The research I did for the article What is a Sefer Torah? shows there are 304,805 letters in a Sefer Torah. A common question asked on the websites I looked at is: What is the middle of a Sefer Torah? The word Sofer is the Hebrew word for counter (not scribe, writer, author, copier, etc.), and Soferim count the letters in a Sefer Torah to ensure it was copied accurately. Since the letters have been counted so many times over a few millennia, it seems like that should be an easy question to answer. I was surprised to find out there’s not an easy answer. The Talmud1 has a short section on counting the letters, words and verses in a Sefer Torah in Kiddushin 30a:11, so that seems a reasonable place to start.
Those who count [soferim], because they would count all the letters in the Torah, as they would say that
- the letter vav in the word “belly [gaḥon]” (Leviticus 11:42)2 is the midpoint of the letters in a Torah scroll.
- The words: “Diligently inquired [darosh darash]” (Leviticus 10:16)3, are the midpoint of the words in a Torah scroll.
- And the verse that begins with: “Then he shall be shaven” (Leviticus 13:33)4, is the midpoint of the verses.
- Similarly, in the expression: “The boar out of the wood [miya’ar] ravages it” (Psalms 80:14)5, the ayin in the word wood [ya’ar] is the midpoint of Psalms, with regard to its number of letters.
- The verse: “But He, being full of compassion, forgives iniquity” (Psalms 78:38)6, is the midpoint of verses in the book of Psalms.
Those statements seem like a clear answer to a simple question. The problem is, they’re all wrong. At least wrong from a counting point of view, which is what I had in mind.
Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher7 also calculated the midpoints and came up with answers that were very different from the Talmud’s. He found the midpoint of letters to be in Lev 8:288, 4829 letters off from the Talmudic count. The midpoint of words is in 8:269, 743 words off, and the midpoint of verses is Lev. 8:810, 164 verses off. Furthermore, the skew is very strange, where the Talmud’s calculation have the midpoints of words and verses three chapters off, this calculation has them differ by only 18 verses (in the other direction).11
The actual middle letter (number 152,403, assuming the input was correct), counted by computers, occurs in Leviticus 8:28, and is an alef of the word הוא 12 Why is the actual middle letter not the same as the traditional middle letter?13 Can’t the counters (Soferim) count?
I found several different theories on why the vav was picked, although the one I came across most frequently doesn’t seem very convincing to me (none of the other theories I found are any more convincing). Leviticus 11:42 is identified in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 30a:11) as having the middle letter, so this belief goes back 1,500 years or more.
Almost all of the letters of the Torah are written in the standard Hebrew script in the standard size. However, there are some letters that are written in an unusual fashion and some that are written large or small. If one were to count all of the small and large letters in a standard Torah, one would find that there are exactly 16 of these letters. Of these, the ninth, the middle one, is vav of gachon. In other words, the Gemara was not referring to vav of gachon as the middle of all the letters of the Torah. Rather, it was referring to it as the middle of all the unusually large and small letters in the Torah.14
The accepted middle of the Torah seems to be based on the authority of the Talmud, not actually counting the letters, words or verses. “The Talmud says the vav is the middle of the Torah, so it is!” That is not a satisfactory answer to me.
There are so many conflicting opinions on this topic, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find a satisfactory answer. This article was frustrating to research, and won’t provide a resolution. Maybe in future years I’ll stumble upon a better explanation, but for now I’m going to give up.
- The Duties of a Hebrew Scribe or Sofer (Scrolls4All.org; Website) Accessed 01-Apr-2019.
- Kiddushin 30a ~ How Many Letters are in a Sefer Torah? (Talmudology, April 10, 2016; Website) Accessed 02-Apr-2019.
- A Review of
the article “On the matter of the number of verses,
words and letters in the Torah” by Rabbi Isaac Zilber (Moriah, 22nd year, issue A-B [153-154], Elul 5758 (1998); Website) Accessed 02-Apr-2019.
- The Talmud is a primary source of Jewish religious law.
- כֹּל֩ הוֹלֵ֨ךְ עַל־גָּח֜וֹן וְכֹ֣ל ׀ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֗ע עַ֚ד כָּל־מַרְבֵּ֣ה רַגְלַ֔יִם לְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ לֹ֥א תֹאכְל֖וּם כִּי־שֶׁ֥קֶץ הֵֽם You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination. (Leviticus 11:42)
- ְאֵ֣ת ׀ שְׂעִ֣יר הַֽחַטָּ֗את דָּרֹ֥שׁ דָּרַ֛שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֣ה שֹׂרָ֑ף וַ֠יִּקְצֹף עַל־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר וְעַל־אִֽיתָמָר֙ בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֔ן הַנּוֹתָרִ֖ם לֵאמֹֽר Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, (Leviticus 10:16)
- וְהִ֨תְגַּלָּ֔ח וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖תֶק לֹ֣א יְגַלֵּ֑חַ וְהִסְגִּ֨יר הַכֹּהֵ֧ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֛תֶק שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים שֵׁנִֽית the person with the scall shall shave himself, but without shaving the scall; the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. (Leviticus 13:33)
- יְכַרְסְמֶ֣נָּֽה חֲזִ֣יר מִיָּ֑עַר וְזִ֖יז שָׂדַ֣י יִרְעֶֽנָּה wild boars gnaw at it, and creatures of the field feed on it? (Psalms 80:14)
- וְה֤וּא רַח֨וּם ׀ יְכַפֵּ֥ר עָוֺן֮ וְֽלֹא־יַ֫שְׁחִ֥ית וְ֭הִרְבָּה לְהָשִׁ֣יב אַפּ֑וֹ וְלֹֽא־יָ֝עִיר כָּל־חֲמָתֽוֹ But He, being merciful, forgave iniquity and would not destroy; He restrained His wrath time and again and did not give full vent to His fury; (Psalms 78:38)
- Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher was a Sofer who lived over 1,000 year ago, and is still highly respected for his work.
- וַיִּקַּ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֹתָם֙ מֵעַ֣ל כַּפֵּיהֶ֔ם וַיַּקְטֵ֥ר הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חָה עַל־הָעֹלָ֑ה מִלֻּאִ֥ים הֵם֙ לְרֵ֣יחַ נִיחֹ֔חַ אִשֶּׁ֥ה ה֖וּא לַיהוָֽה Then Moses took them from their hands and turned them into smoke on the altar with the burnt offering. This was an ordination offering for a pleasing odor; it was an offering by fire to the LORD.) Leviticus 8:28)
- וּמִסַּ֨ל הַמַּצּ֜וֹת אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֗ה לָ֠קַח חַלַּ֨ת מַצָּ֤ה אַחַת֙ וְֽחַלַּ֨ת לֶ֥חֶם שֶׁ֛מֶן אַחַ֖ת וְרָקִ֣יק אֶחָ֑ד וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ עַל־הַ֣חֲלָבִ֔ים וְעַ֖ל שׁ֥וֹק הַיָּמִֽין From the basket of unleavened bread that was before the LORD, he took one cake of unleavened bread, one cake of oil bread, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat parts and on the right thigh. (Leviticus 8:26)
- וַיָּ֥שֶׂם עָלָ֖יו אֶת־הַחֹ֑שֶׁן וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶל־הַחֹ֔שֶׁן אֶת־הָאוּרִ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתֻּמִּֽים He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thummim. (Leviticus 8:8)
- The Center of the Torah (Kefirah of the Week, April 22, 2015) Accessed 05-Apr-2019).
- The middle letter of the Torah is…. (miko284, April2, 2016; Website) Accessed 23-Mar-2029.
- Shurpin, Yehuda. What Is the Midpoint of the Torah? (Chabad.org; Website) Accessed 23-Mar-2029.
- Pamphlet 9 – The Letters of the Torah (The AishDas Society; Website) Accessed 23-Mar-2029.