February 5, 1998 / 9 Shevat, 5758

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Beshallah Shira

Symbols of undisputed unity

In an era concerned about Jewish unity, consider: to my knowledge, there is no Jewish group, sect, rabbi or leader who suggests altering a single letter in the Masoretic Torah scroll, or a single ritual requirement for its preparation. There is no greater Jewish unity today than the unanimous agreement on the Torah scroll.

A Torah scroll is a sight to behold. To be kosher, or fit, each letter must be shaped according to exacting calligraphic standards, and not a single letter may be missing. A misshapen or missing letter -- a single one! -- cancels the fitness of the entire Torah scroll (it may not be read in the synagogue). Further, many other stylistic requirements give each and every Torah scroll throughout the world a clear and uniform beauty.

I choose this portion to delve into the design of the Torah scroll because this portion contains one of the Torah's two major "typographical" variations: "The Song of the Sea." The second variation is the "Song of Moses," in the second-to-last portion of the Hebrew Bible.

The Song of the Sea, which Moses and the Jewish people sang after their tormentors, the Egyptian taskmasters, drowned in the Red Sea, is presented in unique fashion. Instead of being inscribed line by line, with each line of equal length, and all lines together forming a vertical rectangle, The Song of the Sea is inscribed in this fashion:

Then Moses and the Children of Israel
sang this song    to G-d    and they
said the following:    I shall sing to G-d

The actual Hebrew lines break differently in the Torah scroll from the way they break in the English translation above, but the design principle is the same: a full line on top, followed by this pattern: a line split in three, with words on each end and also in the middle; a line split in two, with words on each end; a line split in three again, etc.

Actually, though all the other passages in the Torah (save the Song of Moses) are vertical rectangles, the scribal and design requirements of the Torah are extraordinarily complex. I record most of these requirements, each and one of which must be followed to yield a kosher Torah scroll.

There are 14 Hebrew words representing names of G-d. Some hold that "I am," as in Exodus 3:14's "I am that I am," constitutes a 15th name of G-d.

Rarely, a Hebrew word representing a name of G-d has a secular connotation. Accordingly, the scribe need not follow the procedures just outlined. In Genesis 31:53, for example, Laban tries to settle his dispute with Jacob by telling him: "May the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nachor judge between us -- the god of their father."

Abraham and Nachor were brothers. Abraham was a monotheist, Nachor an idolater. Laban was a pluralist, appealing to the gods of both of his ancestors: the One G-d and the idol-god. The "G-d of Abraham" connoted the One G-d. Accordingly, when a scribe writes the Hebrew word for G-d in "the G-d of Abraham," the scribe follows the ritual procedures outlined above.

Although the Hebrew word in "the god of Nachor" is the same as in "the G-d of Abraham," the word for Nachor's god lacks holiness. It connotes an idol. It is not a name of G-d. Therefore, the ritual procedures for writing the name of G-d are not followed. In English, this distinction is indicated by an upper case G for "G-d" and a lower case g for the idol or "god."

A scribe's writing must be straight and beautiful, and in accord with received calligraphic tradition. There is an exact tradition for the calligraphic design of each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The scribe must take special care with letters that may be confused with one another, namely, the bet (c) and the chaf (f), and the dalet (s) and the reish (r). The form of each letter must be true, distinct from any other. Likewise, the lines of the letter mem ('n) must be properly joined, so that it not resemble two separate letters, the chaf (f) and the vav (u). Nine letters require three lines attached to their top. These lines (tagin) must be very thin, so as not to appear to distort the shape of the letter itself.

To the rules of straightness and calligraphic propriety, there are rare exceptions - "errors and omissions," so to speak:

  • A few letters in certain words in the Torah are written oversized or undersized. For example, the last letter in the first word of Leviticus is undersized; the first letter in Deuteronomy 32:6 is oversized.

  • Certain letters are written upside down. In writing them, a scribe must take special care not to make them resemble other letters. See Numbers 10:35, "When the Ark would travel, va-yehi bineso'a aron... " This is recited in the modern synagogue whenever the Torah is taken out of the Ark. In the Torah scroll, the verse is preceded and succeeded by the letter nun, inscribed upside down.

  • In a single case, a letter in the Torah is written incompletely. A vav (u), a vertical line in the word "peace" in Numbers 25:12, is split. It must be split unevenly, the larger part being on top, and the empty space between the two parts being angular.

Every letter must be enclosed on all sides by empty space; no letter may run into another. Neither may any letter be excessively distant from another, such that one word appears to be two. Each word must be separated by a space the width of a small letter, so that no two words appear as one. A space must also separate each sentence.

The dimensions and proportions of the parchment on which a Torah scroll is written are as follows:

  • Margins: At the bottom of the parchment, the width of four average fingerbreadths; at the top, the width of three average fingerbreadths; between each column, the width of two average fingerbreadths; between each line of script, the width of one row; and between each Biblical book, the width of four rows; between the very first and the very last columns of the Torah scroll, and their respective, attached wooden handles, a width sufficient to enable the scroll to be rolled, plus two average fingerbreadths.

  • Lines: The number of lines on each piece of parchment must be equal throughout the Torah scroll, and not less than 42 and not more than 89.

  • Rows: Each row must be wide enough to write at least the 27 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each letter sized according to the dimension one is using to write the letters in the Torah scroll, but in any case not less than a handbreadth. (The alphabet contains 22 letters, five of which have two forms -- a special form reserved for the appearance of the letter at the end of a word -- making a total of 27 letters).

  • More on rows: Each row must be exactly the same width. Should the last word in the row not fit, if it consists of five letters, one may not write two letters in the row's width and three letters outside it, in the margin; rather, one should write three letters in the row's width and two letters outside, in the margin. Never may more than two letters abut from a row.

  • However, an entire word, consisting of only two letters, may never be written outside the row. If necessary, one letter may be written in the row's width and one outside, in the margin. Never may a name of G-d be written outside a row's width. Eight two-word names of people or places must be written in a single row: "Tuval Kayin," "Bet E-l," "Malki Zedek," "Ba'al Hanan," "Zafnat Pane'ach," "Poti Fera," "Be'er Sheva" (Beersheba)," "Ben Oni." Likewise, seven other two-word phrases must be written in a single row. Conversely, the first word in Deuteronomy 32:6 is written as two words.

Torah portions: Entire Torah portions, of which there are 54, are either "open" or "closed." If "open," the space after their closing word is the width of at least nine letters, with the first word of the next portion beginning on the next line. If "closed," the space after their closing word is the width of at least nine letters, with at least the first word of the next portion beginning on the very same line.

There is one exception: the last portion in Genesis. This is a "super-closed" portion. The space between its first word and the last word of the preceding portion is the width of a single letter. That is, there is no visible separation between it and the preceding portion.

Word-column coordination: It is not proper to end a column with the tetragrammaton. Six words or phrases in the Torah must be positioned at the top of a column: "In the beginning," "You are Judah," "Those who follow them," "the two goats," "How goodly [are your tents, O Jacob]," "And I call [heaven and earth] to bear witness against them," and, in the phrase, "and the sin offering Moses sought, sought," the first "sought." The "Song of Moses" in the second to last portion of the Torah must be written in 70 rows, each divided in two by a width of nine letters. Above the Song must be an empty row, preceded by six rows of Torah text; beneath the Song must be an empty row, succeeded by six rows of Torah text. Each of the six rows above and beneath the Song must begin with a certain word, and the first of the six rows above the Song must be the first row in the column (the phrase beginning the top of this column is, "and I shall call [heaven and earth] to bear witness against them.") The sixth row above and beneath the Song must must fill to the end, so that a certain word is positioned at its end.

The Song of the Sea (in this Torah portion) is similarly positioned, except that five rows precede and succeed it.

Biblical books: The last row in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers must fill out the entire line, while the last row of the Torah must end in the middle of the line.


Bo: Who rules? Man or G-d?
Vayera: The summoning of courage
Shemos: The paths of the hated
Vayechi: I go myself
Vayyigash: Two types of power
Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg