Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
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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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Naso 5761/ June 2, 2001
The Symbolic Value of the Written Word
Department of Talmud
"The priest shall these curses down in writing and rub it off into the
water of bitterness. He is to make the woman drink the water of
bitterness" (Num. 5:23-24).
We do not hold the written document to have concrete symbolic value in and
of itself. Its value lies entirely in its content, as with any other means of
communication. The Sages, as well, did not hold the paper on which loan notes
or bills of sale were written to have any intrinsic value beyond that of
wrapping paper, "to give it form as packaging." The respect we give the Torah
scroll or other sacred books stems, it would seem, from the high esteem we have
for the heritage they convey. Therefore it is difficult for us to understand
the role played by putting curses down in writing in the ritual of sotah,
the trial of a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity. In this ritual the
parchment and ink appear to have concrete symbolic value. We are reminded of
Moses making the Israelites drink a mixture containing ashes from the Golden
Calf (Ex. 32:20), a concrete action which is certainly symbolic.
Perhaps to understand this veneration of writing materials, we must change
our notion about writing and find the semiotic value of the book per se
not only as a means of communication.[Semiotics is the theory and study of signs
and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of
communication.] Some anthropologists
believe that the origins of writing lie in the beginning of a process in
which one person dominates another. Writing enabled a leader to impose his will
on his subjects without being physically present. This elevated him above the
rank and file, creating an aura of authoritativeness.
The force of the written word is especially evident in civilizations that
extend over a broad area, such as Islam. In the Bible this is particularly
notable with regard to the Persian empire and civilization, in which the written
word carried authority beyond the person of its author, as is evident from
Megillat Esther: "For an edict that has been written in the king's name ... may
not be revoked" (Esther 8:8). The Megillah seems to be occupied with all sorts
of couriers being urgently dispatched to promulgate the ever-changing edicts of
the king. The public reading of the Megillah on Purim takes the place of the
festive ceremonies or recitation of Hallel practiced on other holy days. Ezra,
as well, transferred the main weight of worship of the Lord to reading the Torah
before a public assembly (Neh. 8:5) and to writing a pledge, instead of
performing a religious rite.
The clearest guide to semiotics, other than mysticism, is prophecy. The
world of visions is a world rich in symbols that openly play the same role
which, in the world of consciousness, they play covertly. In Zechariah's vision
in the beginning of Chapter 5, the prophet sees a "flying scroll," which clearly
functions as a symbol. Its interpretation is "the curse which goes out over the
whole land." Here the scroll itself, irrespective of its contents, is the
curse that is binding on those sworn to it; it is the symbol of unlimited power
and authority: "which goes out over the whole land." It resembles the written
text in the rite of sotah in this week's reading. To complete the
semiotic image, the scroll grows wings and flies, thus emphasizing that it
stands for unembodied dominion. Since we are dealing with a symbol within a
vision, it is not restricted to the Persian, Islamic, or any other specific
period, but belongs to the entire human race, from the time human beings were
instilled with a divine soul and the power of imagination, to this very
Indeed, archaeological excavations in the hills around Hebron have revealed
handles on wine jugs dating to the kingdom of Judea and stamped with the words,
"to the king." Possibly this is a stamp of approval given by the tax
authorities or some other governmental body. Above the inscription is a
drawing, described by the eminent archaeologist William F. Albright and his
student O. R. Sellers
as a "winged scroll."
It does indeed resemble a rolled scroll that has grown wings. This is the
symbol that the kings of Judah saw fit to use to represent their dominion "which
goes out over the whole land," and perhaps even to symbolize the authority of
the divine covenant that stood behind the reign of the House of David.
In the ritual of sotah perhaps the symbolic importance of the
written curse is to express the kingship and dominion of the Lord, "which goes
out over the whole land," and to remind all those who sin against Him in secret
- such as the wayward wife - of his ominous Presence.
Margaret Nieke, "Literacy and Power,"
State and Society
, Londong 1988, pp. 237-252.
O. R. Sellers, W. F. Albright, "The
First Campaign of Excavation at Beth Zur," BASOR
43 (Oct. 1931), p.