Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
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Meir Levin
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Lech Lecha 5765

Exchanging letters.


The penchant of Chazal to exchange spelling and sound of words and letters for purposes of exegesis is well attested in interpretations that use technique such as "al tikri' and "eim l'mesores". We have touched upon this subject in Midrash Ha'azinu . This week we have an opportunity to discuss another aspect of this fascinating exegetical function.

And you name shall not be called anymore Avram but Avraham shall your name be, for I had placed you to be father of nations (av hamon goyim) (Bar. 17,5)

R. Yochanan said: Where is the source for reading abbreviations[1] as a method of the Torah? It states: Av (Ra) Ha M = Av Hamon Goyim.

A(leph) - av (father) I have placed you for nations
V(eis) - bachur (chosen) I have placed you for nations
H(ei) - chaviv (precious) I have placed you for nations I have placed you for nations
M(em) - melech(king) I have placed you for nations
V(av) - vatik( exemplary) I have placed you for nations
N(un) - ne'emon (faithful) I have placed you for nations
(Shabbos 105a)

Let us us leave the first lo, the one that follows the word "shiches" aside for now and focus solely on the second lo (Lamed aleph). If understood as written, it says something to the effect of "it is not blemishes of His children". If read as it sounds, it would mean "children who are His, it is their blemishes". The meanings are opposite. Here, following the pronunciation (lamed vav) will result in an opposite meaning than when following the spelling (lamed aleph).

Let's look at Sifri:[2]

We will leave a discussion of Notrikon for another time. What I would like to focus on this week is the reading of Hei in the name Avrohom as Ches (Hei for Chaviv).

Torah Temima to this verse, echoing Maharsha in Shabbos 105a, points out that reading letters hei as if it was ches and vice versa is quite common in rabbinic exegesis[2]. Torah Tamima cites 15 such examples from the Talmud Bavli, Yerushalmi and Midrash. The Maharsho explains that this is because 1. written shapes of these two letters are similar 2. they are pronounced in the same general location in the mouth.

Let us take and analyze each of these explanations separately.

1. The similarity of written shape.

As surprising as it may be for those who grew up with a notion that language developed out of grunts and shrieks of primitive cavemen and that writing, as a secondary phenomenon, came much later, the Chazal as well as rishonim[3], believed it to have been a divine gift. Writing was created on the 6th day ofcreation (Avos 5,9). If Hebrew is a planned language, similarity between the shapes of hei and ches may carry information that can be drawn out and utilized.

This notion was widely shared. Even a pashtan like Ibn Ezra in Shemos 1, 16 (and similarly in Yesod Mora 11) uses this reasoning to explain why the hei at the end of a word often changes into the letter tov.[4] He finds the justification for that in the similarity between their written forms. "For this is because hei and tov are similar in writing and there is no difference between them save extending a dot from hei (to make a tov).This is a sign that the script in our hands[5] is the original Hebrew script. "[6]

2. Pronounced in the same location in the mouth

Why would the origin of the sound within the mouth serve as a justification for exegetically exchanging such seemingly different letters? To begin to understand this approach to interpretation requires us to ponder the overall rabbinic approach to written and oral texts.

We live in a text based society. Out environment, mores and conventions are fluid and unstable and we have ample reason to distrust and suspect the future. Not surprisingly, written text provides some illusion of stability and a semblance of secure truth. We know how to work with written information; we are much less comfortable with the spoken word. This apparent predictability of the written leads us to value the written word over the oral one.

However, let us consider how predictable the written text really is. Is it not the fact that the Torah scroll contains a wide variety of exceptional spellings and unexpected usages. Some words are spelled in idiosyncratic manner; others are read differently than they are written (keri v'ksiv). In addition, the tradition often tells us that certain words are to be understood in a manner other than their plain meaning. Under these circumstances, the way the word sounds is as important as the way in which it is written, for it is not necessarily true that spelling is superior to sound. Apparently, the Author encoded meaning both within the spelling and in the sounds of His Holy Book. Having considered this, the inclination to exchange such similar letters as hei and ches no longer seems quite as extreme. It can now be seen as nothing more than a reasonable attempt to plumb full meaning of an encoded text that follows specific rules of encryption handed over to the Sages of Tradition.

Eagerly subjugating ourselves to the rabbinic mindset goes a long way to understanding how the Chazal viewed the Torah and the methods that they used to decode it. We must be ready to step out of out own limited cultural milieu and humble us before the worldview and received methods of interpretation that our teachers, the Chazal, bequeathed to us. Only then can we be true inheritors of their teachings and become worthy to be called their students.


1 Notrikon is of the same root as English "notary". It is the 30th method of exegesis of the 32 methods of R. Yosi Hagllili. R. Chananel in Shabbos 105a explains that this is Greek word that refers to a twofold method of writing in the royal court. When a king dictates a the document, he speaks in the form of brief notes. The scribe records these comments on one line and then writes an expansion of it that is suitable for transcribing on the other line. The Torah Temima, without citing R. Chananel, limits this style of writing only to times of war or emergency. The term Notrikon is sometimes used for any brief style of writing that must be expanded to be fully understood, see Rashi Shemos 20,12.

2 "The Rabbis did not hold back from switching between reading hei and cheis (Yerushalmi Shabbos 7,2)".

3 See Kuzari 1, 56

4 Such as in construct states - Chayah becomes chayas (ha'aretz).

5 Ksav ashuri. See Sanhedrin 22a.

6 I recall seeing an academic work that proposed to explain this 'peculiarity' of rabbinic interpretation by claiming that in ancient Hebrew script, the hei and the ches were written in the same way and that during the Second Temple period there was no distinction in pronunciation between the two. Historic inaccuracy of this claim aside, the tendency is predominantly to read hei as ches rather than ches as hei. Only three of the examples mentioned before are of the latter variety. This in itself suggests that the issue is not that of simple confusion of hei and ches.