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)




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.

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”

When the brain was simple

Mind to mind metaphysics in alphabet and cyberspace

The brain is a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. In my view, it is already “meta-physical.”

Nature was finished when it invented the human brain

What is the brain? At its very simplest it is an entity that takes impressions from out there in the form of energy striking different nerve endings in the organs of the body (eyes, skin, ears, nose, mouth/tongue), converts the energy into information, shuttles the information to a central processor, a black box homuncular body without organs sitting in an ecology of incomprehensibly frothing and turbulent hormones, and somehow translates them into wholly different things in here – sensations, thoughts, flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarming, buzzing. The brain is intrinsically a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. It is already “meta-physical.”

Before we were homo sapiens and the brain was simple, there was a neat Kantian fit between animal and environment: The rules of the world out there, its physics, were not challenged by the rules of the world in here; there was a nice match. But then through some urgency that it is just as easy to talk about metaphysically or teleologically as in terms of some deterministic chaotic evolution, the brain exploded, human-like hominids started walking upright about 100,000 years ago, looking forward, using tools, colonizing the world, creating new social structures. The brain, like some imperial culture exploding off a remote island, started projecting itself onto the world, terraforming the Earth in its own image and leaving in its wake a trail of non-bio-degradable tools and waste. Nature was finished. It was finished in the sense that it reached a fulfillment and a culmination, but it had also committed suicide, finished itself off. Not only did humans begin to massively alter the environment, but the brain also started talking, depicting, enacting versions of its experience in cave paintings, ritual dances, gestures, and a grammar of grunts. It became self-conscious. It recognized a mismatch between the world out there and the world in here: Hey! The world persists; we die! Self-consciousness and the idea of death were born in one fatal stroke. Finally, the brain framed everything it looked at: nature became a pastoral scene in the cognitive museum. The cosmos seen through human eyes was an artifice, always already available for use.

The C3 Loop

On the flip side, the human brain is a prisoner of the loop of cognition, culture and communication, caught in its virtuous cycle. We call the cybernetic device that initiated and grew in this loop language or symbolizing. Frances Hellige in his book on cognition and the brain, Hemispheric Asymmetry, describes this loop initiated by the development of language, with feed-forward and feedback components, as a sort of “snowball effect,” a cycle of ever-widening gyres that eventually embraces and creates everything between the poles of culture and the biology of the brain itself, including physiological changes in structure and size of different regions.2

In cybernetic terms, we call this a positive feedback loop. The cybernetic system (in this case, human brain) sends information out into the world-culture-environment, which feed newly intensified signals back into the (brain) system to destabilize the system anew, which in turn re-amplifies its message, like an over-sensitive microphone, and again re-broadcasts this message back onto the world until the universe screeches with the noise of the human brain echoed back to it, in it, a cyborg rock concert. It also changes the brain itself. Another researcher, Charles Lumsden, calls this process “the selective stabilization of the synapses” as a result of continuous exposure to cultural effects or stimulation, a collaboration between cultural invention and inherited genetic characteristics,” or “Gene-Culture Coevolution.”3

Neurophysiologists and cognitive scientists who study the alphabet note that its effects on the brain can even be seen in the lifetime development of individual people. The use of language reshapes the brain from womb to tomb. A whole new discipline of neural plasticity has emerged in the last few decades, showing that the brain is not the static, genetically-determined machine we once thought it to be. In other words, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in culture-gene co-evolution as well. Studies of aphasics and dyslexics show that the brain changes physiologically and progressively after injury, suggesting that parts of the brain grow even in the lifetime of individual humans.

Fun with your new brain: the rise of the alphabet

Using different alphabets (or losing the capacity to read the alphabet), even within the lifetime of an individual, is a bit like growing a new brain. Trying a new alphabet must have been (and still is) tantamount to an ongoing progressive hallucination. It lets you think things that you couldn’t have thought before, makes connections that simply didn’t exist physiologically – for which your brain wasn’t wired – and forces your brain into different information processing patterns, which presumably involve different mental events or experiences (as physiological-cognitive research overwhelmingly shows). It’s like having a whole new brain, or at least, a brain with whole new faculties, new circuits, new wetware. Now imagine the mass hallucination of an entire culture learning how to use an alphabet for the first time. Whole tribes of people, or important segments of them, put on this new cybernetic headgear, or what I have been calling a new form of telepathy, virtually all at once. We can imagine this mass cybernetic experiment would be accompanied by social, epistemological, and metaphysical revolutions, apocalyptic prophesies, and re-definitions of the self in relation to body, mind, others, and the invisible. In short, it might provoke the emergence of a new religion.

With this perhaps absurd hypothesis in our minds, let’s take a look at the advent of writing itself. Take (in our imaginations) a time-lapse photograph of the Nile Valley before and just after the advent of hieroglyphics, or (even earlier), the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia before and just after the very first invention of writing, Sumerian pictographs around 3200 B.C. These time-lapsed films would show millions of years of desultory animal activity, including the hunting gathering and low-level agricultural activity of upright hominids after 35,000 BC. As we approach 10,000 BC, activity begins to pick up pace and organization. Clusters of hominids show tool use, primitive mound building, expressive cave painting, and cultivation of the earth, though in indifferent and almost-random-seeming patterns. Then, suddenly, around 3200 BCE, BANG! Something leaps across the chaotic bifurcation into a new order of frantic self-organization. Compressed into a few frames is an almost instantaneous transformation; blink and you’ll miss the instant. These fertile regions undergo massive terraforming along rectilinear plots. Rivers are diverted into rectangular irrigation systems. Cities emerge, themselves rectilinear. Zoom in with me now into the square-ish walls of the cities, and into the very square-ish rooms of the city, and we will find the intimate source of this sudden change. There, a row of hard stone benches, arranged regularly. It is a schoolroom for scribes! Hundreds of boys, mostly the sons of privileged nobility, sit for hours hunched over clay tablets, learning to scrawl in regular lines. Indeed, if we superimpose the scratching of these lines they look like the lines of irrigation written on the face of the earth itself, as seen from an orbiting satellite. The harsh discipline of the schoolchildren being tutored in script “canalizes” their thought processes, reinforcing certain pathways. It is hard not to imagine that what’s written on the brain gets projected onto the world, which is literally “canalized,” too.

Looking at a picture of the ancient Sumerian classroom for scribes found in Shuruppak (from ca. 3200 BC),

Sumerian schoolroom
Picture of Sumerian schoolroom for scribes from Edward Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (U Chicago: 1938)

we see familiar rows of benches and the headmasters desk up front. Then we are seized with a horrible and giddy vertigo, a terrible recognition: Five thousand years later, and we’re still canalizing the brains of our children in the same way, enforcing the discipline of writing in virtually the same methods and with not so dissimilar effects as did these ancient Sumerians, “that gifted and practical people” (as Edward Chiera calls them in his groundbreaking study, They Wrote on Clay). Sumerians invented cuneiform as a perfectly portable means to effect commerce, extend the authority of their kings, preserve metaphysical and transcendent information, and secure the stability of caste and rank.

The invention of pictographic writing by the Sumerians was “a secret treasure’ or mystery which the laymen could not be expected to understand and which was therefore the peculiar possession of a professional class of clerks or scribes,” Chiera writes. Furthermore, the metaphysics associated with this new telepathic technology becomes clear in the priestly functions these scribes served. Neo-Babylonian texts used the same ideogram for priest and scribe. Along with the script came a new mythology that, predictably, placed the power of language in the center of its metaphysics: “As for the creating technique attributed to these [new] deities, Sumerian philosophers developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East — the doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine, was to lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name.

In fact, everywhere pictographic writing makes its advent, we find the sudden emergence of what we can think of as “tech writing empires”: civilizations geometrically akin in their compulsive rectilinearity to the hexagonal hive structures of bees. In China, among the Aztecs of Mexico or Incas in Peru, in Babylon, Sumeria, and Egypt, we see the same pattern of social, epistemological, and metaphysical organization. Along with these scripts come other inventions so predictably similar that they seem to derive directly from imperatives in the nervous system itself amplified or newly grown by use of the new cyborg device of writing: centralized authority in god/kings; monumental ziggurat-like or pyramidal architecture; hierarchies of priest-scribes; complex, self-perpetuating bureaucracies; fluid but clearly demarcated social/economic classes; trade or craft guilds; imperialism; slavery; “canalizing” educational systems; confederations of tribes into nations; standardized monetary systems and trade; taxes; and so on. Almost every conceivable aspect of empire, in its gross forms, was entailed in pictographic writing. Even the alphabet, with its greater efficiency and fidelity to speech, only seems to add abstraction and speed to what McLuhan described as the “exteriorization of the nerve net”

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