What to make of those two  ‘flying nuns’ in the Torah

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 8:1–12:16

In the darkest hours of a difficult night — as I battled the aftermath of my second vaccine shot and was consumed with distress over the violence in Israel — two verses from this week’s parashah kept floating by, imploring to be seen:

“When the Ark would journey, Moses would say: Arise, O Eternal One, may Your enemies be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You. And when it rested, he would say: Reside tranquilly, O Eternal One, among the myriad thousands of Israel.” (Numbers 10:35-36)

To this day, the first pasuk signals congregants to rise at the start of a Torah reading, and the second calls them to focus back on the Ark before singing “Etz Chayim Hi” (it is a tree of life).

But they further captivate the imagination because of their famous brackets: two upside-down, backward letter nuns placed there by an ancient scribe for reasons unknown. Most texts retain the nuns, beckoning us to wonder why.

Sleuths in every era have weighed in on the calligraphic mystery of the flying nuns. 

Perhaps the verses are “out of place,” intended for elsewhere (BT Shabbat 116a) and marked for a “cut and paste” that never happened (because the numerical value of nun is 50, some suggest that the section should have been moved 50 paragraphs earlier).

The same Talmudic source tells us that the demarcated verses constitute an entirely separate Book of the Torah. (With 85 letters, this became the minimum threshold for a book to be considered “holy.”)

Others view the unusual grammatical forms as evidence that these are phrases of great antiquity, imported from another source.

Rashi claims the sentences intentionally disrupt what would have been a chain of three successive and embarrassing failures by the Israelites: leaving Mount Sinai to avoid receiving further commandments, complaining bitterly about the desert cuisine and gossiping (by Aaron and Miriam) against Moses.

Despite their exalted role, this passage, in style and substance, is adrift, and the nuns make the “out-of-place” feeling more pronounced.

The use of these verses acknowledges somehow that the Jewish experience stands apart. We are eternal misfits, always the odd ones out. As they describe the comings and goings of the Ark, and later the Torah scrolls themselves, the verses could, as Rabbi Avi Weinstein offers, “reflect the travels and exiles of Israel … a restless people.”

The notion of swimming upstream may be captured in the nuns themselves.

Rabbi Aaron Raskin teaches that “nun” is Aramaic for “fish.” Like salmon swimming against the current, so the Jewish People have, in every land and every age, fought mightily against the currents of history to keep alive our hopes for the future. Every time we rise to hear the Torah and intone these verses, we affirm our faith in this premise.

Rabbi Raskin interprets the nuns to also indicate “fallen-ness,” since nun is the first letter of nefilah (fallen). While the upside-down and backward-tuning brackets remind of the countless upheavals and disasters of Jewish history, they also provide a visual promise of return. No matter the chaos and rupture, we can always turn back to good and right.

With proper teshuvah, turning toward holiness and compassion and away from zealotry and intolerance, we can transform nefilah into nisim (miracles), another word beginning with nun.

In the depth of that long night, other poetry came to visit, joining unexpectedly with the essence of these Torah verses.

These were the words of songwriter Richard Thompson, in his enigmatic and other-worldly lament, “King of Bohemia.” Richard sings to an unidentified female subject of his wish for her safety, asking, “Did you reach too high and fall? For there is no rest, for the ones God blessed, and He blessed you best of all.” Thompson sings “between the notes” in a way I’ve never heard, and I couldn’t resist connecting his lyrics to the way Jews reach so high and fall so often.

I feel so fortunate to be part of this People which has been “blessed best of all” even as we, like the Ark of which Moses sang, have had essentially no rest.

And in these days, when friends and family in Israel pray not even for peace but just for quiet, Thompson’s other refrain rings close to the heart: “For there is no peace, no true release, no secret place to crawl.”

The exposed, bracketed nun verses of Beha’alotcha speak of a peace that never quite comes, of an unsettled and always-moving ark searching for home. Such is the Jewish spirit, ever on a quest for tranquility and Shalom, even as we are bidden to continue moving forward into an unknown tomorrow.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].