I remember learning in elementary school that there are 600,000 letters in a Sefer Torah and that each represents one of the souls that left Egypt. There was also an added lesson: when one letter of the Torah is damaged or incomplete the entire Torah is Passul and must be corrected. Likewise, each and every Jew is essential to the Jewish people.
What is the basis for this number? The count of 600,000 is recorded in the Zohar Chadash (Shir Hashirim p.74). The Megaleh Amukos #186 (Rav Nosson Nota Shapiro, Krakow, 17th Century) records the number 600,000 and suggests that it reveals that every Jewish neshama has a corresponding letter in the Torah. He even adds that the word ישראל can serve as an acrostic for יש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה (There are 600,000 letters in the Torah).
But are there actually 600,000 letters in the Torah? If you sat down and counted, you would only get to 304,805. This number is also part of our tradition and is recorded following the end of Sefer Devarim in a standard edition of the Mikraos Gedolos Chumash, where it is given its own pedagogical significance.
The Talmud, (Kiddushin 30a) grapples with this problem as well when it claims the that the letter vav (ו) of the word gachon (גחון) (Vayikra 11:42) is the middle of the Torah. Rav Yosef questions whether the letter represents the end of the first half or the beginning of the second half and suggests bringing out a sefer Torah to count the letters. His colleagues respond that their count would not be accurate as they are no longer well enough versed in “deletions and additions”. “Deletions and additions” are normally understood to refer to variant spellings of the same word. For example, sometimes a word is spelled with a vav in one place, but not in another.
Accepting this answer at face value is a challenge. The spot the Talmud points to is almost 5,000 letters away from the middle of the Torah according to our count. Another challenging point of Rav Yosef’s statement in the Talmud is the question about whether it is the end the first half or the beginning of the second half of the Torah. His statement seems to assume that there are an even number of letters, when in fact our count of the letters is an odd number.
One approach is to look closely at the letters themselves. Many Hebrew letters are complex, and comprised of smaller, simpler letters. For example, look at the word שמע (picture). The letter shin (ש) contains two vavs (ו) and a zayin (ז); that’s three letters. Likewise, the mem (מ) contains a chaf (ח) and a vav (ו); the ayin (ע) is made up of a vav (ו) and a zayin (ז). The idea that many letters are comprised of multiple letters is one approach to explain the discrepancy.
Another approach is that the 304,805 number represents only the ‘black letters.’ There are also letters written between the ink. One example is the letter peh (פ) (picture). The traditional way of writing the letter peh in a sefer Torah includes a nick towards the bottom right. If you focus on the inside of the peh you may notice another letter formed - the letter bet (ב).
I am not suggesting that if we add up all of the different parts and insides of letters we will get to exactly 600,000. I am merely pointing out that there are different ways of approaching a count of the numbers and one of these other approaches may have been what the Zohar Chadash was alluding to with the number 600,000. Furthermore, the Talmud’s statement that “we aren’t experts in deletions and additions” makes more sense when referring to different styles of writing than when referring to full words that are written in multiple ways in the Torah.
The idea that letters are made up of other letters gives us an appreciation to the beauty and depth of our holy Torah. It also has interesting ramifications in halacha which I hope to discuss in a future article.