A Torah Page with Too Many Errors

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

TALMUDIC METHODOLOGY

By Rav Moshe Taragin

 

 

Shiur #15:  A Torah Page with Too Many Errors

 

 

The gemara in Menachot (29b) discusses a Sefer Torah which contains mistakes.  Obviously, as is the case with all setam (sefer Torah, tefilin and mezuzot), mistakes must be corrected. However, in certain circumstances, even correction may not be effective. If too many letters were omitted, they cannot subsequently be inserted unevenly, since this would ruin the flow and equilibrium of the text; text with unevenly inserted letters appears spotted and is thereby disqualified. If fewer than four insertions occur on any particular page, that page remains valid, since the spotted effect is "limited."  By contrast, if too MANY letters were initially added, they can be simply erased; since text will not be unevenly inserted, no spotting effect will occur and nothing will hinder the viability of the sefer. 

 

The gemara in not clear as to WHY too many insertions would disqualify the Sefer Torah.  Since the gemara describes the resulting text as “spotted,” presumably the disqualification stems from the compromised AESTHETIC quality. In fact the Nimukei Yosef specifically mentions the rule of zeh keili ve-anveihu, which demands aesthetically pleasing mitzva objects (shofar, a cover for a sefer Torah etc.)

 

Although the “zeh keili“ aesthetic factor would appear to be the simple approach to this halakha, disqualifying a sefer Torah based on physical or aesthetic appearance may be dubious.  Zeh keili and the need for beautiful mitzva objects rarely disqualifies a mitzva; typically, the principle of “zeh keili ve-anveihu” or hiddur mitzva is only a le-chatkhila concern. Ideally, a shofar should be aesthetically pleasing and a Torah cover should be regal.  However, in the absence of these conditions, be-di’eved, the mitzva can still be performed. Our gemara about sefer Torah appears to disqualify a spotted Torah EVEN be-di'eved. 

 

In truth the gemara’s disqualification may have ample precedent. The gemara in Gittin (54b) disqualifies a sefer Torah with unevenly written text (some of the words were written over twice and are effectively “bolded”) since the text appears spotted.  Evidently, there are some mitzva objects of heightened sensitivity in which the aesthetic quality can even INVALIDATE the object for mitzva use.  For example, the four minim of Sukkot must be “hadar”; if they are physically unappealing (by sight, taste, or smell) the object becomes disqualified. By articulating the word hadar, the Torah demands a higher standard for these mitzva objects.  We could easily envision a similar standard for a sefer Torah; any deficiency in its physical beauty would invalidate the Torah. Physical deformities that would normally not affect the mitzva object are lethal for a sefer Torah. 

 

SUMMARY – Although physical appearance does not typically disqualify a mitzva object, a sefer Torah may be held to a higher standard. 

 

However, there is an additional factor suggesting that a page with more than four mistakes is not pasul simply because the repaired text LOOKS uneven. The gemara in Menachot claims that if the ENTIRE sefer Torah contains one “clean” page with LESS than four mistakes, the entire sefer maybe repaired. If the problem with mistakes is purely aesthetic, it is difficult to imagine that a clean page can compensate for innumerable spotted ones. Indeed, the effect of beauty can be gauged in a global fashion; potentially, if one part is clean, the overall aesthetic can be retained.  However the clean page in question may not even be VISIBLE among the uneven pages; it may be located in an entirely different section of the Torah?!.  Why should one clean page compensate for the lost aesthetic of numerous spotted pages?

 

Perhaps the gemara is suggesting a different approach.  If a page contains more than four mistakes, it becomes legally "erroneous," and thereby damages the halakhic integrity of a sefer Torah. The mistake ruins the status of the sefer Torah even without considering the ramifications of repaired and uneven text. If the entire system (the entire sefer) contains a clean page, the overall sefer maintains its halakhic health. Changing the nature of the pasul from purely aesthetic to legal allows one UNSEEN clean page to compensate for multiple flawed pages.

 

Of course, the difficulty with this approach is the gemara’s distinction between different types of mistakes. If the ACTUAL mistakes legally ruin the pages of a sefer Torah, why does the gemara distinguish between omitted letters (which must be fewer than four occurrences) and extra letters (which can occur with greater frequency per page and not disqualify that Torah). If the entire rule were aesthetic, we would agree that omitted letters are graver than extra letters, since the latter case requires letter insertion, which would ruin the symmetry of the text. If, however, mistakes legally wreck the integrity of the text, ANY MISTAKE should be ruinous and no distinction between extra letters and insufficient letters should be allowed. 

 

Perhaps the gemara, which differentiates between omitted letters and extra letters, is merely establishing criteria for defining an error.  Omitted letters constitute an ERROR since the omitted elements cannot be EASILY supplied without disrupting the flow of the text. Extra letters, however, do not constitute an ERROR since they can be easily erased without affecting textual symmetry.  Indeed, once errors dominate a page, the page, and hence the Torah, are disqualified on legal and not AESTHETIC grounds. Too many ERRORS (4 or more) will be disqualified independent of the aesthetic impact.  However, since added letters can be removed without impacting aesthetics, they do not constitute real ERRORS. 

 

SUMMARY: An alternative way to analyze the disqualification of error-laced pages is too view the ACTUAL errors as the cause for disqualification.  Mistakes which can be easily rectified without altering aesthetics are not considered GRAVE ERRORS. 

 

An interesting response of the Rosh (3;7) may “tip us off” to his understanding of the sugya. The minhag is to include 60 lines of text on each Torah page. What would happen if a sofer were to miscalculate his spacing and write in a manner on pace to include ONLY 59 lines on a given page? May he erase a few lines and rewrite the final lines in smaller font so that he effectively crams 5 lines of text into a space outfitted for only 4 (thereby reaching the desired number of 60 lines per page)? The Rosh rules that he may not, and he extrapolates the halakha from our gemara. Any time the text becomes asymmetrical, the aesthetic suffers and the page becomes disqualified.  Just as inserting omitted letters ruins this symmetry, reducing the font to increase the amount of lines of text rearranges the symmetry and is likewise invalid. 

 

If the gemara in Menachot describes a formal concern stemming from an over-concentration of errors, it would in no way be relevant to a situation of the Rosh. In his case, no mistakes were rendered and the font is being intentionally reduced to allow more lines. The gemara’s situation of mistakenly written words would have absolutely no bearing.