All the Letters in the Book of Numbers: Commentary on Parashat Bemidbar 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
On the slow news morning of Tuesday, February 10, 1885—when the same front page also reported (as an entire story), “Wheat eighteen inches high is to be seen in California”—the Boston Journal shared a new fad in American education:
A favorite copy set by writing teachers for their pupils is the following, because it contains every letter of the alphabet: “A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
Is it possible that these educators cared more about their students shaping legible lower-case letters but not so much about capital letters? Or is it that these students were being trained to accustom their fingers to where each letter-key sat on the typewriter, which, invented 21 years earlier, was then becoming a common feature of American offices? Regardless of the actual motivation, there was no factual point to this sentence. This pangram—this phrase containing every letter of the alphabet—was invented as an exercise for alphabetic mastery.
Among ancient Israelites, the Hebrew Bible served many purposes. This ancient anthology canonized laws, preserved the myths and songs of our ancestors, and hosted a few writing exercises for the budding scribe. Many contemporary scholars of the Bible might read this week’s parashah and see evidence of the pens of the Priestly class in large swaths of our text. Who else back then would be so obsessed with keeping records of census data, lineages, tribal names, and tribal leaders? The Priests, in their Temple, must have spent significant time and energy not just in tracking data but also in training the next generation of scribes who would then keep all of these sacred records. The Dutch scholar Karel van der Toorn wrote in his book Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007):
[T]he essence of scribal training [in ancient Israel] does not reside in buildings that can be identified as schools, but in a teacher-student relationship in which the transmission of scribal skills is based on a curriculum… The… evidence suggests that training in rudimentary scribal skills was available throughout Palestine, but the formation of scribes who were “expert and wise” required a program of study provided only in the temple school. (P. 97.)
Dr. van der Toorn viewed the Hebrew Bible’s various alphabetical acrostics—such as Psalm 25 and Psalm 119—as exercises for scribes-in-training. Ancient Hebrew did not always visually distinguish between how a letter looks at the beginning of a word vs. the ‘final’ form of a letter—as mem, for example, appears today as a מ, but, when it is the last letter of a word, appears as ם. There was a time where there was only one kind of mem and only twenty-two shapes to know. Twenty-two verses, therefore, each beginning with a different letter was all the handwriting practice a scribe really needed. But scribes needed more than handwriting practice. Van der Toorn suggested though that that certain biblical lists—like the listing of pure vs. impure animals in Leviticus 11 or Deuteronomy 14—served the double-purpose of practicing letter formation and inculcating these students with encyclopedic knowledge (p. 99).
The first list that opens the Book of Numbers appears to fulfill all of these pedagogic purposes. The listing in Numbers 1:5–1:15 of the various Israelite tribal heads happens to reference twelve men over the course of a script that uses each letter of the alef bet—with the exception of the letters tet (ט) and kuf (ק). These two letters appear however in the following verse, which closes the prose that frames the verbless list of names. This ancient pangram—much shorter than the 22 verses of Psalm 25—was a relatively quick way of practicing the letters of the alef bet. The educational content here was perhaps a bit lacking though. The characters named in this list are never named again and associated with particular stories in the Bible itself. Centuries later, the Bible’s rabbinic heirs mastered creative storytelling that centered around lesser-explored parts of the Bible, and, though a few stories circulate surrounding a few leaders named here—classic rabbinic literature attributes no stories to most of these chieftains.
Fans of brevity might question further why this list in Numbers was included. As Isaac Mayer has demonstrated, the Hebrew Bible already contains 26 individual verses that each contain all 22 Hebrew letters. Is it so important to have long passages with all of the letters?
We may never solve why the Torah contains all that it does, but the totality of the Torah is undeniably sacred, and so are its details. At the end of the 3rd century C.E., in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba cited in the name of his teacher Rabbi Yochanan, when he struggled to convince others to observe the entirety of the Torah:
מוטב שתעקר אות אחת מן התורה ואל יתחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא
It is better for one letter to be uprooted from the Torah so that the name of [God in] Heaven not be blasphemed in public. (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 79a.)
One letter is not much of a concession. If we had to negotiate with God before erasing any single letter of the Torah, it would take a long time before we could agree to a better way to make sense of these letters. After all, as the early mystical text Sefer Yetzirah makes very clear, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were among the essential ingredients of the recipe that God followed to make our universe (1:2). A later mystical work also mythically attributed to an ancient composer, Sefer HaTemunah explores the relationship between how every Hebrew letter is connected to God’s (imagined) body. Every Hebrew letter of the Torah embodies, in a way, a portal to accessing divine mystery.
There may be sections of the Torah that were once intended for specific kinds of readers—or as the case may be, for specific kinds of writers. Although the readers and writers have changed over time, a holiness that our ancestors glued into all the letters of our Bibles has stuck. When we pore over these pages, we may find our fingers getting sticky—unusually enchanted with these letters—and we might not always know why. Though the ancient impulse to create midrashic tales around the under-sung heroes of the Hebrew Bible did not reclaim the lives of the dozen chieftains who open the Book of Numbers, we have not yet tired of seeking meaning in this text and others. Rather, we are compelled to sit with these words, to read them, to reread them, and to get to know them intimately. We may find new paths to God through them. After all, all of these letters in the Book of Numbers ought to add up to something.
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