The last portion of the Torah includes one of its more esoteric phrases -”eish da’at, the fiery law.” (Deuteronomy 33:2) The Midrash concludes that this phrase is a description of the Torah. In its words: “eish shahor al gabei eish lavan.” The Torah is written “black fire on white fire.” (Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1) What exactly does this mean? On the simplest level, black fire refers to the letters of Torah, the actual words, which are written in the scroll. The white refers to the spaces between the letters.
Together the black letters and white spaces between them constitute the “whole” of the Torah. On another level, the black fire represents the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The rabbis point to the importance of p’shat when stating “the text cannot be taken out of its literal meaning.” The white fire, however, represents ideas that goes beyond the p’shat. It refers to ideas that we bring into the text when we interact with it. This is called d’rash-interpretations, applications, and teachings that flow from the Torah. The d’rash are the messages we read between the lines. On yet another level, the black letters represent thoughts which are intellectual in nature, whether p’shat or d’rash. The white spaces, on the other hand, represent that which goes beyond the world of the intellect. The black letters are limited, limiting and fixed. The white spaces catapult us into the realm of the limitless and the ever-changing, ever-growing. They are the story, the song, the silence. Sometimes I wonder which speaks more powerfully, the black, rationalistic letters or the white, mystical spaces between them. Most of the Torah is made up of prose, the narrative of the text. The large majority of our portion is not prose-it is rather poetry. The rabbis speak of Divine poetry as black letters resting on the frame of the white empty spaces. “Half bricks on whole bricks,” the Talmud notes. (Rashi, Megillah 16b. sv. Ieveinah) It’s the white fire that gives the black fire its foundation. In fact the spaces in the Torah take up twice the amount of place as the actual letters, perhaps indicating that at times it is of greater importance. Interestingly, water is the first element mentioned in the Torah; (Genesis 1:2) while fire–eish da’at– is the last. There is a marked difference between them. Of course, Torah is often compared to water, both are crucial to life and have endless depth. Still, water flows toward the lowest level, while fire seeks a higher plateau. It reaches high, higher, and higher still, burning past our eyes and ears into our hearts and souls and memories. It soars heavenward, linking the finite human being with the infinite God. Such is the power of eish da’at-the fiery law-the Torah.
Black Ink on White Parchment 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. This requirement is called “mukaf gevil”. This means tht the white parchment around the letters is an integral part of the Torah. In fact, the white space is a higher form of Torah. It is analogous to the white fire of Sinai — 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, the poetic portions in the Torah, are written in a special fashion, like a wall constructed from layers of black and white bricks. These poetic sections are the loftiest parts of the Torah. Consequently, they have more white space — they contain a greater measure of the esoteric white fire. If a scribe were to write other sections of the Torah in this special layout, the Torah scroll would be rendered invalid. After the Torah was revealed and restricted to our limited world, it must be written with the appropriate ratio of black to white.
The Divine Call Before Revelation The distinction between white and black fire also sheds light on God’s call to Moses before speaking with him. The Voice summoning Moses to enter the tent was in fact the Divine call from Sinai, “an infinite call that never ceased” [Deut. 5:19]. The summons would reach Moses as he stood outside the tent, before being constrained within the four walls of the Tabernacle. This Voice was not a revelation of Torah, but an overture to its revelation. It belonged to the esoteric white fire of Torah, before its constriction and revelation into the physical world. This is the reason that Moses made the aleph of the Divine call smaller. Since it belonged to the realm of white fire, the summons required an extra measure of white space over black ink. On the surface, Moses’ miniature aleph humbly implies a diminished state of the revealed Torah of black fire; but on a deeper level, it reflects an increase in knowledge of the hidden Torah of white fire.
S’fat Emet teaches that the Torah is black fire written on white fire. One way to understand this is that the black fire is the spoken letters of the Torah, and the white fire is the silent breath between and around them….
Tags: Black Fire, black fire on white fire, black letters, bricks, empty spaces, genesis 1, intellect, lavan, literal meaning, Midrash, narrative, phrase, phrases, poetry, prose, rash, shat, silence, Torah, White Fire, white spaces
More Related Articles: