I spent most of yesterday afternoon cradled in the limbs of an ancient oak.
This wasn’t just any old tree – this was part of the playground of my youth: The Oak Fortress. The hefty, twisted ship’s rope that my father secured in its top branches over two decades ago still looked strong as the hard wood itself, tantalizingly out of reach.
For the first time in more years than I care to admit, I kicked off my shoes and climbed up the trunk to reach the top. My foot faltered. My sense of balance was wonky. The sharp texture of bark hurt the softness of my soles. Ants ran over my knuckles. Flies buzzed around my eyes. This wasn’t as easy as it used to be, I thought. I used to scramble up trees as quick as a wink, back when I was a slip of a girl.
But that seems like so long ago.
Despite discomfort, I climbed higher and higher, until my fingertips reached the rope.
Testing its hold, and finding it firm, I took a breath, grabbed it, and swung out with one foot to reach the highest limb, the limb that stretched high over the fence at the edge of our property. Achieving this, I took hold of the bough with one hand, then the other, gripping with hands, elbows, knees, then swinging my legs on either side of the limb like I used to straddle the back of my pony, finally reaching out and down with my arms and chest to lean my ribcage against the mighty oak’s arm.
In the Arms of an Oak
I was pretty high up, pretty thrilled at the dizzying drop below, especially giddy since I was suspended above a large patch of poison oak that I did not intend to meet. To be frank, I was also pretty unsure of how I was going to get back down.
Lying pantherlike up in the Oak, I lost track of time. No time piece had I, aside from the motion of the sun. This is a rare thing in today’s world. For the first time in many, many years, as I listened to the birdsong and breathed in the clean dusty air, I realized that I had nowhere else I needed to be.
I am in the inbetween time, having celebrated the socially-distant, close family gathering that brought us all back to our homestead, the ranch, and after having declared my independence from my full-time job, which I left in preparation for becoming a full-time PhD student this fall.
I cannot wait to begin my doctoral studies…but guess what? The semester begins two whole, glorious months from now.
For the first time since my youth, I felt the golden glow–the release of joy and freedom–that marks the first day of summer vacation; only now it was tinged darkly at the edges with the worries and responsibilities brought on by adulthood and by this current pandemic.
My oldest friend is a master naturalist, tracker, educator, and flower farmer; wise well beyond her years, she is my teacher in (re)learning the secrets of the natural world.
I thought of how in one outdoor classroom lesson plan, she brings her young students to a grove of California Live Oak trees, asks each child to choose one, then to clamber up into their chosen tree to carefully break and hurl down the deadwood. This gives the tree renewal: it can now create new growth. This gives the students a bond to the earth: they learn that they can help other living things thrive.
I decided to try it. Carefully balancing atop the bough, I reached up and tugged loose the large, spreading, dry-dead branches, which broke apart in my hands and fell to the undergrowth below. As I worked, I could almost feel the tree breathe a sigh of relief. In that moment I looked out and saw something unusual: the living twigs that were visible now that the dead matter was cleared had some kind of swelling on them. I inched out farther to take a closer look.
They were oak apples!
I inspected them. I noticed how they were riddled with holes, each a different size and shape. Then I decided to gather them, reaching carefully with fingertips for the gifts.
I remembered with glee that oak galls are a key ingredient to make the kosher ink that is used by scribes to write Torah scrolls.
Maybe I would try and make some. Maybe now, with ink made from our home tree, I would finally be able to write my Scroll of Esther.
Hands filled with galls, I nestled them in the pockets of my dress, which was a deep green: the color of the leaves. Full pockets, full heart, I swung my legs like a little kid, and never wanted to come down.
Apple or Oaken Gall?
Before we turn our attention to the matter at hand, the empty space in parashat Pinchas, I would like to share a little of what I learned about Oak Apples in preparing this post.
An oak gall, also known as the oak apple, appears June-July. While they can appear grey or rosy, these swellings on oak branches are not actually apples at all. In fact, they are the nurseries of parasitic wasps.
What happens is this: an oak gall wasp lays her eggs on the tree, and either the mother or the young insects presumably 1 excrete a substance which irritates the tree bark. The tree reacts by swelling and creating a round or elongated gall. This hardens into a protective coating, like a home, or a hobbit hole, for baby wasps to develop in safety. Once mature, the wasps eat their way out of the gall, leaving exit holes, and the gall remains on the tree branch.2
The Torah scribes of old would gather the dry galls and uses them as a key ingredient to create kosher ink to write Torah scrolls. Grind the galls, add water, then add vitriol (we call it iron sulfate today), and the ink magically turns a deep and velvety black before your eyes.3
The longevity of a Torah scroll depends on the quality of the ink, and the quality of the ink depends on the quality of the Oak gall.
Use galls which have too much tannic acid, and the ink could eat right through the parchment over time, or turn rusty red. Use galls with too little acid and the ink will come out grey.4.
From the tree’s perspective, the wasp attacks it and causes injury that forces the Oak to swell in self-defense. But from its own perspective, what is the wasp doing?
The empty space inside the oak apple will defend her young.5
The Space Between
Today, dear reader, climb up to the oak canopy with me. There is plenty of room.
From up here, we can shift our gaze from the Hebrew letters to the spaces in between. Would you believe that the empty spaces, teach Masorah, are just as holy as the written words?
This is brought down to us from none other than Maimonides, the Rambam: Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204). Rambam endorsed the Aleppo Codex, a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, that was written in Tiberias in the 10th century CE. It represents the Masoretic tradition of the Ben-Asher school.
What made Maimonides endorse the Aleppo Codex? The fact that the spaces between the parashot were precise and accurate. Maimonides therefore based his own divisions of the parashot for his Mishneh Torah on this very Codex.
Page of the Aleppo Codex with examples of the flawless spacing: The Aleppo Codex Online Sam II 11.27
Break After the Magefah
“And it happened after the plague
and G!d said to Moses and to Elazar son of Aaron the priest, “Lift up the heads [take a census] of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years and up, according to their fathers’ houses, all who go out to the legion in Israel. Moses and Elazar the Kohen spoke to them in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan near Jericho, saying: “From twenty years of age and up, as HaShem had commanded Moses and the Children of Israel, who were coming out of the land of Egypt.” (Bamidbar 26:1-4).
וַיְהִ֖י אַחֲרֵ֣י הַמַּגֵּפָ֑ה (פ) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה וְאֶ֧ל אֶלְעָזָ֛ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֥ן הַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃
שְׂא֞וּ אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ ׀ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֛ה וָמַ֖עְלָה לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר מֹשֶׁ֜ה וְאֶלְעָזָ֧ר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֹתָ֖ם בְּעַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֑ב עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵח֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃
מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה כַּאֲשֶׁר֩ צִוָּ֨ה ה’ אֶת־מֹשֶׁה֙ וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַיֹּצְאִ֖ים מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
This is the focus of our discussion today: The break in the text after the phrase, “And it happened after the plague — ”
There are many types of spaces and section breaks in the Torah scroll. Each is of seminal importance. Just as a letter cannot be added or removed from the scroll without rendering the entire document unkosher (unfit for ritual use according to Jewish law), so too a space in the text can neither be added or removed without rendering the entire Torah unkosher.
In order to truly understand the section breaks in the Torah, we must take a quick step backward together to see the larger picture.
Empty space, and whether we embrace it, shun it, or fear it, is in large part decided by our native culture. In Art Historical terms, Eastern Art (art of Asia) tends to embrace empty space as essential to a beautiful and balanced composition. Think Yin & Yang.
In a Japanese painting, a stretch of unpainted paper can be a low hanging cloud, or a snowdrift, a lake, or a waterfall.
In Western Art (European art, as based on the traditions of Greece & Rome), there tends to be a literal fear of empty space, called “horror vacui”.
Every inch of the canvas, to the Western painter’s mind, must be covered with paint; every corner of the composition must be filled.
As עברים, Ivrim, our tradition does not fall neatly into either category, but rather crosses over these borders to outline something new.
Our central text could not be simpler: letters formed of black ink on white parchment. Both aspects of our Torah scroll are essential: one cannot exist without the other. Our metaphor for this aesthetic is “black fire on white fire”.
The letters and the empty space are both carriers of value and meaning. Unlike a Chinese ink painting, though, in our tradition even the blank spaces are far too important to be left entirely up to interpretation and discretion of the individual.
This is why the Masoretes “froze” the spacing into place by noting the width between every word, the spacing after every line, the size and shape of every paragraph break between every line, and the spacing between every book of the Torah.
Look into a Torah scroll, and you will see that negative and positive space create the text equally with this finely attuned yet simple balance.
Hebrew is stunningly simple. Unroll a Torah scroll completely and you will find only black, shining letters therein: no more, no less.
There are no punctuation marks, no capital letters, no vowel signs.
No page numbers. No index.
The cantillation marks are not there, either. These appear only on codices and in printed books.
There is no illumination, color, or embellishment of any kind on the margins. Those appear only on illustrated manuscripts – not scrolls.
The only ornament to be found within the Torah text are the crownlets on the letters. The only embellishments of the letters themselves appear in the form of the Otiot Meshunot (atypical letters), which are, alas, few and far between on newly scribed scrolls. The older the scroll, though, the more plentiful these special otiot.
The only aspect of the text that differentiates and regulates the Hebrew letters are the non-letters, and by that I mean the spaces in between words, paragraphs, parashas, and books. Where do these spacings originate?
In ancient times, the scrolls of the Torah (every book of the entire Hebrew Bible) used to be an individual document.
If the scroll was long enough to warrant it, the parchment was wrapped around a central wooden rod, called an umbilicus, for structure and stability. At some point, the scrolls of the Chumash (5 books of Moses) were combined into one unified Torah scroll that today dwells within the heart of every Jewish community worldwide. When that happened, a second rod was added. These wooden rods, each called the Etz Haim (Tree of Life), were attached to both ends of the scroll with disc-like headers and footers to make the hefty document more wieldy.
Other books of the Torah, such as The Scroll of Esther, remained separate documents. Shorter scrolls, such as the Twelve Minor Prophets, were replaced entirely in the modern synagogue service by printed books.
Breaks in between biblical books, therefore, are the primary section breaks. For example, the break between Beresheet (Genesis) and Shemot (Exodus); Devarim (Deuteronomy) and Joshua; Ruth and Song of Songs, are full breaks. These appear as several lines of empty space between texts, if they are rolled into one document.
Secondary section breaks are the paragraph breaks between Torah readings. Each reading on its own is called a Parasha, plural are Parashot (or Parshiyot), for example Parashat Chayei Sarah, Parashat Balak, or Parashat Ekev.
In printed editions, sometimes the threefold repetition פפפ or ססס are used to indicate the beginning of a Parashah, according to whether the Parashah begins with a Petuchah or a Setumah Division. We’ll define Petuchah and Setumah next.
Traditions of Torah Reading
The Torah was originally divided for the Shabbat readings in the synagogue based on regional custom: After the first Jewish exile from the Land of Israel, two reading traditions developed by country.
- In Babylonia, it was customary to complete the reading of the Torah in a single year, so the reading was divided into sections: Parashot. Originally, there were 53 Parashot, but at a late period, Vayelech became its own Parasha, so the number today is 54.
- Meanwhile, in Israel, the Jewish community completed the Torah reading in 3 to 3 1/2 years, so the Torah was divided into 154 or 167 sections. The beginning of each seder is indicated by the letter Samech as a sign (often with some ornamentation). These Samech signs can be seen on the margins of Yemenite Taj (TaNaKh), both manuscripts and some printed editions.6
There are still, to this day, differing traditions in which Torah section is read on a given week (for example, in the USA we are sometimes one Parasha behind that which is being read in Israel), and how much of the Torah is read (the difference is mostly between Jewish sects: a communal Torah reading in a Conservative or Reconstructionist synagogue might be following the triennial cycle of ancient Israel, whereas an Orthodox congregation would follow on the annual cycle developed in Babylon).
Differences aside, by the end of the year, we all come together and celebrate the completion of the Torah reading at the same time: at the festival of Simchat Torah, the joyous climax of the autumnal High Holiday cycle.
In terms of section breaks or paragraph breaks within the Torah, there are two general categories that divide based on topic:
Petucha (open), פּתוחה : A full stop after a paragraph. Paragraph ends at the beginning of a new line. In other words, after a Petucha break, the rest of the line is left open.
Setuma (closed), סתומה : A half stop after a paragraph. In other words, after a Setuma break, the rest of the line is left closed.
If these section breaks are noted at all in the myriad versions of the printed copies of the Torah that are in ubiquitous use today, they often appear as single letters within a paranthetical embrace.
Setuma: (ס) appears as a single Samech
Petuha: (פ) appears as a single Peh
I must mention here that reading the Torah according to the Petuha and Setumah is truly an enlightening enterprise. 7 Reading the Torah according to the section breaks superimposed on the English translation (or what have you), is, as we say in Yiddish, “nisht di zelbeh zakh” – not the same thing. The section breaks in English are arbitrary, while the Setumot and Petuchot in Hebrew make actual, logical, narrative sense.
Join me in part II to explore the sanctity of spacing further, peppered with stories of goats, protection against plagues, and more.
This piece is dedicated to all those who are battling or recovering from COVID-19. May the power of the plague be broken. May a cure be found swiftly, sooner than we expect. May we soon experience the days after this pandemic.
- I say presumably because there is so much scientists do not yet understand about how Oak galls are formed. Galls are not exactly lucrative anymore, since synthetic inks have been perfected, and this is partly why not enough research has been done or is being done on this topic. The relationship between insect and oak is in part a mystery.
- Gall Wasp, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 10, 2020.
- See this site for further details: https://scrolls4all.org/scrolls/kosher-ink/. Accessed July 11, 2020.
- For Torah ink recipe, visit the blog of scribe Jen Taylor Friedman: http://hasoferet.com/cbh/2012/03/19/ink/
- As an aside, I wonder: what would it be like to live inside an oak gall? How different is it, actually, from how we live inside our wooden houses?
- Yeivin, Israel. Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Ed. & trans. by E.J. Revell, Scholars Press, 1980. pp. 37-44.
- With gratitude to Rabbi Psachyah Lichtenstein for teaching this principle in his early morning Shavuot lecture, “Deep into the Waters of Torah: A Torah of Life”, on Saturday, May 19th, 2018 at Pearlstone Center in Maryland.