If you look closely at the letters of a sefer Torah (Torah scroll), you will see that many of the letters are topped by small spikes, called tagin or ketarim, the Aramaic and Hebrew words for “crowns.” At times, they are also called zayins, since they resemble the Hebrew letter zayin (ז), coming out of the top of the letter.

There are generally three categories of letters in terms of tagin.

● Letters without tagin. This is the default.

● The Talmud mentions the letters making up the mnemonic שעטנ”ז ג”ץ (ShATNeZ GaTz1) have 3 tagin, or crowns, coming out of the top left of the letter.2

● Additionally it is customary to make a single tag,or crown, on top of the letters making up the mnemonic בד”ק חי”ה (BeDek ChaYaH3),4 as well as certain other specific letters and words that have tagin in specific places.5

All three kinds of letters can be seen in this detail of a mezuzah, provided by Rabbi Yosef Y. Rabin, Craft Sofer.
All three kinds of letters can be seen in this detail of a mezuzah, provided by Rabbi Yosef Y. Rabin, Craft Sofer.

Why the Crowns?

As for why they are there, Moses himself had this very question. As the Talmud relates:

Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses said before G‑d: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You [from giving the Torah without these additions?] G‑d said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; from each and every point of these crowns, he is destined to derive heaps upon heaps of halachot. [It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.]6

In other words, there are many laws and parts of the Oral Torah that are hinted at by way of these small crowns.

(For more on this incident with Moses and Rabbi Akiva, as well as its implications, see Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis? )

Fighting Off Harmful Negative Forces

The mystics explain that the acronymShATNeZ (comprising the letters shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin) forms the words שט”ן ע”ז, Satan Az, the names of two great, harmful forces. The acronym ג”ץ, GaTz, (comprising gimmel and tzadi) is also the name of an evil force. Therefore, tagin are added to these seven letters, for they are like a sword and a spear against these harmful forces.7

Unrevealed Parts of the Torah

So why is it that Rabbi Akiva merited to uncover many secrets of the crowns of the Torah? His revelations were both due to his lofty soul8 as well as the fact that his teachings were destined to be the basis for the parts of the Oral Torah that would be written down as the Mishnah and Talmud (see What is the Talmud? and What’s the Big Deal About the Death of Rabbi Akiva’s Students? ).9

In addition, the Kabbalists explain the reasons behind some tagin. Yet for the most part, their meaning remains hidden. The “heaps” of laws that Rabbi Akiva derived from the tagin remain hidden as well. The mystics explain that for the time being, only the meaning of the actual letters and words of the Written Torah are revealed through the Oral Torah. However, the deeper meanings behind the “crowns” (as well as vowels and cantillations) will only become revealed with the coming of the Moshiach.10

Thus, every time you see a crown on a letter, it not only hints at the secrets of the Torah, but our longing for a time when these secrets will finally be revealed.