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. 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, (poetic Torah portions), 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, as 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.

Rav Kook Torah

Each letter must be surrounded on all sides by blank parchment or the Torah is considered invalid. That’s pretty significant given that Torah scrolls (Sifrei Torah) are very costly and labor intensive. It takes a few years to have one painstakingly hand-written on parchment, letter by letter, 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 loftier realm of thought and contemplation. The black fire of the letters, on the other hand, 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

We all need the quietude of blank space in our lives, where we can see beyond the ‘black and white’ absolutes of our daily existence.

The blank space leaves room to see the things we missed. The blank space is where the expansiveness resides and the possibilities happen.

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 message does it have for you? What imagery does it evoke in you? What thoughts, emotions and realizations arise beyond what is actually written?

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

I see parallels here to Ying-Yang symbolism and Zen Buddhism. What appears to be 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. A person or thing does not have a static identity.

The black letters of a Torah scroll are strong, unwavering and comforting in their stability. The empty space, the white fire, is imprinted with all the intimacies and emotional nuances that occurred between the lines. Within the black letters we experience the reassuring fire of consistency and within the empty space we unpack the unfolding and perpetual nature of the stories that are told.


©️ 11/2019 The Wild Pomegranate – D’var Torah – All Rights Reserved

8 thoughts on “Torah: Black Fire On White Fire

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