Sunday, September 27, 2015

Daf Yomi Insights: Lot, His Daughters and the Dots on top of the letters of the Torah

The Talmud in Nazir 23a discusses the story of Lot and his daughters, who fled the destruction of Sodom and were alone in a cave, thinking they were the world's sole survivors. In the first night his older daughter cohabitated with him after giving him wine, and in the next night, his younger daughter. Look at the Pasuk:

וַתַּשְׁקֶיןָ אֶת אֲבִיהֶן יַיִן בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַתָּבֹא הַבְּכִירָה וַתִּשְׁכַּב אֶת אָבִיהָ וְלֹא יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ.
'And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. (Gen 19:33)'

It´s pretty clear that the Torah is saying the Lot did not know of what happened, nor before or after the episode. Now the Talmud makes a really puzzling commentary; while noting that the word ובקומה has a unique scribal oddity of having a dot over the letter Hey, this oddity gives a whole different meaning to the passage:

 "בשכבה ובקומה – למה נקוד על וי"ו ובקומה של בכורה? לומר – שבשכבה לא ידע, אבל בקומה ידע" 

The Talmud is saying that Lot knew about what happened after the first daughter stood up - and he did nothing to prevent a repetition in the second night. Now that's the exact opposite of the plain reading of the Torah - the Torah clearly states he did not know of what happened before AND afterwards. How can the Talmud spin the reading against what's actually stated in the Torah?

This is a very strong question and it almost makes us wonder if we are missing something. We are.

The scribal oddity addressed here is found in rare occasions in the Torah. The famous oddities of Inverted Nuns, or special Tagim (we discussed these oddities in an older post) are unlike this oddity. The Dots over Letters is a much older tradition and it actually dates all the way back to Ezra the Scribe, who saved the Torah from oblivion when he brought the Jews to Israel in 457 BCE. In Ezra's time, the Jews almost forgot many of the teachings of the Torah and he singlehandedly took upon himself to set the correct text of the Torah for generations to come. But he was not always certain about the correct text. The Avot of Rabbi Natan, a Gaonic early work often quoted by the Tosafists, quotes (here, in Perek Hey) all the words that are dotted in the Torah and then he explains the backstory: 
 למה, אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר לי מפני מה כתבת כך, אומר אני לו: כבר נקדתי עליהן. ואם אומר לי יפה כתבת, אעביר נקודה מעליהן.
'Why (are the letters dotted)? Ezra said: if Elijah comes and asks why I wrote these words, I can answer that I dotted these. If he tells me that it's good I wrote them, then I can just erase the dots'

It's clear that Ezra was unsure about the correct Mesora, and in some places he was unsure to write or not to write an extra word. For instance, in the story of Lot, he was unsure if the word ובקומה should be written or not - and writing it (or not), would cause a completely different reading of the passage. If he wrote it, it would mean that Lot did not know about what happened at all, but not writing it would mean that he knew what happened after the firstborn left. 

Therefore Ezra decided to write ובקומה and leave both readings as a possibility. If Elijah comes and asks 'why did you write it', he can counter that there is a dot over the word and that signifies that it's a word that maybe should be erased. 

Coming back to our original question - how can the Talmud spin the reading of the Pasuk against the plain reading of the verse, we were missing this crucial piece of information. The Talmud assumes we know what the dot over the word means, and the Talmud is offering its interpretation of the reading of the Pasuk without the word if ובקומה. That reading would clearly indicate that Lot knew about what happened afterward, so the Talmud is actually just conveying to us the alternative reading of the Pasuk Ezra was contemplating when he was writing the Torah.