Ask the Rabbi: What Is the Origin of Chapters and Verses in the Bible?

The Question: “Is it true that the division of the Hebrew Bible into chapters and verses is of non-Jewish origin? How did that come about in a Jewish book?” — A.H.

The Answer: The short answer to the first question is “yes.”

The introduction of chapters and verses, especially in the text of the Torah, is actually rather recent for a book dictated by G-d over 3300 years ago. It appears to go back to an innovation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-12th century, made for convenience of reference. After the idea was introduced, the ease with which things could be looked up and referenced caught on, and it quickly became standard across first western Christendom, then throughout the Christian world.

As for the question of how they crept into Jewish manuscripts and books, the reason was the medieval penchant for staging disputations between prominent rabbis and certain learned clergy throughout the Middle Ages with the goal of converting the Jews. In order not to be at a disadvantage whenever some Biblical text was being quoted, Jewish scribes began to insert the chapter/verse divisions in manuscripts intended for reference.

With the introduction of movable type and the printing press in the 15th century, the first edition of the Hebrew Bible known to have been printed was produced by a non-Jewish printer named Daniel Bomberg. He used Hebrew letters for numbers, as was already customary, to indicate the chapter and verse divisions.

But it is worth remembering that the official text of the written Torah is preserved in the form of a scroll, written by hand on parchment in a standard form which will be found in any synagogue (certainly any Orthodox synagogue) anywhere in the world. It is often stated that the text is written without punctuation of any sort, but that is not quite correct.

The standard séfer Torah is divided into parashoth — the weekly readings which take place on the sabbath following a fixed schedule — according to which the entire five books of the Torah are read within the course of a year, then begun over again. From thence it is divided into parshiyoth, which, for want of a better term, we can translate here as “paragraphs.”

Each parasha or sedra (the latter is an Aramaic term) and parshiya is set off from the next by a blank space in the scroll. These are of two types: the pëthucha or “open” space (because it runs from the end of the last word in the parshiya to the edge of the column) and sëthuma (“closed” or “blocked” space) because it consists of a space nine letters long in the middle of a line enclosed by text on all sides. These are the only forms of punctuation found in a séfer Torah. In most printed chumashim, the pëthuchoth are marked with the letter pé (פ), while the sëthumoth are marked by the letter samech (ס).

As the recent work of Dr. Robert Appleson (based upon classical Torah sources and the earlier work of Rabbi Yehoshua Honigwachs) makes clear, these divisions serve to demonstrate a pervasive structure (to borrow Dr Appleson’s phrase) in the written Torah which is nothing short of astonishing, and which is completely concealed by the division into chapters and verses customary since the Archbishop of Canterbury’s innovation.

The excavation of this structure begins with the passage often misnamed the “Ten Commndments,” the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth. The word does not mean “commandment” — that would be mitzva or pëquda — but rather something more like “spoken word” or “established matter,” derived from the same root as the verb dibbér, “speak,” or davar, “word, thing.” Hence, a better translation of the Hebrew phrase is the older term Decalogue (from Greek deka, “ten” and logos, “word.”)

As these ten statements were originally handed down, they were arrayed on two tablets in two columns of five each opposite each other. The first column consisted of duties between man and G-d; the second column of duties between man and man. The rows in which they are arrayed, two by two, can be shown to complement one another, and to embody a common principle between them, thus:

(1) The declaration of G-d’s existence is opposite the prohibition of murder (6)

(2) The prohibition of worshiping any other deity is opposite the prohibition of adultery (7)

(3) The prohibition against taking G-d’s name in vain is juxtaposed to the prohibition of theft (8)

(4) Remembrance and sanctification of the sabbath is juxtaposed to the prohibition of false witness (9)

(5) Honoring one’s parents (to mutual benefit) is juxtaposed to the prohibition of coveting (10)

The common principles underlying the five horizontal rows are:

(1) Recognition of G-d’s existence implies respect for His Creation and highest creature, man.

(2) Recognition of the primal relationship between man and G-d implies recognition of the primal human relationship, marriage.

(3) Limitations on spiritual resources (recourse to G-d’s name) implies limitations on physical resources (recognition of another’s property)

(4) The sabbath as testimony to G-d’s having created the universe implies scrupulous honesty in all other forms of testimony

(5) Recognition of one’s place and status with regard to one’s parents implies acceptance of one’s status in human society (not coveting what another has).

As the Mëchilta, the authoritative halachic midrash on Exodus, says of the Decalogue: Béyn kol dibbur vëdibbur parshiyotheha vëdiqduqeha shel Torah hayu këthuvim — “Between each and every statement the Torah’s parshiyoth and punctuation were written.”

This has prompted such other classic sources as the Targum Yonathan and Rashi to point out that the entire Torah with all of its mitzvoth can be derived from the Decalogue. The Decalogue, then, isn’t “Ten Commandments,” but an executive summary of the Torah’s 613 mitzvoth arrayed in terms of five fundamental principles, expressed relationships with the Divine and the shadows they cast here below.

It will be noted that there are five books in the séfer Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Each of the five books can be shown to embody one of the five fundamental principles set forth above:

(1) Genesis: Tells the story of the Creation, reason for respecting that Creation and its pinnacle, man.

(2) Exodus: Tells of the mutual relationship between G-d and Israel, forged in the Egyptian crucible and consummated at Sinai.

(3) Leviticus: Tells of the spiritual restrictions necessary to sanctity and the prioritization of physical resources for sacrifice and food.

(4) Numbers: Details the communal duties, martialing Israel in the desert and on the eve of taking up residence in the Holy Land, where the testimonies of shëmitta and yovél can be observed.

(5) Deuteronomy: Tells of Israel’s acceptance of place and status, reviewing the mitzvoth of the Torah on the eve of conquering the Holy Land.

A careful count reveals exactly five pëthuchoth in each book, and exactly five sëthumoth between one pëthucha and another. Because of space limitations, we shall only consider the major divisions of Genesis here (a fuller and very accessible treatment of the subject may be found in Appleson’s book, Patterns in Parchment). The divisions marked by the pëthuchoth are:

(1) Genesis I, 1-XI, 32, detailing the Creation and universal history up to the shattering cosmic reset called the Mabbul, so inaccurately translated “Flood.” This asserts G-d’s existence and the consequences of disrespecting the pinnacle of Creation, man.

(2) Genesis XII, 1-XXI, 34: This focuses on the family of Avraham, his discovery of monotheism, the threatening of Sara’s violation and the covenant between Avraham and G-d; thus, it exemplifies the mutual loyalty between G-d and His people as reflected in the mutual loyalty between man and wife.

(3) Genesis XXII, 1-XXV, 18: This focuses on Yitzchaq, Avraham’s son, the binding (hence, limitation) of Yitzchaq, and the restricting of Yitzchaq’s range to the narrower scope of Eretz Yisra’él where his father had wandered all over the Middle East. Restriction of spiritual and physical resources.

(4) Genesis XXV, 19-XXXV, 22: This focuses on Ya’aqov, the testimony to his birthright, reaffirmation of the covenant, and revelation of Lavan’s false testimony; hence, the importance of accurate testimony and rejection of falsehood.

(5) Genesis XXXV, 22-L, 26: Focuses on the origin of the community of the tribes of Israel on their future status and roles; thus, the story Yoséf is one of ultimate acceptance of their places and status under Yoséf’s guidance and leadership.

Similarly themed divisions can be shown for the other books as well. This inherent, pervasive structure demonstrates the unity of Torah and the fundamental principles underlying Jewish life which is breathtaking in its implications and, as I said at the beginning, entirely obscured by the artificial division into chapters and verses imposed on it in Medieval Europe.