Friday, January 3, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Bo 5774-Spellcheck On My Hand

Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:9

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל־יָֽדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּֽהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְהוָֹה בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

“And this shall be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes-in order that the Teaching of Ad”nai may be in your mouth-with a mighty hand Ad”nai brought you out from Egypt.”

Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:16

וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל־יָדְכָה וּלְטֽוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הֽוֹצִיאָנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

“And it shall be as a sign upon (your hand) and as a (symbol) between your eyes that with a mighty hand Ad”nai brought us out from Egypt.”

D’varim (Deuteronomy 6:8)

וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל־יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹֽטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶֽיךָ

And bind them for a sign upon your hand, they shall be for (symbols) between your eyes…

No, I’m not interested in tefillin.  The sages pretty much follow the party line in interpreting these verses as referring to tefillin, which they claim go back to the time of Moshe. Well, I say “balderdash!” to this obvious tautology, and that is enough about that.

For one thing, I’m interested in the differences between these three verses. Most conclude they are speaking about the same thing. I’m not completely sure about that, but this, too, is not my main point.

That the Deuteronomic verse has distilled the essence of the previous two references into a more specific instruction or commandment is not surprising, although the contexts are different. The two verses I’ve noted from our parasha, Bo, are all about remembering the exodus from Egypt, and G”d’s active part in it. The Deuteronomic verse is not at all in the specific context of the exodus from Egypt, but more the wider context of, possibly, the whole Torah, but, at the very least, the specific words, teaching, and commandments being spoken/reiterated by Moshe at that point the narrative - “these words which I command you this day.” So all this is the slow boat to China way of saying that the third cited verse is interesting in its connection to the other two from our parasha, but we can effectively set it aside for the purposes of this discussion. (Horror of horrors for not viewing one piece of Torah in the light of all the rest – but then, the rabbis did this all the time when it was convenient,and so shall we.)

I will, however, note one thing – there is a progression in these three verses of simplification and condensing. Sort of like the rabbis liked to do, first getting the Torah down to three (though different threes for each sage!) and eventually down to one (though again, the sages disagree on whicn “one.” Is it “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do not do to others that which you would not want done to yourself” or “Listen Israel, Ad*nai is our G”d, Ad”nai is One”  or some other variation?

So let’s drop the Deuteronomic verse and just deal with these two, just six verses apart. Some obvious differences. The first speaks of a sign and then a reminder. The second of a sign and “totafots” whatever the heck those are. The accepted understanding has become symbol, or, in direct reference to the tefillin, frontlets. Then again, there is only one tefllin worn on the head (and not truly between the eyes, which would be difficult at best.) I’ve never quite gotten “frontlets,” – again, because there is only one of them. However, this may be a nod to the other oddity, that this mysterious word, “totafot” appears to be a plural noun.

So why did a reminder become a symbol? Why did a singluar noun (zikaron) become a plural (totafot?)

Then we get to the real oddity between 13:9 and 13:16. The words יָֽדְךָ and יָדְכָה. Huh? What’s that all about? Scribal error, or deliberate discrepancy? Can we trust the Masoretic choice as to how they are vowelized? Are they effectively the same word, with the same meaning? Is it just a simple spelling error which some Ben Asher clan scribe failed to catch?”

By the “rules” of biblical Hebrew, they would be pronounced the same way. They are certainly not the only example in all of Torah in which the same word has differing spellings yet is accepted as the same word. It could be that this is just a variant, with the 4 letter version being the older which was eventually condensed down to the three letter version. I’ve not researched this thoroughly as of yet, so I won’t pretend to be able to give a scholarly opinion. It is quite possible that as written Hebrew developed, word suffixes that were originally two letters were condensed. Yet this raises the question of why the Masoretes didn’t then just use the same spelling in both places. Is it possible they were working from flawed text themselves? The variations we find in ancient pieces of manuscripts surely attest to any or all of these possibilities.

Ah, but now were back to the tautology. Great sages and rabbis attribute the variant spelling יָדְכָה as being connected to the fact that the tefillin contain a total of 5 chambers, the numeric value of the letter ה

Did the Masoretes agree and accept this earlier understanding, or did they create it? If so, why not use the variant spelling in both verses 9 and 16? Except that verse 9 is different, referring not to “totafot” but “zikaron,” to a reminder/remembrance, and not a “symbol” (if that is indeed what these very odd word means.)

I could just accept all the traditional understandings, and dispense with this entire line of inquiry. However, I have chosen to be someone who questions things anew – with due respect to the sages and scholars. I don’t have any good answers to why these two different versions of the word and suffix meaning “your hand” appear inverses 13:9 and 13:16. However, I remain puzzled by it, and find the rabbinic arguments unpersuasive (especially as they involve a tautology!) So I’m going to spend my time this Shabbat (and likely well beyond) exploring yet another interesting puzzle presented to me by the Torah. Not to the exclusion of more meaningful efforts. I may wonder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I understand that loving my neighbor, doing justly, walking humbly, loving G”d and so much more is of far greater importance for me to be doing. The time spent working on this puzzle and others is my self-reward for making the effort to do the more important things (though I will readily admit that sometimes I’ll indulge my puzzle-solving whims when I know I haven’t done all I can to be the best person I could be. I’m human, after all.

So I’ll alter my words. I’m going to spend some time this Shabbat thinking about this puzzle (and others) however more importantly, I’ll be remembering how G”d took us out of Egypt and how G”d has given us this gift of Shabbat. I will treasure that gift and not squander it.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Bo 5773 - Dear G"d...Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 - Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 - Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 - Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 - Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You're...Well...
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well


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