I never had the privilege to study with Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), the diminutive giant who taught Torah to generations of students. But she left a legacy for which all teachers strive. She was most famous for her questions; she would mail “gilyonim–pages” of these questions to students, receive their answers, and return them with comments. Only after years of cajoling did she finally publish her answers, but always with more questions attached.
Nehama’s questions often addressed the minutia of the Torah’s text–the presence of absence of a letter, prefix or suffix. But she was teaching us that what appears to be minutia was in fact of deep religious significance. Here’s an example of one of her questions fromParashat Vayak’hel, the first half of this week’s double Torah reading. She asks us to compare the wording of the following four formulations of the prohibition of work on Shabbat from the Book of Exodus:
a. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work…” (20:9)
b. “Six days you shall do your work…” (23:12)
c. “Six days work may be done…” (31:15)
d. “On six days work may be done…” (35:2)
We will be able to note a few differences, but one in particular interested Nehama. She asked: “Why is the pronominal suffix (‘your’) omitted from the last two formulations?” I think this is a great question with major implications for Jewish life? “Really?” you ask, no doubt. On Shabbat morning, we’ll talk about why the khaf sofit, the letter khafat the end of the words used for “work,” teach us such a profound lesson.
Rabbi David Wise