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August 17, 2011

Scholars: The Torah We Have Today Is Not The Torah Our Ancestors Had

Sofer hands closeup A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: The sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

Sofer hands closeup
Photo: A Jewish ritual scribe, sofer, writing a mezuzah scroll; Reuters.

Jerusalem scholars trace Bible's evolution
Hebrew University researchers have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies – publishing authoritative edition of Old Testament

Jerusalem (AP) – A dull-looking chart projected on the wall of a university office in Jerusalem displayed a revelation that would startle many readers of the Old Testament: The sacred text that people revered in the past was not the same one we study today.

An ancient version of one book has an extra phrase. Another appears to have been revised to retroactively insert a prophecy after the events happened.

Scholars in this out-of-the-way corner of the Hebrew University campus have been quietly at work for 53 years on one of the most ambitious projects attempted in biblical studies – publishing the authoritative edition of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible, and tracking every single evolution of the text over centuries and millennia.

And it has evolved, despite deeply held beliefs to the contrary.

For many Jews and Christians, religion dictates that the words of the Bible in the original Hebrew are divine, unaltered and unalterable. For Orthodox Jews, the accuracy is considered so inviolable that if a synagogue's Torah scroll is found to have a minute error in a single letter, the entire scroll is unusable.

But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this text at the root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was somewhat fluid for long periods of its history, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine.

The project's scholars have been at work on their critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, a version intended mainly for the use of other scholars, since 1958.

"What we're doing here must be of interest for anyone interested in the Bible," said Michael Segal, the scholar who heads the project.

The sheer volume of information makes the Bible Project's version "the most comprehensive critical edition of the Hebrew Bible in existence at the present time," said David Marcus, a Bible scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who is not involved with the project.

But Segal and his colleagues toil in relative anonymity. Their undertaking is nearly unknown outside a circle of Bible experts numbering several hundred people at most, and a visitor asking directions to the Bible Project's office on the university campus will find that many members of the university's own staff have never heard of it.
Only 3 books published in 5 decades

This is an endeavor so meticulous, its pace so disconnected from that of the world outside, that in more than five decades of work the scholars have published a grand total of three of the Hebrew Bible's 24 books. (Christians count the same books differently, for a total of 39.) A fourth is due out during the upcoming academic year.

If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now. This is both a point of pride and a matter of some mild self-deprecation around the office.

Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin. The last member of the original team died last year at age 90.

The scholars note where the text we have now differs from older versions - differences that are evidence of the inevitable textual hiccups, scribal errors and other human fingerprints that became part of the Bible as it was passed on, orally and in writing.

A Microsoft Excel chart projected on one wall on a recent Sunday showed variations in a single phrase from the Book of Malachi, a prophet.

The verse in question, from the text we know today, makes reference to "those who swear falsely." The scholars have found that in quotes from rabbinic writings around the 5th century A.D., the phrase was longer: "those who swear falsely in my name."

In another example, this one from the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage referring to commandments given by God "to you" once read "to us," a significant change in meaning.

Other differences are more striking.

The Book of Jeremiah is now one-seventh longer than the one that appears in some of the 2,000-year-old manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened.

The year the Bible Project began, 1958, was the year a priceless Hebrew Bible manuscript arrived in Jerusalem after it was smuggled out of Aleppo, Syria, by a Jewish cheese merchant who hid it in his washing machine. This was the 1,100-year-old Aleppo Codex, considered the oldest and most accurate version of the complete biblical text in Hebrew.

The Bible Project's version of the core text – the one to which the others are compared – is based on this manuscript. Other critical editions of the Bible, such as one currently being prepared in Stuttgart, Germany, are based on a slightly newer manuscript held in St. Petersburg, Russia.         

Considering that the nature of their work would be considered controversial, if not offensive, by many religious people, it is perhaps surprising that most of the project's scholars are themselves Orthodox Jews.

"A believing Jew claims that the source of the Bible is prophecy," said the project's bearded academic secretary, Rafael Zer. "But as soon as the words are given to human beings - with God's agreement, and at his initiative – the holiness of the biblical text remains, even if mistakes are made when the text is passed on."


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These rabbis probably think the earth is also flat, since the Tanakh often speaks about the "four corners of the earth."

Just because there are other versions of the torah from different sects who were not careful in their transmission of the tanach, does not prove that the pharisees did not have an authoritative torah scroll that they kept safe from corruption throughout the ages. There is a well written essay about this here;


Up until 3-10 centuries ago Judaism was a different religion to what it is now.

o mazoh wasn't the hard cracker it is now.
o clothing wasn't distinct from others unless dress code was imposed by governments.
o chickens did not have to be shected.
o the wine of gentiles was OK.
o polygamy was permitted.
o there was never a tradition (apart from for selected and respected scholars who would sit an do full time Torah learning and be supported by the commiunity) of large numbers of Jews such as Charedim of not working or being prepared to fight in the military.

@david What? chickens needed to be shechted since the gemmora. yayin nesech too


oh, and they didnt use internet or electricity...

How can you post such menuvaldike kefirah on your site? You say lubavitchers are bad for believing the rebbe is moshiach while you are kofer in kol hatorah kulu!

o the wine of gentiles was OK

Posted by: chussid | August 17, 2011 at 06:31 PM

finally figured that out that the whole thing is built on a myth

is not a worse myth from evolution or other kefirah like this drek!

Posted by: chussid | August 17, 2011 at 06:31 PM

well it is the truth, want to live your live based on falsehood go ahead

imagine if it did not say 3 times do not cook the calf with the milk of its mother
and it only said it twice i wonder what would happen

Slow news day, Shmarya?

You didn't reprint today's NY Times story on Aron. Wake up and get to work!

but we did have metzitza b:l peh lets not forget that.

The Tanach is part : Genealogy; Drama; Lawmaking and Interpretation; Jurisprudence; Romance; War Battles; Power Dynamics; Place Naming; Object Referencing; Chronology; Prophecy; Allegory; Metaphor ; VIP’s; Filler and Wise Counsel. Weighing up the relevance of the different pieces should be left to very wise souls. The shore of history is littered with the ugly flotsam and jetsam resulting from the terrible decisions made by various people who thought they understood the true meaning of the good book. The Tanach is the most important book in the world. The 79,976 words of the Pentateuch assume primacy.

The various parts of the Tanach were written by humans. They did not magically appear on a slab or a scroll of papyrus. Such a fact does not negate the supernatural aspect of revelation as outlined by the sixth article of faith.

Has anyone told Artscroll about this?

I bet they put out a 5 volume commentary of each redacted book with voluminous pages of chareidi commentary about why the new version is wrong for $50.00 a volume.

adam- keep on repaeting the same lies over and over and over and you know the rest it becomes fact thats youre perception of the world.

The Leningrad Codex states that the number of letters in the Torah is 400,945. That is about 100,000 more than you will count today. So somewhere along the line, 25% of the Torah has disappeared.

Unless you suppose the author of a definitive edition of the Tanakh simply couldn't count, in which case why consider it definitive?

To Dr.Dave,

Artscroll should not feel threatened by this "new media". The publishing house puts out some great quality books. Alternative sources of information should be considered especially when new truths are revealed. Perhaps some people in positions of power are petrified right now because their carefully crafted edifices are in danger of collapsing around them. This is the threat that these researchers at Hebrew University pose. The film "Name of the Rose" comes to mind. I will bet my left leg that the findings from these scholars do not conflict with my worldview and understanding of the Tanach even one percent.

People should study the Tanach from an early age, but especially the Pentateuch, i.e. Five tools in ancient Greek. This should be in conjunction with : History; Geography; Science; Mathematics; Art; Literature, Economics and Politics. The physical side of education should also not be ignored. Some sport is good. The international language of English should be studied as well as the national language. Travel in the late teens, early twenties is also a good way for young people to broaden their horizons. Obviously a good education is predicated on a certain level of the general welfare in a nation.

The problem when people drift straight to the Talmud or other commentaries is that they fail to think autonomously and reason through issues. If there was total freedom of enquiry on the Planet most people would reach the same conclusions about the human condition and the true potential of humankind. The word "educere" comes from the Latin, to bring forth from within. The best form of education is guided curiosity. One learns best when curiosity is sparked. A good teacher knows how to do this. It is good to think new thoughts. As prophecy unfolds on the Planet people are going to be surprised at the new thoughts, ideas and insights that enter their minds. G-d is the ultimate teacher. Some people are scared of new thoughts because they threaten the frame of reference they have carefully and tirelessly built. What they must realise however is that this frame of reference influences their entire being.

Anyway, truth is pouring into the zeitgeist right now. You can avoid entering the stream of consciousness for only so long. G-d will get you in the end...

"Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things
are at risk."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wonder if they found the third tablet with the other 5 commandments that Mel Brooks accidentally dropped...

The History of the World Part I

The 5 books stand one. I just want to know about that Prague ayin, what the hell, guys?

That was supposed to say "the 5 books stand alone", but Hashem manifested himself in the form of a typo and my auto-spell.

If the pace is maintained, the final product will be complete a little over 200 years from now.

They're like cathedral builders.

@Dave's List

mazoh wasn't the hard cracker it is now
clothing wasn't distinct from others unless dress code was imposed by governments (like hats: Judenhut / pilleus cornutus -- mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215)
chickens did not have to be shected
the wine of gentiles was OK
polygamy was permitted
there was never a tradition (apart from for selected and respected scholars who would sit an do full time Torah learning and be supported by the commiunity) of large numbers of Jews such as Charedim of not working or being prepared to fight in the military
Chicken was pareve

To Nigritude Ultramarine,

When Maimonides did his remarkable study of the Pentateuch he codified 613 mitzvot when in fact there are many more. One example that he didn't include was the need to carry a paddle outside the camp to perform one's ablutions. The question remains, can you place the mitzvot into some sort of hierarchy of importance ?

i.e. Is the negative commandment against child sexual abuse more important than the mitzvah to wear tfillin ?

The importance of this question is great, as so many scholars and sages have based their worldview and political philosophy on how they interpret the mitzvot. If you build a house and get the structural priorities wrong it will not stand for long. It will be also be a very ugly replacement model for what is really possible.

the 11TH commandment that never made it's way in:

See tosfos bt shabbos 55b "maaviram ksiv": "our talmud disagrees with our Biblical books..."
And see marc shapiro's work, the limits of orthodox theology, pp. 91--121, "the bible 'codes': a textual perspective" by jeffrey tigay of penn (oct. 13, 1999), "the idea of the sanctity of the biblical text and the science of textual criticism" by menachem cohen of bar ilan

Even mishpacha magazine had a piece on this! See its kolmus magazine, pesach 5769, titled "text messages: distorted or just different? When chazal and tanach don't match"

Back from vacation: Ezra the scribe, and the commentator Ibn Ezra both state the torah we have is not the exact torah m'sinai. So even from an Orthodox standpoint, what these scholars are doing is legit.

Another interesting observation (not mine, I hasten to add). If you look in an English Bible at Genesis xviii, you'll find the infamous "cities of the plain", Sodom and Gomorrah. You'll find almost the same in the Greek Septuagint. But in today's Torah, the second city is "Amorah". What gives?

The answer is that, not long after the 3rd century BCE, the Hebrew alphabet lost its 23rd letter, usually called "ghayin". Just as Greek had lost its digamma, centuries earlier. In other words, not just a verse here and there, but an entire letter of the alphabet has vanished from the Torah translated by the 72, and hence from any Torah that Moses wrote.

Not many words contained ghayin, and the homonyms that were created are usually distinguishable from context. But this evolution is a certain killer of the "Bible Codes" movement. You can't knock a letter systematically out of an entire text and hope to keep intact any equidistant letter sequence long enough to make a phrase.

To Yochanan Lavie,

"what these scholars are doing is legit."

Correct !

Pagan - that is fascinating. Do you have any sources for this?


Not really news, see shulchan Aruch O C 143:40 and Ramo there.

ok, what this all philosophically boils down to is rejection of God. So let me make this simple; Judaism works. (Some) people don't. The system works. The people (or at least some of them) are rotten. Don't equate the people with the system.

Matzo is just Lavosh. My dad remembers Lavosh from a child as a soft bread that hardens quickly because it is only flour and water. It is an everyday bread where he is from. I can only assume that factory made matzo "keeps" better when baked hard.

Personally I'm glad that religion evolves with civilization.


How do you know that the "g" pronunciation of the letter ayin wasn't just standard or alternate pronunciation? Why do you claim with certainty it was a whole different letter that went missing? Couldn't it have been like the "בגדכפת" letters which all at one time had more than one pronunciation (bet-vet, gimmel-jimmel, etc.)?

Unless you can show a lot of evidence that "ghayin" was a different letter that completely vanished, I think it is dishonest to post as if it were indisputable fact.

That being said, found the article interesting. One thing I found funny that religious people I used to study with could never accept, somewhat on this same topic, is the fact that the Hebrew characters (with all their "kabbalistic" meanings on every nuance of their shape) weren't originally Hebrew letters but adopted from Aramaic probably around the first temples destruction. One interesting thing found in the dead sea scrolls were scriptures written all in the modern letters except for all the places gods yud, hey, vav, hey name was written, gods four letter name was written always in the original "paleo-Hebrew" letter form.

> Bible Project scholars have spent years combing through manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Greek translations on papyrus from Egypt, a printed Bible from 1525 Venice, parchment books in handwritten Hebrew, the Samaritan Torah, and scrolls in Aramaic and Latin.

The problem with using these sources is that none of them are authoritative. How does one know if a Dead Sea scroll fragment is from an actual Torah of that time or the handwritten note of someone trying to remember what he heard? The Samaritan and Greek Torahs were corrupted on purpose by folks in each group with an agenda. Despite the high level of scholarship this changes pretty much nothing.

This is simply false.

You can see that Chazal had a different version of the Torah than we have, and you can see the differences between the Leningrad Codex and the Alleppo Codex.

Stop spouting ArtScroll BS that was never thought true, even by them.

This is a conversation in the Gemara and in virtually every generation...just because it's baked-up news to "The News" doesn't mean it's news TO THE JEWS - every few years I post these pieces and others because...well, every few years people forget the conversation a few years before;




There is the Ashkenazim Torah and the Sephardi Torah
The difference over 2000 years ?
One letter
The Ashkenazim has an Alef the Sephardi has an Aiyn
The Ashkenazim pronounces both the same
While the Sephardi, especially the Yemenite, uses a very distinct sound for the Aiyn

That really isn't true, Isa.

Both of those versions of the Torah are based on one of the two the Masorite versions (the same one), and date to about 900 CE.

There is no proof of standardization before then, and much of the standardization that exists after that comes from the increased intermingling of the two populations and then the printing press.

R. Barry Freundel can give you - if either you or he have time - a whole megillah about the significance of changes in text, the middle letter of torah, blahx3. And obviously charedim will not accept his thoughts, but...he's not slouch on these things, and why would you people want to extol Right Wing views of the tradition as extolling the "true" perspectives on these things? The sources I give give OTHER voices, even "gedolim" of a RW caste - who utterly contradict the presumptions that the news source paint as those of Orthodox Judaisms et al.

This article is misleading garbage. Any real talmid chocham knows that this is nothing new.

There are several different ancient versions of the Tanach. They mostly differ in spelling. The traditional Jewish version is based on the Keter of Aleppo.

In his book Masters of the Word, Rav Yonatan Kolatch quotes HaRav Hershel Schachter as saying that the variant Biblical texts are a natural consequence of human copying error.

The Keter was always acknowledged as the most authoritative Tanach text. There are many responsa from the Middle Ages that show that the Keter was consulted for accuracy.

In the Mishna Torah, the Rambam says, "In these matters, we rely on the codex, now in Egypt, which contains the 24 books of Tanach and which had been in Jerusalem for several years. It was used as the standard text in the correction of books."

The Yemenites, who follow the Rambam, use this text in their Torah scrolls. There are 11 differences from our Torah. These are primarily chosar and molei--whether certain words have a vav in them or not.

Bar-Ilan has 10 volumes out, with critically corrected commentaries of the Targum, Rashi, Radak, and other rishonim.

There are a lot of things in Judaism about which even your typical frum Am haAretz is not aware.

The traditional Jewish version is based on the Keter of Aleppo.


No, ghj, the traditional version is NOT based on the Aleppo Codex.

The "traditional" version post-900 CE (or even later) is based on Aleppo.

Before that, rabbinic Jews – including Chazal – had several different versions.

And while copying errors clearly make up the majority of the differences between the versions, some of the differences go beyond that.

If this is confusing for RHS, well, that's too bad.

Dr. Leiman lists examples that "go beyond that" in terms of consequences for practices that are not necessarily merely scribal errors.

Could there be any credence to the idea that the power of myth is not weather it is factual accurate or not? It has been suggested rather that the power of myth is it's ability to help communicate Truths which are otherwise not easily communicable.

The guys at www.daatemet.com have a whole libfraRy of articles aBout just this issue. Click on "torah text".

And what about the notion of "tikkun sofrim" in which chazal touched up @17 biblical verses out of respect for God? When is it thought that they did this,anyway?

Pagan is absolutely correct, and by the way--"Gaza" in Biblical Hebrew is "Aza," much for the same reason. Language changes, and by the way--the letters reish and dalet often got mixed up, because of their similarities--and sometimes created some embarrassing moments in the ancient synagogues, e.g.,

כי לא תשתחוה לאל אחר
(Exo 34:14 WTT)

שמע ישראל יקוק אלהינו יקוק אחד
(Deut. 6:4)

Why the enlarged letters? Because of the serious scribal errors that once occurred (switch the letters around in each passage, and you will see). The text of the Torah is not "immaculate," it is maculate! There never was a "perfect" Torah because the people who write the Torah are far from perfect.

No, Pagan is absolutely wrong. She mentions the Septuagint's transliteration (as well as the English one - which is of course based on the Septuagint, because English wasn't spoken until a thousand years after the Septuagint). The Septuagint has a transliteration based on the way that a Greek reader would have pronounced 'aza and 'amora (where 'a is an ayin). Greek doesn't have an equivalent to ayin, so they used a gamma. That doesn't mean that the Hebrew text had a ghayin: it didn't. In fact we have written Hebrew texts from the time of the Septuagint and before (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, some inscriptions) and they use the same alphabet we have today.

Sorry Joe, not so. LXX typically omits to transliterate ayin because it is (almost) silent. Baal and Balaam for instance contain ayin in Hebrew but no equivalent in Greek. The transliteration with gamma therefore represents a voiced letter.

Also, the nearest cognate languages to hebrew - Arabic and Ugaritic - keep the distinction between ayin and ghayin. Indeed, you can find many Arabic words that contain their ghain where the modern Hebrew has ayin, and the hypothesis that this was originally ghayin is a strong one.

(The example given in class was the word for "crow": Hebrew 'orev, Arabic ghuraab. The triliteral root is gh-r-b.) Likewise, triliteral gh-m-r became Arabic ghumr but Hebrew 'omer.

More on this can be found in Jeff Benner's article here: http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/4_missing.html

What did the ghayin look like? How did it differ from the gimmel and the 'ayin?

Yochanan Lavie: "Look like" is a hard question to answer, but sound was probably more guteral/glottal. Think of the difference between a Hay and a Chet as an example:

Hay:Chet :: Gimmel:Ghayin

not a perfect explaination, but gets you into the ballpark.

A different way to think about it is in most older Semitic languages a Ayin is not a silent letter (like an aleph) but a glottal-stop - think of the hard pause in the phrase "I am" if you pronounce each word completely. A ayin is an unvoiced stop, a Ghayin is that same stop, but voiced.


Just because Arabic has a separate letter for ghain and ayin doesn't mean a damn thing. They also have separate letters for sin and shin (as well as others) next are you and your psuedolinguist friend Jeff Benner going to claim there is a missing letter sin that got obsorbed by the letter shin?

There is no hard evidence that there is a whole letter that went missing. Just that the ayin was pronounced differently at one point in time.

The gimmal and daled also had different pronunciations at one time. What is your point?

@Golden calf/red heifer Yes if you look back at all the different scripts extant when paleo-hebrew was being used you only find 22 letters. That is including other languages from the area that were closely related.

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