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17.09.2018 12:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  nitzavim  


This week’s reading says:  “Concealed acts concern the Lord our G‑d; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching” (Deut. 29:28).  Above the words “for us and our children” are dots—one of ten instances in which dots appear above certain letters or words in a verse, otherwise known as the “dotted places in Scripture.”[1]

The Sages were of divided opinion regarding this phenomenon.  One view asserted that the dots were given with the Torah at Sinai and were divinely marked, and therefore called for interpretation:

Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said:  Wherever you find the plain writing exceeding the dotted letters, you must interpret the plain writing; if the dotted letters exceed the plain writing, you must interpret the dotted letters.  Here that the dotted letters exceed the undotted, you must interpret the dotted text.[2]

Professor Avigdor Shinan has suggested that the homilies of the Sages regarding the ten dotted passages in the Torah all have an identical point of departure—a gap between the overt and the covert levels, which finds expression in the dots.  He proved this in eight instances.  For example, one can say of the description of Esau kissing Jacob—va-yeshakehu (Gen. 33:4)—that on the overt level the kiss symbolized closeness and love, but on the covert level it was a kiss that did not come from the heart, and perhaps had even been given with intent to bite (nashakh) rather than kiss (nishek).  Another example: the dot that appears over the letter yod in the description of the angels who appeared to Abraham (va-yomru elav, Gen. 18:9) indicates that on the overt level they did not appear as angels, but on the covert level they were all-knowing, etc.  According to Shinan, the source for Rabbi Yose’s homilies in this regard is the verse in this week’s reading that explicitly notes the gap between overt and covert.[3]

To sum up, according to the first approach, the Sages viewed the dots as a mark intimating to the reader to expound the event and understand what was special about it.

Examining some of the sources appearing in the writings of the Sages brings up another approach, namely that the Sages viewed the dots as marking words about which there was some doubt:

These are the ten dotted passages in the Torah…and why are there dots over all these letters?  None other than that Ezra said:  If Elijah were to come and say:  Why did you write that, I will answer him:  I have already put dots over them.  And if he says to me:  You wrote it well, then I will remove the dots above them.[4]

Marking words with dots as a sign for erasure was a well-known practice in manuscripts, from as early as the Dead Sea Scrolls through the Middle Ages.

A continuation of this approach can be found among the medieval exegetes.  For example, in an early 10th-11th-century Byzantine commentary on Genesis-Exodus it says:  “Why are there dots over va-yeshakehu?  It is said that Ezra found a scroll in which [the word] was written, and found another scroll in which it was not written, and therefore he put dots over it.  If you were to remove it, the plain sense of the verse would not be affected; and thus it is with all dotted passages.”[5]

Ralbag wrote (on Gen. 18:9):  “The dots over the word elav, and their like, to my mind indicate a middle way between the dotted word being present and it being absent; for dots are put over a word to indicate its erasure.  Since the word has remained with the dots over it, that indicates the word is not to be completely erased, yet neither is it written entirely.”

This explains a large fraction of the instances of dotted text.  For example, Numbers 3:39 reads:  “All the Levites who were recorded, whom at the Lord’s command Moses and Aaron recorded by their clans…”  “And Aaron” is dotted; and indeed, examining the beginning of the chapter (Num. 3:14-15) we see that only Moses was commanded to record the Levites.  Perhaps on this account the text hints that the dotted word, Aaron, should be omitted.[6] The dots over the word va-yeshakehu (see above) perhaps are indicative of uncertainty regarding Esau’s attitude towards Jacob at this encounter.  The dots over “for us and our children” in this week’s reading (assuming that “concealed acts and overt acts” allude to the past and the future) indicate two ways of understanding the relationship between man and the Holy One, blessed be He:  ignoring the dots, the verse points out the difference between man and G‑d.  If we erase the words “for us and our children,” the verse points to the Lord’s responsibility also for what appears to us to be overt; of course, all of this is in the context of the curses and blessings.

The difference between these two approaches to dots above words is on the face of it the difference between the plain sense of the text and a homiletical interpretation, or put otherwise, the difference between the rabbinic world and the academic world.  The rabbinic world will deduce various interpretations from the dots, while the academic world will adhere to an explanation based on historical reality of textual uncertainty.  However in the case at hand, in contrast to other instances, both these sorts of explanations can be found in the interpretations of the Sages.  I shall attempt to reconcile these two explanations, which seem to come from altogether different worlds, with the aid of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s explication of the overall question of the veracity of the biblical codex.

In an article entitled, “Emunah ve-Mada` be-Nusah ha-Mikra,” published around 4 decades ago, Breuer wrote:

The Holy One, blessed be He, did not give His Torah to scribes who are ministering angels; rather, to scribes of flesh and blood who write His Torah, to human beings who reads its letters.  And as is the way of human beings, they are prone to err—or to be of different opinions as to the tradition of the text as written and as read…These things apply to every verse, every word, and every letter appearing in the version of the Bible in our hands.  Even if science could prove that here and there the ruling of the majority was in error—and we have no reason to believe such a thing to be impossible—that does not detract from the sanctity of the text.  The very same “error,” once accepted by the majority of Israel’s Sages—it, too, is part of the Torah, and it too must be studied…and may be interpreted, not only by way of homily and mystical interpretation, but also by way of expounding the plain sense.[7]

According to the principle of the approach outlined by Rabbi Brauer, one may also expound the phenomenon of dots over certain words.  On the level of historical reality, there is indeed some doubt regarding certain words or letters, and therefore they were marked with dots by the copyists, as was customary in many eras and various cultures.

The Sages, however, not only asked, “What happened?” They also wondered, “Why did this happen?”  Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, see fit to place in doubt specifically one word or letter and not another?  The fundamental assumption is that nothing happens in the world purely by chance, and if doubt devolved precisely on these words, it is in place to interpret them and attempt to understand what the Holy One, blessed be He, was intimating by letting these words be called into doubt.  Such an approach, of course, opens the way to homiletical interpretation, a large part of which relates to the gap between what is overt and what is concealed.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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