The marking of pisquot, the spacing between paragraphs of text in the Torah scroll, are ancient and sacred.
As the Halakhic Midrashim (about 3rd c. CE), teach, “Why were the pisquot introduced? To give Moshe time to reflect between each parashah, and between each subject.”1
Any errors marking the petuchot (full break) and setumot (semi break) divisions render a Torah scroll unfit for use in the synagogue, according to the halacha, “If a petuchah is written instead of a setumah, or a setumah instead of a petuchah, the scroll should be removed from Liturgical use.” (Sifra in Deut., sect. 36).
This is not the case with codices (bound handwritten texts) or printed books, which often contain errors. Unfortunately, typos do not render printed Torahs unfit for use.
Be careful to note that, in general, the paragraph breaks of the English translation (or whichever translation one happens to be using) in a printed bible are not based on the intrinsic section breaks described here.
Rather, they are usually based on the Chapter and Verse distinctions, which are artificial to our text. This is because the chapter / verse system was superimposed by Christian scholars onto the text of the TaNaCh (Hebrew Bible) at a much later date (but that is beyond the scope of this piece).
So when you truly want to understand how the Torah herself groups topics, when there are breaks or interruptions or sections set apart, you must look within the Hebrew text of a reliable Torah scroll.
If a scroll is not available to you, a Tikkun is the next best thing (just know that there are variant traditions between Tikkunim, too, and they rarely indicate Otiot Meshunot). A Tikkun is a reference book of Torah scroll text, used when learning to chant Torah portions, or as a reference for scribal writing.
You’ve been very patient. Just a few more definitions and then we can take a break from describing breaks and move on to the meaning.
Pisqua Be’emtza Passuk: Break in the Midst of a Verse
The next type of section break is the one found in our Parasha, the one we’re finally prepared to tackle after learning the value of empty space according to Masorah.
This distinctive break is created by a Petuchah, a full-stop break, that appears right in the middle of a verse. This is unusual. Breaks usually occur at the end of a passuk (biblical sentence) to signify something important: most often a change of topic, but not always.
Because of the irregular nature of a break happening in the middle of a verse, this phenomenon is given its own name: a “Pisqua be’emtza passuk”, literally a “Break in the middle of a verse”.
These breaks are quite rare within the Chumash (Five Books of Moses)2. Pisqua’ot be’emtza passuk only occur three times in the Chumash, and each break, it seems to me, demarcates a serious moment in time within the biblical narrative. The extraordinary spacing, by the absence of text, fills a moment with gravity.
Our job is to seek to understand by asking why.
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׃
“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).
Note that in the Torah scroll, the pisqua be’emtza passuk break appears as empty space. The letter Peh (פ) signifying the Petuchah only appears in printed books.
Why this break?
Ponder that during this narrative interlude.
With a lot of care and a little daring, I found my way back down from the crown of the Oak to the safety of the forest floor. I was pretty proud of myself that I came away unscathed, without toppling off the bough into the ivy or barking my shins against the rough tree branches.
I felt whole after my trade with the tree: in return for removing deadwood, she had rewarded me with apples for ink. I thanked her.
Before heading back to rejoin my parents and drive home to the city, I decided to visit my chickens.
You see, most of the animals on our ranch are rescues. The chickens are no different. On the morning of Yom Kippur several years back, we were walking to schul and came upon a little red hen running around our urban neighborhood! But that is a different story. She’s at the ranch now, fondly named Kaparah, and with her is another chicken I reared, a black hen with the sweetest nature I’d ever seen in a bird, so I named her Sweet Pea.
It was the latter hen I was concerned about – a kind nature is lovely when your friend is a person, but other chickens can be cruel to the kindhearted.
To get to the chicken hutch where my chickens are, you have to go through the goat pen.
I tore a leaf of alfalfa off the bale and headed through the gate, careful to lock it behind me. The herd of goats rushed for the treat, which I broke into pieces so the different age groups would all have a chance to get some. One sleek, fat brown goat bullied others out of the way. This goat in particular was one I had dubbed “Princessa Peepee” when I visited after she was born last year. I had so named her because her character was haughty, high and mighty, even more unbridled than her mother’s willful nature.
With the goats eating, I was free to find Sweet Pea. I made my way to the last chicken enclosure and let myself inside.
At first, I couldn’t tell my hens apart from the others. I took a handful of grain from the bin and called to the chickens. Most ignored me. Two looked up with recognition and, after a pause, I saw the love in their eyes. They rushed over.
Kaparah looked just fine, strong, her clipped beak just as crooked and her feathers just as auburn as when we first found her. She is a survivor.
But one glimpse at the state of Sweet Pea broke my heart. Her once glossy feathers, so black they had glowed emerald green, were disjointed and dull. The full pink nakedness of her back was exposed, as was the back of her head below her crown. She had a sort of sad disbelief in her soft eyes.
“Sweet Pea! What happened to you?”
She cooed and leaned against my hand. She pecked at the grain watchfully.
I didn’t know if it was the other hens who were henpecking her feathers out or if it was the rooster, or both, but clearly she had been bullied recently. I needed to get her out of there.
I stood and the chickens scattered. It took a bit for me to corner Sweet Pea, since I was so out of practice at chicken catching, but catch her I did, and I tucked her under my arm. Turning for the door, I was surprised to see Princessa Peepee blocking my path in the doorway. She began forcing her way through the gap of the door and into the coop. She wanted the chicken’s grain.
I reacted instinctively from my experience as a shepherdess in times past: I leaned my hip against the doorjamb to block the goat’s head from coming through, putting my weight in my front foot. I had to prevent her from getting in and trampling the chickens.
Had this been my flock of goats, it would have been enough. We had grown up together, known each other, respected each other’s push and pull (for the most part).
But though I had watched these goats grow from afar, occasionally spending time with them on visits from the city, these goats did not know me. They were generations removed from the flock I had known and and loved. Though I had named Princessa, she did not respect me. She’d grown big and heavy in a year, she was spoiled, she had no fear of God in her, and she was still hungry.
In an instant she broke through and butted me and I lost my footing on the incline of the dirt floor.
Before I knew it I was falling, hard, on my hip, and Sweet Pea flew squawking into the air. I was unprepared for the fury I felt at having been knocked down like this. The gall of that goat! I thought harshly.
Other goats followed Princessa’s lead and started pouring into the hutch. Anger turned to fear. The last place you want to be during a livestock stampede is under their hooves. I wrenched myself up off the dirt and yelled at them, I banged against the water tin, and they summarily ignored me, crowding around to feast from the forbidden chicken trough.
The hens fled from the drumming hooves. I tore outside and grabbed a stray branch, a Lamed – a makeshift Shepherd’s staff. The goats flung their heads up, their large yellow eyes fixed on the tall staff, and finally began obeying me. I hallooed them out of the hutch.
I cannot deny giving Princessa Peepee a swift switch to the rear.
The chickens were frantic but unharmed. The herd of goats were lazily watchful. I tidied up as much as I could, recaptured Sweet Pea, firmly locked the chicken coop, and hobbled out of the goat enclosure leaning on my broken staff. My hen I held gently yet firmly in the crook of my arm while speaking soothing words to her (and to myself).
I’ve since been laid up with a twisted ankle, scraped forearms and shins, a gangked wrist, and a banged-up hip with a fierce bruise the size of a grapefruit and the exact color of a large fistful of smashed blackberries, for three days. The ache and pang of every old injury on the left side of my body have added their voices to this cacophony of pain.
So much for emerging unscathed.
The important thing is that we rescued (a rather ruffled) Sweat Pea from the abusive situation and isolated her in her own enclosure to recuperate. She has a healthy appetite and should be fine in about two weeks time.
Kindness to Animals
The reader might now be thinking, “Devorah, these stories of galls, goats, and chickens are all very nice, but what have they to do with Masorah?”
Here is why these stories apply.
It would be an error to assume the Torah and the ethical Jewish lifestyle only prescribe the relationship between human beings and the divine. The number of Mitzvot in the Torah that deal with mankind’s relationship to the animal and natural world, and the moral value placed upon these obligations, cannot be denied.
A Jew who is kind to people and keeps the commandments, yet is cruel to animals, or willfully destroys the earth, is a transgressor who affronts G!d and denies the Torah. This principle is called Tsa’ar Baalei Chayim, the injunction against behaving with unnecessary cruelty towards living things. The sources for this principle are vast, and span the gamut of biblical text, Talmud, halakha, Jewish philosophical and rabbinical commentary, and Hasidic literature.3
Some argue that the reason for the commandments to be kind, not cruel, to animals exist to sensitize people to the way in which they treat their fellow human beings. While this idea has merit, it also misses the point.4
Being kind and sensitive to the natural world has value in itself. Only once the principle of loving creation is established, without regard for its value or use to us as human beings, can we then place ourselves into equation of interacting with the ecosystem.
Our ancestors were shepherds before they became leaders of our nation. Yaacov, Moshe, David: all were granted leadership status of others only after having first proven themselves competent, generous carertakers of their own animals.
As surprising as it may be, I am not the first scholar who has thought of livestock as a metaphor to understand the deeper meaning of our pisqua be’emtza passuk. Another scholar, this one a German rabbi, mystic, Talmudist, masoreticist, commentator, and codifier writing in the 1200s, made this connection before me. Baruch she’kivanti.
As a Shepherd Counts His Flock
Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (12th – 13th c. Germany)5, known as the Baal HaRokeach, or simply the Rokeach, gives a tripartite explanation of the break in our verse in his Torah commentary.
To understand the break, teaches the Rokeach, we must look at the context of the verse.
“And it happened after the plague ,” with its pisqua be’emtza passuk is followed right away by G!d’s commandment to Moshe and Elazar, his nephew who has just received the mantle of Cohanic leadership from Aaron, to take a census of the people. What is the connection?
“There is a break in the middle of the verse to teach us that the plague does not rule over the counting (census), nor will it be a hinderance in Israel.
Furthermore, this break marks a demarcation point: Here [in the middle of the book of Bamidbar] marks the moment when the last [group of the elder generation of Israelites] perish in the desert [according to divine decree. This was part of the consequence of the matter of the spies from parshat Shelach. G!d kept his word that this generation would die before entering the land, except for Joshua ben Nun and Caleb ben Yephuneh].
In addition, Moshe knew there was a certain number of men of fighting age that had left Egypt: at least 600,000 men [above age 20]. Now that many had fallen [as a result of the plague], it became necessary to count them as a shepherd counts his flock of animals. When a wolf comes and devours [his or her flock], a shepherd must count the animals to determine how many are missing. So must the sheep or goats pass under the hand of the counter [the responsible shepherd].”6
There is so much to parse here.
First, we have learned that the large space in the text “after the plague” is intimately connected with the census that follows, as the explanation of the Rokeach bears out.
The Rokeach first states that the break in the text reflects how power of the plague was broken, and how the illness “will not rule over Israel” or have any affect on the counting of the nation. We then learn from the Rokeach that this was no natural illness: it was a supernatural punishment for the error of the generation who lost hope after the report of the spies (see “Of Bread and Butterflies” to learn more about what happened).
The break in the text reflects the end of the plague of divine punishment. The last of the generation destined to die in the desert have now been buried. This break, this empty parchment, is therefore the indication of the space between generations. It is a seminal moment of poignant transition. The generation who knew they would die from the divine hand would, teaches a Midrash, dug their own graves and lay down in them in the evening, never expecting to rise up again in the morning. If it was their time to die, their children would bury them where they lay. Now, that time of fear, despair, and death was ended with this pisqua.
As they experienced it, the people of Israel were entering a new phase. A new generation. A new beginning. As we experience it, the narrative is entering a new chapter. There is a demarcation here of a profound nature.
Finally, the Rokeach explains why the census was commanded when it was. A census in our tradition does not assign numbers to the individual: it is about something much less superficial and much more sensitive.
Why take stock of a nation after the plague?
As a shepherd loves his flock, when something goes wrong and you lose your creatures due to evil beyond your control, you naturally must check on the survivors. How many are missing? How many are safe? Bury the dead, comfort the mourners, “raise up their heads”, says HaShem.
This is enough for now. In Part III, we will explore how the swelling of a tree limb, the swelling of a wound, the treatment of chickens, livestock and human beings, all relate to the sacredness of space in our tradition.
Until then, be well, stay healthy. And be kind.
This piece is dedicated to all those who are battling or recovering from COVID-19, or who are mourning those who have succumbed to this illness.
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 plague.
- Sifra, Leviticus 1:1, ed. Finkelstein, p. 6. A Midrash (pl. Midrashim) is an interpretation of the biblical text through storytelling, answering questions, and forging intertextual connections. A Midrash Halakha focuses on Jewish law and practices.
- For more information on this, reference the Jewish Encyclopedia, “Breaks in the Middle of Verses”
- See for example Ex. 23:5 and commentary Bava Metzia 32b:9-16; Deut. 22:10 and comment of Sefer HaChinukh 550:1-2; Ramban on Deut. 22:6-1; Talmud Shabbat 128b:4-7; especially Or HaChayim on Gen. 29:71:1.
- “Judaism has always recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats human beings. A person who is cruel to a defenseless animal will undoubtedly be cruel to defenseless people, and a person who cares for the lowest of creatures will certainly care for his fellow man.” See Mechon-Mamre, “Treatment of Animals”. Accessed July 16, 2020. <https://www.mechon-mamre.org/jewfaq/animals.htm>
- Read about The Rokeach’s extraordinary life: Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “Eleazar ben Judah of Worms”. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. January 1, 2020. Accessed July 14, 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eleazar-ben-Judah-of-Worms>
- Photo from Pirush HaRokeach al HaTorah, Bamidbar-Devarim. Ed. David Klugmann, Gavriel Klugmann, Dovid Klugmann. Bnei Brak. Hebrew. p. 111. My translation of the Rokeach’s comment derived from a phone call with Rabbi Abraham Lieberman July 10, 2020 in which he patiently explained the plain meaning and nuances of this comment. Any errors in translation are my own.