The Dotted Letters in the Torah

Maimonides, in his introduction to the last chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin, writes “There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like “…And Timna was a concubine” (Gen. 36:39,12), and one like “Sh’ma Yisrael”. For Maimonides, the Torah is a unit, and every verse, indeed every word is of equal value.

Some of the words in a Torah scroll are written with dots above them. Nobody knows for sure what these dots signify but Saul Liebermann, in his book Hellenism in Jewish Palestine notes that the grammarians in Alexandria, who began their work in the 3rd century BCE, would mark doubtful passages in Homer with dots, and amend passages that they considered coarse or indelicate[1]. The implication of course is that whoever placed the dots on the Torah letters was engaged in a similar activity.

The Midrash (B’midbar Rabbah 3,13) places words in the mouth of Ezra the scribe. “If Elijah comes and says to me ‘Why have you written those words?’ I will say ‘I have marked them with dots’. And if he says ‘You did well to write them’, I shall erase the dots.” As David Weiss Halivni writes[2], this passage suggests that Ezra had the authority to question certain words in the Torah; marking them with dots until he could be sure whether to confirm or delete them.

If so, this Midrash raises a challenge to Maimonides’s opinion. All the verses in the Torah cannot be of equal value if the presence of some is doubtful. Or indeed, if Ezra had editorial privileges.

The midrash about Ezra, which is introduced with the words “And some say…”, is the sequel to a longer passage which gives homiletic reasons for all the dotted words in the Torah. According to this, when Esau kisses Jacob in this week’s parasha, the dots on the word vayeshakehu- and he kissed him- imply that he did not do so with all his heart. (Another version is that the word should be read as the very similar vayeshachahu,and he bit him.  On this view, Esau tried to bite Jacob but his neck miraculously turned to marble and he broke his teeth!)

Providing homiletic explanations for the dotted words eliminates the charge that Ezra had editorial authority over the text of the Torah. It is consistent with Maimonides’s view that all words of the Torah are of equal importance. But clearly, emotionally and intellectually we do not respond to all passages in the same way. Some passages in the Torah resonate far more with us than others. As my teacher Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs z”l used to remark: Many people have given their lives for ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’. We are yet to hear of anybody who gave their life for ‘Timna was a concubine’.

[1] See pages 27, 36-7 and 44.

[2] Halivni, Peshat and Derash  p.139

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books