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The Torah contains the history of the beginnings of the Jewish people, and its text has been passed down to us through more than two millennia, although not without having errors creep into its copying from scribe to scribe. The Masorites, in harmonizing the various textual variants, developed techniques to reduce the chances of copying errors being propagated. But in the earliest days of its writing, many versions of the Torah text existed. Witness the varying forms of several of the books found in the Dead Sea Scrolls compared to the modern versions.
In addition to textual variants, many scribal oddities have crept into the calligraphy of the scroll, and these oddities are now part of the halakhah of writing the Torah. For example, the Torah has about sixteen instances of certain letters written large, like the first letter of the Torah, the bet of bereshit. Also some letters are supposed to be written small.
The most famous small letter is in the first word of this week’s sidra, the aleph of vayikra. Jacob ben Asher (14th cent.), in his Baal Haturim, an early compilation of halakhah, gives us his reasons for writing the small letters, and some reasons are far-fetched indeed. The word va-yikra means “and He summoned” or “He called out to,” but grammatically the word va-yaker (no aleph) is also possible. It means exactly the same but its use can suggest the sense of a chance encounter. The explanation ben Asher gives for this small aleph is that, since Moses was a very humble man, he wrote va-yaker without the aleph, as if God called to him as an afterthought. But God insisted that His calling to Moses was deliberate, so va-yikra should be used. Therefore the aleph written small represents a compromise between what God intended and Moses initially wrote.
Rashi also comments on “vayikra”: He claims “The word va-yikra precedes all [Divine] commandments and statements, which is a term of endearment used by the heavenly angels.... however, God appeared to the prophets of the idolatrous nations of the world with a temporary and impure expression, as it is written, ‘And He called [va-yaker] Balaam’” (Num. 23:4). Apparently when Moses was writing the Torah as dictated by God, he was too humble to accept for himself the more exalted, even angelic, Divine charge of va-yikra; therefore, he wrote the less complimentary va-yaker relating to himself, retaining his faithfulness to God’s actual word va-yikra (“and He called”) by appending a small aleph to the word v-ykr.
There’s a midrash that goes one step further. It poignantly, if albeit naively, pictures the heavenly scene of Moses, having completed his writing of the Five Books, had a tiny portion of Divine ink left over; after all, the Almighty had dictated va-yikra and Moses had written וִיקרא, modestly writing the aleph small and leaving a tiny drop of ink as surplus. The midrash concludes that the Almighty Himself, as it were, took that extra ink and lovingly placed it on Moses’ forehead; that is what gave rise to Moses’ “rays of splendor.”
That’s the fanciful interpretation. A more logical one is since the following word, el, begins with an aleph and in ancient times there were no gaps between words, it’s likely that the early scribes did not duplicate the aleph and when the words were split, since the aleph wasn’t strictly needed, they were unsure of whether to include the second aleph or not—so they wrote it small.
In addition to the first word of the parashah, there are several others that may be particularly interesting because of their technical connection to worship. This week’s parashah contains a highly technical description of the priests’ duties in performing the sacrifices and some of the technical terminology actually pops up in the liturgy, especially during the High Holidays. One of the technical terms used in Vayikra is the word “bring,” k’reev, related to the word korban, “offering” or “sacrifice.” The word’s root means “to draw close.”This shows us that the purpose of the offering is to draw the worshiper close to God.
The offerings described in this parashah are the olah, the burnt offering, the meal offering, mincha, meaning gift or tribute, the zeva’ch sh’lamim, the peace offering but literally meaning “slaughter for sacrifice.” Then comes the korban chatat, the “sin offering,” an offering for sins committed inadvertently. There’s a word-play here. The primary meaning of chatat is to “miss a goal or a mark.” But a different conjugation of the verb chatah means “to cleanse or purify,” showing that the remedy for the sin is encompassed within the sin itself.
Another technical term introduced in the parashah can be translated as “confession.” The beginning of chapter 5 lists the various offenses which, in addition to requiring a sacrifice, also require a confession, vidu’y. The final offering in the sidra is the asham, “guilt,” offering which is for additional cases of sins committed inadvertently. The High Holiday Vidu’y begins “Ashamnu...,” “We are guilty...”
I’ll mention yet another technical term: ma’alah ma’al, “committing a trespass.” This is an interesting term. The word ma’al, which connotes unfaithfulness or treachery, is very similar to m’eel, which is the outer garment worn by the priests. Some commentators have surmised that this is a word-play suggesting the metaphorical nakedness of an unfaithful individual, inferring that a person of any rank is susceptible to unfaithfulness.
There’s one practice out of this entire parashah we still follow. In the passage that describes the meal offering, we read: “And every meal-offering of yours you shall season with salt; neither shall you allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your meal-offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” This is why we sprinkle salt on the challah after the Motzei blessing.
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