Question: We find coronets on top of certain letters in the Torah – namely shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimmel and tzaddi. What purpose, if any, do they serve?
Answer: Your question was discussed many years ago. As we now begin a new cycle of reading the weekly parashiyot of the Torah, it is quite appropriate to review this discussion.
The Gemara (Menachot 29b) quotes R. Yehudah, who said in the name of Rab: When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he found G-d engaged in affixing taggin [three small upward strokes in the form of a crown] to the letters. Moses then asked, Master of the Universe, who is forcing Your hand [so that You have to add crowns to the letters – see Rashi ad loc.]? G-d replied: There will be a man, after many generations, whose name is Akiba b. Joseph, and he will expound a multitude of laws upon each stroke of these coronets. Moses asked to be permitted to see that man, and G-d instructed him to turn around.
Moses sat down behind eight rows [of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples in the beit hamidrash – some say it was 10 rows – and listened to their discussions. He] found that he could not follow their arguments. He felt as if his strength had been sapped, but when they came to a certain topic, the students asked Rabbi Akiba [in reference to a law that was being discussed]: From where do we know this? Rabbi Akiba responded, “Halacha leMoshe miSinai – this is an oral law handed down to Moses at Sinai.” At that moment Moses was comforted [since his teaching was quoted, although he had not yet received the Torah – see Rashi]. Thereupon Moses said to G-d: You have such a man [i.e., Rabbi Akiba], and yet You give the Torah [to Israel] by me? G-d replied: Hush, this is My decree [literally, “So it has come to My mind”]. Moses then said: You have shown me his Torah scholarship; please show me his reward!
Moses was again instructed to turn around and he saw them weighing out his [Rabbi Akiba’s] flesh [at the market stalls.]
[Rabbi Akiba was one of the Aseret Harugei Malchut, the ten martyrs written about in the Eleh Ezkera prayer recited during the Yom Kippur mussaf prayers as well as during the Kinnot of Tishah B’Av.]
Rashi (ibid. s.v. “b’makolin”) refers to another account of Rabbi Akiba’s martyrdom found in Tractate Berachot 61b, where it is stated that Rabbi Akiba was tortured with iron combs during the Hadrianic persecutions. [Upon seeing this,] Moses then cried out: Such Torah [knowledge], yet such a reward? To which G-d replied: Hush, this is My decree.
The Talmud then quotes Rava, who states that seven letters require three strokes [on top, forming a coronet]: shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin [which together spells shatnez], as well as gimmel and tzaddi [interestingly, note that Rashi refers to the letter tzaddi as tzaddik]. The Talmud adds that the letter chet also has on its roof a vertical stroke [or strokes, depending on the opinion of Rashi or Tosafot, ibid.], and the letter heh has a suspended inner leg.
In fact, we find these seven letters in a short passage consisting of the first section of the Shema, followed by the verse “Vehaya ki yevi’acha – It shall be when G-d brings you to the Land…” (Deuteronomy 6:4-11).
The concept of Halacha leMoshe miSinai is usually defined as halachot [rules and laws] that have no basis in any specific verse of Scripture [the Tanakh, i.e., the Torah, Nevi’im or Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings], but were given as oral laws to Moses on Mount Sinai. However, we can see from the Gemara quoted above that Halacha leMoshe miSinai also includes laws that are based on exposition alluding to the taggin found on letters in specific verses.
To better understand the importance we attach to interpretation or derush, let us consider the mitzvah of donning tefillin (phylacteries), as we are commanded (Deuteronomy 6:8): “U’keshartam le’ot al yadecha, ve’hayu letotafot bein eineicha – And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be ornaments [or frontlets, as per Dr. Jastrow’s translation] between your eyes.” How are we to understand from that verse alone, without benefit of explanation, that passages of the Shema are to be written down and inserted in leather cases which are then to be tied, with the leather straps attached to them, to the left arm and the forehead during morning prayers?