In most publications of Chumash, each parasha ends with a short statement detailing the number of verses in that parasha, as well as a mnemonic (based on gematria) to help a person remember the number. For example, parashat Noach has 153 verses, and one mnemonic to remember this is Betzalel (בצלאל), a word which has a gematria of 153. What is the connection between Noah and Betzalel? First, Noah and his family were sheltered in the Ark by the “Shadow of God” (the literal meaning of betzel El). Second, it is an allusion to the other great ark-builder in the Torah, Betzalel ben Uri, who constructed the Ark of the Covenant.
The following parasha, Lech Lecha, has 126 verses, and one mnemonic that the Sages gave is nimlu (נמלו), which has a value of 126 and means “they were circumcised”, since the parasha ends with Abraham and his entire male household getting circumcised. Every parasha similarly has an interesting mnemonic at the end to remember its verses. The mnemonic for this week’s parasha, Tzav (צו) is, uniquely, also tzav (צו)! This is because it just so happens that the number of verses in parashat Tzav is exactly equal to the gematria of tzav (96) itself.
At the very end of the Chumash, there is a note on the total number of verses in Moshe’s Torah. The Torah that we each have today has 5845 verses. This sounds alright, except that we read in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) “the Sages taught there are 5888 verses in a Sefer Torah.” Where are the missing 43 verses?
The Great Hallel
The simplest answer to the question is that the Torah is, of course, the same as in Talmudic times, except that in those days they numbered the verses slightly differently. So, for instance, what we today consider one verse was in those days counted as two. This would explain the small discrepancy. There is, however, a more intriguing answer.
In Numbers 21 we read about the journey of the Israelites through the Wilderness, and how God delivered a series of miraculous victories for them, most notably over the giant kings Og and Sihon. In verse 17 of that chapter, we are told the Israelites sang a certain victory song by a well, but the lyrics of the song are not given. Many of the Sages were perplexed by the omission. Then came Rabbi Yehudah HaHasid (1150-1217) and taught that the song the Torah is referring to is Psalm 136—the “Great Hallel”, Hodu l’Hashem ki tov. Rabbi Yehudah says that this Psalm was written by Moses and was originally in the Book of Numbers. When King David came along, he excised it from the Torah, and included it in his own Psalms!
This radical comment, along with several others, is probably the reason why Rabbi Yehudah’s commentary was suppressed for centuries. Even when a modern edition was published in 1975 by Rabbi Isaac Samson Langa, it was retracted and the second edition was censored! The reason it drew so much opposition is, not surprisingly, because of the potential implication that the Torah may have been tampered with. (For more on this controversy, see here.)
Fittingly, it is the Zohar on this week’s parasha that addresses this very issue (III, 27b, Ra’aya Mehemena). The Zohar knew that there are those who claim the Torah is not straight from Heaven. Such critics point to all the various (apparent) contradictions within the text and conclude it cannot be divine or perfect. The Zohar asks: was King David blind to all these contradictions when he said in Psalm 19 that “the Torah is perfect”? Certainly not! King David was aware of them, yet still made perfect sense of them all.
The Zohar’s answer is that the Torah has been purposely jumbled up and made confusing. It quotes Proverbs 25:2 as proof, for “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; and the glory of kings to research a thing.” In other words, God conceals and the scholar reveals. It is important to remember that the Hebrew term for “thing” is the same as the Hebrew term for “word”, davar (דבר). So, the verse in Proverbs can be read that God conceals His Word—the Torah—and a real scholar (a “king”) penetrates into God’s Word to reveal its secrets.
It is therefore up to the scholar to put the puzzle pieces together and unravel the Torah’s mysteries. After all, this is the very essence of Torah learning! It is not meant to be read like a novel. The Torah was designed to be intricately complex, with four levels of depth (pardes) and “seventy faces” of interpretation. It was given to us not to sit on the shelf and collect dust but for us to “meditate upon it day and night” (Joshua 1:8) and “turn it over and over again, for everything is within it” (Avot 5:22). It takes a lifetime to master the Torah, and that’s the whole point. There would be no fun (and little purpose) to a Torah that’s crystal clear from one surface reading.
(Besides, the Midrash says that if the Torah were in its proper order and all the puzzle pieces in their place, anyone who read it would be able to perform miracles and “raise the dead”! See Midrash Tehillim 3.)
Rabbi Yehudah haHasid knew this well, for he was a Kabbalist of the highest order, and the leader of the Hasidei Ashkenaz mystics (not to be confused with modern-day Hasidim). He taught that Psalm 136 is one of those jumbled puzzle pieces. In fact, a careful reading of Psalm 136 shows unmistakeably that it really does belong in Numbers 21. It is addressing the same events and themes. How many verses are in this psalm? A total of 26—corresponding to the gematria of God’s Name, the Tetragrammaton—and each verse ends with ki l’olam hasdo, “for his kindness is everlasting”. So, Psalm 136 can account for 26 of the missing 43 verses. Where are the other 17?
The Psalm of Moses
Rabbi Yehudah haHasid taught that it wasn’t just Psalm 136 that was taken out of the Torah by David, but all the psalms that were composed by Moses. Which ones are these? According to one tradition, Psalms 90 to 100 were written by Moses. However, it is also agreed upon that Psalm 91 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat) was composed by Adam, not Moses, so it isn’t necessarily the case that Moses himself composed all those songs. A more likely possibility is that this set of Psalms is the most ancient, and were already around at the time of Moses. Having said that, there is one psalm—and one alone—that explicitly states it was composed by Moses, and that’s Psalm 90, which begins: “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.”
This is important, for it may hold the key to the remaining missing verses. Based on the Talmud above, the Torah today appears 43 verses short. The Great Hallel can make up for 26 of those. And it just so happens that Psalm 90 has exactly 17 verses! Therefore, the 43 missing verses can be accounted for by Psalms 90 and 136 which, like the Torah, were composed by Moses.
King David came around and took them out of Moses’ writings and included them in his own. Now, David lived before the Talmudic sages, so wouldn’t the Torah already have had 5845 verses in their time, and not 5888 as they state? The answer may be that the Sages are not stating how many verses are in the current Torah (for anyone can just count the verses on their own anyway), rather they are stating how many verses were in the original set of writings handed over by Moses.
The big question remains: why did King David do it?
Fusing Torah and Psalms
There is little doubt that after the Chumash, the most significant—and most recited—set of Scriptures is Psalms. It has been said that Psalms has the power to rectify nearly anything, and there were those rabbis who stated that if only we knew the real power of Psalms we would never desist from reciting them. Whenever someone is in trouble or in poor health, the first thing that comes to mind is to recite Psalms.
Every word of Psalms is holy, of course, and was composed by David with divine inspiration. In this regard, David was very much like Moses. Indeed, we know that the souls of David and Moses were deeply linked, and there were no two greater Jewish leaders in history. It was David that finally fulfilled the task started by Moses: unifying all the tribes under one kingship, acquiring and building Jerusalem, and bringing God’s Holy Ark into the city where it was destined to remain ever after.
According to tradition, Moses was born on the 7th of Adar, and was then hidden for three months (as the Torah states in Exodus 2:2). So, he was revealed to the world on the day that would later become the holiday of Shavuot, when the Torah was given on Sinai. That was the same day David was born centuries after. When Moses wrote in his Psalm (90:10) that a full lifespan is 70 years (even though he himself lived 120) he was secretly alluding to David, who lived exactly 70 years, since David passed away on Shavuot as well.
Moses was the 7th generation from Abraham, and David was the 7th generation after Moses. (That David was the 14th generation from Abraham is hinted to by his name, the gematria of which is 14). And the Midrash states that “all sevens are beloved” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:9). The Ba’al haTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) points out that Moses and David were the only two leaders who were able to pray successfully on the entire nation’s behalf, “changing God’s mind”, so to speak (see his commentary on Numbers 14:19).
Thus, when David wrote Psalms he wanted it to mirror the Torah as much as possible. This is most evident in the fact that, like the Chumash, Psalms is made up of five books. Perhaps, then, David wanted to make the connection even stronger by, quite literally, taking a small piece out of the Torah and inserting it into his Psalms. Thereby, the two would be forever linked.
And maybe this is why Psalms took on such tremendous power—far more than any other prophetic book. The reason Psalms can rectify anything is because the Torah can rectify anything—as Sifre Devarim 45 famously quotes God: “I have created the evil inclination, and I have created the Torah as its antidote.” Since Psalms has a piece of Torah within it, it too carries that power.
With this in mind we can further appreciate the genius of David. He knew that the majority of people were probably not going to devote their lives to the study of Torah, or plunge into the Torah’s depths. How, then, could they access the same spiritual powers? By bringing the Torah into Tehillim, David brought that power to the masses, for even the simplest Jew knows to recite a Psalm. While not everyone may be—or has the time and resources to be—a deep-thinking scholar that can unravel the Torah’s mysteries, anyone can recite a few Psalms.
With what’s going on in the world today, it is an especially good time to take up the daily recitation of Psalms. And remember the words of the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866):
Know that the chapters of Psalms shatter all barriers, they ascend higher and still higher with no interference; they prostrate themselves in supplication before the Master of all worlds, and they effect and accomplish with kindness and compassion…