Skip to main content

Behaalotekha | Inverting the Nuns

Rav Yaakov Beasley



Having completed the preparations for traveling to Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish People finally set out for their homeland.  As the journey begins, however, the first of many unfortunate incidents in Sefer Bamidbar occurs - the incident of the “mitonenim,” “and the people grumbled.”  In past shiurim, we have discussed how this brief episode serves as a turning point for the Jewish People.  This week, we will discuss the two verses that immediately precede the story of the “mitonenim,” verses that we sing every time we open the Aron Kodesh to remove the Sefer Torah, and the strange grammatical markings that surround them. 


Whenever the ark set out, Moshe said, “Rise up, Hashem! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” Whenever it came to rest, he said, “Return, Hashem, to the countless thousands of Israel.” (10:35 - 36)


Aside from their familiar use in the synagogue service, these two verses are unique in the Torah.  They are encased between two inverted nuns (the letter, not a lady of the cloth turned upside down!).  These are referred to as “nun menuzeret” (“isolated nun”) or “nun hafucha” (“inverted nun”).  There are nine inverted nuns in the Masoretic text of the Tanakh; all the others appear in Tehillim 107.  There is another inverted nun in the Torah attested to by Rashi that does not appear in our texts.[1] The appearance of the flipped nun varies from text to text (and possibly from printer to printer).  The three common variants of the inverted nun are vertically flipped, horizontally flipped, and Z-shaped.  Other renderings exist, corresponding to alternative interpretations of the term “inverted,” and they may also appear with a dot above.  In earlier printed editions of the Torah, they are shown as the standard nun upside down or rotated because the printer did not want to bother to design a character that would be used only nine times.


What is the meaning of these strange markers (“simaniyot” in rabbinic literature)?  The mishna  brings a halakhic ramification regarding this section:


A book that became erased and there remain in it 85 letters, like the section “And it was when the Ark was carried,” renders hands impure.  (Yadayim 3:5)


How many letters does a damaged book of the Tanakh need to contain in order to maintain its sanctity (and thereby, counter-intuitively, render hands impure)? The mishna uses our two verses as the example of the minimum size of a book.  However, this begs the question.  How can our two verses, comprising less than one percent of the thirty-six chapters of Sefer Bamidbar, comprise the paradigm of an entire book? This point was already discussed in the Talmud:


This section has small signs around it, indicating that this is not its real place.  Rabbi says: That is not the reason, but because [these verses] are considered a book of its own.  The saying of R. Shmuel Bar Nachman: “She set its pillars seven - these are the seven books of the Torah,” follows whom? It follows Rabbi.  Who is the Tanna who argues against Rabbi? It is R. Shimon Ben Gamliel.  R. Shimon Ben Gamliel says: This section will be uprooted from its place and written in its rightful place in the future [but for now, it is in its correct location].  Why is it written here? To separate between the first and second retributions.  The second retribution is the mitonenim – “and the people grumbled.” The first retribution is “And they traveled from the mountain of God” [that is, they eagerly ran away from God's presence].  Where is its appropriate place? R. Ashi says: In the section on encampments.  (Shabbat 115-116). 


The two Mishnaic sages disagree as to whether or not this section belongs in its current location presently.  R. Shimon holds that the verses are presently in the correct place, but ultimately will be moved to an even more appropriate place.  R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi (Rabbi) holds that they are in the correct place.  The inverted nuns do not indicate that the passage is misplaced or will move, but rather demarcate a separate book of Torah, as we alluded to above.  Consequently, there are three books in Sefer Bamidbar, not one.  R. Menachem Leibtag has described them as the book of preparations, the book of what should have been, and the book of what actually happened.    


Looking at the content of these two verses closely, we sense the triumphant move of a people on the go, trumpets blaring.  Moshe’s invocation to Hashem to “rise up” when the aron moved forward and to “return” when it rested gives the impression that Moshe determined the journeys and resting places of the aron.  This contradicts what was previously stated - that it journeyed only in accordance with Hashem’s command.  This point is made in the Sifrei:


“And Moshe said, ‘Rise up, Hashem:’” And another verse says, “At the commandment of Hashem they rested and at the commandment of Hashem they journeyed.” How can these two verses be reconciled? To what may this be compared? To a king who was going on a journey accompanied by his bosom friend.  When he resumes his journey, he says: I shall not go forward until my friend gives the order.  And when he halts, he says: I shall not halt until my friend comes along.  This reconciles the verses “And Moshe said, ‘Rise up, Hashem’” and “At the commandment of Hashem they journeyed…”


Nechama Leibowitz notes in her studies that this midrash “graphically illustrates the highest degree of communion and closeness between man and his maker, and the complete identity of aim.”  Her words echo those of R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch.  In his commentary, he notes that Moshe’ invocation, “Rise up,” occurs immediately, in accordance with the principle expressed by R. Gamliel in Pirkei Avot:


“Make His will your will:” Who are the “enemies” and “those that hate You” that are scattered as a result of the divine “rising up”?  Here is the answer given by the Sifrei: Can there be enemies of the One who spoke and the world came into being? But the verse informs us that whoever hates Israel is as if he hates the Omnipotent.  Similarly, it is said (Shemot 15), “And in the greatness of Your Excellency, You have overthrown those that rose up against You.” Can there be rebels against the Omnipotent? The verse informs us that whoever rises up against Israel, it is as if he rose up against the Omnipotent.  Similarly, it is stated (Tehillim 74:23), “Forget not the voice of Your enemies, the tumult of those that rise up against You continually.”  Because of whom?  Similarly, it is states (Tehillim 83:2), “For lo, Your enemies make a tumult, and those that hate You lift up their heads.”  Because of whom? “They have taken crafty counsel against Your people.”  And it also states (Zekharia 2), “For he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.”  It is not stated “the eye” but “His eye”- of the Omnipotent.


Accordingly the enemies of Israel are synonymous with the enemies of God.  This is true whether we are worthy or not of this title.  Those bent on our destruction regard us as the standard bearers of truth and justice and the representative of the divine Law.  It is for this reason that they persecute and hate us. 


Commenting on this passage, R. Hirsch notes that the enemies are not just the Canaanites with whom the Jewish People would meet in battle upon entering the land.  The Torah’s demands for justice and altruism were bound to antagonize aggressors and tyrants, standing in the way of their designs of rule and dominion.  The call to holiness would not only arouse hatred, but active persecution of the holy people.


Let us return to R. Shimon ben Gamliel’s suggestion that the reason for the inverted nuns was to symbolize that the verses were out of place.  Saul Lieberman commented that that the inverted nuns function like similar signs in early Greek manuscripts.[2] Greek sources, especially Alexandrian ones, refer to the sign as “reversed sigma.” These were used to indicate a space or to mark passages that are in a wrong place.  In his commentary to Shir Ha-shirim and at the end of Sefer Bereishit, the Netziv suggests that this phenomenon is not uncommon in Jewish texts, including the Torah:


“Song of Songs” – that was composed out of many separate songs, of which many were composed through Ruach Ha-Kodesh by others [not Shlomo].  For example, the song, “Tell me…” (1:7) was said by Moshe, as is explained in the Sifri… Also, the verse, “Kiss me…” (1:2) was received [as tradition] by our Rabbis to have been written prior to Shlomo, and they asked, “When was it composed?” Similarly, “We have a little sister…” (8:8) was said at the days of Avraham, as explained in Bereishit Rabbah (Lekh Lekha).  Shlomo gathered songs through the Holy Spirit and also added of his own and fashioned it into one song.  This is also like the book of Psalms that his father produced and which was called by his name, even though it contains songs that were said by others… So it says in Pesachim (117a) that David said all the praises in the Psalms, as it says, “completed songs of David son of Yishai,” because David edited and added to them.  Similarly, Shlomo gathered verses that he had at hand and added many others of his own and made of it into one song… There are songs that were composed with a certain meaning at one time and Shlomo adjusted it through Ruach Ha-Kodesh for a different time.  (Rina Shel Torah 1:1)


This prophecy [in Mikha] is very difficult to understand.  It appears that it was pre-existing from the time of the Judges and at the time of Mikha, it was added to the rest of his words.  It states similarly in Vayikra Rabba that two verses in Yeshayahu were already known for the time of Be'eri [father of Ezekiel] but were added to the book of Yeshayahu.  There are many such instances in the Prophets and Writings.  (Ha-Emek Davar to Bereishit 49:10)


In Ha-Emek She’eala (166:5), the Netziv expands on these comments and cites many other examples of placements of a few sentences of a prophecy that is of relevance for later generations but of a prophet who did not merit his own book.  He notes that according to the midrash, Shema Yisrael was first pronounced by the twelve tribes through Ruach Ha-Kodesh, but was only later incorporated by Moshe into the Torah in Sefer Devarim (Pesachim 56a).  The Netziv postulates that this process of second transcriptions also accounts for the phenomenon of keri and ketiv (the words in Tanakh that are written in one way but are read differently).  The ketiv represents the original wording as it was first said through Ruach Ha-Kodesh, while the keri is the wording as it was transcribed in its final form the second time around, under Ruach Ha-Kodesh.[3]



Interested readers are invited to continue exploring these fascinating nuns in the following places:


1) An exchange between the Maharashal and the Noda Be-Yehuda regarding if adding additional letters disqualifies the Torah scroll (She’ealot U-Teshuvot Maharshal, no. 73; She’ealot U-Teshuvot Maharam Mi-Lublin, no 75; She’ealot U-Teshuvot Noda Be-Yehuda, vol. 1, Yoreh Deah no. 73).

2) See

3) R. Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Sheleima vol. 29, p. 124-130 (where he provides pictures of the various methods of writing the nuns).


[1] Rashi notes at the end of Parashat Noach (Bereishit 11:32) that the word Charan has an inverted nun.

[2] I.Yavin, “Introduction to Timerian Masorah,” Masoretic Studies 5 (Scholar's Press, 1980); also E. Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, pp. 54–55.


[3] This approach is not universally accepted among commentators.  Among opinions of note, the Radak (in his introduction to Sefer Yehoshua) suggests that the variations between the written and the oral form of the text arose in the time of Ezra, when it was impossible to decide which of two (or more) differing texts was authentic.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!