Kiddushin 30a ~ How Many Letters are in a Sefer Torah?

קידושין ל, א

לפיכך נקראו ראשונים סופרים, שהיו סופרים כל האותיות שבתורה, שהיו אומרים: וא"ו דגחון חציין של אותיות של ספר תורה, דרש דרש  חציין  של תיבות, והתגלח של פסוקים

Therefore the early sages were called "counters"  - soferim - because they counted all the letters of the Torah. They used to say: the letter vav of the word Gachon (Lev.11:42) is the half-way point of the letter of a Torah. The words "darosh darash" (Lev. 10:16) represent the half way point of the number of words in the Torah. The verse that begins with the word "Vehitgalach"  (Lev.13:33) is the half way point of the number of verses in the Torah... 

Today's page of Talmud in the Daf Yomi cycle covers some important material for those interested in the way in which Judaism and science interact.   The business of counting the letters in the Torah was apparently taken very seriously - so much so that one of the names by which the rabbis of the Talmud were known  - soferim - means "those who count."  To this day, the person who handwrites a Sefer Torah is called a counter (ספר), and not a writer (כתב). The Talmud emphasizes that this counting exercise was taken so seriously that the letters, words and verses were counted, and counted again. 

קידושין ל, א

בעי רב יוסף וא"ו דגחון מהאי גיסא או מהאי גיסא א"ל ניתי ס"ת ואימנינהו מי לא אמר רבה בר בר חנה לא זזו משם עד שהביאו ספר תורה ומנאום

Rav Yosef asked a question: This letter vav of the word Gachon, is it part of the first half or part of the second half of the letters of the Torah? They said to him, "let us bring a Torah scroll and count! For didn't Rabbah bar bar Channah say in a similar context: "They did not move from there until they brought a Torah scroll and counted all its letters"...

 

The View of Tradition, And OF the Journal Tradition

Writing in Tradition in 1964, the late scholar Louis Rabinowitz (d. 1984) asked how Orthodox Jews should regard the text of the Torah , "...upon which depends the whole enduring magnificent structure of the Oral Law and the Halakhah, in comparison with those texts which show variants from it?"  Here is his reply:

The answer is surely simple and logical. “The early scholars were called Soferim,” declares the Talmud (Kid. 30a) “because they were wont to count (soferim) all the letters of the Torah.” The meticulous manner in which they carried out this task is sufficiently indicated in the same passage by the information which it elicited to the effect, for instance, that the vav of gachon (Lev. 9:42 - [sic]) marks the half-way mark of the letters of the Torah, the words darosh darash of Lev. 10:16 the dividing line between the words...


With what loving care and sacred devotion, then, did they jealously guard every letter of the text! What exhaustive and detailed regulations they laid down in order to ensure that the copying of the scrolls should be completely free from human error! There has been nothing like it in the history of literature or religion, and in this respect the Massoretic text stands indisputably in a class by itself.
— Louis Rabinowitz. Torah Min Ha-Shamayim.Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 1964-5: 7;1: 34-45

Leaving aside the ironic typographic error that mis-references the location of the vav of Gachon, was the late rabbi Rabinowitz correct in remarking on the "loving care and sacred devotion," with which "they jealously guard every letter of the text"?

So how many letters are there in a Torah?

There are varied counts given for the number of letters in the Torah, but a couple of results seem to be most popular.

One website shares the source code used to count the words and letters in Torah; its results are shown below, and are off by four when compared to others who claim to have counted.

Letters and Words in the Torah
Words Lettlers
בראשית 20,614 78,063
שמות 16,714 63,527
ויקרא 11,950 44,790
במדבר 16,408 63,529
דברים 14,295 54,892
TOTAL 79,981 304,801

And How Many Verses Are There?

The same website gives a count of 5,844 verses in the Torah.  Rabbi Yair Chaim ben Moses Bachrach (d. 1702), author of the Chavot Ya'ir, notes that there are 5,845 verses in the chumashim he used. But today's daf of Talmud records that there are 5,888 verses. And here is the count from Even-Shoshan's קונקורדנציה חדשה (New Concordance of the Bible):

From Even-Shoshan (ed.)  A New Concordance of the Bible. Kiryat Sefer, Jerusalem 1987. 

From Even-Shoshan (ed.)  A New Concordance of the Bible. Kiryat Sefer, Jerusalem 1987. 

Side-Bar: From Where did Even-SHoshan Get his word count?

Even-Shoshan lists his reference as Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Brecher, who published a Yiddish translation of the entire Hebrew Bible. (Brecher was born in what is now the Ukraine in 1880 and died in New York in 1965.  His Yiddish translation was published in New York in 1941, and was republished six times, the last in 1957.)  At the end of the second volume of his translation (p. נא), R. Brecher addressed the thorny question of the letter and word counts in our Torahs, and had this to say:

The truth is, this [question of how many words there are in a Sefer Torah] is astonishing, and I couldn't rest because of it.  So I decided to count them, and I, myself, counted all the words in the entire Torah. In order to make it clear to the reader that I didn't make a mistake in my count,  I am here providing a list of all the verses in all the chapters as they are currently divided...My count is correct. As the ancient wise men say: Love Plato, love Aristotle, and love the truth most of all.

R. Brecher's total word count is 79,976 (although this count actually comes from here) - and so his half way point in the Torah is word #39,988. 

The Misplaced Middle of the Torah

Now back to today's page of Talmud. According to it, the middle letter of the Torah is the Vav of the word Gachon, (גחון) found in פרשת שמיני, which we read on Shabbat two weeks ago. However this claim is way off. Since there are about 304,805 letters in the Torah scrolls in use today, (I say about because of what we have just noted regarding the precise count,) the middle letter would be letter # 152,403, the first word of this verse (Lev 8.29):

ויקרא פרק ח פסוק כט 

ויקח משה את החזה ויניפהו תנופה לפני יקוק מאיל המלאים למשה היה למנה כאשר צוה יהו–ה את משה 

However the Vav of the word Gichon, is letter #157,236 - off by 4,833 letters. Oy.

It's no better regarding the words. If we go with the actual word count as being 79,980, then the middle words are # 39,990 and #39,991. These are the words יצק אל in verse below (Lev. 8:18):

ויקרא פרק ח פסוק טו 

וישחט ויקח משה את הדם ויתן על קרנות המזבח סביב באצבעו ויחטא את המזבח ואת הדם יצק אל יסוד המזבח ויקדשהו לכפר עליו

But the middle words of the Torah, according to Today's daf, are דרש דרש found over 900 words later (Lev.10:16):

ויקרא פרק י פסוק טז 

ואת שעיר החטאת דרש דרש משה והנה שרף ויקצף על אלעזר ועל איתמר בני אהרן הנותרם לאמר

That's a lot of letters to miscount, especially if your name is called "the counter". Several suggestions have been made to address these discrepancies:

1.  The text of the Torah that the rabbis of the Talmud were using was significantly different to the one we use today.  This is possible, but then why does the Talmud never cite of any of these extra words and verses? The discrepant count is about 3% - that's a lot of missing text.

2.  The rabbis in the Talmud were not good at math. Again, possible, but the Talmud claims that they took the counting so seriously that they were called COUNTERS. It also claims that they undertook the counting exercise on several different occasions.  Were they really that bad at math?

3. The rabbis in the Talmud didn't mean this count to be taken literally. While many apologists like this answer, it is at total odds with the text. The Talmud states: they counted.

4.  The rabbis guesstimated the count. Perhaps the rabbis never really counted, but guessed at where the middle of the Torah lay: somewhere in the middle of the middle of the Five Books. After that, the letter vav of the word Gachon became the official midpoint, even though it was not accurate.  The problem with this suggestion is again, that the Talmud states that the soferim actually counted, and counted again. Not that they guessed, and guessed again.  

Science, Math and Judaism

Of all the scientific disciplines, it is mathematics that is first introduced to us. We teach toddlers to count, sometimes before they can even walk, and we all pursue some kind of mathematical training through high school.  Unlike medicine or physics or biology or astronomy, mathematics, is something we all do, to some degree.  And we all understand what counting means.  Perhaps then, this passage in the Talmud the most readily understandable example of a conflict between science and Judaism. It is a conflict in which the basic text of rabbinic Judaism declares a fact that is, well, just not a fact.  Some find this conflict to be so intellectually troubling that their only path is to reject Jewish practice. Others, equally aware of the conflict, are comfortable with their intellectual position in which the scientific inaccuracies of the Talmud require no wholesale rejection of Jewish practice. Where do you fit on this spectrum, and, perhaps more importantly, what can you do to engage in a respectful dialogue with those whose opinions on these matters are not your own?

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