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Lech Lecha 5779 -  An Extraordinary Point

10/22/2018 02:54:50 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

I want to discuss an extraordinary point.  I know that sometimes I am prone to hyperbole, but in this case I promise you I am not exaggerating at all.  

I literally want to discuss an extraordinary point.

Here is how I noticed this extraordinary point in the first place.

I was writing our Torah scroll when I came to the following verse in this week’s portion:

Vatomer sarai el avram, chamasi alekhah anokhi natati shifkhati becheikekhah vatereh ki haratah va-ekal be-einehah yishpot Hashem beini u-veinekhah. Sarai said to Avram: My wrath is upon you.  I gave my maid into your bosom and then I became light in her eye.  Let Hashem judge between me and you” (Bereishit 16:5).”

When I came to this verse I noticed that in the special sofer tikkun that I was copying from there was a box around the second yod in the word, u-veinekhah.  Being the novice scribe that I am, I wasn’t sure what this box was all about.  So I looked at it closely and it took me a while to realize that the box was telling me that this yod was supposed to have a dot on top of it.

I will admit that despite having leyned this parasha and taught many classes on this parashah I had never noticed this dot before.

Why is the dot there?  

I spent some time looking into the meaning behind this dot and fortunately there is an entire book written about this dot.  In 1906 a scholar in Washington, DC, named Romain Butin, published a book called, The Ten Nequdoth of the Torah (thanks Dan Rabinowitz for the reference).

In Hebrew, this topic is known as the eser nekudot, the ten dots, that appear in the Torah.  There are actually more than ten dots. To be precise, there are ten words in the Torah where there are dots or a dot appearing on top of the letters.  (In the rest of the Tanakh there are five additional places.)  This word with a dot above in our portion is the very first place in the Torah where this phenomenon appears.  These dots are known in academic jargon by the latin term, puncta extraordinara, or extraordinary points.

Probably the most well-known example of a word in the Torah with dots above it is the word, vayishakehu, and he kissed him (Bereishit, 33:4).  This refers to the scene where Yaakov and Esav meet up after many years and the text says that Esav ran to greet him and kissed him.  The word vayishakehu has a dot over every letter.

Rashi comments on that word that, “there is a dot above the word and there is an argument about the meaning of these dots in the baraita of Sifri” (Rashi, 33:4).

What are these extraordinary points?  Where did they come from?  What do they mean?

There is no consensus answer to these questions. There are, however, primarily, three different approaches that come from our holy sources.  

The first approach is also the most theologically controversial even though it is based upon early rabbinic sources.

Two early rabbinic sources, Avot de’Rabbi Natan (2:37) and Midrash Rabbah, record the following conversation between Ezra the Scribe and Elijah the Prophet.

וי"א למה נקוד. אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר, למה כתבת אותן? אומר לו כבר נקדתי עליהם. ואם יאמר לי, יפה כתבת! כבר אמחוק נקודותיהן מעליהן.

Some give another reason why the dots were inserted.  Ezra reasoned thus:  If Elijah comes and asks, “Why have you written these words?” I shall answer, “That is why I dotted these passages.”  And if he says to me, “You have done well in having written them,” I shall erase the dots above them (Translation from David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored, p. 17).

This source is emphasized by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni as proof that “maculations” entered into the written transmission of the Torah and that Ezra the Scribe cleaned up those maculations (see Sanhedrin 21b).  Halivni argues that there were some words about which there was no consensus as to whether or not they should be included in the text and so these dots were placed above the word or the letter.  According to this approach the dots indicate possible erasure of a word that is not supposed to be there.  So for example, according to this reading of Halivni, the word that says that Esav kissed Yaakov should possibly be removed from the text and Esav never actually kissed Yaakov.  (Halivni is far from the first to make this argument.  Butain documents the many scholars over the years who have suggested this approach to the dots.)

This text from Avot de’Rabbi Natan is not the only rabbinic source to suggest that dots imply erasure of the word.

Here is a text from the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim, 9:2):

The Sages say, when there are more [undotted] letters than dots [dotted letters], expound upon the letters and don’t read the dots, and when there are more dots than letters, expound the dots and don’t read the letters. Rabbi says, even when there is only one dot above them, expound the dot and don’t read the letters.

This source is somewhat ambiguous but it does seem to be saying that when there are dots above a word it means that the word is supposed to be erased and not read.

This approach is controversial because Orthodox dogma has a fundamental belief in the accuracy of the Masoretic text.  So if we are admitting to the possibility that there are “maculations” this will not fit in with the approach that says that every letter of our Torah in the form that we have it today was given to Moses at Sinai.  

Suffice it to say, that I wasn’t taught this approach in my many years of yeshiva education, but I do believe it is an approach that comes straight from early rabbinic sources.

A second approach to the puncta extraordinaria comes from the Zohar.

The Zohar takes the opposite approach.  The Zohar says not only should these words not be erased but, in fact, they should be emphasized.  Writes the Zohar, “There are ten places where there are dots in the Torah: “Kulhu atyan leachza milah, all of them come to make the word more visible.”

Think: Italics.  

The extraordinary points are basically italics or underlined or bolded.  So, for example, according to this approach, not only should we not erase the fact that Esav kissed Yaakov, we should emphasize it.  

The problem with this approach is that it is difficult to see how it works for all of the ten examples. Sure we can easily see for some of them how a word should be italicized.  But for all of them it is a challenge.

A third approach comes from an upcoming page of our daf yomi.  This approach says that we should take the dot as an opportunity to bring midrash to the word.

The Talmud (Menachot, 87b) discusses a dot that appears above the letter vav in the word ve-isaron (Bamidbar 29:15).

The Talmud records two approaches as to whether or not we should darshen or expound homiletically, upon the meaning of that dot.

The tanna kamma says that the dot is meant to teach us something homiletically.  Rashi explains (ad locum) that every dot is lemaet, to limit the legal applications of word.  In this case, it is to teach us that one cannot use a vessel that is too large for a specific type of mincha offering.  However, the Talmud also records the position of Rabbi Meir: “nikudo lo darish, [Rabbi Meir] doesn’t expound dots.”  

If Rabbi Meir doesn’t expound dots, then what does he do with them?  Most likely, he agrees with the source from Avot de’Rabbi Natan that the dots represent some type of scribal notation about the word.

This in a nutshell is the debate about puncta extraordinaria.  Should we look for homiletic meanings in the dots or should we assume it is just scribal notations of some point?

In this context let’s take a closer look at the word with a dot in our parasha, u-veinekha.

First, to be clear, even though I mentioned that it had a dot over the second yod, this is not a universally accepted placement.

There are at least four different versions of where the dot should go (Butin, 77):

a)  just over the last yod (See masechet soferim 6:3)

b) over the first yod

c) over both letters

d) over all the letters of the word

The reason why this word begs for further interpretation is because it seems to have an extra yod.  Rashi notes that this is the only place in the Torah where the word, uveinekhah, is written “full,”, i.e. with a second yod in the word, which, he says, indicates that the word is addressed to a female--Hagar. 

In other words, Sarah is not only referring to Avraham, but also to Hagar. 

Taken literally the verse means the following:

Sarah is upset that she doesn’t have a child so she asks Avraham to father a child through her servant Hagar.  Hagar immediately gets pregnant and Sarah feels belittled by Hagar so she gets upset at Avraham and says that God should judge between Avraham and Sarah.

But this narrative raises questions.  Why would Sarah be upset at Avraham for fathering a child through Hagar when she specifically told him to do that?  

Rashi’s answer to this is that Sarah is upset with Avraham because Avraham prays for a child only for himself – “I will go childless” and not for both of them (Genesis 15:2).  In Sarah’s mind, that’s why Hashem grants a child only through Hagar and not through, Sarah.

There is a textual oddity in the text –an extra yod, with a dot above it, in the word u-veinekhah, which Rashi says reflects an additional, hidden meaning in the story.  Sarah is not only asking for Hashem to judge Avraham, but also to judge Hagar.  Rashi says that Sarah is so upset with Hagar that she placed an evil eye upon Hagar and caused her to miscarry.

As a result of Sarah’s behavior, the Talmud derives a principle that whoever tries to get someone else to suffer, the accusing person will actually suffer first -- kol hamoser din al chaveiro hu neenash techilah.  For this reason, Sarah dies before Hagar at the age of 127, and then, to make things even sharper, according to midrash, Hagar actually marries Abraham (Bava Kamma 93a).

Here is a summary of these midrashim:

Sarah and Abraham desperately want a child, so Sarah tells Abraham to take her servant, Hagar, as a surrogate.  Hagar becomes pregnant.  Sarah then resents Hagar and Abraham.  She resents Abraham for his success and she resents Hagar for usurping her place.  She wishes ill upon Hagar and causes her to miscarry.  This in turn causes Sarah to be punished by Hashem and to die early.

The message of the midrash is then we must guard ourselves from the sin of resenting people for taking what we mistakenly think is ours.  Hagar is completely innocent.  Yet, because of Sarah’s own insecurity, she becomes the object of Sarah’s derision.  This causes Sarah to unravel spiritually.  

This is a cautionary tale for all of us.  We too, must be on guard for any feelings of resentment that we feel towards others who may be standing in our place.  Often the person who we resent is innocent and it is our own misplaced feelings of resentment that could potentially cause us to spiritually unravel.

This small, extraordinary dot contains this beautiful and rich midrash.  

We can view this dot as simply reflecting confusion about whether that second yod should really be there or we can view it as teaching us an extraordinary insight into human nature and the relationship of Sarah and Avraham.

From a simple dot in the Torah we get an entire story.  Imagine what we could do with an entire letter!

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780