From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: The flying ‘nuns’

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – There is a brief passage in the book of Numbers that is uniquely enclosed by special symbols, backward versions of the Hebrew letter “nun.” The words chosen for this treatment are familiar ones: “Whenever the ark set out, Moses said: Rise up, Lord! Let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you. And when it rested, he said: Return, Lord, to the many thousands of Israel.” These same words are chanted during the synagogue service as the Torah scrolls are removed from and returned to their ark.

But why did Jewish tradition decide that those nuns should be inserted here?

Historical scholarship has pointed out their similarity to marks that were used by Alexandrian Greek textual editors when redacting older literary works. They employed arcane signs and abbreviations to indicate problematic readings and possible emendations. The ancient philologist Aristarchus of Samothrace introduced a symbol called the “antisigma,” resembling a backward “c,” to indicate lines that were in the wrong order and should be transposed. This dovetails with an opinion cited in several rabbinic sources, to the effect that the “Rise up, Lord!” verses are not in their proper place, but really belong in an earlier passage that describes the order of the Israelite tribes arrayed during their treks through the wilderness—including the Levitical families charged with transporting the ark of the covenant. Indeed, such a context would provide a logical setting for Moses’s words.

But why were those verses relocated to their current place in the Torah?

The Talmud suggested that this was intended to provide some breathing space between two episodes with negative and incriminating associations for the people of Israel. The chapter immediately following tells how the Israelites’ griping provoked a divine conflagration that consumed many of the people.

Regarding the preceding section, which tells of the people’s departure from the mountain of the Lord, the unfavourable connotations are not as obvious. By means of some Hebrew wordplay, the sages interpreted that verse as if it was saying that “they turned from after God and hurriedly fled Mount Sinai.” Commentators invoked a striking image from the Jerusalem Talmud: “like a child who takes flight after leaving school, so did they flee from Mount Sinai for three days after learning much Torah there”!

Presumably, in an ideal future world when such accusations will no longer be relevant, the verses will be restored to their proper place.

Another function of the editorial marks employed by ancient philological scholars was to indicate divisions between textual units. Rabbi Judah the Prince read the Torah’s nuns in that spirit, as implying that the enclosed passage constitutes a separate book. The Talmud adduced support for that odd statement in the words of Proverbs: “With wisdom she built her house, she carved its seven pillars”; which was expounded as an allusion to the division of Numbers into three volumes, producing a total of seven books in the Torah!

The notion of a two-verse biblical book fascinated commentators and they expanded the idea in numerous ways. A late midrashic compendium paraphrased that “it is a distinct book and nignaz.” The Hebrew nignaz can mean that the book “was hidden away,” because it was deemed heretical. It was understood in that sense by the author of a text discovered in the Cairo Genizah: “The sages declared: The entire Torah is devoted to the prophecy of Moses except for these two verses that originated in the prophecy of Eldad and Medad. For that reason they were designated with a curved nun and appended to the Torah.” Scholars understood this as an allusion to an apocryphal work, otherwise unknown, ascribed to the two figures who were temporarily inspired to prophesy in the wilderness. Some discussed its implication that there might be verses in the Torah that did not originate from Moses.

As it happens, the translation of nignaz in terms of suppression or censorship is questionable. A simpler understanding of the talmudic quote is that the brief passage, consisting of eighty-five letters, is deemed substantial enough to require burial like any sacred text that has fallen into disuse. Thus, 85 letters defines the minimum size of “book” that must be treated with reverence.

The concept of compressing meaning into 85 characters proved fascinating to a Canadian Jewish poet who initiated the “85 project” in which passages from a variety of works are transformed into 85-letter blocks of text.

As noted previously, the signs that surround the special verses in current Torah scrolls take the form of inverted nuns. However, mediaeval authorities on the biblical text (Masorah) and on talmudic literature pointed out that nuns are barely mentioned in classic sources. This point was argued most famously by the sixteenth-century scholar Rabbi Solomon Luria [Maharshal]. He observed that the main discussion in the Talmud mentions only undefined signs [simaniyyot]; and that some scribes inverted nuns inside words rather than embedding paragraphs between them. He argued that the Talmud was merely stating that the verses should be placed between spaces and line breaks, in keeping with the normal convention for separating sections of the Bible. In Maharshal’s view, the reference to nuns had probably resulted from misreadings by later students. On those grounds, he would have disqualified for ritual use all of our Torahs, were it not for the fact that the nuns were expounded in the kabbalistic classic the Zohar, which he believed was of ancient provenance.

Though Rabbi Luria’s position did not gain wide acceptance, it set the tone for intensive discussion among prominent authorities such as Rabbis Jedidiah Norzi, Ezekiel Landau, Meir of Lublin and many others.

Maharshal noted that some ancient rabbinic works made references to dots, horns, spaces, “isolated nuns” and other alternatives to the nuns. Furthermore, Rabbi Luria counted at least a dozen different ways he had found of drawing the nuns.

Of course we all realize now that Moses could have achieved his purpose more effectively by inserting an appropriate emoji.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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