Friday, March 09, 2012

Many facets of Torah

Summary: What was the miracle of the luchos? That letters were suspended, or that they could be read in any which way?

Post: Consider this pasuk and Rashi from parashat Ki Tisa:

15. Now Moses turned and went down from the mountain [bearing] the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed.טו. וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה מִן הָהָר וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיָדוֹ לֻחֹת כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה הֵם כְּתֻבִים:
from both their sides: the letters could be read. This was a miraculous phenomenon. -[from Shab. 104a, Meg. 2b]משני עבריהם: היו האותיות נקראות, ומעשה נסים היה:

Pashut peshat, before any midrashic explanation, is that there was different writing on the obverse and on the reverse side of each of the two tablets. Thus, in the Code of Hamurabbi:
The code is set down in horizontal columns of cuneiform writing: 16 columns of text on the obverse side and 28 on the reverse.
But, according to the gemara in Shabbat 104a, according to Rav Chisda, this pasuk means that the writing went all the way through, such that letters with centers, such as samech, had their middles suspended in the air miraculously:
 R. Hisda said: The mem and the samek which were in the Tables stood [there] by a miracle.
It was stated above, R. Hisda said: The mem and the samek which were in the Tables stood [there] by a miracle. R. Hisda also said: The writing of the Tables could be read from within and without,7  e.g., nebub [hollow] would be read buban; — behar [in the mountain] [as] rahabsaru [they departed] [as] waras.8
The miracle was in the suspension, but not that it could be read from either side the same way. Indeed, it could not. I recall hearing about some Yemenite Jews who hold the siddur sideways or upside down. This because they did not have enough sifrei Torah or Torah books to go around, and so they all gathered around the table and looked at the same book lying on the table. And so some learned to read right-side up, some upside-down, some sideways, and so on. So too here, one might be able to read the luchos but in reverse. Rashi is just citing the gemara, so he presumably agrees.

Rabbenu Bachya interprets the pasuk, and the miracle, at odds with the explanation provided by the gemara:

"לֻחֹת כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה הֵם כְּתֻבִים -- this was a great wonder, that the text could be read in its regular order from both sides, something which is not so in our writings, where one the obverse it is in order and on the reverse side it is backwards. And yet here, it says מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה, from both sides, which refers to the obverse and reverse sides.

And it is possible to explain מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם that it comes to allude to the idea that there is, to the implications of the words of Torah, two sides: the revealed and the hidden. Just as Shlomo ob"m said {Mishlei 25:11} "Like apples of gold in settings of silver [is a word spoken in right circumstances]." And {Iyov 11:6} "[And that He would tell thee the secrets of wisdom, the תַּעֲלֻמוֹת חָכְמָה], that sound wisdom is manifold!" This is to be explained as that the Torah is doubled, and that besides the simple meaning of the Torah, there is in it other secrets of wisdom, תַּעֲלֻמוֹת חָכְמָה. And upon this the verse stated {Tehillim 62:12} "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this..." "

According to Siftei Chachamim, Bereshit Rabba gives the same explanation. I'd have to see it inside. And this is what appears in Yerushalmi Shekalim, though I don't see that there that it was miraculous. Apparently, some interpret Rashi on Chumash as saying that the maaseh nisim was that it could be read identically from either side, but Gur Aryeh explains like I did above, that Rashi is being consistent with our gemara.

I vaguely recall that there was a scholarly article which tried to show how this could work, al derech hateva, with a sort of 'bagel writing', in which light would come in one side for one letter and come out from another nook to form part of another letter.

Aside from any of that, there is a machlokes whether the letters on the luchot were ktav ashurit, in which case the mem and samech would stand miraculously, or whether the letters on the luchot were ktav ivri, or Paleo-Hebrew, in which case the ayin and tet would stand miraculously:

The chet would also need to stand miraculously, as would the bet, dalet, kuf, and resh. But the choice of ayin and tet are because they are the most obviously circular letters, and thus most parallel to the ashurit letters samech and mem sofit.

Looking at the letters in Paleo-Hebrew, I could imagine an easier time constructing something that could be read backwards and forwards, since there are lines of symmetry in the zayin, chet, tet, tav, samech, etc. Still, it would not be the same as the text as it appears in the luchot.

Regardless of the specifics of the nes, I would note that you can support the idea of it being a miraculous  text, and that it had something to do with the nature of its inscription, from the pasuk which immediately follows:

16. Now the tablets were God's work, and the inscription was God's inscription, engraved on the tablets.טז. וְהַלֻּחֹת מַעֲשֵׂה אֱ־לֹהִים הֵמָּה וְהַמִּכְתָּב מִכְתַּב אֱ־לֹהִים הוּא חָרוּת עַל הַלֻּחֹת:

This would then lend its weight to influence a midrashic interpretation of the preceding pasuk.

Rav Yechezkel Abramsky cites this Rashi, juxtaposes it with Rabbenu Bachya (perhaps implying that one is modifying the other?), and provides nice homiletic lesson from the nes:

In Birkas Avraham, the author refers us Rashi, Rashi's sources, Sifsei Chachamim, and Maskil LeDavid. Then:
"And in the commentary of R' Ovadia miBartenura to maseches Avos, chapter 5 mishna 6, he writes that the letters on the luchos were readable from all four sides. And his language implies that the miracle mentioned by Rashi was doubled, and they were readable from all four side.

And see in Talmud Yerushalmi, maseches Shekalim, perek 6, halacha 1, that the position of Rabbi Simai was that the luchos were written 40 {commandments} on this tablet and 40 {commandments} on this tablet, for it is written מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה הֵם כְּתֻבִים, namely tatruga [square in the Greek language]. And see the commentary to the Yerushalmi in the Shu"t of the Radva"z, volume 3, siman 549. And perhaps the intent of Rabbi Simai was to darshen that מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם makes for two, and מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה was double that which was impled before, in which case they were readable from all four sides."

I'll just close with my own interpretation of that gemara in Yerushalmi, without examining what other meforshim have to say (so forgive me if someone has already said it):
כיצד היו הלוחות כתובים ר' חנינה <בן אחיה ר' יהודה> בן גמליאל אומר חמשה על לוח זה וחמשה על לוח זה הה"ד (דברים ד) ויכתבם על שני לוחות אבנים חמשה על לוח זה וחמשה על לוח זה ורבנן אמרי עשרה על לוח זה ועשרה על לוח זה הה"ד (דברים ד) ויגד לכם את בריתו אשר צוה אתכם לעשות עשרת הדברים עשרה על לוח זה ועשרה על לוח זה ר"ש בן יוחאי אומר עשרים על לוח זה ועשרים על לוח זה דכתיב ויכתבם על שני לוחות אבנים עשרים על לוח זה ועשרים על לוח זה רבי סימאי אמר ארבעים על לוח זה וארבעים על לוח זה דכתיב (שמות לב) מזה ומזה הם כתובים מטרוגה
I would guess that in interpreting מזה ומזה, a gematria is at play. Mem zeh and mem zeh they were written, with mem, 40, on this one tablet and mem, 40, on that tablet. And then, how so? By repeating it in a square, with all ten on each side.

If not, then as merely one-upmanship in derashot, with each rabbinic figure building upon the words of his predecessor, finding another reason to double the preceding figure, where what preceded is a given, and with the new derasha building on it. Sort of like the number-of-miracle contests in the haggadah.

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