps we shouldn’t sell him short, but even he needs longer. Trump will become an Emperor or President for Life or Trumposaurus Rex or whatever he declares himself.

So here is a bonus prophesy, a freebie on me: TRUMP 2024+. Trump will not only win the 2020 election easily (forget about the silliness you hear from CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They’re gonna get the next election as wrong as they got the last one).

11A. To declare himself Trumposaurus for Life without unleashing a violent civil war huge enough to threaten his power, he’s going to have to make it seem that he is being elevated to Emperor in as normally a democratic a process as possible. Two-thirds of the House and Senate will vote to repeal the 22nd Amendment or more likely, two-thirds of state legislatures. They only need 51% in 34 states.  Have you looked at a heat map of the U.S. state legislatures lately?  Imagine what it might look like after they’re whipped up by a war. There may be blood on the streets in the big cities, but not too much. Remember, Hitler was democratically elected. Democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies. It is the natural order of governments, as Plato explained 2400 years ago in the The Republic.[5]


11B. If you don’t like #11A, try this alternative: In order to declare himself Trump for Life, he will foment a huge crisis, even by Trumpian standards, something like a war with China or Iran or Canada or Cuba. Enough Americans will line up behind him with patriotic gore, as they always do, once they see our space lasers hitting a Chinese autocrat’s Mercedes, or penetrate to the nuclear facility deep under the mountain in Qom, or sizzle an ice fisherman’s catch right off the hook on a frozen lake in Saskatchewan or light a Havana cigar from the moon. Then maybe he can declare some twist on the Emergency War Powers Acts of 2001, which will need to be ratified by the Supreme Court.

13. In any case, if he’s impeached for high crimes or pussy grabbing or kleptocracy sometime between now and 2024, to ensure that he won’t be automatically removed from office for being a convicted felon, he needs a majority on the Supreme Court who will rule that a sitting President can’t be indicted. And it will also be good to have that majority in reserve for 2024 in case a Constitutional battle arises.

14. Thus, Kavanaugh was inevitable. If the Messiah is going to come on time, Kavanaugh had to be confirmed and take his seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States.

When you’re a prophet, this is easy to see.

As I said before, the Divine deal doesn’t allow me to reap any reward other than being so damn right all the time. So I’m donating my $20.05 to charity. But I advise you to keep your passport active and buy property in the Promised Land while it’s cheap.

– David Porush, Berlin, 1929

[1] The year 6000 according to the Jewish Calendar.

[2] Sanhedrin 98 and Maimonides commentary on Sanhedrin

[3] This is very painful to me. Half my Jewish friends are convinced Trump is good for the Jews. The other half hate him for being an enemy of human rights and know, therefore, he will be bad for the Jews. They’re both wrong because they each blame the other team for being deplorable ideologues and liars, and they can’t hold these two contrary thoughts in their heads at the same time.

[4] Never mind the oxymoron.  That would be hard to do, at least in the order he listed.

[5] My fellow prophet Plato also gives a description of the tyrant so au courant that it could have been ripped from today’s Washington Post:

“And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not ‘larding the plain’ with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. … At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets; –he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one! …

“But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader. … And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war…

“[T]he tyrant will [also] maintain that fair and numerous and various and ever-changing army of his. If there are sacred treasures in the city, he will confiscate and spend them; … And when these fail? … then he and his boon companions, whether male or female, will be maintained out of his father’s [a metaphor for the national] estate.“        – Plato, The Republic (386 BCE)


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,

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. ( )

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

[9] [  ]

[10] See

See and

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon

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,”

[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.

The Quantum Theology of Cheese

Abrtaham + 3 Angels eeckhout 1656
Abraham and the Three Angels”  Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1656)
“[Abraham] then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
– Genesis 18:8

Consider the miracle and mystery of cheese. You take milk. You combine it with the sloughed-off lining of the stomach of a calf called rennet. Store it away and in a few days or weeks and voila! We got cheese!

Neolithic tribes worshiped cheese. Since then, cheese has been intimately entwined with civilization. But for Jews, cheese poses a special problem. The Torah forbids Jews to cook the meat of the kid with the milk of the mother, possibly because of its intrinsic cruelty. In the mystical tradition, milk represents mother’s nurturing and it comes from sheep and cows and goats, animals we domesticate and nurture. Meat requires spilling blood. It is predatory and reminds us of our bestial natures. Milk, then, needs to be protected from meat. They should never touch, and when they have to interact, Jews erect barriers in time and space to separate them. Over the centuries, this has evolved into an elaborate system of kosher rules separating all meat foods from anything that has touched milk. So while serving our body’s need for sustenance by eating milk and meat, kosher laws remind us of the sources of our food. We discipline our cognizance and actions in eating them at separate times off of separate dishes and cooking them in separate pots. Kosher eating is mindful eating.

With all this invested in the barrier between the two realms, then how is it possible that cheese, made with lining from a cow’s stomach, somehow gets an exemption?  The sages of the Talmud give us what seems like a technical reason, but as Aeschylus said, “Wrong should not get by on a technicality.” If we look closely though, we’ll see that the technicality anticipates discoveries only recently made by science. The details of their apparent foreknowledge suggests that the Torah is a channel for knowing things that are only slowly revealed over the millenia by science. To put it more simply, though as a rational modern I resist this conclusion, it seems science is catching up to wisdom revealed thousands of years ago to the Jews. To see that this is more than just a coincidence and the Talmud’s technicalities reveal a true understanding of the science of cheese, we’ll have to dip into we’ve learned more recently about the science behind the magic of cheese. Continue reading “The Quantum Theology of Cheese”

Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math

’כהיומ הזה’ – “…even like today” – Chanukah prayer
This is dedicated to my son, Avraham Benyamin (Ben) Porush, whose birthday is the first day of Chanukah and bris the last.

Why does the Talmud warn against teaching Greek to Jewish children?

Pythagoras traveled through the Middle East for twelve years, imbibing Egyptian & Jewish philosophy.

The last pages of the Talmud volume Sotah portrays the decline of Jewish spirit after the destruction of the Temple. It marches through a long, dispiriting list of the horrible things that happen as Jews have to abandon customs that could only be kept alive when there was a spiritual center in Jerusalem and they lived as a nation inside their own borders.

In the middle of this lamentation (called Yeridas HaDoros – “decline of the generations”), the Talmud warns somewhat mysteriously that fathers shouldn’t teach Greek to their sons.What did the Sages have in mind? They can’t have meant Greek language, because the Rabbis were conversant with Greek and spoke it in the streets of Jerusalem. By the first century CE, and almost certainly earlier, it had displaced Hebrew as the lingua franca. And in various places in the Talmud, Greek is praised as the only language into which the Torah can be elegantly translated. Indeed, Sotah itself recounts a lament of Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE) that shows how much the rabbis thought of Greek:

Continue reading “Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math”

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 Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka

“Writing is a form of prayer.” – Kafka in his diaries.

The writing machine in fiction is almost always a metaphor used by authors from Swift through John Barth, Italo Calvino, and William Gibson to explain and display their own techniques, an energized funhouse of self-reflection. I’ve looked at many of these over the decades, since they play on the slippery boundary between reason (mechanics) and irrationality (art) in order to question deep assumptions about how their authors, and their cultures, find and express “truth” in fiction. In this essay, I look at two fictional texts about machines that write directly onto the human body. Both mechanisms work to give their subjects knowledge of realms beyond the ken of sheer mechanics. The first is the Sentencing Machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1914), an excruciating device for torturing and executing condemned prisoners by incising tattoos on their bodies . The second is Thomas Pynchon’s much more benign “Puncutron Machine” in Vineland (1990), an electroshock device for adjusting a subject’s spiritual balance, his karmaand send him “purring into transcendence.”  Their comparison shows these two authors’ interest in metaphysics, a territory of twentieth century literature that is curiously under-explored in most criticism. The route to that territory goes from the physical body, through texts written by machines on bodies, to transcendence. Continue reading ““The Hacker We Call God”: Transcendent Writing Machines in Pynchon and Kafka”

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.

Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   

Chasing virtual reality, what we used to call cyberspace, has spawned a multi-trillion dollar worldwide industry, which makes it a pretty sexy phrase, right? But do we really know what we mean when we use it? In normal conversation today, when we say something is virtually true we’re saying something like,

“It’s just about almost perfectly completely and for all intents and purposes as effectively true as truth … but not essentially, really true.” 

So when we call it virtual reality, this technology meant to fool you into thinking you’re experiencing something you’re not, we’re saying it is “almost really” real, or virtually real, don’t we? It’s a beautiful oxymoron, and more or less accurate, depending on how cool your hookup gear and the simulations inside are. 

Since we’ve made a trillion-dollar bet on it, wouldn’t it be valuable to know what we mean when we use it? What deep human urge does it promise to fulfill? What itch is it scratching? Perhaps, armed with that deeper understanding, we may even be able to predict where it’s going. I think we can do that by looking at the curious history of the word virtual Continue reading “Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness   “