Between the Lines—Terumah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף כב עמוד א

תניא, רבי אומר: בתחלה בכתב זה ניתנה תורה לישראל, כיון שחטאו - נהפך להן לרועץ, כיון שחזרו בהן - החזירו להם... למה נקרא שמה אשורית - שמאושרת בכתב. רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר משום רבי אליעזר בן פרטא שאמר משום רבי אלעזר המודעי: כתב זה לא נשתנה כל עיקר, שנאמר )שמות כ"ז( ווי העמודים; מה עמודים לא נשתנו - אף ווים לא נשתנו. ואומר) אסתר ח'( ואל היהודים ככתבם וכלשונם, מה לשונם לא נשתנה - אף כתבם לא נשתנה.


Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21a-b

We have been taught that Rabbi said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in the [Assyrian] script. But when they sinned, it was turned for them into roetz [broken, rugged script]. After they repented [in the days of Ezra], the Ashurit characters were restored to them . . . Why is it called Ashurit? Because its script is meusheret, "square, upright." But Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Perata, who said it in the name of Rabbi Eleazar of Modim: The script of the Torah was never essentially changed, for Scripture records, "The vavs [hooks] of the posts" (Exod. 27:10), which implies that their [letter] vav was even then upright like a pillar. And Scripture says, "Unto the Jews, according to their writing and language" (Esther 8:9); even as their language had not changed, so their writing had not changed.

In what font does the Torah need to be written?

A glance inside a Torah scroll reveals that the font is indeed different than what is printed in standard siddurim and other Hebrew texts. It is clearly a beautiful and highly stylized calligraphy, but as this midrash makes clear it is also part of the tradition handed down from generation to generation.

Which is not to say that the font was given to Moses at Sinai, which is what the opening line of the midrash implies. The midrash reveals that the early rabbis knew what archeologists have come to understand, that the Hebrew writing used in ancient Israel was different than the one born from Aramaic which we have inherited. If we don't force a literal reading here, we see the rabbis' basic question: why was there one font long ago—before Ezra (a not unimportant turning point in biblical transmission)—and another one now?

The answer Rabbi invents has a moral: our sins affect the very letters of the Torah tradition. When we are meushar (square, upright), so are the letters of our holiest text, and when we are not, neither are they. Rabbi Eleazar of Modim, on the other hand, insists on an unchanging tradition (and uses a verse from this week's parashah to bolster his case). As Conservative Jews, we relish—along with Rabbi—the fact that our tradition has changed over time. But like Rabbi Eleazar of Modim, we also want to feel that our Judaism has an unbreakable link with the past. In continuing to read the words of Torah—in Ashurit from the Torah scroll as it is chanted in synagogue, and in a variety of fonts as we read from humashim and parashah commentaries—we ultimately manage to navigate the combined message of both. The final rabbinic lesson is that in learning from one generation to the next the teachings of those who have come before us, we retain a script and a community which is meushar—solid, balanced, and upright.