Torah: Black Fire On White Fire

When we think about a Torah scroll, we usually only consider the letters themselves, written in black ink. Yet, the Talmud (Menachot 29a) rules that every letter in a Torah scroll must be completely surrounded by parchment in a requirement called mukaf gevil. The white parchment around the letters is an integral part of the Torah; without it, the Torah scroll is disqualified. The white space is a a sublime, hidden Torah that cannot be read in the usual manner.

There is a delicate balance between black and white in the Torah. The shirot, (poetic Torah portions), are written in a special fashion, like a wall constructed from layers of black and white bricks. After the Torah was revealed and restricted to our limited world, it must be written with the appropriate ratio of black to white.

Rav Avraham Yitzak Kook – (Sep. 7, 1865 – 1935)

To render a Torah invalid due to an imbalance of black to white space is a weighty ruling, given that Torah scrolls (Sifrei Torah) are very costly and labor intensive to produce. It takes about a year for Torah scroll to be written entirely by hand, each of the 304,805 letters inscribed with a quill and specially prepared ink by a sofer (m) or soferet (f) — (Torah scribe).

“Extra white space is left blank to separate sections of the Torah. The Sages explained that these separations allowed Moses to reflect upon and absorb the previous lesson. In other words, the white fire corresponds to the realm of thought and contemplation. The black fire of the letters is the revelation of intellect into the realm of language — a contraction and limitation of abstract thought into the more concrete level of speech.

Rav Kook Torah

This mesmerizing Midrash, so emblematic of Jewish thought, captures the life force of Torah. It is not merely dry ink written on dead parchment. Its words live, and the silent white parchment beneath the black ink represents the non-verbal depth…

Rabbi Hayyim Angel

There is empty space in all our lives where we can see beyond the absolutes.

The blank space leaves room to see the things we missed. Awareness exists in the things left unsaid.

Black fire on white fire, the letters black fire, the white fire everything else. The text and its interpretations, the word and its translation, all translations are interpretations, all interpretations belong to the white fire. It’s all over fire: text and commentary, the literal and nonliteral, rooted source and its interpretations.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The white fire, the blank spaces between the physicality of the black letters, comes alive for each reader in a deeply personal way. What is the story saying to you? What imagery does it evoke in you? What emotions and realizations arise beyond what is actually written?

The parallels to Ying-Yang symbolism and Zen Buddhism stand out for me. Emptiness is not nothingness. The Dalai Lama advises us to avoid perceiving emptiness as an absolute reality or an independent truth, for everything is a transitory expression of an ever-changing landscape. People and things do not have a static identity.

The black letters of a Torah scroll are bold and unwavering. The empty space is imprinted with all the intimacies and emotional nuances that occurred between the lines. Within the inked letters we experience the reassuring nature of consistency, for the letters and words never change. Within the empty space we unpack the intimate and personal nature of the stories that are told.

There are imprints on every empty space. Imprints of conversations, emotions and relationships that took place there. Imprints of a history that continues to unfold on an energetic level, beyond the naked eye.

©️ 11/2019 Drasha/D’var Torah / All Rights Reserved

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