By Yehuda Shurpin
What is the middle letter of the Torah? I read that it was the letter vav of the word gachon (גחון) in Leviticus (11:42). My friend says that that is incorrect. Can you help us out?
Actually, you and your friend are both correct and incorrect.
The Talmud discusses various halfway points in the Torah, and lists the vav in the word gachon as the middle letter:
Because of this reason, the early sages were called soferim, “those who count,” for they counted all the letters of the Torah scroll. They used to say: The letter vav of the word gachon represents the midpoint of the letters of the Torah scroll. The words darosh darash (from Leviticus 10:16) represent the midpoint of the words of the Torah. The verse which begins with the word vehitgalach (from Leviticus 13:33)represents the midpoint of the Torah’s verses. In the verse yecharsemenah chazir miyaar (Psalms 80:14), the letter ayin of the word miyaar (מיער) is the midpoint of the book of Psalms. The verse vehu rachum yechaper avon (ibid. 78:38) represents the midpoint of the verses in Psalms.1
However, a simple count of the letters and words of the Torah scroll and Psalms reveals that the entire list of the Talmud is incorrect!2
A Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters, which means that the midpoint would be the 152,403rd letter; but there are 157,236 letters until the letter vav in the word gachon. In order for that to be the middle letter of the Torah, there would have to be an additional 9,667 letters in the Torah scroll!
There is a fascinating explanation, by Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef Zilber, of this cryptic statement of the Talmud. While most of the letters of the Torah are written in the standard script, he says, there are certain letters that are different. Some are written in an unusual fashion, while others are bigger or smaller than the standard letters of the Torah. If one were to count all the small and large letters in a standard Torah scroll, one would find that there are 16 or 17 of these letters (depending on whether we count the truncated vav in Numbers 25:12.3) Of these, the ninth, i.e., the middle one, is the vav of gachon. In other words, the Talmud was not referring to the vav of gachon as the middle of all the letters of the Torah scroll; rather, it was referring to it as the middle of all the unusually large and small letters in the Torah scroll.4
This explanation is strengthened by the fact that in Psalms there are five or seven (depending on the list used) letters that are unusually large, small, or “hanging” above or below the other letters, and (according to both lists) the ayin of miyaar is the middle letter.5
Similarly, there are 77 instances of double words in the Torah scroll, for example, “Abraham, Abraham” (Genesis 25:19) and “Noah, Noah” (Genesis 6:9). Of those 77 cases, the 39th instance, the middle one, is darosh, darash. So while it is not the middle of all the words in the Torah scroll, it is the middle of all the unusual double words found in the Torah scroll.6
As for Psalms 78:38 being the middle verse of the Book of Psalms: it is true that the middle of Psalms is really two verses earlier. However, since the two preceding verses discuss the dishonor and shame of the Jewish people,7 the Talmud refrained from singling out those verses and instead chose the nearest verse, which talks about how G‑d is all-merciful despite our iniquities.
Talmud, Kiddushin 30a.
The Talmud also addresses the question of the number of verses in the Torah itself. There is a disagreement as to where certain verses start and end; an examples is cited there of one verse which some held should really have been three separate verses.
This number of 16 or 17 is based on the Masoretic text. Since there are nowadays many editions of the Pentateuch that follow various lists of abnormal letters in the Torah, the following is the list that is being used:
1) Beit, Genesis 1:1; 2) hei, Genesis 2:4; 3) kaf, Genesis 23:2; 4) kuf, Genesis 27:46; 5) nun, Exodus 34:7; 6) reish, Exodus 34:14; 7) aleph, Leviticus 1:1; 8) mem, Leviticus 6:2; 9) vav, Leviticus 11:42; 10) gimmel, Leviticus 13:33; 11) yud, Numbers 14:17; *vav, Numbers 25:12; 12) ayin, Deuteronomy 6:4; 13) dalet, Deuteronomy 6:4; 14) lamed, Deuteronomy 29:27; 15) hei, Deuteronomy 32:6; 16) yud, Deuteronomy 32:18.
The question of whether to include the truncated vav in the count has to do with whether, when we say that the vav of gachon is in the middle, it is exactly in the middle, or there an even number, and then it is either the last letter of the first half or the first letter of the second half of the Torah. The Talmud itself (ibid.) asks this question. Rabbi Zilber explains that the reason not to count the truncated vav is because it is a unique, one-of-a-kind letter.
Shmaatin, issue 43, cited by Rabbi Menachem Kasher in Torah Sheleimah, vol. 28, ch. 12.
Rabbi Yosef Tov Elem (cited in Machzor Vitry, vol. 2, p. 683) has a different tradition of small and large letters. However, according to that tradition there are 32 such letters, and the 16th is the vav of gachon, making it still in the middle.
The list from Psalms is as follows: 1) yud, 24:4; 2) hei, 77:8; 3) zayin, 77:18; 4) ayin, 80:14; 5) kaf, 80:16; 6) kuf, 84:4; 7) hei, 107:11.
He explains that the double words lech lecha (Genesis 12:1) and sham sam (Exodus 15:25) are not counted, for while they are spelled the same, the two words do not share the same root and have a different meaning.
Psalms 78:36–37: “They beguiled Him with their mouth, and with their tongue they lied to Him. Their heart was not sincere with Him; they were not faithful in His covenant.”