What are these dots about?
What are these dots about?

These tiny dots are a huge Torah mystery

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Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Obadiah 1:1 – 1:21

On the face of it, the great reunion between Jacob and Esau is a poignant and moving story. Jacob, having fled to Haran to avoid the wrath of Esau, now flees his father-in-law, Laban. As Jacob looks up, he sees Esau coming with a mere 400 men.  It is fair to say that he freaks out a bit.

Yet he has the wherewithal to divvy up his tribe, ultimately hoping to protect them from Esau, who may seek revenge. He goes out to the front of the pack, bowing low to the ground seven times. Esau runs to meet him, hugs him, falls on his neck and then kisses him.

The story is distinguished in a Torah scroll in a unique way.  The word, “kissed” is topped by dots, indicating (to us) that this story may not be so simple. This is one of only 10 places in the Torah in which such dots appear above a word. Why? What do they mean?

Rabbinic tradition teaches us that these may be scribal errors that never got corrected. It is a reminder to many of us that the Torah is, in a very real sense, a very human document.

But for many years, the dots also have been a source of the rabbis’ expounding various meanings from the words over which they are placed.

Avot d’Rabbi Natan offers this fanciful explanation. Ezra the scribe says, “If Elijah the prophet comes and says, ‘Why did you write this?’ I will say to him,‘I made marks over them.’ And if he says to me, ‘You wrote it well,’ I shall take the marks off them.”

So Ezra was covering his tuchus, so to speak. He wasn’t so sure of the Hebrew himself, so by placing these dots over those words he leaves it up to Elijah.  When Elijah comes to herald the coming of the Messiah, he will resolve unresolved questions. The prophet Malakhi tells us that parents will reunite with their children and children with their parents. Elijah is closely linked to the value of shalom bayit, or peace in the family.

In this story, the dotted word could be read “he kissed him” or “he bit him.”  Rashi, the medieval French sage, tells us that the dots mean that Esau did not kiss him wholeheartedly, that he still held a grudge against Jacob for cheating him out of his birthright. The grudge manifests in a bite, rather than a kiss.

But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai paints a bit more nuanced picture of Esau’s psychological state. He says that the dots indicate that Esau didn’t want to peacefully reunite with Jacob, but in the last moment of their approaching each other, that pity for Jacob arose in Esau’s heart, and so they did kiss.

Soferet (ritual scribe) Jen Taylor Friedman tells us: “The dots are interesting on their own … You can read them from two entirely different perspectives — human error vs. Divine signaling — and it’s also interesting that the two are compatible … It’s awfully easy to be terribly pragmatic and say, ‘These indicate scribal errors. Isn’t that interesting.’ But if you stop there, you miss all the meta-layers that rabbinic tradition added … Coming from the other direction, it’s easy to say, ‘These are flags from God,’ and then you have to ignore history, and that’s not so sensible, either. They work together, and the way they work together is also part of what the text means.”

The dots in the Torah indicate that doubt and question are built into our DNA as human beings and as Jews.

As Jen says, “The dots are interesting on their own.”

It is up to us to plumb the depths of what this might mean in Jacob and Esau’s relationship, and what we can learn from this story about the complexity of our own family relationships.

When we read the story of Jacob  and Esau, let’s not be so sure of ourselves, too quick to say there is only one meaning to this text. We can live with the tension of not really knowing: Was it biting? Or was it kissing?  We may just have to wait for Elijah to really find out.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].