Beha-alotkha: Backward Nuns

For thousands of years, scribes have been writing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible onto parchment Torah scrolls, without changing a letter—not even to correct a spelling mistake. Besides carefully preserving ancient errors, scribes reproduce letters that are traditionally written larger or smaller than the surrounding text. And in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), scribes faithfully recreate two inverted or upside-down nuns.

Capture nuns

The symbol on the left above is the Hebrew letter nun. When a nun is part of a word, it sounds like our letter “N”. Before Arabic numerals were invented, Hebrew (like Latin) used letters to stand for numbers, the letter nun stood for 50.

The symbol on the right above is an inverted nun, which is not really a letter at all. An inverted nun (as well as an upside-down nun) is a symbol written next to a piece of text to indicate that the text is out of place. The ancient Greeks used an inverted sigma for the same purpose.

Out of the 22 Hebrew letters, why did the ancient scribes pick a nun to reverse? Nobody know, but the question opens the way to mystical speculations, which I hope to explore in the future. My question this week is why they picked only one passage in the Torah scroll to mark with inverted nuns. Modern scholars have pointed out many bits of poetry in the Torah that appear be quotes from a longer poem or song. But this week’s Torah portion,  Beha-alotkha,  is the only one accompanied by inverted nuns.  And the only other inverted nuns in the Hebrew Bible appear in Psalm 107, where these symbols follow seven of the verses.

The Babylonian Talmud (in Shabbat 115b-116a) mentions the inverted nuns in Beha-alotkha, and states that the verses between the two inverted nuns were moved from another place in the Torah text. Most commentary after the Talmud also identifies the displaced passage in Beha-alotkha as the two verses in between the inverted nuns. But in Psalm 107, each verse being pointed out is  followed by an inverted nun. Does this mean that the first scribe to draw inverted nuns in our Torah portion also intended his symbols to follow the verses being pointed out? I wonder if the original scribe was even pointing out the pair of verses before the first inverted nun, then the pair of verses before the second inverted nun. All four verses seem out of place to me, both because of the language they use and because they are wedged for no obvious reason between a conversation Moses has with an in-law, and a series of complaints by the Israelites.

Here is my translation:

They headed out from the mountain of God for a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God was heading out in front of them for a journey of three days, to scout out a resting-place for them. (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:33) And the cloud of God was above them by day, when they were heading out from the camp. (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:34) 


It happened that when the ark headed out, Moses said: Kumah, God, and Your enemies will scatter, and those who oppose You will flee from Your presence. (Numbers 10:35)

And when it came to rest, he said: Shuvah, God, the multitude of thousands of Israel. (Numbers 10:36)


Kumah = Rise up! Stand up! Uphold! (The masculine imperative is kum, and the feminine imperative is kumi. Kumah is a variant that occurs for the first time here.)

Shuvah = Return! Turn back! Turn toward! (The masculine imperative is shuv, and the feminine imperative is shuvi. Shuvah is a variant that occurs for the first time here.)

In the Talmud (Shabbat 116a), Rav Ashi suggests that the two verses between the inverted  nuns were moved forward from Numbers 1:52-2:34, the passage describing the marching positions of the tribes of Israel during their wilderness journeys. But when I read that passage, I do not see any obvious place for our two verses. Other ancient commentary proposes that the verses were pulled from a lost prophecy by Eldad and Meidad, who break into prophesy in Numbers 11:26; or that the two verses stand as a separate book of the Torah.

What I notice is that  the verses translated above are the only place in the five books of the Torah scroll where the words kumah and shuvah are used instead of the usual imperative verbs kum and shuv. Neither of these variants appears again until the later books in the Hebrew Bible, after the book of Joshua. There the variant  kumah appears 14 times. Three of these times, starting with the book of Judges, a man or group of men are being told to get up. The other 11 times, (nine of them in Psalms), someone is asking God to rise up—just as in Numbers 10:35 above.

Similarly, the variant shuvah appears once in Numbers 10:36, then does not show up again until the book of Isaiah. The imperative shuvah occurs three times in books of the prophets, when God is asking Israel to return; and four times in Psalms, when the psalmist is asking God to return—just as in Numbers 10:36. So judging by the language, Numbers 10:35-36 belongs to the literary tradition of Psalms, not to any writing in the first five books of the Bible.

Furthermore, in all other descriptions of the Israelites moving from camp to camp in the wilderness, the ark is carried by Levites in the middle of the marching formation, and the cloud of God leads the way in front. But in Numbers 10:33-34, translated above, the ark leads the way, and the cloud hovers above the Israelites. This makes me suspect that these two verses before the first inverted nun were also moved from a later piece of writing.

In the book of Joshua, priests carry the ark in front of the Israelites, leading them across the Jordan. Then they carry the ark around the walls of Jericho, leading the troops. In both books of Samuel, the ark is carried into battle, and except for one occasion when it was captured by Philistines, God’s presence defeated Israel’s enemies. No cloud is mentioned in Joshua, Samuel I, or Samuel II. The entreaty in Numbers 10:35, “Rise up, God, and Your enemies will scatter!” would fit right into this period between the start of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan and Solomon’s erection of the temple in Jerusalem.

Nobody knows why the verses accompanied by inverted nuns were moved to this week’s Torah portion. The Talmud tractate Shabbat cites Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s explanation that the displaced passage provides a break between two transgressions of the Israelites, but I find this unconvincing. Elsewhere the Torah either stacks up series of transgressions without compunction, or finds other ways to insert a more cheerful passage.

However, I have noticed that when the people remember events from the distant past—their own pasts, or stories they heard or read a long time ago—they often make factual errors by transplanting something recent into the earlier time. For example, we might remember a teenager in the 1970’s saying a fellow teenager was “hot”, even though that particular word did not become slang for “sexy” until much later. Similarly, Numbers 10:35-36 uses the words kumah and shuvah even though they did not become alternatives to kum and shuv until later in the Bible.

Besides mis-remembering minor facts, we also re-interpret our pasts to fit the paradigms of our present lives.

For the Israelites in the wilderness, God’s pillar of cloud was critically important. It led them out of Egypt and all the way to Mount Sinai. But for the Israelites living in Canaan and fighting  with their neighbors, the pillar of cloud was history. They no longer needed God to guide them through the wilderness; what they needed was for God to be on their side in battle. The best symbol they had of God’s presence was the ark, and until Solomon built a permanent temple, they carried the ark with them into battle. These later Israelites might well re-interpret their past to fit their current paradigm, and imagine Moses sending the ark ahead of the people, and calling on God for help by saying: Rise up, God, and Your enemies will scatter, and those who oppose You will flee from Your presence.

I keep re-interpreting my own past too. As a teenager I thought in terms of escape—from my parents’ house and from nearly all social situations. I believed I was a misfit and I did not hope to change myself, only to escape to a better environment—preferably a “promised land” where I would not be expected to date or marry or have children. To my surprise, I ended up doing all three. For the next 30 years, my life revolved around marriage and motherhood, and I lived in a state of perpetual responsibility. I was drawn to Judaism partly because of its emphasis on ethical behavior, which now seemed vitally important to me. I judged my own past in terms of my current moral standards, and I felt guilty about each time I had left my sister or a friend in the lurch because I was running away from a situation I could not handle. Eventually I realized I was projecting my current concerns onto my past. Perhaps I was thinking like the ancient Israelite editor who imagined Moses sending the ark ahead and calling “Kumah!“.

Since I turned 50—the age represented by a regular, non-inverted nun—I have been working through another stage of life, redefining what is important to me, becoming a leader in a Jewish congregation, and learning several new kinds of courage.  I am still a misfit in general society, but what matters is who I am in my own circle. Now I focus on revealing more of myself, and doing my own work. Now when I remember my adult life before age 50, I regret that I had neither the personality nor the prescience to take time for religious education. And when I remember my adolescence now, I think of the moments when I touched the divine—at least according to my present interpretation of  those moments.  These days, I pray for God to guide me, and nobody answers; there is no pillar of cloud. Yet I know I am guided. Life seems more mysterious to me now, and my whole past before age 50 seems distant and amazing. I know I am transplanting my present sense of mystery into my memories of the past. If I wrote an autobiography from my current point of view, I would have to put inverted nuns all over the manuscript.

How wonderful it is to change and re-evaluate life and re-interpret our memories! May we all recognize our revisions of the past, and learn from each new stage in our lives.

3 thoughts on “Beha-alotkha: Backward Nuns

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