An interesting Torah scribal tradition seen in Parshat Balak
This is part of a D’var Torah I presented on Shabbat Balak in 2012 at Beth Israel Judea.
The portion of Balak is filled with wonderful stories, miracles and great characters. And it also holds a number of very beautiful Hebrew poems: the prophecies and blessings of Billam. In the story, Billam and his client, the Moabite king Balak, climb ever higher on the mountains surrounding the Israelite camp and prepare to launch curses down upon them. However, each time Billam is supposed to launch a curse Billam offers a blessing – all of which is really a MacGuffin, since from the very beginning of the story we know that the Holy One won’t let Billam curse Israel and Billam knows this.
There are interesting traditions that we can see in the final blessing. In almost all modern Torah scrolls (meaning scrolls from the last 150 years or so), the first letter of each column of text starts with the letter “vav,” except in a few instances, depending on the scribe and the tradition that the scribe is “scribing.” This tradition goes back more than a millennia and wasn’t always approved of by various rabbinical authorities. So, depending, there can be 5 columns, or 6, or 7 or even 8 columns in a scroll with a different letter than a vav. There’s no halacha on this, rather, it’s a scribal custom.
The tradition, in part, comes from from a play on words. In Parashat Terumah Ex. 27:11, the hooks that will support the panels, or columns of the Mishkan, are called “Vavei Ha’Amudim.” With a double play on words, we uncover the scribal tradition: Amudim means columns in the Torah – the written not the physical columns – and “vavei” is the plural of vav.
According to the Kabbalists, the letter vav is an extended yod and symbolically represents the pulling down of the Divine wisdom into this world. At the top of each column in Torah, we see the representation of the Infinite Divine wisdom acting in the world.
So, each column begins with a vav, except when they don’t.
In the tradition, the “six” exceptions are columns that start with letters which spell B’YaH SHMO, meaning “with G-d’s name”. It would seem that those letters convey the overall goal of the vavs at the top of every one of the other columns, to draw G-d’s name into the world through Torah.
[BTW: There are 304,805 actual letters in the Torah, usually 248 columns in a Torah, and 79,847 words.)
ב Bet from Bereshit, the first word of the Torah.
י Yod from “Yehudah ata” (Gen. 49:8) “Judah you …”
ה Hay from “Habaim ahareihem” (Ex. 14:28) “Coming behind …” (before the Shirat Hayam)
ש Shin from “Sh’mar lekha” (Ex. 34:11) “Beware of what I command …“ although some say from Sh’nei has’irim goralot (Vay. 16:8) and some say from Sh’mor v’shamata (Deut. 11:28)
מ Mem from Ma tovu (Num. 24:5), and some say from Motza sfateikha (Deut. 23:24)
ו Vav? from V’a’idah bam (Deut. 31:28) to bear witness
There is much confusion on these non-vavei columns around the Internet and some of the info appears to be unreliable and contradictory. I believe I’m doing more than adding to the stew pot with this post. As Mendele Mocher Seforim (1836 – 1917) said: “A person can detect a speck in another’s hair, but can’t see the flies on his own nose.”