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

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 10.36.45 AM

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)




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”

What to Pray for When You’re Pregnant


Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 3.15.53 PM

Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, when you’re pregnant (I’ve been told) it’s irresistible to say a prayer for the wellbeing of the child inside you. So first, I assume you’re here because you or someone you know is pregnant.  Good luck and bless you.

As in many other aspects of life, the Jews have ancient wisdom for what to pray for when you’re pregnant.  In fact, the Talmud prescribes different prayers for different stages in the pregnancy. Incredibly, these prayers correspond to biological facts that science wouldn’t know about for fifteen hundred years.

Here’s the schedule:

Within the first three days a man should pray that the seed should not putrefy; from the third to the fortieth day he should pray that the child should be a male; from the fortieth day to three months he should pray that it should not be a sandal [deformed]; from three months to six months he should pray that it should not be still-born; from six months to nine months he should pray for a safe delivery. But does such a prayer avail? (Berachot 60a)

Collectively, the rabbis of the Talmud seemed quite knowledgeable about the facts of sciences like biology, chemistry, astronomy, botany, and physics and they show remarkable acuity about these matters throughout their discussions. The Greeks and Romans performed regular autopsies on fetuses to advance their scientific knowledge, and the rabbis would be conversant with their discoveries. But it is farfetched to speculate that they knew subtleties about gestation that weren’t established by science for more than a thousand years later. Yet, the prayers they prescribe show such precision in timing that it seems they must have known somehow.

How did they know? How did they know more than the Greeks and Romans around them and anticipate knowledge that wouldn’t be discovered for more than a thousand years?  After all, it isn’t as if they conducted their own experiments.

Before we try to solve this mystery, let’s take a look at the prayers they prescribed for different phases in pregnancy.

Schedule of Pregnancy Prayers

Biological event Time After Insemination Prayer
Viability of sperm 0-3 days “….please don’t let my seed go bad or spoil”
Sex of the embryo 3 to 40 days “…please make a male baby.”
Fish-like undeveloped fetus 40-120 days “…please don’t let the fetus become a sandal
Miscarriage 3-6 months “…please don’t let the fetus become nonviable”
Successful birth 6 months til birth “….please show mercy by letting the baby emerge”

Here is how their schedule corresponds to biological fact.

  1. Conception

The Talmud in (Berachot 28b) begins its script for prayers during pregnancy for right after the moment of conception.

Of course, this begs the question of how a woman or her husband would even know the day of conception. There were obviously no pregnancy tests then like there are today. (These test for a specific hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which is only released when a fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the mother’s uterus; in other words, when pregnancy begins and weren’t developed until a couple decades ago.) How did the Talmud  become scientifically knowledgeable (or informed by a mystical tradition) about biological facts that weren’t discovered by modern science until many centuries later? Maybe this prayer was to be said after every act of intercourse, just in case.  Not a bad idea, really.

2. First 3 days: “Please don’t let my seed go bad or spoil”

Praying during the first three days after conception has the same mystery as above. Short of intuition (which is certainly possible) or a modern pregnancy test, most women don’t know they are pregnant until they miss their first period, which on average is many days after the actual moment.

Before conception, a woman’s body produces a cervical mucous that creates a protective environment for sperm. If a sperm swims beyond the cervix into the uterus and into the fallopian tubes, they live about three days. If it succeeds, it penetrates the mucosal defense and attaches to the wall of the uterus.

So praying to make the sperm viable in the first three days after intercourse shows inexplicable insight into the phenomenon, given that the sages would have had no way to confirm that sperm remains viable for that long in the uterus, nor that a female egg can be fertilized by it.

3. From 3 to 40 days after conception: “Please make a male baby.”

During the first few weeks after fertilization, the embryo is in a so-called “indifferent phase” of its gender determination. At this point, an embryo has both male (Wolffian ducts) and female (Mullerian duct) organs, regardless of whether it is ultimately going to be a boy or a girl. In other words, the embryo is literally neither male nor female but both, potentially. At around the sixth week  after conception, a tiny (< 1 millimeter) genital bump appears called the “genital tube.” Until the ninth week, the reproductive apparatus – internal tubes, organs, etc. – is identical in all babies in the womb whether they will eventually become male or female.

That is why even though the intrinsic XY (male) vs XX (female) genetic identity of the embryo is determined at fertilization, when something goes wrong with morphology – the expression of the genes into physical characteristics – an androgyne may eventually be born.

This precision about the exact point at which gender is “expressed” and its genetic mechanism has only been established in the last century.  In other words, even if the rabbis studied or received general information from the Greeks about dissected fetuses, they would not have had this level of detail, for it would have been impossible to detect these subtle anatomical distinctions without a microscope.

SO it’s remarkable that the rabbis prescribe a prayer for the sex of the baby in this specific period. If you get over the obvious sexism of the prayer (common in all cultures even through the 20th century, it begs an extraordinary question: “How did the rabbis know the determination of gender – male or female – could even be answered one way or another, let alone in this specific time period?” Was it wishful thinking? If so, why would the prayer stop being relevant after forty days? Did the rabbis know through observation of dissected fetuses from the Romans, or were they in touch with a stream of knowledge that lay beyond empirical observation of the material world?

Accumulated folk wisdom over many generations about spontaneously aborted fetuses in this period of pregnancy might have informed later prayers.  But in this phase, it is almost inconceivable that there was any specific biological knowledge about gender morphology. After all, the embryo is smaller than a pea at this point and the presence of both male and female anatomical potentials are minute, almost microscopic, features.

As to the sexism, there were few cultures in which this favoritism for male babies wasn’t dominant. In many cultures, it still prevails, so the condemnation is anachronistic, a little like condemning Shakespeare because he wasn’t Marxist.

Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been natural to assume that gender is determined at conception and not at some later time? Even posing the question of when the sex of the fetus is determined seems like it should have been far beyond the ken of science in the first centuries, let alone pinpointing with pretty good exactitude when the phenomenon occurs.

In short, the prayer for the gender of the child in the Talmud transcends rational explanation.

4. Forty days to 3 months: “Please don’t let the fetus become a sandal!”

This prayer is designed to prevent gross physiological abnormalities in the development of the baby. The study of the progress and causes of congenital anomalies, a science that arose in the last two centuries, is called “teratology.”

About 30 days into fetal development, the embryo develops pharangyeal arches that look like gills. It’s hard to say the fetus looks like a human being until about the sixteenth week (about 110 days) or later. About four months into development, when the fetus is about five inches long, cartilage hardens into bone. Until then, any aborted fetus would look something more like a small fish.

The Aramaic word ‘sandal‘ in the Talmud refers to a flat ocean fish that literally looked like a sandal, perhaps a flounder (which is so flat it has both eyes on the side of its body facing up).

However, the Talmud here seems to have knowledge of a principle that wasn’t formulated until the 19th century. Ernst Haeckel summarized a popular scientific theory that at different stages of its development, a baby in the womb superficially “recapitulates” – that is, re-enacts – the drama of evolution, from unicellular organisms through tadpoles and fish, to more complex species, to mammals and primates, and finally humans. His phrase for it was “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny“: the growth of a single organism in utero mimics the procession of the phyla of species up the evolutionary chain.

Of all the prayers, this is the one that more likely is explained by accumulated observation over generations. But nonetheless, the Talmud shows uncanny, perhaps divinely inspired, knowledge of fetal morphology which Western science doesn’t know until a millenium and a half later.

5. From 3 to 6 months: “Please don’t let the fetus become nonviable” (don’t have a miscarriage)

This is an obvious anxiety that the mother or father would pray to avoid. Yet most miscarriages occur before the 8-12th week of pregnancy; that is, before three months. Why do the sages prescribe it for after the most dangerous period is over?

One answer may be that by the beginning of the second trimester, at the beginning of the three-month period, the mother is keenly aware of the vital being growing inside her. Furthermore, even though statistically most miscarriages occur in this earlier period, the jeopardy to the mother’s health through miscarriage now starts to increase dramatically! In Jewish law, until the baby emerges, the mother’s health takes precedence over concerns about the growing life inside her.

6. Six months until end of term: “Please show mercy by letting the baby emerge!”

By now, everyone is getting eager for the pregnancy to come to term. You can’t help but smile at this one. The prayer has a minor flavor of saying, “Please let’s get it over with!” But it is also true that chances of the viability of the fetus greatly increase. These days, the viability of a six-month old fetus reaches 50% exactly at the 23.5th week, or in the six month!

A River of Secret Knowledge

So what was the rabbis’ source if not inherited Roman and Greek scientific wisdom as well as their own observations?

Jewish tradition says that there is a secret river of knowledge that flows from the time Moses was on Sinai three thousand five hundred years ago and got the two tablets inscribed by the Finger of God. There was also an orally communicated compendium of secret wisdom, the Torah she ba’alpeh, passed down from Moses through word of mouth from generation to generation. This Oral Law and the written Hebrew of the Torah contains knowledge that is still unfolding and still being confirmed by science. According to this mystical belief, since God created the universe and both the written and oral Torahs are His cookbook for Creation, all knowledge is contained within it.  The rabbis’ extensive foreknowledge of later science seems to confirm this belief that they had access to secret wisdom than mere coincidence.

Finally, we need to acknowledge how fitting it is for us to pray for the success of pregnancy. Science has not succeeded in creating any new life from non-living matter. This is quite surprising, given both the advanced state of our knowledge of biology and the number of times it has boasted we are close to creating life. Yet, the Frankenstein fantasy of forming new life from inert materials – both a wish and a nightmare which has haunted us since at least 1818  – hasn’t materialized, despite advances in genetics and biochemistry.

I personally happen to believe it never will. Of course this is an assertion of blind faith, and one day I may be proven wrong. But if you believe in a spiritual dimension to the universe, and more specifically in the God that Jews imagine, then creating life is a talent reserved for Him, and creating a new human being can only be done as a partnership between humans and God. In the interim, as we’re suspended between the scientific hope to create life and the mystical faith that only God can do it, praying for the success of bringing a new soul into the world is a pretty fine way for the mother-to-be and her mate to spend the nine months wait.


Elijah the Thin-Skinned

The Talmud volume of Sanhedrin ends with an amazing contrast between the generosity of even the most elevated mortal – Elijah – and God’s. And it pivots on the hidden meaning of a most curious word.

Elijah is caricatured by Rabbi Jose as being a קפדן – kapdan– a defensive or easily offended character. Some translate it as “hot-tempered.’

When he hears this insult, Elijah gets deeply miffed, ironically confirming libel against him. Know anyone like that? When he gets accused of being defensive he gets defensive?

Why would the Talmud devote itself to dragging down the reputation of a prophet, and in such a dramatic way to end the tractate?
Continue reading “Elijah the Thin-Skinned”