"He Make Crowns for the Letters"

  • Rav Hillel Rachmani





Guest Sicha by Rav Hillel Rachmani


“He Made Crowns for the Letters”

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Commenting on our parasha, Rashi recounts the midrash that describes Moshe ascending to heaven and seeing God writing in the Torah the description of Himself as "long suffering" (erekh apayim). Moshe asks God why He does not add "to the righteous,” and God responds that His patience extends even to the wicked. Moshe finds this difficult to understand. Later on, after the sin of spies, when God wants to destroy the entire nation, Moshe beseeches that He treat them mercifully, because He is "long suffering." God then reminds Moshe, "But you said, 'only to the righteous'" – and Moshe responds that God Himself testified that His patience extends also to the wicked.


Another aggada (Menachot 29b) records that when Moshe ascended to heaven, he has a vision of Rabbi Akiva delving into minute details of Torah, which he himself has trouble understanding, and he questions why the Torah is being given to him, rather than to Rabbi Akiva. Eventually he is appeased when he understands that even the great Rabbi Akiva was taught, ultimately, by himself.


These midrashim convey a lack of understanding on Moshe's part: In the first story he fails to understand why God is patient even towards the wicked; in the second story, he fails to understand why God has chosen him to teach the nation, since he cannot understand Rabbi Akiva's lessons.


In order to understand the fundamentally different views of reality reflected here, let us start by trying to understand what Chazal mean when they say that Moshe did not understand what Rabbi Akiva was teaching. Chazal describe Rabbi Akiva "making crowns (kosher ketarim) for the letters,” and the conventional interpretation is that Rabbi Akiva was deriving details of laws from the "crowns" that adorn some of the letters in the Torah script. However, this explanation is problematic, since nowhere in the Gemara is there any indication that Rabbi Akiva arrived at his knowledge in this manner – nor is this permissible; the law is to be derived from the words themselves.


We might therefore propose a different understanding of the scene: Rabbi Akiva paid attention not only to the letters themselves but, in his greatness, was also able to grasp the depth of every letter in the Torah – and thereby to expand the idea behind it. This is what Chazal mean by saying that he "made crowns for the letters": he expanded the letters beyond their apparent proportions, thereby arriving at new laws – the Oral Law. The Gemara refers to this expansion as "crowns (ketarim) for the letters" because, in his ability to expand the letters, Rabbi Akiva attained the sefira of keter of each and every letter. When he plumbed the depths of halakha and understood the deeper significance and meaning of each letter, he was able to expand the laws and elaborate on them.


Moshe's approach to the Torah was precisely the opposite. He perceived the letter itself, as it was, without looking beyond the words. For this reason, Moshe cannot understand why God would extend patience even to the wicked – because, from a reasonable, logical perspective, the wicked are indeed not deserving of forgiveness. However, God – Who views the infinite depth of every matter all the way to its very source – sees that the wicked, too, ultimately perform God's will, and that they, too, possess an inner spark of truth, and therefore they too are worthy of His long-suffering approach.


For the same reason, Moshe does not understand Rabbi Akiva's teachings. Rabbi Akiva's insights arise from a perspective of "keter" – the deepest meaning underlying the written letters of the Torah – while Moshe views the letters and words themselves, rather than the profound meaning behind them. It is therefore Rabbi Akiva who is capable of building the Oral Law, while Moshe conveys the Written Law. To hand over and convey Torah one has to be a transparent channel that carries a message with the highest fidelity and the least interference or distortion. For this purpose Moshe had to see only what God was actually giving, and to pass it on as it was, without any innovation or elaboration. This is Moshe's uniqueness. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, creates new Torah – the Oral Law – and for this purpose he needs to perceive what lies behind the words themselves, their deeper meaning, in order to be able to arrive at new insights.


It is through the in-depth understanding of the letters of the Torah that one is able to illuminate new insights in the Oral Law, which is the system that connects the Torah to our reality. In order to connect Torah to reality, one has to have a far deeper understanding of it than what appears to us superficially. This is the deeper meaning of the connection between "keter" and "malkhut,” because – as we have seen – the deeper perspective of Rabbi Akiva reflects 'keter,’ and it is only through this perspective that there can be innovation in the Oral Law, which is 'malkhut.’ Every time one steps outside one needs a deeper and deeper understanding of Torah, and is through this in-depth study, with its attempt to attain the deepest meaning of the Torah, that one is able to connect Torah with reality, and to bring the light of Torah into the very physical reality of this world.



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Shelach 5765 [2005].)