Friday, September 18, 2009

Half a vort

The text of the Torah is written out in columns, as I expect you know. Our Torah will have 245 columns*.

As it happens, 245 is also the number of words in the Shema (full text here). Good parallel, eh? The Shema is the cornerstone of the liturgy; the Torah is the cornerstone of the religion. The Shema says, bring God into all your doings; the Torah is the guide as to how. The Shema declares faith in God; the Torah symbolises God's presence. 245 words; 245 columns.

We could leave it there, and that would be very nice. However, the Shema in liturgy has an interesting peculiarity, thus: when praying as individuals, we precede it with the three words אל מלך נאמן, God truthful King. When as a community, three words are added after its silent recitation - the last two words ה' אלהיכם the-Lord your-God are repeated aloud, and the word אמת, emet, true added.

Why's this?

Well, 245+3=248, and 248 in the rabbinic narrative corresponds to the number of pertinent parts of the human body. Proverbs 3 says of the Law It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones; how better to map the fundamentals of the Law onto the fundamentals of the body than by reference to the Shema? One word for each body part, says Rav Nehori,** and everything will be good above and below.

248 is also the number of positive commandments in the Torah, as it happens. 248 imperatives, 248 vital body parts, and 248 words in the vital liturgical element.

245 columns in the Torah seemed jolly nice a few paragraphs ago, but now it seems we've got three bits missing.

Well, the Torah lives on a pair of rollers. Some call them spindles, some call them atzei hayim, trees of life - and some call them amudim, columns.

Recall that the three words added to the 245 in the Shema are אל מלך נאמן, God truthful King or ה' אלהיכם אמת the-Lord your-God [is] true. Both times, it's two words and emet, truth. With our Torah, we've got 245 columns of words, 2 wooden columns, and...and something.

What is it, this final something?

Our clue comes from another "column," the amud, the desk from which the Torah is read. Torah reading is, after all, the link between the scroll and the life of the community, both now and in all the generations before. The Torah does not mean much if it is not part of people. The Shema is only 247 mumbled words without the emet. The 248 body parts aren't much without the spark of life.

There are several ways I could finish this off, and you don't need me to say any of them, because they're all going to sound crass and didactic compared to what you can think of yourselves. So the Torah - it's 247 columns, and you.

* Not all Torahs have 245 columns. Column height and width can vary, and therefore so can the total number of columns. People are often surprised to learn this.

** Midrash Ne-elam (Zohar Chadash to Ruth), via the Mishnah Berurah on this aspect of Kriat Shema (61:6), see also Virtual Beit Midrash.

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