The Rational Believer

A Five Volume Series on Jewish Faith

Vol. 1, The Torah: G-d-Given or Man-Made?

Is the Torah’s Text Accurate?

Overview: Whether or not we should rely on the version of the Torah’s text as possessed in Torah scrolls all around the world. Why the likelihood of scribal corruption is minimal throughout the centuries.

Many skepticize, that even if you are to assume that the Torah has true origins, perhaps its traditional text, known as the Masoretic text, got messed-up over the years. After all, most ancient texts passed down do get disordered. If so, how can we be so sure its current content is legitimate?

There are a few answers to this argument:

The Torah is different than most other documents, for it is considered divine by its holders. Therefore the Jews would obviously pay heed to each letter of it.

Furthermore, Jewish law itself dictates that even if one single letter in a Torah scroll is deducted or changed or any letter added, it invalidates the whole entire Torah scroll and it is to be buried.[1] [i]

Furthermore, the Jews were dispersed to the four corners of the earth for 2,000 years of persecution; yet Yemenite Torahs are the exact same as the British ones or as the Russian or South African Torahs—all identical, exactly the same! So how could they all have made the same mistakes?![2] [ii]

Furthermore, the recently found Torah scrolls among the Dead Sea Scrolls (dated to 2,000 years ago), were identical to ours! That means that we preserved it well throughout the exile!

To be more accurate, the Dead Sea Torah Scrolls were found to be 95% similar to ours. The remaining five percent are mostly of obvious pen-slips and spelling variations. Many grammar mistakes are clearly noticeable in the Dead Sea Scrolls, implying an inaccurate and unreliable document. There were no practical differences found in the Torahs.[iii] Besides, who is to say that those strange cave-dwellers (i.e. the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls), who insulated themselves from the remainder of Israel, would be cautious about the Torah’s spelling accuracy?!

Most of all, if G-d wants us to keep His Torah,[3] wouldn’t He make sure it doesn’t get disordered?! And if it would get disordered to the point of corruption, wouldn’t He make another Mass Revelation to teach us the forgotten laws?! After all, He probably gave us the Torah because He wants us to keep it. It is logical to conclude, therefore, that He would preserve His message to the Jewish People and humanity, the Torah.[4]

 

There’s an opinion that Joshua wrote the last eight verses of the Torah which describe the death of Moses.[iv] Ibn Ezra, a twelfth-century rabbinic commentator, suggests even further, that Joshua added a few other verses throughout the Torah.[v] Does this work considering the above argument which doesn’t allow for alterations to the Torah?

While I do disagree with this suggestion which seems very unfitting, it does fit with the point we are making here. Understandably, Joshua—a Prophet, would only write at the command of the Lord. Similarly, the only way the Jews would accept these “editions” to the Torah is if it’s coming from Joshua or a major prophet. Additionally, Joshua wouldn’t add too much to the Torah, because it says within it that Moses wrote it.[vi] And if he would add a significant amount, he would have signed his name in it as did Moses.

[This chapter was based on the premises that Moses wrote the Torah. For a broader discussion on the topic of who wrote the Torah, see upcoming chapter “Who authored the Torah?”]


[1] The strict laws regarding the writing of a Torah Scroll seemingly are (primarily) of rabbinic ordinances. This can be implied from the Mishnah in Megillah 8b. There it discusses which languages the Sages permitted a scroll to be written in. This indicates that they had authority in the writing of a Torah scroll because there are no biblical restrictions.

See as well Sanhedrin 21b that clearly states that according to many rabbis the Torah was originally given in the original Hebrew language, known as paleo-Hebrew, and only afterwards switched to the modern Hebrew, known as Phonetic Hebrew or Ksav Ashuris in Talmudic terms, in the days of Ezra. Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 1:2 says the same thing. Furthermore, as far as archaeology is concerned, phonetic Hebrew was not even around when the Torah was given. The Torah scroll of nowadays strictly uses the modern Hebrew alphabetical script. So obviously the strict laws that rabbinic law mandates in the writing of the scroll couldn’t have been around before or have been biblical, because if it was then those restrictions wouldn’t allow for a modernized script.

[See Maharsha on Sanhedrin 21b where he quotes an argument found in Talmud Yerushalmi regarding this issue of which script the Torah was originally written in. Archeology seems to side with the opinion that we take here. Maharsha continues to explain that the famous Midrashic teaching that the letters samech and mem, which is round only in the modern Hebrew, were seen in the Holy Tablets through and through and therefore required the inner circle to be hanging—is only according to the opinion which says that it was the modern Hebrew script that the Torah was given in. Maharsha continues that the miracle of the hanging letter, according to the opinion that the Torah was given in ancient Hebrew script, was with the letter ayin which is rounded and hollow in the ancient Hebrew script.]

These ordinances enabled us to preserve the Torah throughout our exile. Similarly, by the way, I would assume as well that the tagim and taamim are also rabbinic (See Encyclopedia Talmudis on taamim for an argument between many early post-Talmudic rabbis on this very question whether or not the taamim (as well as tagim perhaps) are of Sinaic origins. From a logical point of view, it seems that there’s more accuracy to the opinion that it is not of Sinaic origins but rather a creation of later scholars). This is because the whole idea of reading from the Torah Scroll in the synagogue every few days was a rabbinic enactment (in Ezra’s time at the onset of the Second Temple—see Talmud Bava Kamma 82a), so guidelines and disqualifications of these Torah Scrolls were issued as well. [Moses’ enactment mentioned in Bava kamma 82a was also that everybody should read/learn from the Torah every three days, but it seems that it was not limited to the reading of a specific type of scroll as was by Ezra.]

[2] There are only 2 differences found within scrolls worldwide which are only spelling variations of the same word. (There are a few more slight differences though, nine in total, only found in a minority of Masoretic scrolls. These differences too are so insignificant with absolutely zero practical differences.

The nine places where a different letter (style and layout differences aside) appears in modern scrolls are:

1.       א (ו) מנש —Genesis 4:13 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

2.       ת (ו) מעינ —Genesis 7:11 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

3.     (ו)‏ ויהי—Genesis 9:29 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

4.       עשה (י) ת —Exodus 25:31 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

5.       ד (ו) האפ —Exodus 28:26 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

6.       ת(ו) בשמ —Numbers 1:17 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

7.       כם (י) חדש —Numbers 10:10 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

8.       ר(ו)עב  —Numbers 22:5 Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Temoni

9.       (ה|א)‏ כ ד  —Deuteronomy 23:2 Some Ashkenazi/Sephardi vs. Some Ashkenazi/Temoni.

The two bolded differences are the two main ones that strike more controversy.)

[3] See chapter “Are the Mitzvos Eternal?” in Vol. 3 of The Rational Believer Series for a discussion on the eternity of the Mitzvos and how they are still applicable today.

[4] The Samaritans of Somron in Israel (living mainly at mt. Gerizim), are a very small group who inhabited Israel for an extensive amount of time going back. They claim they are Jews, but the Jews have a different history of theirs, a topic beyond this writing. There are over 6,000 differences between their version of the Torah and the worldwide Masoretic text. Although most are insignificant with just spelling variations, many are extreme differences. Some scholars prefer their version of the Torah over the Masoretic because it is grammatically more fitting and easier to read. [Note that the Masoretic text, although it contains grammar mistakes to the superficial reader, has explanations once read with the Oral Law’s interpretations and implications.]. But most scholars take the Masoretic as more authentic and here are some good reasons why:

(1) The Samaritans are a group so small in number especially in comparison to mainstream Jews. It would be ridiculous to trust a minority over a vast majority when it comes to preserving documents. Because of their small numbers, all it takes is one Torah-scribe conference for them to change the Torah Text. Besides, the very fact that Jews from all over the world come out with the very same Torah, despite the 2,000 years of exile and persecution, tells us something on how well they have preserved the proper version (especially given all the strict rabbinic laws pertaining the writing of the Torah scrolls by the professional scribes).

(2) The fact that the Samaritan text is more grammatical and easy-flowing, actually demonstrates the tampering that was done to it by their priests. Nobody alters a text to make it grammatically incorrect, but one might do so to fix what he thinks needs to be fixed. Mr. Samaritan, thank you for your good intentions of correcting G-d’s grammar—but we will stick to what He actually wrote.

(3) The Samaritans ignore the whole Oral Law which is exclusive to the Masoretic text. The authenticity of the Oral Law can be demonstrated as we shall do in Vol. 2 of The Rational Believer series.

Note that the Samaritans also contain differences in their version of the Torah that places sanctity to their sanctuary they have erected on Mt. Gerizim. We do not address those version differences because they are clearly agenda-motivated to paint the Torah to their custom designs.


[i]http://www.keddem.org/PublicDocs/YKWorkshops_5770/Basic%20Laws%20Regarding%20Torah%20Scrolls.pdf, Rambam, laws of Tefilin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 10:1.

[ii] http://scrolls4all.org/scrolls/the-scribe/

[iii]  https://probe.org/the-dead-sea-scrolls/#text7

[iv] Bava Basra 15a.

[v] See Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 1:2 and on Genesis 12:6. http://thetorah.com/non-mosaic-torah-passages-ibn-ezra-and-bonfils/

[vi] Deuteronomy 31:24.

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