Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Naso

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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Parashat Naso 5761/ June 2, 2001

The Symbolic Value of the Written Word

Ezra Shevat
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[1] 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 day.

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[2] 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.





[1] Margaret Nieke, "Literacy and Power," State and Society, Londong 1988, pp. 237-252.
[2] O. R. Sellers, W. F. Albright, "The First Campaign of Excavation at Beth Zur," BASOR 43 (Oct. 1931), p. 8.