Text Based Learning

Sin and Shin
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Wednesday 26th March 2014

In the parashat Tazria, Rabbi Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenburg (d. 1865) points out a striking feature of the Aleph Bet. It is the fact that there are two letters for the ‘s’ sound. One is a 'sin' and the other is a 'samech'. The letter, 'shin/sin' on the other hand, can be read as a shin or a sin. What is the reason for this?

Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the sin and shin represent two alternative sounds of the same letter, whereas samech is a completely separate sound. Already in Biblical times, one of the tribes pronounced the shin as a sin. Rabbi Mecklenburg uses this linguistic insight to explain the ancient rabbinic tradition regarding the words “ve’al safam ya’ateh” (Vayikra 13:45). These words are one of the instructions given to the metzorah to detach himself from the community. The Rabbis explain that the metzorah must be like a mourner, remaining tight-lipped, avoiding any form of greeting. How did they arrive at this interpretation? How did the word “safam” come to mean to ‘seal’, to attach the lips to one another and close the mouth?

Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the rabbis read the sin of “safam” as a Shin as well as a sin. The word shaf means to attach or cleave. It therefore means that the metzorah must ‘seal his lips’. The word shafan in the sidrot of Shemini and Re’eh refers to one of the forbidden small mam mals. In Modern Hebrew a shafan is a rabbit, whose hind legs always remain on the ground, even when it walks. It drags them as it raises its front legs.

Talmudic Rabbis made ex tensive use of the inter changeability of the sin and shin. They understood that when interpreting Torah, the letter could be read with the dot either on the right or left. One famous example is “Aser Te’aser” (Devarim 14:22). Our Rabbis said: “Aser kdei shetitasher”. Tithe your produce to give to the poor, so that you will become wealthy; when you help others, Hashem helps you.