Our Torah—Illustrated?

Figure 1: The markings as they often appear in contemporary Torah scrolls. These appear to be in the style of both inverted and reversed nuns with “jots and tittles” or tagin, filigree markings found on certain letters of the Torah text.
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Sholom Eisenstat

In the ancient text of the Torah found on scrolls in synagogues around the world, few textual anomalies or irregularities exist. The most common of these unique characteristics are some dotted letters in the Torah and some larger or smaller letters.[1] Perhaps the most unique phenomenon is one of a different kind: the bracket-shaped markings which surround Numbers 10:35-36. These markings are known throughout rabbinic literature as the “inverted nuns,”[2] so-called for more than 1000 years. In virtually all scrolls across the planet, they are found only at this place in the scroll’s text.

Tradition has it that the Torah text does not change and has not changed. From the first millennium, the masorah system has prevented changes to the consonantal text. The transmission of the Torah text is extremely accurate; our scrolls are virtually the same as scrolls found in the Judean Desert which are dated from the first centuries BCE. Even the odd textual anomaly is usually found to be the same from modern scroll to modern scroll. But the design and position of the markings at Numbers 10:35-36 have been evolving and changing throughout the last 2000 years―and, as a result, so have interpretations of their meaning. Every generation has added layers to this phenomenon.

One of the most intriguing iterations in this evolution of both design and interpretation is found in the Zohar. The Zohar presents the so-called markings found surrounding Numbers 10:35-36 as illustrations representing the Shekhinah’s posture during the travels of the people of Israel through the desert. The Zohar’s comments demonstrate that several designs for the markings were already known and in use in the 13th century (when the Zohar appeared on the scene) and that the designs used for the markings in scrolls reflect an existing fluidity and ongoing evolutionary process still active today. The discourse related to the markings that the Zohar presents is distinct and reflective of the mystical lens through which the Zohar presents the content of the Torah.


The appearance of the unique and curious markings in the text surrounding the 85 letters of Numbers 10:35-36 (see Figure 1) have, in every generation, shouted, “Darsheni!” (explain me!). As a result, there exists an expansive record of interpretation about the markings as well as their form and their location. Spanning several thousand years, this history reveals a dynamic scribal evolution of the markings and a rich library of interpretation. Generation after generation of scholars and scribes inherited traditions and, in turn, modified the markings and developed new interpretations. That transmission has left us a significant legacy of character forms implemented by scribes, editors, and publishers to fulfill the requirement that these markings appear in the Torah scroll. Paralleling these models is a significant amount of lore which interprets the markings and explains their purpose. A quick Google search demonstrates that this process continues in vibrant ways today.


Scanning several dozen scrolls, one can see that markings were usually inserted into the text preceding and following Numbers 10:35-36. Sometimes, scribes replaced one, two, or more nuns of the actual text with a modified character, as shown in Figure 2 (note the Z shape of the nun of “binsoa” and “u-ve-nuhoh”); this kind of replacement occurred in many places over many centuries. I have discovered few sources which object to either inserting markings or modifying characters.[3] This lends credence to the idea that all the creative modifications which are documented here were approved by rabbinic authorities. Some scribes just copied what they saw in already approved texts, but others must have received rabbinic approval or directions for the often surprising, significant, and creative textual innovations.[4] The modifications to the markings and their locations which I have documented, though seemingly minor and not changing the Torah’s meaning, are nevertheless changes to a text held to be of divine origin and believed to be fixed.

Figure 2: Backwards nuns as part of the text. Top image: Xanten Bible, late 13th-century Germany. Bottom image: SCR.000266 Museum of the Bible


Early Rabbinic Texts
Rabbinic texts throughout the millennia include many attempts to establish the purpose and/or meaning of the markings near Numbers 10:35-36, the intent of surrounding this text with such markings, the placement of that text in the Torah in this location, as well as the proper location[5] of the inverted nuns in the text and their design. All of these issues are relevant to the interpretation of the purpose and meaning of these unique characters.

The earliest mention of the distinct status of this text is in the Mishnah (m. Yadayim 3:5), where Numbers 10:35-36 is established as the paradigm for the minimum length (85 letters) of a text to be considered sacred, kodesh.[6] If there are no coincidences, we have to determine how the text of Numbers 10:35-36 connects to the mishnah which uses it as a paradigm for classifying texts as sacred or not. I suggest that the mishnah is self-referential. This short text had once been an independent fragment of a scroll, perhaps part of a worn or unusable text or a remnant from a fire.[7] Perhaps this fragment comes from one of the 24 books mentioned by name in the Tanakh which are not extant. Because of its provenance, this text needed to be preserved. We see from our Torah scrolls that it was preserved by including it in the greater body of the Torah text.[8]

The divine origin of the markings themselves, though not their design, is attested to in Shabbat 115b-116a, where two tannaim discuss the meaning of these markings. In response to the anonymous statement that “the Holy One, Blessed be He, made signs for this portion, above and below,”[9] Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel attests that the markings signify that this text will be moved to another place at some future date. Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi disagrees, stating that the markings denote that this text is an independent book.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel is of the opinion that the markings denote a text which is misplaced (i.e., inserted in the wrong place), which will be moved to its proper place in a later edition of the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah says that the markings tell us that the 85 letters of Numbers 10:35-36 are an “independent text.”[10] There, the markings are called “simaniyot” (“siman” being the Hebrew for “mark”). The markings’ shape and form are not mentioned. Post-Talmudic texts call them “nunin hafukhin” or “inverted/reversed nuns.”

The ideas of Rabbis Yehudah Ha-Nasi and Shimon ben Gamaliel, while agreeing closely with the historical evidence, are generally misunderstood through the centuries. Proper understanding of their respective traditions depends on a better awareness and understanding of ancient scribal practices and the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible. The relevant information about the formation of the text was already forgotten in the first century. The sages didn’t acknowledge the ramifications of the ancient textual traditions about the text which Rabbis Yehudah Ha-Nasi and Shimon ben Gamaliel remembered and taught. The original intent of these markings had been lost.

The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic texts demonstrates that these markings were not originally nun characters from the Hebrew alphabet, inverted or reversed or otherwise. Masekhet Soferim (6:1) describes them as “shofar”-shaped.[11] Before the end of the Talmudic era, rabbinic sages no longer associated the shape of the markings they saw in their scrolls with the original lunate Sigma shape Ͼ, sometimes dotted, which was a Hellenistic editorial marking. The Greek lunate Sigma and anti-Sigma characters were used in Alexandrian scribal schools of the third and fourth centuries BCE to mark a “misplaced text,”[12] which is what Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel (Shabbat 115b-116a) says is their purpose in Numbers 10. The description of the markings as “shofar-shaped” in Sifrei most aptly resembles a reversed nun or lunate Sigma, thus “nun hafukh” or “reversed-nun”―and mistakenly, “inverted nun.” The inability to differentiate the meaning of “hafukh” between “inverted” and “reversed” is the source of many of the designs of the markings seen throughout the ages.

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi’s opinion that this was an “independent text” does not contradict Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s opinion. He is making a distinct point that the markings tell us that these 85 letters are different from the rest of the Torah in that their origin is in another sacred text―“an independent text” as Rabbi Yehudah says―which, as per Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel’s tradition, was inserted into this place in the Torah.[13] Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion also agrees with the opinion of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman, also in Shabbat 116a, that Numbers 10:35-36 is to be considered “independent” (i.e., an equal) fifth book of a seven-book Torah, for which he brings support from Proverbs 9:1: “With wisdom she built her house; she carved its seven pillars.” The location of the markings is also clearly established as “before and after.”

Medieval Interpretations
The Talmudic opinions notwithstanding, the sages continued adding layers of interpretation and opinion about the configuration and design of the markings. As demonstrated by the following extant interpretations from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, with so little information about the curious nature and purpose of the markings, they were able to be inventive in many ways. Some comments are purely technical, speaking to the form of the markings, while others are moralistic or consolatory messages to the community.

Ginzei Mitzrayim,”[14] a text brought to light by Elkan Adler and now thought to be from the late 11th century, can be characterized as a medieval introduction to the Hebrew Bible. It tells us that the design of the markings should be “similar to (that with which) ‘they who go down to the sea do their work in the great waters.’” This oblique reference to Psalm 107:23 poetically references “fishhooks,” the tools of fishermen. This very creative connection to the verse of Psalm 107 is noteworthy for two reasons: it is a midrashic proof text using the only other place in the Tanakh where inverted-nun markings appear, and the aramaic for “fish” is “nun”―a brilliant, multi-lingual rabbinic pun, if there ever was one![15]

A graphic representation of the “proper” form for the markings is included in Ginzei Mitzrayim (see Figure 3). This image is reminiscent of a fishhook.[16] It is a dotted character like those which we find in several medieval representations and thus is aligned with the tradition expressed in Sifrei Bamidbar (Numbers 84:1)―that the text is nakud, which should best be understood as “marked” rather than “dotted.”[17]

Figure 3: Fishhook in Ginzei Mitzrayim

After a moralistic comment further linking the Numbers text to the Psalms text, Ginzei Mitzrayim continues to explain:

In a few midrashim, another explanation is given, saying: “Why did the sages see a need to insert inverted nuns on ‘the people were as murmerers’? The sages said: ‘The whole Torah is specifically the prophecy of Moses, except for these two verses, which are from the prophecy of Eldad and Medad.’ Therefore, they were surrounded by curved (kafuf) nuns, and they were included in the Torah.”

This notion―that the text of Numbers 10:35-36 is marked because it originally was from a book which was not part of the Sinai revelation of the rest of the Torah and was inserted here―is quite astounding.[18] Of course, the abovementioned mishnah reference to Numbers 10:35-36 enables us to assume that it was a sacred text needing preservation. This reference to the Book of Eldad and Medad also appears in Midrash Haserot Ve-’Yiterot.[19]

Rashi, in his 11th-century commentaries, also comments on the markings. His comments in both his Bible commentary and his glosses on Shabbat 115b-116a are paradigmatic of his creative use of inherited traditions and his character as a leader and teacher of his community.

Rashi reiterates several ideas brought previously in Tractate Shabbat. One of these ideas explains homiletically that the text of Numbers 10:35-36 was inserted into the Torah at this specific place to separate two tales of calamities, most likely the story of the departure of Yitro (Numbers 10:29-32) and the story of the complainers (Numbers 11:1).

Rashi does not provide any information regarding the design of the markings but does instruct that the markings appear before and after the text. Rashi’s clear statement about the markings offsetting the text “before and after” is not long considered authoritative by many scribes and scholars in the ensuing centuries, as is evidenced by the fact that many later scrolls and codices do not follow this style of markings.

The Zohar
The Zohar is the fundamental text of the mystical tradition in Judaism. Though it may not have been the first mystical text, its traditions likely originated in the southern French district of Provence in the 12th century. Its appearance on the scene in the late 13th century, at the hand of Moses de Leon, sparks the rise and development of a deeply engaging, esoteric tradition of interpretation that thrives still today. It has spawned a vast literature and many sophisticated schools of thought.[20]

The Aramaic/Hebrew of the Zohar is difficult, its teachings obfuscated by its language, style, and plethora of esoteric imagery and sometimes inexplicable and enigmatic concepts. In the introduction to Dr. Daniel C. Matt’s monumental translation of the Zohar, Rabbi Arthur Green describes the contents of the Zohar as “sacred fantasy”[21]: “All theological elaborations, insofar as they are allowed to become pictorial, are fantasy… They depict realities that have not been seen except by the inner eye of those who describe them, or by their sacred sources.”[22] Non-rational interpretations are such a fruitful area of interpretation because of the insight of the “eyes” of the interpreter who creatively “sees” the symbol in the concept expressed in the text. “Everything in the Torah, be it a tale of Abraham, a poetic verse, or an obscure point of law, hints at a reality beyond that which you can obtain by the ordinary dialectics of either Talmudic or philosophical thinking.”[23] The nun markings are just such “sacred fantasy.”

In the Zohar, the markings became attached to the concept of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the divine presence.[24] The interpretation of the nuns surrounding Numbers 10:35-36 in the Zohar (Beha’alotekha, Chapter 22)[25] reads as follows:

Rabbi Elazar said, “Here one should examine: נ (nun) that is inverted, facing backward―why in two places here?

If you say, ‘A bent נ (nun)’―well, it is known that a bent nun is female; and a straight one, totality of male and female. They have already established, regarding this place: ‘As the ark journeyed.’ But why is it turned afterward like this ׆ ?

Come and see: No נון (nun) is mentioned in [the Psalm] Ashrei (‘Happy are those who dwell in Your house’ [Psalms 84:5]), because She is in exile. This has been established by the Companions, for it is written, ‘נפלה (nafelah), Fallen, not to rise again, is Virgin Israel’ (Amos 5:2). But what is written previously? ‘The Ark of YHVH’s Covenant journeyed before them a three days’ distance to scout out a resting place for them’ (Numbers 10:33). As soon as the ark journeyed, nun journeyed above it―surely, Shekhinah rests upon the ark.”

The Zohar begins its comments about the markings with a reference to another nun phenomenon that is well known. Psalm 145 is an alphabetic, acrostic psalm which is missing a verse beginning with the letter nun. The Talmud (Berakhot 4b) suggests that that line would have been a verse from Amos 5:2: “Fallen, not to rise again, is Maiden/Virgin Israel, abandoned on her soil with none to lift her up.” This focus on the abandonment of the people of Israel sets the stage for the Zohar’s statement that the “hidden” nun represents the “hidden” (i.e., exiled) Shekhinah. Just like in Psalm 145,[26] the nun-shaped markings at Numbers 10:35-36 are designated as representing the Shekhinah.

The Zohar describes the nuns surrounding the text as depicting the Shekhinah travelling through the desert riding on top of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle, scouting the route and protecting the people of Israel (Numbers 10:33). This relationship demonstrates Her love for the people of Israel.

Come and see: The love of the blessed Holy One is toward Israel; for even though they stray from the straight path, the blessed Holy One does not wish to abandon them, and He constantly turns His face toward them. Otherwise, they could not endure in the world.

Go and see: the ark journeyed before them a distance of three days, and nun remained inseparable from it, accompanying it. Due to the love of Israel, it turned its face toward them, turning away from the ark―like a gazelle who, when going, turns its face back to the place it has left. So, as the ark journeyed, nun turned its face toward Israel and its shoulders toward the ark.

Therefore, when it journeyed, Moses said, “Arise, O YHVH!” (Numbers 10:35)―“Do not abandon us, turn Your face toward us!” Then nun turned back toward them, like this: ׆―like someone turning his face toward his beloved. And when the ark and Israel began to rest, nun turned its face from Israel and turned back toward the ark, turning completely.

The posture of the Shekhinah vis-a-vis the people is the focus of the Zohar’s comments. According to the discourse here, the Shekhinah changed Her posture depending on whether the people were moving or resting; She either faced the people or She faced toward the ark, turning Her back on the people. The Zohar then discusses some of the ramifications of the posture of the Shekhinah: would it be appropriate comportment on the part of the Shekhinah to turn Her back toward the people?

Rabbi Shimon said, “Elazar, my son, certainly so! But here, it did not turn its face away from Israel. For if so, the nun would have to be the opposite of the other one, above; that one inverted, and this one straight, facing the ark. But surely, it did not turn its face away from them. What did it do? As the ark rested, Moses said, ‘Return, O YHVH’ (Numbers 10:36). Then the ark rested, and Shekhinah stood on the other side, with Her face toward Israel and toward the ark. So then She encompassed both the ark and Israel. But afterward Israel ruined this, as is written: ‘The people were ke-mit’onenim, complaining’” (Numbers 11:1).

The discussion continues with an additional opinion suggesting an additional design. Though not wholly clear, it seems to describe Z-shaped markings both before and after Numbers 10:35-36.

Rabbi Elazar said, “What I said comes from the Book of Rav Yeisa Sava, who said that on both this side and that side it turned back.”

He replied, “He spoke well; but what I said you will find in the Book of Rav Hamnuna Sava, and it is certainly so!”

Further to the discussion, various proofs for the differing opinions about the posture of the Shekhinah are presented, each of which comes from evidence seen in scrolls owned by the various grandfathers of the discussants, Rav Yeisa (Sava) and Rav Hamnuna (Sava).

In this interpretation of the markings, the Zohar utilizes a popular wildlife simile for the Shekhinah borrowed from Song of Songs 2:9, a common source of the Zohar’s imagery: “My beloved is like a gazelle.”[27] The gazelle represents the “beloved” of God, the Shekhinah being sought by the people of Israel. To many, this is the basis of the allegorical reading of the Song of Songs. The use of this imagery in the Zohar’s interpretation of the nuns is premised on knowing the shape of a gazelle in its various postures, as seen in the wildlife imagery in Figure 4. The gazelle pictured in the first image is turning to look backwards; it “turns its face back to the place it has left” as described in the Zohar’s text. It resembles a reversed nun (i.e., a regular nun), reversed, head turned around the vertical axis so that its posture is facing backwards from its normal orientation.

Figure 4: Images of gazelles. First image: a gazelle turning to look backwards. Second image: gazelle where feet are to the right but head faces left.

While the gazelle/lover image is readily understood and is a lovely simile for this derashah, I believe that what is really under discussion is the appropriate design for the markings surrounding Numbers 10:35-36. Either it should simply be reversed (as pictured above), or a Z-shaped marking is to be used, where the foot stroke is reversed backwards but the head stroke faces left, as depicted by the gazelle in the second image in Figure 4.

My conclusion is that what is actually discussed here is the long-standing, ongoing question about the proper design of the markings at Numbers 10:35-36.[28]

We find the design and configuration discussed here appear in the Leipzig 1 manuscript of the Pentateuch, a 13th-century Franco-German creation (see Figure 5). It is most famous for being the earliest complete copy of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. While the designs of the markings in this manuscript might not represent a perfect reading of the confusing Zohar text, this manuscript does demonstrate that designs similar to the Zohar’s description are to be found in contemporary witnesses. Such Germanic scrolls found their way into early Zohar-focused communities. Other examples of Z-shaped markings from the 13th century are extant.

Figure 5: Leipzig 1 manuscript of the Pentateuch

The Zohar presents a fascinating and unique interpretation of the inverted nuns as illustrations of the Shekhinah. Moving beyond this basic understanding, it shows that the tradents of this tradition appear to be open to a fluidity of design for these markings, notwithstanding the tradition that God Himself placed them there. That tradition would, as well, belie the fundamental of a Sinaitic immutable text, at least as far as these markings are concerned. The constant evolution of the markings through so many generations leaves documentary evidence that scholars, rabbis, and scribes were regularly troubled as to the proper configurations. The record also demonstrates that they were willing to modify both the design and position of the nun markings inside the text of the Torah scroll based on their awareness and understanding of the traditions of the markings. But decisions were made by scribes and their rabbis to alter the design or position of markings.

Surely, it is necessary to consider which is the chicken and which is the egg in this tale. Did designs found in a community’s scroll(s) drive the iterations of generational scribal modifications? Did new and innovative interpretations drive the design and position of the nun markings? In any event, amongst scribes and rabbis, there is an awareness and an acceptance of the existence and possibility of several designs for the markings in Torah scrolls and an apparent freedom to choose which design should be used for a ritually fit scroll. Such fluidity is apparent throughout the centuries. The Zohar’s textual interpretation of the markings is not repeated in later sources, but on the other hand, Z-shaped marking forms described in the Zohar are found in scrolls throughout subsequent centuries in various configurations. This demonstrates that it was the distinctive and different designs found in several scrolls, as well as the images from Song of Songs, which sparked the creative connections to the Shekhinah found here, implemented in the design of the markings. The designs preceded the Zohar and lived on, while the interpretive rationales did not.

The origin of the Z-shaped marking is not clear. Graphic evidence from scrolls and manuscripts since the early tenth- and 11th-century codices reveals that it seems likely that the left-facing Z shape originates in sub-standard calligraphy. While we don’t have the markings from the Aleppo Codex from Numbers 10:35-36, we do have the series of seven markings, also inverted nuns, which appear in Psalm 107 as shown in Figure 6.[29]

Figure 6: Top row: Leningrad Codex Psalm 107. Middle row: Leningrad Codex Numbers 10:35-36. Bottom row: Aleppo Codex Psalm 107

It seems clear from the Leningrad Codex that what was an attempt to add a “crown” or top stroke to the body of the character resulted in a left-facing stroke creating a Z-shaped character. These characters have a messy inconsistency. Likely, the scribe was not well practiced in making this character, since it only appears a total of nine times in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. The inconsistency of the crowned markings in the Leningrad Codex’s Psalm 107 shows a greater discrepancy amongst the seven instances than other instances of more common letters. The two codices clearly show the origins of the various families of design traditions for the nun markings.

The Z-shape marking is markedly visible in other early scrolls and codices from the tenth and 11th centuries, as shown here. Similar designs, as well as permutations and variations of this Z-shaped design, can be found in scrolls through the subsequent centuries as well as in scrolls in ritual use today as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Top left: Leningrad Codex―early 11th century. Top middle: Washington Bible―circa 1000. Top right: Sassoon Ms. 1053: Oldest complete Tanakh―early tenth century. Bottom left: Bodleian MS Marshall Or. 1―13th-century Ashkenaz. Bottom right: Cod. Guelf. 148 Noviss. 2°―16th century

The Sassoon complete Tanakh codex also shows relatively Z-shaped markings, similar to the other early documents, but it more clearly projects the upper “stroke” as a crown.

Scrolls and codices with Z-shaped markings both left- and right-facing are somewhat rare but are still in use today. See Figure 8.

Figure 8: Top row: A scroll of unknown provenance in use in a Toronto synagogue today. Note the backwards Z shape preceding the text. Second row: A scroll of unknown provenance implementing two Z-shaped markings. Third row: A scroll of unknown provenance in a Toronto synagogue displaying two different Z-shaped markings. Bottom row: A scroll of unknown provenance in a private collection in Toronto similar to the one above.

The Zohar’s presentation of the nun markings as illustrations of the Shekhinah is unique but not surprising for an esoteric, mystically oriented text. It aptly shows a hidden meaning behind the simple, curious marking. Following Rabbi Arthur Green’s thesis, in these curious markings, the mystic saw the text as illustrating the Shekhinah’s protection of the people of Israel.

The Zoharic interpretation of the markings is a paradigm for cultural influence upon text interpretation, scribal arts, and the text of the Torah scroll. The markings are perfect source materials for reading in fantasy interpretations which imbue the shapes with deep covenantal meaning. The markings proved to be a perfect vehicle for a mystical teaching stemming from a misunderstood, ancient editorial mark. At another level, this is powerful evidence that the interpretation of the symbols drove the scribes to create and implement new designs.

[1] Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 55.

[2] This is the most popular and familiar name for the phenomena of bracket-shaped markings appearing surrounding the text of Numbers 10:35-36. I will use it as such, though it is really a misnomer. My research clearly demonstrates that the rabbinic term for the markings at Numbers 10:35-36 (ie., “nunin hafukhin”) should better have been understood as “reversed nuns,” as this is truly closer to the meaning at the source of this phenomenon. The term “inverted” is most common, but the term “menuzeret” (segregated) does appear. Some correctly use or translate hafukh as “backward” or “reversed.”

[3] Solomon Luria (known as Maharshal, 16th-century Prague) did write a short gloss on this issue in which he proclaimed that any scroll found to contain inverted nuns should be considered unfit for ritual use. See Hokhmat Shlomo to Shabbat 115b-116a. He reversed his position in later writings. See Sholom Eisenstat, “The Maharshal and Two Inverted Nuns,” in To Fix Torah in Their Heart: Essays on Biblical Interpretation and Jewish Studies in Honor of B. Barry Levy, eds. Jacqueline S. Du Toit et al. (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2018). De Lonzano wrote vociferously in opposition to the configuration found in Bomberg’s 1524 Second Rabbinic Bible.

[4] Physical evidence reveals that some Torah scrolls and codices do not have inverted nuns, but a plethora of references in rabbinic literature from the Mishnah onward―as well as extant scrolls, manuscripts, and codices―show that the insertion of markings is the norm. No other markings like these inverted nuns appear anywhere else in the Torah. Similar markings appear in Psalm 107 but are rarely included in the rabbinic or scholarly discussion.


[5] In the Talmud, the two markings are said to be placed before and after the text, but that is not the only location (or quantity) where they are subsequently found in extant sources. Maharshal describes 12 diverse configurations, many of which are not found in our extant sources. Available manuscripts and codices document dozens of varied designs and locations for the markings.

[6] The Mishnah’s status of “defiling the hands” (me-tame et ha-yadayim) equates to having a provenance of sanctity. See Shnayer Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1976).


Martin Goodman, “Sacred Scripture and ‘Defiling the Hands,’” The Journal of Theological Studies 41, no. 1 (1990): 99-107.


Timothy H Lim, “The Defilement of the Hands as a Principle Determining the Holiness of Scriptures,” The Journal of Theological Studies 61, no. 2 (2010): 501-15.

[7] Saving scrolls from a fire is part of the Talmudic discussion on Shabbat 115b, which is the context for the discussion of the inverted nuns.

[8] Insertion of this text in the Torah scroll in order to preserve it is similar to the compilation of multiple scrolls into a single text which we now call “Trei Asar” (the Twelve Minor Prophets), which consists of 12 independent texts considered as having sacred provenance compiled into one volume.

[9] Meaning “before and after.” Rashi cites this as the appropriate position of the markings. We have no extant evidence that Rashi had a text which had markings above and below. Solomon Luria cites a scroll with markings above each letter of Numbers 10:35-36.

[10] Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine: Studies in the Literary Transmission, Beliefs, and Manners of Palestine in the I Century B.C.E. – IV Century C.E., 2nd ed. (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1962), 38-43.

[11] Manuscripts of Masekhet Soferim 6:1 reflect various readings, all containing variations of the root sh-p-r, but “shofar” is the most logical. See Michael Higger’s edition of Masekhet Soferim.

[12] Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, 41; Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 54-55.

[13] Some traditions say that its proper location is in the flags section following Numbers 2:17.

[14] Judah ben Barzillai and Elkan Nathan Adler (ed.), Ginze Mitsrayim, Hilkhot Sefer Torah: An Eleventh Century Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Being a Fragment from the Sepher Ha-Ittim (Jerusalem: Makor, 1969).

[15] It is not clear that this pun is part of the proof text brought to explain or describe the shape of the markings or brought in purely for its humor value.

[16] There is a good resemblance to medieval fishhooks. See John M. Steane and Martin Foreman, “The Archaeology of Medieval Fishing Tackle,” in Waterfront Archaeology: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Waterfront Archaeology Held at Bristol, 23-26 September 1988, eds. George L. Good, Robert H. Jones, and Michael W. Ponsford (CBA Research Report 74: 1991).

[17] See Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine.

[18] This work is from an era before Maimonides’s eighth principle. See Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith : An Analytical Study (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).

[19] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah Min Ha-Shamayim: Be-Aspaklaryah Shel Ha-Dorot (London: Defus Śontsin, 1962), 416-424; Louis Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews III: 4.

[20] Yaacob Dweck, The Scandal of Kabbalah: Leon Modena, Jewish Mysticism, Early Modern Venice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Arthur Green, A Guide to the Zohar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); Arthur Green, “Introduction,” in The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, trans. Daniel C. Matt  (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[21] Green, A Guide to the Zohar, 3.

[22] Green, A Guide to the Zohar, 18.

[23] Arthur Green’s introduction to The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, 29.

[24] Ibid., 39:

“The Kabbalists identify this Shekhinah as the spouse or divine consort of the blessed Holy One. She is the tenth sefirah, therefore a part of God included within the divine ten-in-one unity. But She is tragically exiled, distanced from Her divine Spouse. Sometimes She is seen to be either seduced or taken captive by the evil hosts of sitra aḥra; then God and the righteous below must join forces in order to liberate Her. The great drama of religious life, according to the kabbalists, is that of protecting Shekhinah from the forces of evil and joining Her to the holy Bridegroom who ever awaits Her. Here one can see how medieval Jews adapted the values of chivalry―the rescue of the maiden from the clutches of evil―to fit their own spiritual context.”

[25] Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 8 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 535-538.

[26] This is a common theme in Zoharic literature. The Shekhinah is last, the tenth of the sefirot representing the divine presence. She is the spouse or consort of the Holy One, but She has been tragically exiled from Her divine Spouse (see n. 23 above). The Shekhinah suffers with the people of Israel in their exile. See Megillah 29a; see Green, A Guide to the Zohar, 62-63.

[27] see Matt, Zohar 2:14a (MhN), 138b

[28] Evidence from scrolls and codices originating in the 13th century until contemporary scrolls depict both Z-shaped markings as well as reverse Z-shaped markings, both before and after the text as well as inside the text.

[29] The dot is likely related to the reference to the markings from Sifra that the markings are above and below (Sifrei Bamidbar 84:1). It is not unique to this manuscript but is only found in the oldest examples of the markings. The Leipzig Manuscript mentioned does have a dotted marking.

Sholom is a retired educator in Toronto, Ontario. He taught Tanach and Jewish Studies in Jewish day schools, and Computer Studies in public high schools for 30 years. He shared a Prime Minister's Award for Education for his work developing the CyberARTS curriculum in Toronto schools. Sholom was Program Director and Educational Director at Camp Ramah in Canada and has held various positions in the Jewish Community from Synagogue President to Adult Education Chairman. In his retirement, he founded an online Jewish high school ( and is writing a longer history of the 'inverted Nuns' phenomenon.