Thursday, 03 Feb 2011

Written by Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton

At the heart of sedra Terumah stands the menorah.  It was, for obvious reasons, a favourite topic of mine for the decade that I was Rabbi of Menorah Synagogue, Manchester.  The name was chosen for the community by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, to indicate the many diverse activities which can come from a single stem. He was following a fine tradition of interpreting the menorah as a symbol.   Most commonly, it has been seen as a symbol of wisdom (Baba Batra 25b), perhaps because it is shaped like a tree but does not decay, a kind of tree of life. Wisdom is described as a “tree of life” in the famous passage in Proverbs (3:13 – 18).

Rabbinic commentary on the passage concentrates on the difficulty of constructing the menorah. It must have been so hard to make from one piece of gold that no human being could have done it. So relying on the passive form of the verb tei’aseh, (“it was made”) Rashi quotes a midrashic interpretation that it made itself miraculously without any human intervention (Tanchuma, Buber edn., Beha’alotecha 4).  Rashi is trying to explain why the text reads “it was made” as well as “you shall make”.

Ibn Ezra was also bothered by the same word tei’aseh, but for a completely different reason. He had noticed a discrepancy in the way the word is spelt. In fact to this day there is a difference between many printed Chumashim (which spell it תעשה),  and the standard Torah scrolls, which add a yud after the first letter. The logic of this is that when you have a pointed text (as in a Chumash) you don’t need the yud, but in an unpointed text you need it to show that the word isn’t ta’aseh—you shall make.  

Ibn Ezra points out that the top grammarians of the Masora, who worked mainly in Tiberias between the sixth and tenth centuries, were all agreed that the correct spelling was with a yud. And yet, he goes on, in his travels through Spain and France and “across the sea” (by which he means his travels to England) he could only find scrolls without a yud.  Ibn Ezra concludes that this is the correct reading, and this is in line with the principal surviving manuscript, the Leningrad Codex. Today the standard scroll has a yud, but the Yemeni scrolls follow that noted by Ibn Ezra.

What is fascinating about this is that the text of the Torah was not finally fixed in Ibn Ezra’s time, and indeed the debate still goes on. I was taught that the Masoretes compiled a master scroll from which the ones we have today are copied precisely. Not so. The compilation of the standard text used in our scrolls was a very long process not really completed until the days of printing.  

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us the proof that variant readings of the text existed in ancient times. Philip Alexander has pointed out that when the rabbis of old were trying to establish the correct text, they relied on their own midrashic tradition of interpretation.  They made choices not according to the  critical value of the manuscripts but according to the strength of the oral tradition which they considered had been handed down with the text.1 

Thus in our scrolls the extra yud could well have been put in precisely because of an early version of the midrash quoted by Rashi, that the menorah made itself.  It is hardly surprising that the text easily yields to such midrashic interpretation, if the text could be chosen to fit the midrash. Yet this is, I believe, the simplest and clearest explanation for what happened here.  Indeed, I think that’s the way Ibn Ezra understood it too, with his clear statement that the extra yud is incorrect.

The description of the Menorah contains within it many mysteries. And our rabbinic tradition has introduced many more. In our time the history of the transmission of the text is so little understood among our people that it has itself become a mystery. How strange that the description of the symbol of wisdom should contain within it one of the very few textual variants in the Torah which persists to this very day.

Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton
Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community



1Philip S. Alexander “Homer the Prophet of all and Moses our Teacher”, in L.V. Rutgers, Pieter W. van der Horst, H.W. Havelaar, and L. Teugels (eds.), The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, Peeters, Leuven 1998, 127-142.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.