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A Modern-Day Purim Tragedy

March 8, 2015

This year, for the first time in my life, the one who was about to read the m’gilla in the synagogue announced that he was going to be reading the second word of verse 3:4 as both k’omram, as per the tradition, and as b’omram, as per the way it appears written in the text. I tried to object, but I was not the rabbi, so that’s where it ended. And then, a few minutes later, he made good on his threat to show utter contempt for the Oral Law. It was, in an instant, the single greatest act of heresy I have ever witnessed.

N’darim 37b:

R. Ika b. Abin said in the name of R. Hananel in Rav’s name: What is the meaning of, “And they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly, and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading”? ‘They read in the book, it, the law of God,’ refers to Scripture; ‘distinctly,’ to Targum; ‘and they gave the sense’, to the division of sentences; ‘so that they understood the reading,’ to the accentuation; others say, to the masoroth.
R. Isaac said: The textual reading, as transmitted by the scribes, their stylistic embellishments, [words] read [in the text] but not written, and words written but omitted in the reading, are all halacha from Moses at Sinai.

This rule is codified in  Orah Hayim, 141:8.

The Bible is full of instances where a word in the text appears one way, but is read another way.  For example, this past Sabbath we read (Exodus 32:19) that Moses threw the tablets from yadaw, his hands, although the word is written yadohand, in the singular. This is commonly called “q’ri uchthiv,” lit, “read and written.” The true form of the Bible, written in scrolls, contains no punctuation or vowelization, and in order to make any sense, it needs to be read with the cantillation marks and vowel points that were only created in the Middle Ages, a system that reflects the oral traditions as to how to read the Bible since it was first written. This is the very first layer of the Oral Law, and refusing to read the Bible according to the received tradition is just as bad as, if not worse than, denying the legitimacy of the rest of the teachings and traditions of our sages. But, as we mentioned last week, once the Jews of the diaspora began to re-contact their far flung brethren, they discovered that certain disagreements had crept into their traditions. The Vilna Gaon is one of the first to be credited with pointing out that perhaps the way the word zeicher is vowelized, with a tzeirei, should be zecher, with a segol, as that is the way he had found it in some older manuscripts. Today, you can open up any volume of the Da’at Mikra bible to find that Rabbi Mordechai Breuer compiled exhaustive lists of all the various disagreements in vowelization and cantillation, four of which we noted in last week’s reading. When the Mishna B’rura and others mentioned the practice of reading both zeicher and zecher just to play it safe, they might not have been aware of all of the variants, and now because two such variants have been found in the m’gilla, (some books have bifneihem, others lifneihem, some have w’laharog, others have just laharog) it is becoming more and more common to also have the reader read all of those versions. I have never been comfortable reading any thing twice, because 1. there are so many variants throughout the Bible, it would become cumbersome, and 2. because we often have no way to fight it out and determine which tradition is more authentic. We should just stick to whichever of the two legitimate traditions we possess.

(This is unlike the question of proper pronunciation of the Hebrew consonants and vowels, something which, as I have shown, can actually be determined through simple argumentation.)

However, when it comes to the various traditional readings, not only has the halacha always been that we read them as per the q’ri, and the sages prohibited reading the k’thiv, for some reason, someone somewhere decided that in this one case, the k’thiv should also be read, as though there is an actual, legitimate dispute as to the matter.

I would offer that because the practice, however questionable, to read over two phrases in the m’gilla has already taken hold, and because this instance of q’ri and k’thiv is quite noticeable because it involves switching one hard consonant with another, this instance drew some fool’s attention.

This whole episode is alarming for another reason. See Dovbear’s essay here. Some have claimed that many of the stringencies practiced on Passover, like avoiding qitniyoth and gebrokts, started this way. I also think it’s neat to see these mistaken practices come into being before our very eyes.

Purim night, I called the ba’al q’ria with much trepidation, and I was very happy to hear that he was willing to hear me out, and even accepted what I had to say. He also said that he had been told to do that by the gabbaim of his synagogue back home, but he had never been told to do so by someone who was actually an expert in such things. However, I still fear that it may be too late to nip this heinous practice in the bud.

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