No, it’s not what you think. It’s between two Hebrew letter nuns. More precisely between the two nun hafukha – two backwards (i.e. reversed) nuns.
׆ וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָֽאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה ׀ יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹֽיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ: וּבְנֻחֹה יֹאמַר שׁוּבָה יְהֹוָה רִֽבֲבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ׆
When the Ark was to set out, Moshe would say: Advance, O L”rd! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You! And when it halted, he would say: Return, O L”rd, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands. (Numbers 10:35-36, JPS)
The first verse of the text is a familiar one. It’s part of the opening of the service for reading the Torah (though it is less familiar and less often used in Reform settings.)
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, being one of the longest parashiyot (though not the longest,) parashat B’ha’a lot’kha is just chock full of interesting things about which to muse. I commend to you other musings I’ve written on this parasha (see below.) I’ve even written about the nuns surrounding vs. 10:35-36 before, however this time my focus is narrower.
The first thought, upon seeing these reversed nuns, is to wonder if they are an addition by the Masoretes themselves, who, it might be said, did not seem to be shy of editorializing when it came to their work on creating a standard version of the Torah with vowels and trope to guide pronunciation and syntax. That thought, however, is blown out of the water by the fact that these characters are referenced in Talmud. In Tractate Shabbat, 115b and 116a, there is a discussion about when it is necessary to save scrolls and other items of sacred text from a fire or destruction. Though it never refers specifically to an inverted nun character, it does identify a text of 85 letters between two signs – which is an exact match for the text in question. The length of these two verses, 85 letters, becomes a minimum standard to define how many readable or discernable letters a scroll must contain to be worthy of saving from a fire.
The discussion then states that the “Rabbis” (the Tannaim) taught that these signs (the two inverted nuns) were there to indicate that the text was not in its proper place. “Rabbi” (Yehuda HaNasi) says it’s a separate book. The text goes on to identify the Tanna who disagrees with “Rabbi” as Rabbi Gamliel, and states his position that the signs indicate this text is meant to be placed elsewhere. The Talmud goes on to suggest that since this indicates a missing book, that Numbers itself is two separate books ) before and after 10:35-36) and thus Torah has seven, and not five books. Not an opinion that has held much sway over the millennia.
I don’t have quick access to determine if there any any ancient Torah scrolls (perhaps from Qumran or elsewhere) that testify to the existence of the two inverted nuns, but I’ll take the Talmud at its word. (Perhaps someone out there has knowledge of this?)
There are also 7 inverted nuns in Psalm 107. Rashi mentions another inverted nun that is supposed to be at the end of parashat Noah on the word/place name “Haran.” but there’s no evidence of such a marking existing other than this reference.
The Midrash has another explanation about the two reversed nuns. It suggests that the text between the inverted nuns, verses 35-36, are the utterances of Eldad and Medad. You remember them – they dared utter prophecies in the camp, and tattletales came running to Moses, who rebuked the tattletales by wishing that all of G”d’s people were filled with such prophetic spirit. There are hints of a mystical book of the prophecies of Eldad and Medad.Rabbinical commentaries state that Eldad and Medad spoke about the war between Gog and Magog. Gog is a named plucked from Genesis 10 that figures in the prophecies of Ezekiel. It should be noted that the story of Eldad and Medad occurs in this parasha, but later, in chapter 11, after the reversed nuns. I know we’re not supposed to look at Torah in a linear fashion, but the order does make one question the theory.
For what its worth, there are Greek manuscripts that use what is called a reverse sigma to indicates short pieces of text that are “out of place” and meant to be elsewhere. This gives some support to the Tannaim, but it becomes a who borrowed from whom question.
In my earlier musings on the 10:35-36, I wrote:
I have a different theory – which ignores the nuns completely. I think the whole book of Leviticus wasn’t part of the Torah originally. leave out Leviticus, and you can move quite nicely from the end of Exodus to chapter 9 of Numbers (which is the second chapter in B’ha’alot’kha.) You just dispense with all the priestly stuff and you still get a good read and a good story. Not to mention more than enough mitzvot without all the ones we can’t do anymore because we don’t have a Temple.
Of course, if my (rather ridiculous and wholly unsubstantiated) theory holds true, then perhaps there was something else in the Torah that is now missing, and represented by the text between the two nuns.
So is there a whole missing book? Is this text out of place and belongs later as part of the story of Eldad and Medad in chapter 11? The text is verses 35 and 36 is perfectly consonant with the previous verses. So I’m not sure why anyone would conclude these version belong somewhere else and that’s what the reversed nuns indicate.
I’m puzzled. This text fits in quite nicely, so why is it marked as special? Far greater scholars than I have tried to figure it out, and still we have no consensus. If you believe in Torah miSinai, I suppose it’s not an issue. G”d had some reason for putting those marking there. If you’re more accepting of a human origin for the text of Torah, you have to wonder about these nuns. Did some ancient scribe, unsure if he had made a mistake in copying or transcribing, simply include these to remind him to check it out later, and he simply forgot to erase them (Yes, the ink can be scraped off, effectively erasing things.) Maybe he was interrupted while writing and accidentally started putting in items from a shopping list his wife was giving him which he marked off with the nuns, then later erased and replaced with the proper text but her forgot to erase the signs? Did he just like this particular text? Was 85 his magic, mystical number that he just happened to notice here?
As I’ve said before, maybe these things that puzzle us are there for exactly that purpose – to puzzle us. G”d’s little joke, or some scribe’s little joke. “Hah! I’ll just add these backwards letters here to freak people out. They’ll go crazy trying to figure out what it means.”
Guess what? It worked.
©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
B’ha’alot’kha 5774 – Zechariah’s Woo-Woo and Letting Go
B’ha’alot’kha 5773-Still Ecstatic After All These Years
B’ha’alot’kha 5771 – Mandatory Retirement
B’ha’alot’kha 5770 – Ecstasy (Redux 5760)
B’ha’alot’kha 5766 – Vay’hi Binsoa – Movin’ Out, Movin’ On
B’ha’alot’cha 5765-Unintended Results?
Beha’alotekha 5762 – Redux 5759 – The Kiss of Moshe