The Accuracy of the Written Torah

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A really old Torah scroll

I’m no scholar of ancient texts. But there are scholars of ancient texts. A large group of them has been studying the evolution of the text of the Tanach (the Jewish version of the Old Testament) for 53 years.

It is important to note that the text we have today has remained virtually unchanged since the 11th century. It was then that Maimonides used the Aleppo Codex to codify a version of the Torah scroll. That version is almost exactly what we have today.

But notice, I used the word “almost”. That’s because it is not exactly the same. Or it might not be exact. There are several nuances that differentiate the standard Torah scroll used in the majority of Jewish communities from the Yemenite Torah text tradition. They can’t both be exactly the same as the text codified by Maimonides.

Certainly the Talmud seems to indicate that they had a different version. The Talmud in Kiddushin gives specific places as the middle of the text and the number of words and letters. None of those are consistent with our text. In several places various rishonim (Medieval commentators) indicate that there were small differences between the Torah scrolls among their peers. Other rishonim stated that the text was deliberately changed by later prophets in certain instances. They were permitted to do so as long as none of the Torah’s laws were affected by their changes.

None of the differences that have been recorded are significant enough to change the law. None of the discrepancies have an effect of the theology or religion of the Torah. Yet, there has emerged a “sacred belief” that the Torah remains unchanged over the 3000 years since the Revelation at Sinai.

This is quite obviously impossible.

A massive project in Israel is charting all the extant versions of the text and their collective history. They are using every possible version and manuscript to show any and all minor differences between each version. The Aleppo Codex is the starting point for the project and all differences are being compared to that version.

And there are differences. It is impossible to pretend otherwise. But this should not be a problem for believers in orthodox Judaism. There are several acceptable approaches to the issues raised by the variations in the text. Each approach appeals to different styles within orthodox Judaism.

1) Hashgacha pratis. God runs the world. Whatever changes that have evolved are part of a grand Master Plan.

2) Lo bashamayim hi. “The Torah is not in the Heavens”. Once the Torah was given to Man, it was understood that there would be mistakes. We do our best to avoid mistakes, but errors are inevitable and it cannot be legitimately stated that our version is perfect.

3) Torah She’Baal Peh is primary. The truth is that we do not live our lives as orthodox Jews based on the Written Law as much as we lived based on its interpretation in the Oral Law. Mistakes in the Written Law have no real bearing on a Jewish life based on the Oral Law.

Certainly each of these positions is more nuanced and broad than the one or two sentence headlines mentioned here. The point is that approaches exist and we should not be afraid of them.

What about the 8th principle of faith according to the Rambam?

See my post about this on DovBear’s blog: The Rambam’s 8th Principle According to R’ Yaakov Weinberg

Link: AP

  • An officer of the Torah-True Police Force will be over shortly. Be prepared to hand in your yarmulka and to have your circumcision revered.


    Regarding your three suggestions: (1) I don’t know what that means, why stop at textual discrepancies, perhaps Mordechai Kaplan’s inventions were apart of the Grand Plan as well. (2) You make it sound like there’s something mysterious about this, when it really should be expected. (3) This answer doesn’t even attempt to address the problem, it’s just skirting around the issue.

    • 1) [This is not my personal position but this is my understanding of it.] Let’s assume that God would not orchestrate the development of the Torah in way that would circumvent the very rules stated within the Torah, IE these laws are forever.

      2) Not mysterious. But it is quite different than the modern view of the Rambam’s 8th.

      3) Meaning, it is a non-issue. Congratulations. (By the way, these days, this is my personal approach.)

      • “Meaning, it is a non-issue. Congratulations. (By the way, these days, this is my personal approach.)”

        This isn’t an approach, it’s ignoring the problem. Perhaps what you meant is that 1 + 2 = 3

        • Wait. Start from the beginning. What is the problem I am “ignoring”?

          • Is what we have today what God gave to Israel in the desert? No way.
            Does that bother me? No way.

            Does the existence of this very essay lend itself to acknowledging that there may be a problem? Yes.
            What’s the problem? The strain of thought that it has to be the same letter for letter.
            Does option (3) answer this problem? No.

            • 1 and 2 are answers for people who think it is a problem.

              3 is the option if you don’t think it is a problem.

  • Personally, I think #2 is the most fitting.

    I agree with Azi regarding #3. There is a probem with textual variants, then we ignore the issue by just skipping right over it to halacha

    • It’s only a problem if you think that the text must be 100% accurate today. I don’t think so. Neither did many people greater than I. That is #3.

  • there’s a note of reb Akiva Eiger (i think it’s in shabbos 55) documenting many corruptions in the Torah.