Crowning Achievement[1]

In retelling the events of the first Shavuot, as Moses stood alone with the Almighty on Mount Sinai, the Talmud introduces some astonishing new details to the story.

As the rabbis tell the tale, Moses was so overcome by impatience that he could not restrain himself from complaining that the Lord was spending precious moments on what appeared to be decorative ornaments to the Hebrew letters of the Torah. To this the Creator replied that, while these ornaments--designated by the Hebrew word tag [plural: tagin]--might now appear superfluous, in a future generation there would arise a great scholar named Rabbi Akiva who would be able to derive heaps and heaps of new laws and teachings from those trivial-looking tags.

What, indeed, were those tagin that were important enough to cause God to postpone the giving of the Torah?

At first glance, the answer seems a simple one, well known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of how Torah scrolls are written. According to the traditional practice set down in the Talmud, there are seven letters--identified by the acronym sha'atnez getz--that are decorated whenever they appear in the Torah with a special embellishment attached to the top of the letter.

If these ornaments were the tagin that Moses beheld on Mount Sinai, calligraphic features that are mechanically added to the form of the letters, then it is difficult to imagine how Rabbi Akiva could have ascribed to them exegetical importance.

And in truth, when we examine the traditional commentators to the Talmudic passage, we see that they understood the matter quite differently.

Rashi calls our attention to a passage that is found elsewhere in the Talmud, a delightful anecdote about how a class of schoolchildren produced a sequence of ingenious new interpretations for the names and shapes of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

According to these young prodigies, the letter kof stands for the word kadosh, and refers to the Holy One, whereas the resh represents rasha, the wicked. Accordingly, they ask "Why is the kof turned away from the resh? It is as if the Holy One is saying: I am unable to gaze upon the wicked."

Rashi explains that that the children were basing their interpretation on the fact that the kof sometimes has a little tag ornament on its roof, like a miniature zayin, that faces away from the resh when the alphabet is written in proper sequence.

As we read Rashi's comments, we sense that something is not quite right. After all, kof is not one of the seven letters included in the sha'atnez getz group, so why should it have a tag on its top?

Furthermore, as we study other medieval compendia of Jewish law, it quickly becomes apparent that the conventions for writing tags in Torah scrolls are much more complicated than we first supposed.

One of the most important sources for the development of synagogue practice in medieval Europe is a work known as the Mahzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs that was composed by Rashi's students in twelfth-century France. From various directives contained in the Mahzor Vitry we learn that the sha'atnez getz rule was not meant to apply to every occurrence of those seven letters in the Bible, but to specific texts that are inscribed in a Mezuzah. This approach finds independent corroboration in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, where he deals with the sha'atnez getz letters only in connection with the writing of the Shema‘ in Tefillin and Mezuzot. After specifying their locations and shapes, he comments "If one neglected to include the tagin or wrote more or less than the required ones, this does not disqualify it."

Furthermore, we learn from the Mahzor Vitry that the tagin were not written in the way they are written today, by adding the same zayin-like appendage to the tops of the respective letters. Rather, there were special rules for how the letter was to be shaped each individual time it appeared.

The shin has five tagin: two on the first leg and two on the last, and one on the middle one. The ‘ayin has three on each leg. The tet has two on the first leg and three on the last. The nun and the zayin have three apiece. The gimel has three tagin. The tzadik has two on the first leg and three on the last.

In an addendum to this section, the editor of the Mahzor Vitry notes that he has witnessed the practice of decorating all the sha'atnez getz letters in a uniform manner, though such was not the dominant custom in his own community. Some authorities (such as Rashi's grandson, Rabbi Jacob Tam), preferred to play it safe by following both practices: The individual rules should be followed with regards to the special shapes of specific letters, but in other cases the sha'atnez gatz letters should always be decorated with their uniform tags.

The Mahzor Vity actually incorporates a separate treatise devoted to the minutiae of writing tagin in sacred texts, a work that bears the title, appropriately enough, The Book of Tagin. Its opening lines bear witness to the author's belief that he was in possession a most ancient and arcane tradition that was carefully passed from teacher to disciple from the earliest times:


Reprinted from Ha'Atid, a publication of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation
And this is the book of Tagin that Ely the Priest took up from the twelve stones that Joshua set up at Gilgal; and he handed them to Samuel, and Samuel handed them to Palti ben Laish, and Palti ben Laish handed them to Ahitofel, and Ahitofel to Ahijah the Shilonite, and Ahijah to Elijah and Elijah to Elisha and Elisha to Jehoiadah the Priest. And Jehoiadah to the prophets. And they buried it under the doorstep of the Temple. And when the doorstep of the Temple was uprooted during the reign of Jehoiachin King of Judah, Ezekiel found it and brought it to Babylonia. And during the reign of Cyrus King of Persia, when Ezra brought up the ten different castes, Ezra discovered this book and brought it up to Jerusalem, and it reached

Rabbi Moses Nahmanides accepted this claim at face value, and held the Book of Tagin in profound reverence, since he associated the tagin with the mysterious gates of understanding that had been bestowed upon Moses when God wrote out the Torah for him at Sinai. The significance of the special letters was a mysterious secret "...for these secret allusions can be known only through the oral tradition that originated with Moses at Sinai."

The traditions surrounding the tagin were especially important to the Jewish pietist movement known as Hasidut Ashkenaz that flourished in Germany from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. The followers of this movement placed great emphasis on the mystical significance of words, and they meticulously reckoned the numerological values of each word in the prayer book. Evidently, the movement's founder Rabbi Judah the Pious composed a treatise entitled the Book of Wisdom in which he expounded the mysteries of the tagin. The colophon to that book aptly reflects the reverence in which the tagin were held by those circles:

It is forbidden to add to [the authorized list of tagin], nor may one omit even a single tag, since they are precisely as they were given at Mount Sinai. They have been passed down as an oral tradition by Elijah the Prophet to Ezra the High Priest. And the person who is punctilious about them will be blessed in this world and in the next. One must take great care not to diminish or to add even as much a hair's breadth, for several explanations and several mysteries can be derived from them, for each one contains several interpretations. Any Torah scroll that lacks them is not fit to be read from. Therefore, all God-fearing individuals should be scrupulous with regard to them, and their reward will be great from the God of Israel...

Maimonides also emphasized, in his rules for writing Torah scrolls, that the tagin should be written in their traditional manner:

One ought to take great care with regards to the letters that are to be written larger and the ones that are written smaller, and the ones that have dots and the ones that have unusual shapes, like the wrapped peh's and the twisted letters, as the scribes have copied one from another. And one ought to take great care with regard to the tagin and their proper number; sometimes a letter requires one tag, and there are shins that have seven of them. So too, regarding the tagin that have the shape of zayins, which are as thin as a hair.

It is evident that Maimonides' contemporaries were mystified by the tagin, and he was questioned about their shapes and the whether they should be treated as a mere custom or as an indispensable requisite for kosher Torah scrolls or Mezuzahs. After providing a brief description of some of their forms, Maimonides stated that their purpose is no longer known, nor is it possible to deduce it; though that we can learn from the Talmudic account of Moses' sojourn on Mount Sinai that the tagin had been part of Moses' original Torah scroll. Nevertheless, their omission does not disqualify the scroll, and conflicting traditions have evolved concerning their precise forms and placement.

Seeing as there is much disagreement on this, and since according to the strict law their omission is not a grounds for disqualification, because their inclusion is only intended to imitate the scrolls that were written by our Master Moses, therefore the people of some countries preferred to omit them and to leave them out of the scrolls altogether, on account of the disagreements that surround them; for writing them would not be a faithful imitation of the above-mentioned scroll.

Maimonides himself was of the opinions that, notwithstanding the divergence of opinions, a normative practice could be formulated based on majority usage, and that it would be preferable, though not compulsory, to follow that practice.

An attitude closer to our current practice was espoused by Rav Hai Ga'on, who headed the Babylonian academy of Sura during the eleventh century. He was asked whether every occurrence of the letter zayin (one of the sha‘atnez getz letters) in a Mezuzah or Tefillin required a tag. His questioners noted that they possessed old Mezuzahs in which only some of the letters had the tagin. The Ga'on nevertheless ruled that they were not fit unless every single zayin was decorated by a tag.

Examination of actual Torah scrolls reveals considerable variation in the degree to which different Jewish communities tried to implement the traditions about the "strange letters." Diverse traditions of writing "wrapped peh"s (variants of that Hebrew letter that had extra curls inside them) were maintained quite faithfully in Yemen, Bohemia and Germany, though we do not encounter them in texts from the Cairo Genizah.

I suppose that it should not surprise us too much that the secrets of the tagin have been lost over time. After all, Moses himself was unable to comprehend them! Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate how much we would be enriched--whether in the form of Rabbi Akiva's "heaps and heaps" of laws, or Rabbi Judah the Pious' mystical insights--if only we were able to reclaim that ancient tradition.


This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

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