The Rabbi's Study

The Power of a Typo

I like to say that the Torah is perfect even in its mistakes. And while there are examples of what are likely mistakes in the Torah, that’s not actually what I want to talk about here. So while the Torah is perfect even in its mistakes, the Talmud is not – when there are mistakes in the Talmud it’s simply a mistake of human error.

The Talmud upon which we rely, the format and shape of each page, the commentaries on the page, the pagination of each volume, etc., is referred to as the “Vilna Daf,” (around which a certain cult-like attitude has emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries) the product of the printing press in Vilnius, Lithuania in the 19th century based upon a certain collection of older handwritten manuscripts. We also have handwritten manuscripts which were not in the possession of the people who created the Vilna Daf. Our oldest manuscripts date to the 11th century and some are as late as the 16th or 17th century. And to further confirm my belief that the 21st century is the best time in the history of the world to be a Jew, many of the handwritten manuscripts of Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmud Bavli, and Talmud Yerushalmi are digitized and available online from the National Library of Israel! The website is in Hebrew, but most browsers have an automatic translation feature, so have at it!

Now that those words of introduction are out of the way…

The very first d’var torah I ever delivered was on Parashat Terumah, specifically on this passage:

You will cast for [the ark] four rings of gold, and they will be placed on its four stands; two rings on its one side and two rings on its second side. And you will make poles of acacia wood; and you will overlay them with gold. And you will bring the poles in the rings on the sides of the ark; to lift the ark with them. In the rings of the ark will be the poles; they will not be removed from them. (Exodus 25:12-15)

The content of my d’var torah is not so relevant, but I will just say it was the shortest d’var torah ever delivered in that minyan – those who know me know that I no longer give such short sermons. Irrelevant of what I spoke about, because it was the source of my first d’var torah, these verses hold a special place in my heart. The interesting thing about this seemingly mundane passage is that last phrase, “they will not be removed from them.”

There is, as is to be expected, a significant amount of debate among the commentators regarding the meaning of the phrase, and I will spare you (this time) the intricate ins-and-outs of the meaning of the phrase. We are going to focus our attention on Rashi because, well, because he’s Rashi.

Rashi offers us a comment in the form of what some affectionately call a “run-on Rashi,” where he adds words to the end of the sentence in order to bring out its deeper meaning rather than explaining it. Rashi states: “‘They will not be removed from them’ forever.” In other words, once the poles are inserted into the rings on the ark, they will never come out again, ever. Now this presents a question of design and physics – if they can fit into the rings, and there is no additional mechanism to hold them in the rings, how could the poles both be small enough to fit into the rings, yet large enough to never be removed?

Now that’s the type of detail oriented question that the Talmud might consider…

Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Hanina raised a contradiction: It is written, “In the rings of the ark will be the poles; they will not be removed from them,” and it is written, “And you will bring the poles in the rings.” How is this possible? They could be adjusted, but not removed. (Yoma 72a)

This is likely the source of Rashi’s understanding which he presented to us on the Torah. It would then make sense to see how Rashi responds to Rabbi Yosi in his commentary on the Talmud. There he says:

it is written…”they will not be removed…” – consequently they were not moved out of them; and it is written “you will bring,” consequently they could be brought into them

they could be adjusted, but not removed – their ends were thick, and one of the ends was entered by force into the rings, but their middle were more narrow so they were not stuck in the rings, rather they could be adjusted and moved this way and that, but they could not be removed from them because of their thick ends

Well that seems to explain the physics pretty well. Problem solved. Well, the problem of shape of the poles seems to be solved, but let’s look closer at Rabbi Yosi’s statement, and we have to look at the Hebrew to do that.

רבי יוסי בר’ חנינא רמי כתיב בטבעות הארון יהיו הבדים לא יסורו ממנו וכתיב והובא את בדיו בטבעות

Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Hanina raised a contradiction: It is written, “In the rings of the ark will be the poles; they will not be removed from them,” and it is written, “And you will bring the poles in the rings.”

Now let’s look at the Hebrew in the verses in question:

וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֤ אֶת־הַבַּדִּים֙ בַּטַּבָּעֹ֔ת עַ֖ל צַלְעֹ֣ת הָאָרֹ֑ן לָשֵׂ֥את אֶת־הָאָרֹ֖ן בָּהֶֽם׃ בְּטַבְּעֹת֙ הָאָרֹ֔ן יִהְי֖וּ הַבַּדִּ֑ים לֹ֥א יָסֻ֖רוּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

And you will bring the poles in the rings on the sides of the ark; to lift the ark with them. In the rings of the ark will be the poles; they will not be removed from them.

Even if you don’t read Hebrew, one can see that Rabbi Yosi seems to not be comparing these two verses at all! Our verse says והֵבֵאתָ meaning “you will bring,” but Rabbi Yosi says וְהוּבָא meaning, “it will be brought.” Weird… Looking ahead in Parashat Terumah we find this passage:

וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ בַדִּים֙ לַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ בַּדֵּ֖י עֲצֵ֣י שִׁטִּ֑ים וְצִפִּיתָ֥ אֹתָ֖ם נְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וְהוּבָ֥א אֶת־בַּדָּ֖יו בַּטַּבָּעֹ֑ת וְהָי֣וּ הַבַּדִּ֗ים עַל־שְׁתֵּ֛י צַלְעֹ֥ת הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ בִּשְׂאֵ֥ת אֹתֽוֹ׃

You will make poles for the later, poles of acacia wood; and you will overlay them with bronze. The poles will be brought into the rings; and the poles will be on the two sides of the altar in lifting it. (Exodus 27:6-7).

Well that just doesn’t make any sense! Why would Rabbi Yosi be comparing a verse about the ark to a verse about the altar? That’s not a contradiction, it’s literally comparing two verses about two objects – the fact that the poles were entered into the rings on the altar is irrelevant to the fact that different poles could not be removed from the rings on the ark! You know who loves these kinds of insanely detail oriented questions? Rashi’s students, the Tosafot! They go nuts over this stuff (they had a good teacher).

So let’s see how they handle Rabbi Yosi (warning: it’s very long and very specific, but welcome to the world of the Tosafot):

It is written, “In the rings of the ark,”… and it is written, “And you will bring the poles in the rings.” – This is incredibly difficult for me. Why would he rely on the verse “will be brought, וְהוּבָא” which is written about the the bronze altar, but the relevant verse “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ” is written about the ark?! Furthermore, I heard another contradiction raised that when [the Children of Israel] would depart for their journeys, it is written, “Aharon and his sons will come when the camp journeys and lower the curtain and the screen and cover the Ark of the Testimony with it. And they will place upon it a covering of giraffe skin, and spread over it a blue cloth above it, and they will place the poles.” (Num. 4:5-6) Meaning that when they went on their journeys they would place the poles! This is contradictory because it is written, “they will not be removed from them”! Rabbi Yaakov from Orleans resolves this by understanding that “they placed the poles” must mean on shoulders of those who are lifting. But I am hesitant because the clan of Kehat (who carried the ark) weren’t involved until after all of the vessels were collected together, as it is written, “But [the clan of Kehat] must not go inside to see the dismantling of the distinct items, lest they die,” (Num. 4:20). More so, it would seem it could be that “they will place the poles,” means that “they would extend the poles outside so the poles would be visible projecting out from the curtain like two female breasts,” (Menahot 98b). However, the contradiction that I specifically raised still stands, and it is even further confirmed by the scribes because every manuscript says, “will be brought, וְהוּבָא.” However, some of the scribal manuscripts have in the teaching that follows our contradiction a reference to the word “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ,” but every instance of Rabbi Yosi’s statement the manscripts all read “will be brought, וְהוּבָא.” If one is not careful, one might be led to believe there were eight rings on the ark  but the verse proves otherwise, as it is written, “You will cast for [the ark] four rings of gold, and they will be placed on its four stands; two rings on its one side and two rings on its second side,” meaning that there were only four rings on the two sides, making four rings on the top and four rings at the feet! So there were poles affixed “not removed” and there were the four above or below those rings which were used for placing poles when they would depart on journeys used for carrying the ark, and this is why the verse in Numbers says, “place the poles.” So if you were to say, why so specific? This is why Rabbi Yosi uses the two different types of poles, to show that some were affixed and some would be brought in and out as was just explained. Some might say, though, that by virtue of the phrase “you will bring the poles in the rings,” that it could be referring to all of the poles, and it is also in reference to when they would place them for their journeying, if that was the case then one would also have to say that the poles are attached to the rings because it is not explicit when the poles were permanently fixed. However, it is written about the rings of the ark that they would have poles, and so from the outset it is understood that they would be placed therein. But the text must be referring to all of the poles, and that is why it is written “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ,” which means that the two sets of poles becomes equated with one another – there is a pair for carrying which were not permanent. So since the altar has poles that were not permanent, and in the other case the poles were not able to move at all from their location other than shifting a little this way or that, now the two cases become connected. So Rabbi Yosi brings the verse “will be brought, וְהוּבָא” about the altar in order to reveal the meaning of the verse “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ” about the ark. The poles on the altar were not permanently affixed, so it does not state they could not be removed. So too here, regarding the poles of the ark which were not literally completely fixed. But if you were to say that there are actually only four poles, this presents another difficulty because how do we deal with the verse about how the ark was carried? It can’t be resolved by the idea that there were four poles for carrying, two of them longer and two others shorter, like we see in the Talmud Menahot 98b, that there were four men carrying the ark. Furthermore, it would seem to me that the phrase “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ,” only refers to the affixed poles, because the poles that were not affixed, why is it necessary to even mention them here? Would it not only be relevant to mention them when they were necessary when Aharon and his sons brought them when they would journey? And you need to know that regarding all of that, it is written that they would lift the table, and the bronze altar, and it says “and the poles will be brought into the rings…in carrying it,” and the gold altar it is written to same, but it never uses the phrase “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ,” which is a statement of command and action as is relevant to the ark, but it is never written “and it was brought,” be it in a context of fulfilling the command or action. Even though the Teaching of the Work of the Mishkan teaches that there are four permanent rings, two on the north side and two on the south side, into which they would put the poles, from which they would never move, as it is written regarding the rings of the ark, one could say this is only speaking in relevance to the four rings of the permanently affixed poles, but the poles which were not affixed it is not necessary to mention those except for in reference to the journeying. So those rings, or the rings on the table, or the gold or bronze altar, are just not relevant. This matter needs more detailed investigation.

Well that was a WHOLE lot!!! If you made it through all of that, mazel tov!

But look at this:What’s this, you ask? Why, this is a handwritten manuscript of Yoma 72a from Yemen. Why is that relevant? Because the Jews of Yemen were largely isolated from the rest of the Jewish world between the 10th-20th centuries. Therefore, it is largely believed that their manuscripts more accurately reflect those from the 10th century and before. The Tosafot are in the 13th-14th century. Let’s get a closer look at this manuscript. Here’s the statement from Rabbi Yosi:

Now let’s look even closer… 

I know it’s a little blurry, but guess what it says? “you will bring, והֵבֵאתָ.”

That entire long, detailed, mind numbing, creative, kind of brilliant, comment from the Tosafot all boils down to the fact that the manuscript they had in their hand had a typo! Rabbi Yosi never compared the poles of the ark to the poles of the altar! Some scribe at some point in transcribing that page of Talmud made a mistake. And if you feel like I just wasted your time, well, that, my friends, is just one mundane example of the power of a typo!

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