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Parashat Ahare Mot - Kedoshim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Ahare Mot - Kedoshim 5761/5 May 2001

"A Woman Courts a Man" - Mnemonic Devices for Torah Reading
Dr. Yosef Ofer
Dept. of Bible


It is well-known that reading the Torah from the scroll is no easy task. A Torah scroll records only the consonantal text, without vowel pointing or cantillation signs, so the reader must learn the pronunciation of the words as well as the traditional chanting of each verse by heart. Some verses in the Torah are similar in their text, but pointed or chanted differently. Hence the reader might easily confuse such a verse with another that closely resembles it. This similarity of verses is likely to trip up even the most experienced reader, well-versed in chanting the entire Torah. Little wonder that throughout the generations Torah readers have attempted to develop mnemonic devices to help them distinguish between similar forms and verses. Such devices have been put down in massoretic notes, some of them particularly piquant.

In this week's reading, in chapter 17, two closely positioned verses both contain the words nefesh (life), basar (flesh) and dam (blood):

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. (v. 11)



For the life of all flesh - its blood is its life. There I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off. (v. 14)

The similarity of so many words makes these difficult verses for the reader, for the letters heh-vav-alef meaning "he" or "she" occur four times here, and the reader must know whether to read this word as hu (masc.) or hi (fem.). This is no trifling matter, since as Rashi notes, "blood (dam) and flesh (basar) are masculine words, and life (nefesh) is feminine." The structure of the sentences is far from simple, making identification of the subject in each sentence quite difficult.

The Massorah Magna in the Leningrad codex notes in this regard: "Two verses regarding this matter are deceptive. The first has hi followed by hu; the second has hu followed by hi. Thus we find that the feminine surrounds the masculine."

The wording of the sign "the feminine surrounds the masculine," comes from a verse in Jeremiah ("a woman courts a man," Jer. 31:21). Here it means that of the four occurrences, the two "inner" ones are read hu (masc.), and the two "outer" ones, that surround the hu's as it were, are read hi (fem.).

This mnemonic device proved quite successful and was also included in the Massorah Magna of Mikraot Gedolot as well as in Hizkuni's commentary (written by the 13th-century rabbi, Hezekiah b. Manoah) on this chapter. The mnemonic device is short and localized, making it easy to remember while reading.

Other massoretic notes attempted to cope with the far more complicated challenge of describing all occurrences of hi-hu in Leviticus.[1] Such a massoretic note can be of service to scribes and people pointing the text but is too long and convoluted to be of use to the Torah reader.

Hizkuni's commentary on this week's reading mentions another mnemonic device, also relating to the way heh-vav-alef is to be read. We quote the commentary on Leviticus 18:22-23: " 'It is an abhorrence [to'eva hi]' with a hirik, as the neighboring word indicates [yagid alav re'o], both being in the feminine; and 'it is perversion [tevel hu]' with a shuruk, as the neighboring word indicates." Here, too, the mnemonic device or sign comes from a verse in Job (36:33): Yagid alav re'o, in the context there meaning "its noise tells of Him," but here meaning that the gender of the adjoining word (re'o, his friend) indicates how the word heh-vav-alef is to be read.[2]

Hizkuni mentions many such mnemonic devices, only some of them known to us from the Massorah. We present another two mnemonic devices for verses in Parashat Aharei Mot:

Leviticus 16:31: "'It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you,' written with a yod [=hi], and in Parashat Emor (Lev. 23:32), with a vav [=hu]. Both are read according to their orthography, and the mnemonic sign is "va-tokhal hi ve-hu [and she and he ... had food] (I Kings 17:15)."

This example relates to two similar verses that are not closely situated, but which deal with the Sabbath of complete rest on the Day of Atonement and are similarly phrased: "Shabbat shabbaton hi/hu lakhem ve-initem et nafshoteikhem." Two mnemonic devices are offered the reader here. The first is quite simple: read the text as it is written - for in the first case the word in question is spelled hi and in the second, hu. The second device is a verse in which the word hi (according to the keri, the tradition of how the text is to be read) comes before the word hu.

Leviticus 16:20-21 provides another example: "'The live goat shall be brought forward' - in the first instance ['live' is read] with a segol [under the heh, and kamatz under the het = he-hoy], and the second with a patah [under the heh, and under the het as well = hahay], and the device for remembering this is hehorim." The question is which of two contiguous verses is to be read "ha-se'ir he-hoy" and which "ha-se'ir ha-hay." Hizkuni does not mention the different pointing of the vowels under the het, but only the difference under the heh (which is a consequence of the change in the vowel under the het). Evidently he did not distinguish between the pronunciation of a kamatz and a patah, as we know was the case in pre-Ashkenazi pronunciation. The mnemonic device suggested here is the word he-horim, in which the first heh is pointed with a segol (e) and the following one with the vowel "a." This device also attests to its author being unaware of a distinction in pronunciation between kamatz and patah, since a heh with a kamatz is used as a device to remember a heh with a patah.[3] In other words, it was made by a Sefardi Jew who pronounced the word as he-harim, not he-horim.

Another mnemonic device for this week's reading appears in the Massorah Parva of Mikraot Gedolot on Leviticus 18:23: "Tevel, with the stress on the penultimate syllable, and the mnemonic device is ha-aretz mi-tahat (on the earth beneath)." This device is explained as follows: "The two occurrences of tevel [with a segol under the taf and bet; in this verse and in 20:12, below] refer to adultery and illicit sexual practices, and are pronounced with the stress on the penultimate syllable, ... but teiveil, with a tzere under the taf and the bet, whose meaning is eretz (=earth), is beneath, i.e., is pronounced with the stress on the last syllable" (R. Joseph ben R. David Heilbrun, Mevin Hidot - Perush al ha-Massorah, Amsterdam 1865).

These are but a few of the many mnemonic devices that have been invented from the time of the massoretes until our day. These devices, or simanim, are delightful, piquant, and even amusing, as in the words of the psalmist, "were not Your teachings my delight" (Ps. 119:92), yet at the same time they are helpful to the Torah reader, for "knowledge of the Torah is not acquired except through simanim" (Eruvin 54b).



[1] See the note in the Massorah Magna printed in Mikraot Gedolot, Leviticus 2:15. For parallel sources and a discussion of the subject, cf. C. D. Ginzburg, Ha-Massorah al-pi Kitvei-Yad Atikim, London 1885 (hereafter: Ginzburg), par. 5.89.
[2] This is a mnemonic device and not a grammatical argument, since the subject of the sentence is the act of copulation.
[3] The last two devices ("va-tohal hi ve-hu," and "he-horim") appear in a massoretic note cited by Ginzburg in par. 60.285, and perhaps Hizkuni was basing his comments on such a massoretic note. Nevertheless, it is not characteristic of the Tiberian massorah to fail to distinguish between a kamatz and a patah.
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