Lecture 11: Daf 4a - Dot to Dot

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan





In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.



Lecture 11:  Daf 4a

Dot to Dot



The next section continues to discuss King David. Previously, the Gemara examined the verse in which David declares, “I am a chasid.” We noted at the time, that, strictly speaking, in Biblical Hebrew, the term chasid does not mean a righteous person, but, rather, a loyal follower. As such, David’s statement is not as self-aggrandizing as it may first appear. Nevertheless, there is still something troubling about a great person such as David boasting about his good qualities and seeming to express his confidence that God will take care of him as a result. Now, the Gemara questions whether or not David made such a claim:


But how could David call himself pious?

It is not written:

Had I not [lulei] the confidence that

I would enjoy the good reward of the Lord in the land of the living; (Tehillim 27:13)

and a Tanna taught in the name of R. Yosi:

Why are there dots upon the world 'lulei'?

David spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He:

'Master of the world,

I am sure that you will pay a good reward to the righteous in the world to come, but I do not know whether I am among them. 

[He was afraid that] some sin might cause [his exclusion].


In order to understand this passage, we need some background information. According to scribal tradition, words and letters written with little dots on top of them are scattered throughout the Bible. What is the meaning of these dots? In ancient Hebrew manuscripts, a dot over a word means that it is a mistake and should be erased, much like a strikethrough in a modern text. Normally, this means that when someone copies the text, those letters or words should be eliminated and not copied. In the case of the Bible, however, the tradition is for scribes to copy the letters with the dots on top of them. The reason for this peculiar practice is explained in an important passage in Avot De-rabi Natan (Version A, Chapter 34), which is an expansion of Pirkei Avot:


Why (are these dots in the Torah)?

For Ezra said as follows:

If Elijah comes to me and says,

“Why did you write it thus?”

I will say to him,

“I have already placed dots on them.”

And if he says to me,

“You wrote properly,”

I will remove the dots from them.


In other words, when Ezra the scribe was preparing an authoritative edition of the Torah, he could not determine the correct reading in some places. In these cases, Ezra was caught in a bind. If he deleted the words in question, he might be held responsible in heaven for removing words from the Torah. If he did not delete the words, he might be held responsible in heaven for adding words to the Torah. Ezra’s compromise was to leave the words, but with dots over them, somewhat similar to an asterisk next to a homerun record. In other words, dots in the Torah, and by extension the entire Bible, mark questionable words, that may be incorrect.


The implications of this explanation should not be underestimated. It means that we have evidence from the text of the Torah, as well as from an important rabbinic work, that the text of the Bible is not exactly identical to the text that was first written down by Moshe and then later, the prophets and holy authors. It is simply the best text available, because it was meticulously preserved by Ezra and the other scribes. Minor errors, however, may still have crept in. With regard to the Torah, this would appear to contradict Maimonides’ eighth principle of faith, which is generally understood to assert that our Torah scrolls are identical to the ones Moshe Rabbeinu wrote. Indeed, R. Moshe Feinstein found this passage so scandalous that he declared it to be a heretical interpolation! (Igrot Moshe YD 3:114). However, there is no real basis for this claim. R. Eliezer Waldenberg, the Tzitz Eliezer, took R. Moshe Feinstein to task for declaring disturbing passages in the writings of great rabbis to be interpolations or forgeries. R. Waldenberg argues that such emendation is not the traditional way of dealing with difficult texts (Tzitz Eliezer 14:100). I would add that editing texts that do not conform to our preconceived notions threatens the integrity of our tradition. Problematic midrashim should also be left in the text and perhaps marked with an asterisk.


Returning to our Gemara, the word lulei, “if not,” in Tehillim 27:13, has dots on top of it.  These dots seem to suggest an alternative reading which eliminates that word. Without the dots, the text would be translated as something like “I have the confidence that I will enjoy the good reward of the Lord in the land of the living.” This reading has an advantage, because the use of the term lulei is problematic here. Usually, this term is used in sentences with two clauses which fit the following pattern, “If not for X, then Y (generally a bad thing) would have happened.” For instance, in Tehillim 119:92, we read: “Were it not for (lulei) Your Torah my delight/ Then (az) I would have perished in my affliction.” Here, however, the sentence opens, “if not for (lulei)…,” but never goes on to tell us what would have happened if not for his confidence that he would ultimately enjoy God’s goodness. If we accept the reading suggested by the dots, the verse is quite straightforward. Once we delete the word lulei, we no longer have the first half of a conditional phrase, but a complete declarative statement.


However, R. Yosi cited in our Gemara clearly does not understand the dots over lulei in this way. Far from making David’s words more certain, as we have argued, R. Yosi argues that these dots suggest that David lacks confidence in his future divine reward. How does R. Yosi get to this reading of the dots?


Rashi here says that the dots “decrease the meaning of the verse, so that it means that it was not clear to him that he would see the goodness of God.” In other words, Rashi sees the dots as impacting the text, not on the graphic, but on the semantic level. In this case, according to R. Yosi, the dots do not erase the letters under them, but, rather, reduce the meaning of the words that they mark. Instead of a statement of David’s firm belief, we now read it as a statement of his doubts.


The Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631), the great Polish Talmudist who wrote an important commentary on both the aggadic and halakhic parts of the Talmud, has a different approach. He focuses on the fact that not all the letters in the word lulei have dots on them. The letter vav does not have a dot on top of it. The simple explanation for this is probably that the vav is not truly a letter but an expendable em kriya, or vowel marker. The Maharsha, however, calls into play a technical rule of dot interpretation which states that if the majority of the letters are dotted, then we read the verse as if the undotted letter or letters are removed. In this case, we are left with the letters lamed, lamed, alef. The Maharsha suggests that we are meant to read in place of lulei the word lo, “no” or “not."  In this interpretation, the verse would read, “I did not have confidence that I will enjoy the good reward of the Lord in the land of the living,” expressing David’s doubt about his ultimate reward.


R. Yosi explains David’s doubts by placing the following words into his mouth, “Master of the world, I am sure that you will pay a good reward to the righteous in the world to come, but I do not know whether I am among them.” R. Yosi explains: [He was afraid that] some sin might cause [his exclusion]. With these lines, the Gemara inaugurates its discussion of theodicy, the justification of God’s ways to man. Generally, theodicy deals with the question of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Soon, this question will dominate the Gemara’s concerns. Now, however, the Gemara is concerned with a more narrow issue: Why are Divine promises not always fulfilled?  David makes it clear that we should not think that God does not fulfill His promises. The righteous will be rewarded. Why then is he worried that he might not receive his reward? The Gemara seems to take for granted that David was, by and large, righteous. The concern here is that “some sin might cause” (shema yigrom ha-chet) him not to be rewarded. As I understand this, the principle of garam ha-chet asserts that indeed God fulfills his promises. However, a sin, not necessarily a grievous one, can be grounds for God not fulfilling his promise. Hence, human agency can prevent the fulfillment of the Divine promise, even if it may be difficult for us to pinpoint exactly which human action gave God grounds for withdrawing His promise.


The Gemara now presents two more instances of garam ha-chet in the Bible:


This conforms to the following saying of R. Yaakov b. Iddi.

For R. Yaakov b. Iddi pointed to a contradiction.

One verse reads:

And behold, I am with thee,

and will keep thee whithersoever thou goest (Bereishit 28:15),

and the other verse reads:

Then Yaakov was greatly afraid! (ibid 32:8)

[The answer is that]

he thought that some sin might cause [God's promise not to be fulfilled].

Similarly it has been taught:

Till Thy people pass over, O Lord,

till the people pass over that Thou hast gotten (Shemot 15:6). 

'Till Thy people pass over, O Lord':

 this is the first entry [into the Land].

'Till the people pass over that Thou hast gotten':

this is the second entry.

Hence the Sages say:

The intention was to perform a miracle for Israel in the days of Ezra,

even as it was performed for them in the days of Yehoshua bin Nun,

but sin caused [the miracle to be withheld].


First we have the case of Yaakov. God explicitly promised Yaakov that He would protect him. Yet Yaakov was afraid when he faced Esav. Did Yaakov lack faith in God’s promise? Rather, God’s promise may be invalidated by sin. Thus Yaakov could not rely on God’s protection, because it is always possible that some sin had left him unprotected.


Similarly, the Rabbis interpret the double reference to Israel’s “passing over” as referring to Israel’s entry to the land both under Yehoshua, and under Ezra following the Babylonian exile. This reading suggests that the two entrances are equivalent, and the Gemara interprets this to mean that God is promising similar miracles for both entrances into the land. But we know that actually, the entrance under Yehoshua was full of miracles, and the entrance under Ezra was not miraculous at all. Could God have failed to fulfill His promise? Once again, the answer is that God’s promises are subject to cancellation due to sin. Hence God did not send miracles in the time of Ezra because some sins of the people invalidated the biblical promise.


This passage concludes the Gemara’s extended discussion of King David. As we have seen, David plays multiple roles in the rabbinic imagination. He is the ideal rabbi, but he also may represent the Exilarch or Patriarch. He is the ideal king, and also a commentator on Divine justice.


After a hard day’s work


The next section in the Ein Yaakov is just a few lines after the discussion of sins and providence. This baraita chronicles the proper way for a person to spend his evening hours:


For so it has been taught:

The Sages made a fence for their words

so that a man, on returning home from the field in the evening,

should not say:

I shall go home,

eat a little,

drink a little,

sleep a little,

and then I shall recite the Shema and the Tefilla,

and meanwhile, sleep may overpower him,

and as a result he will sleep the whole night.

Rather should a man,

when returning home from the field in the evening,

go to the synagogue.

If he is used to read the Bible,

let him read the Bible,

and if he is used to repeat the Mishna,

let him repeat the Mishna,

and then let him recite the Shema and say the Tefilla,

[go home] and eat his meal and say the Grace.

And whosoever transgresses the words of the Sages deserves to die.


This passage presents two alternative scenarios for a man who comes home from a day of work in the fields. The first scenario is presumably the more common one, though the rabbis disapprove of it. The normal routine for a worker in those days, Jewish or not, was presumably to come home around nightfall, eat the evening meal, and go to sleep. The rabbis sought to change this evening routine. At the very least, they wanted everyone to recite the Shema and say the Shemoneh Esrei of Maariv. Given human nature, even individuals who sought to fulfill the words of the rabbis would arrive home hungry and tired. They would naturally want to eat dinner and rest a little before attending to their religious duties. Inevitably, in many, if not most, cases, the poor working man would be fast asleep for the night before he has a chance to pray. The Rabbis, therefore, instituted an alternate evening routine, which is meant to ensure, not only that a person fulfills his basic responsibilities, but that he observes the commandments at an even higher level. Rather than go straight home after work, a person should go to the synagogue, where he will not only pray, presumably with the community, but he will also study some Torah at his own level. Even the mundane act of eating dinner needs to be sanctified, as the Rabbis stress, by saying Birkat Ha-mazon following the meal.


The passage ends with the statement, “And whosoever transgresses the words of the Sages deserves to die.” This seems like a rather harsh statement, especially given that many biblical prohibitions do not warrant the death penalty. The Gemara, however, is concerned with a slightly different issue:


Why this difference that, in other cases, they do not say 'he deserves to die,'

and here they do say 'he deserves to die'?

If you wish, I can say

because here there is danger of sleep overpowering him.

Or, if you wish, I can say

because they want to exclude the opinion of those who say that

the evening prayer is only voluntary.

Therefore they teach us that it is obligatory.


The Gemara wants to know why this warning appears specifically here. After all, the Rabbis regularly note all sorts of rabbinic enactments without attaching this menacing caveat. The Gemara offers two answers. Both answers argue that the Rabbis added this line here, because in this case, one might think that in fact a person is not liable. The first answer suggests that extenuating circumstances, that a person cannot resist the onset of sleep, justify relieving the worker of liability if he should fail to pray before falling asleep. The Gemara here uses the term ones, the usual halakhic term of exemption due to extenuating circumstances.


The second answer presumes that the reference to the death penalty specifically refers to the failure to recite Maariv, the evening prayer.  Elsewhere, the Talmud records a great debate regarding whether the evening prayer is obligatory or only optional. According to the great scholar of the history of prayer and liturgy, Ezra Fliesher, this debate is linked to another debate about the model on which the rabbinic institution of daily prayer is based. One opinion is that daily prayer was modeled after the sacrifices. In this case, there should be only two obligatory prayers, Shacharit and Mincha, just as there are only two daily obligatory sacrifices. Furthermore, the evening is not a time for sacrifices, and hence not a time for obligatory prayer. The other opinion is that these prayers were modeled after the acts of the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who, according to the Midrash, set the precedent for praying morning, afternoon and evening, respectively. Our baraita insists that all people say Maariv, so it clearly holds that Maariv is obligatory. It further emphasizes that Maariv is obligatory by stating that one who fails to say this prayer is worthy of death.


Interestingly, while the Gemara ultimately rules that Maariv is optional, collective practice over the generations has given it the status of a requirement. However, as I understand it, since women never accepted this prayer upon themselves, even authorities who rule that women are obligated in Shacharit and Mincha still exempt them from saying Maariv.