Parashat Tazria is always a challenge. Not that I shy away from challenges – I’ve certainly tackled Tazria a few times over the years. I could retreat into the (relative) safety of the Haftarah, this being Shabbat HaChodesh, but I’ve milked that a few times already.
So, when I encounter parashiyot like Tazria, sometimes my eye wanders. I look in places I might not ordinarily look. I peruse text and commentary that I might not usually consider as a particularly useful source (though I hesitate to say this because every source and every commentary is potentially useful. I do have to admit that I do find some sources more useful than others, however, I have trained myself over the years to look at less favored sources to help keep a handle on my own biases.
One place I rarely go is the “masorah.” The word itself is generally translated to mean “tradition” though it actually traces its origins to a word that originally seems to mean “fetter.”) It is generally referring to the translating and reading of the biblical text. However, it it also used to refer to a particular set of notes to the Masoretic text of the Tanakh. These notes were compiled and added to an edition of the Mikra’ot Gedolot in the 1520s by the Spanish Jew Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyahu (who, it should be noted, after completion of this monumental task, converted to Christianity!) When forced to feel Spain, Ibn Adoniyahu went first to Tunisia and eventually wound up in Venice.
Believing the Tanakh to be G”d’s literal instructions and words to the people, rabbis, scholars and other interested parties labored assiduously over the centuries trying to insure accurate transmission of the text – every letter, every word, every jot and tittle. Between the 5th and 10th centuries CE groups of scribes and scholars, located primarily in Tiberius, Jerusalem, and Iraq developed the system of diacritical vowel and grammatical markings that enabled a previously oral tradition to be preserved. In addition to the formal markings, these scribes and scholars preserved annotations in the form of notes written both before the text, after the text, and in the margins surrounding the text. (Sometimes even within the text itself.) These critical apparatuses are collectively referred to as the “masorah.” They provide a wealth of information that enables scholars and scribes to be as faithful as possible to (what the Masoretic clans believe were) the original text. They provide information in several categories: numerical, exegetical, grammatical, and text-critical. They note things like words with defective spellings, unusual forms, even “incorrect” words (the qetiv and kore, or situations where the written word is clearly defective and it is read differently than written.) There are lots of letter and words counts as well. These are largely related to the needs of the scribes to estimate how many pieces of parchment might be needed, or alternatively, how much to charge for their work. (Copyists were generally paid by the line. Since so much of the biblical text is simply continuous, they needed a way to determine how many lines to charge for.) Some of the numerical masorah function like a concordance, counting the number of appearances of words.
It’s not my purpose to provide you with an exhaustive account of the masorah of the biblical text. If you find the topic at all intriguing, by all means, go and learn more about it. Let’s press on.
So while perusing the text of parashat Tazria, I noted a little piece of masorah stating that a particular verse (Lev. 13:9) was one of only 11 in the entire Torah that begins and ends with the letter “nun.” My first thought, as it often is when I see notes of this type, was “boy some folks just had too much time on their hands. I realize how unfair that thought is. It’s easy for us to ridicule the seemingly arcane, picayune and esoteric interests of others. Let’s face it – we probably all have some interest or obsession that some other person would consider silly or pointless. How much more so this becomes due to the passage of time – in the case of the masorah, centuries, perhaps millennia. (It’s generally speculated that the work that eventually resulted in a fixed biblical text actually began around the time of the Maccabees, and wasn’t completed until the 1500s when Ibn Adoniyahu created his compendium of Masoretic notes.)
As I’m fond of reminding the students I teach and tutor, the vowelized and cantillated text of the Torah we consider authoritative may have been created and assembled by the Masoretes in the 5-10th centuries, but the oldest extant complete version of it that we have (The Leningrad Codex)only dates back to the 11th century – so how can we be sure that what we have received is the same text? Another codex, from Aleppo, is a few decades older and actually considered a superior version, but parts of it (about half) were destroyed during the 1947 anti-Jewish riots in Aleppo. (It should be noted that scholars dispute the truth that all the missing pages were burned, and, indeed, additional missing leaves have surfaced, and some speculate that the missing pages were simply removed, distributed, and hidden. The Aleppo codex is considered superior as it is attributed as being the work of the last and greatest of the ben Asher clan of Masoretes.)
It is believed that many of the Masoretic clans that worked on the text were Karaites, which one might suspect would influence their work. Karaites rejected the rabbinic Judaism embodied in the Talmud, and practiced a Judaism based solely on what could be plainly found in the Torah text. This would seem to make them better candidates for having insured that the ancient texts were accurate transmitted. Oddly enough, the clan of ben Asher, largely responsible for the “preferred” version of the Masoretic text were probably not Karaites.
Enough of a history lesson for now. There is much more to the story and I encourage you to do some further reading and research.
Why, in this modern era when topical relevancy, and “reader-response” are among the favored forms of biblical criticism and reception, would we care about the masorah, about the accuracy of the transmission of the biblical text? If the text is the work of human beings, and not G”d, does such accurate preservation of the text matter? These kinds of attitudes lead to flippant thoughts like my own about people with too much time on their hands. Who am I to judge them? Is all the effort at preservation irrelevant?
No, I want to understand the preservers. Why did it matter to the scribes and scholars that only 11 verses in the Torah begin and end with the letter “nun?” Or, at an even more basic level, why do only 11 verses in the Torah begin and end with the letter “nun?” Is it merely an artifact, a coincidence, and insignificant fact? Yes, I am one that generally rejects most attempts to imbue the text with mystical meaning based on gematria, yet I also admit to a fascination with so many of the gematriacal “coincidences” in the biblical text. Of human or Divine origin, it is not entirely beyond belief that the creators of the biblical text did consider and employ deliberate gematriacal devices. Maybe the Beatles really did put backwards messages into their songs. (Of those two, I consider the former far more likely.)
I’m going to have to do some digging into arcane and esoteric sources if I am to have any hope of understanding why this numerical Masoretic note mattered. I’m not sure I’ll be able to find an answer. I’m also not sure that it matters if I do. If nothing else, some ancient Masoretic scribe was successful in getting me to explore this arcane note! Maybe that note is there for just such a purpose. Just as I have speculated that many of the so-called discrepancies in Torah exist precisely to perplex us and to cause us to investigate further, perhaps the same is true here. If this little piece of masorah got me to spend a little more time in the study of Torah, surely it has succeeded!
So I’ll end with this little gematriacal pun: I think it’s a 50-50 chance that there is a significance to the fact that 11 verses of the Torah start and end with a “nun.” (Clue: what’s the gematria for the letter nun? Duh.)
©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Tazria-M'tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 - We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy