Parshat Behaalotecha

Torah Reading for Week of May 19-25, 2013


“The Book within the Book”
By Rabbi Larry Seidman, PhD ‘09


This week’s Parsha, Behaalotecha, is a part of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, one of the five books of Torah.  Yet some say that it has a whole book of the Torah inside it.  How can that be?

The mystery surrounds two verses, Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36. In the Torah scroll, and in almost all Hebrew copies of the text, these verses are separated from the rest of the Torah by a unique symbol, the “nun hakuffah”, the inverted Hebrew letter “nun”.  You find it just before and after the verses. 

These two special verses are sometimes called The Song of the Ark.  The first line begins “Va ye hi bin soah ha’aron…”  We chant this verse in the synagogue every time we take the Torah out of the Ark.  The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation states:


Num 10: 35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say

Advance O Lord

May your enemies by scattered

And may your foes flee before You

Num 10:36 And when it halted, he would say,

Return oh Lord

You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands.    


Why are these two verses marked in this unique way? 

This topic is discussed in the Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat, page 115b and 116a. The Tanna (early Talmudic rabbi) R. Simeon b. Gamliel  asserts that these marks are there because the verses are in the wrong place.  Perhaps some ancient scribe noticed that he had copied these verses incorrectly and marked them to be fixed in his next copy.  Future scribes, however, copied the error and the correction symbols rather than actually making the correction.  In the second century BCE, scholars created the Septuagint, a translation of the Torah into Greek.  They did not translate the two verses where they are today.  Rather they moved verses 35 and 36 to be before verse 34.  Perhaps this is the correction that R. Simeon wanted.

The Talmud, as usual, has a second reason for why these two verses are marked in a special way.  The great editor of the Mishnah, Yehuda HaNasi, known simply as “Rabbi,”  gives a different explanation.  He says that the two verses are separated from the rest of the text because they comprise a separate book of Torah. How could they be a separate book of Torah?

Elsewhere in this Parshah, (Numbers 11 verses 26-30) we have the story of Eldad and Medad.  They were among the men chosen to join Moses to hear G-d’s words in the tent of meeting.  Nevertheless, they declined to go!  They chose to stay in their own tents and they prophesied, i.e. they had a divine experience. 

The JPS translation of verse 26 says “they were among those recorded” to join Moses, but the Hebrew (“hem b’kituvim”) literally says “they are in the writings”.   A Midrash explains that there once was a book called the Prophecy of Eldad and Medad.  Rabbi explains that this book was suppressed and only these two verses remain of it.  That is why they are marked by the inverted nuns.

Whatever the reason, our forefathers put a lot of attention on “Va y’hi b’insoa…”.  The effect is to cause us to stop and think as we take the Torah out of the Ark.  We recall that in Biblical times, the Torah was the magical talisman that led the armed forces into combat.  Few of us would advocate using the Torah in that way today.  Indeed the Tanakh itself, in the First Book of Samuel (4:5-11), reminds us that the whole Ark was lost in battle when our leader relied on its numinous power rather than deriving a sound military strategy.

Perhaps the two inverted nuns are there to warn us that physically lifting up the Torah in the synagogue is not enough to chase away G-d’s enemies.   Lifting, touching, kissing, even listening is also not enough.  No, we have to understand, to study, and to internalize the teachings.  Perhaps Eldad and Medad want to teach us that there is a time to venerate our holy objects, but that it needs to be balanced by a time to stay in our tents and meditate on G-d’s word.  There is a need to think about the contemporary meanings of the Tanakh to internalize its teachings and to figure out how we use Torah to live our lives.  Maybe this is how we achieve Moses’ prophecy: “Advance O Lord, May your enemies by scattered, And may your foes flee before You.”

Can it really be true that these two verses constitute a separate book of Torah, a book not written by Moses?  The Mishnah, the oldest Jewish law, (Yadaim 3.5) says that a defective Torah scroll is sacred as long as 85 letters are legible.  It cites the example of these two verses, which contain eighty five letters as sufficient to have the status of a sacred scroll.

If Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36 are a separate book, then the portions of the Book of Numbers before and after must also be separate books, so there are a total of seven books comprising the Torah.  The Talmud quotes R. Samuel b. Nahman in R. Jonathan’s name to give us the proof text.  It is Proverbs 9, verse 1: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.”   We must study all seven books of the Torah and use them as pillars to build our wisdom.

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