What is the middle letter of the Torah? I read that it was the letter vav of the word gachon (גחון) in Leviticus (11:42). My friend says that that is incorrect. Can you help us out?
Actually, you and your friend are both correct and incorrect.
The Talmud discusses various halfway points in the Torah, and lists the vav in the word gachon as the middle letter:
Because of this reason, the early sages were called soferim, “those who count,” for they counted all the letters of the Torah scroll. They used to say: The letter vav of the word gachon represents the midpoint of the letters of the Torah scroll. The words darosh darash (from Leviticus 10:16) represent the midpoint of the words of the Torah. The verse which begins with the word vehitgalach (from Leviticus 13:33)represents the midpoint of the Torah’s verses. In the verse yecharsemenah chazir miyaar (Psalms 80:14), the letter ayin of the word miyaar (מיער) is the midpoint of the book of Psalms. The verse vehu rachum yechaper avon (ibid. 78:38) represents the midpoint of the verses in Psalms.
However, a simple count of the letters and words of the Torah scroll and Psalms reveals that the entire list of the Talmud is incorrect!
A Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters, which means that the midpoint would be the 152,403rd letter; but there are 157,236 letters until the letter vav in the word gachon. In order for that to be the middle letter of the Torah, there would have to be an additional 9,667 letters in the Torah scroll!
There is a fascinating explanation, by Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef Zilber, of this cryptic statement of the Talmud. While most of the letters of the Torah are written in the standard script, he says, there are certain letters that are different. Some are written in an unusual fashion, while others are bigger or smaller than the standard letters of the Torah. If one were to count all the small and large letters in a standard Torah scroll, one would find that there are 16 or 17 of these letters (depending on whether we count the truncated vav in Numbers 25:12.) Of these, the ninth, i.e., the middle one, is the vav of gachon. In other words, the Talmud was not referring to the vav of gachon as the middle of all the letters of the Torah scroll; rather, it was referring to it as the middle of all the unusually large and small letters in the Torah scroll.
This explanation is strengthened by the fact that in Psalms there are five or seven (depending on the list used) letters that are unusually large, small, or “hanging” above or below the other letters, and (according to both lists) the ayin of miyaar is the middle letter.
Similarly, there are 77 instances of double words in the Torah scroll, for example, “Abraham, Abraham” (Genesis 25:19) and “Noah, Noah” (Genesis 6:9). Of those 77 cases, the 39th instance, the middle one, is darosh, darash. So while it is not the middle of all the words in the Torah scroll, it is the middle of all the unusual double words found in the Torah scroll.
As for Psalms 78:38 being the middle verse of the Book of Psalms: it is true that the middle of Psalms is really two verses earlier. However, since the two preceding verses discuss the dishonor and shame of the Jewish people, the Talmud refrained from singling out those verses and instead chose the nearest verse, which talks about how G‑d is all-merciful despite our iniquities.