Sunday 29 May 2016



Over the last hundred years or so, multiple ancient and original halachik texts have been discovered. Some of these (many of which were found in the Cairo Geniza) are at variance with our version of the texts - while others confirm the veracity of, and even expound upon our standard texts.

In this article, we will explore the halachik ramifications of these newly discovered texts.
We will then take this a step further and deal with the fascinating theoretically possible scenario of what the halachik view would be if Moshe’s original Torah were to be discovered and it turned out to be different from the version we use today!


In an attempt to find halachik precedent, let’s turn to some of our sources to see how they deal with the issue:

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

 Rav Sherira Gaon deals with the issue of textual differences found within the Talmud, and suggests that each variant should be taken seriously as they are all predicated upon some validated tradition.

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam relates how he painstakingly researched 500 year old manuscripts and used them to reverse a previously accept opinion of the earlier Geonim.[1]

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

Nachmanides ruled according to Rif, regarding the weight of a Shekel coin. But when he went to Israel and saw an ancient coin, he weighed it and it turned out to be 1/6th lighter (in accordance with Rashi’s view). As a result of this empirical evidence Ramban reversed his ruling to follow Rashi instead of Rif.[2]

Ramban was also prepared to rely on earlier manuscripts that were not part of the general corpus of halachik literature of his day.[3]


Although recognized as a great Rishon, many authorities today do not consider the Meiri’s newly discovered writings to carry any halachik weight whatsoever due to the simple fact that for centuries he was relatively unknown. Thus because there was a ‘break’ in the line of transmission, due to an accident of history, his views are downplayed.

RABBI YOSEF KARO (1488-1575):

According to Beit Yosef, the disputed positioning and order of the four small scrolls inserted into the tefillin could be quickly settled by examining the order of the scrolls as they were placed in a very ancient pair of tefillin discovered in the grave of the prophet Yechezkel[4].

Thus, by implication, archaeological discoveries may be submitted as evidence in a halachik dispute.

[Not everyone agrees with this view. The Drisha, for example, counters by suggesting that the reason the tefillin may have been buried could have been because the scrolls were inserted incorrectly in the first instance!]


Rabbi Yehoshua Ya’akov Helperin, while dealing with an issue of the Rama, cites other views of Rishonim which were not available to Rama, and suggests that had Rama seen those manuscripts he would have ruled another way.[5]


The Alter Rebbe writes that one needs to be strict in the light of the discovery of manuscripts dating back to the Rishonim (regarding an issue of unleavened bread on Pesach). He thus seems to rely on newly discovered manuscripts, but only if the conclusion results in a stricter ruling than before.


Rav Kook took a pragmatic view on the issue. In responding to a question concerning the reading the Megillah on the 15th of Adar in a city that was walled since the time of Joshua. 

He wrote; “The (archaeological) evidence you have sent me is insufficient...Although the efforts of all the scholars involved in this project is worthy, one cannot make halachik decisions based on the common Arab names of a location. Should any new evidence emerge kindly inform me so that I can express my views on the issue.” [6]


In a fascinating study, Rabbi Wasserman shows how many of our accepted commentaries that have been published in standard editions commonly used today, are attributed to the wrong authors.[7]

[Some examples follow:
Tosafot Ri HaZaken on Kiddushin was not authored by Ri.
Rabbenu Gershon on Bava Batra was instead authored by Rabbi Elyakim HaLevi.
Many of the responsa of Rashba were in fact authored by Maharam of Rothenburg.
Rashba on Sukka was instead written by his pupil the Ritva.
Chidushei HaRashba on Ketuvot was authored by Ramban.
Rashba on Menachot is of disputed authorship but not by Rashba.]

This raises another question of the general accuracy, not only of newly discovered, but even of some of the standard texts.


Rabbi Feinstein would not consider newly discovered writings, particularly if they proved to be at variance with his own stated opinion. Responding to a question as to whether or not a non-Jew would receive a reward for the performance of a mitzvah, he responded in the negative.

When challenged by a reference to the (relatively newly discovered) Meiri who is of the opinion that a non-Jew does indeed receive a reward in such an instance – he responded that; “We are not responsible for material found in newly published manuscripts”. [8]


Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, born in Baghdad, was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983. He did rely on newly found manuscripts on numerous occasions to formulate his halachik rulings.


Rabbi Schachter of Yeshiva University cites a recorded episode in the Gemara about how Rabbah bar bar Channah was shown by an Arab guide where the graves of the ancient Israelites were situated. He wanted to remove the tzitzit from one of the bodies to examine how they were tied.[9] This shows that there may be a precedent to consider archaeological evidence as a valid factor in determining halachik decisions.[10]

CHAZON ISH (1878-1953):

Rabbi Avraham Isaiah Karelitz, an anti-Zionist leader who shaped the contemporary Chareidi theological and institutional landscape of modern Israel, maintained that new findings have no practical bearing whatsoever on our tradition as we have it today.
In the post Shulchan Aruch era, newly discovered manuscripts are worthless, as halacha has effectively been cast in stone.

He also posits that, contrary to popular belief, the author of the Shulchan Aruch did not always rely on majority opinion when he formulated his law. He said that someone of the calibre of Rabbi Yosef Karo could certainly override the ‘majority rule’ principle.  It is for this reason that even if newly found texts are shown to be accurate, they would have absolutely no bearing on any law as recorded in the Shulchan Aruch.  On this view, from the 1400’s and onwards, Jewish law is effectively ‘frozen’ forever no matter what.[11]

The Chazon Ish further points out that the problem with newly discovered texts, is that they were not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny of scholars throughout the ages, as our standard texts have.[12]

Rabbi Moshe Bleich[13] supports this point by citing Binyamin Richler[14]:

“It is almost impossible to copy a written text of moderate length without making at least a few errors. Even if a scribe were to copy a 300-page book containing 100,000 words with 99.5 percent accuracy, he would still be responsible for 500 mistakes throughout the book.”

This means that our texts have already been scrutinized for the inevitable mistakes, and this gives them added authority.

In essence, the Chazon Ish believed that the Torah literature as we have it today, was preserved for us by Providence and therefore those texts only recently discovered are of no value to us.


Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda[15], a close disciple of the Chazon Ish, writes that in 1943, another (former) teacher of his, the eminent Talmudic scholar Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Menashe Lewin (d.1944), who was completing his thirteenth volume of Otzar HaGaonim asked why his encyclopaedic works were not accepted by the yeshiva world.

They were, after all, simply gleaned from recently discovered but original manuscripts of the Gaonim themselves.

Rabbi Dr. Lewin asked Rabbi Dr. Yehuda to ask the Chazon Ish why his monumental work of collating Gaonic writings was being ignored by the religious world.

The Chazon Ish amazingly responded: “The old material, we have; the new, we don’t need.”

This means that the newly discovered original texts were only of academic interest but had absolutely no bearing on or relevance to halacha! “If the rishonim did not have the material and knowledge we now discover, this was the will of G-d.

He continues in the name of the Chazon Ish:

“Assuming that an old sefer Torah from a very remote past will be found (let us say, of Rashi, Rabbi Akiva...or even of Moshe Rabbenu himself) and that we will detect textual variants distinguishing it from the current masoretic texts (ie the Sifre Torah we use today)...we do not correct our sefer according to the old sefer, but vise versa. 

The old sefer Torah, even if were written by the greatest authority (Moshe), must be considered pasul (invalid) as long as it does not conform to ours. 

In order for it to become kasher, it must be amended and adjusted to comply with the text of contemporary sefarim, according to the most recent halacha.”

Some time back, I wrote an article TheAllepo Codex where it was shown that there were periods in our history where the Torah Codex or Master Copy had disappeared. This undeniable historic fact casts aspersions on the accuracy of our scrolls today, and this was something which I was very hesitant and reluctant to record.  – I was therefore amazed to read in the name of the Chazon Ish:

In Second Temple days, three ancient sefarim were found...they disagreed with each other in text...Probably none was kasher...Thus a ‘compromised’ text emerged for current usage...

But this consideration (of an inaccurate Torah!) presents no difficulty or deterrent for the halachik logic and process...Halacha, then, by virtue of its own organic reasoning...might have ‘created’ a synthetic new text of the Torah, unknown to previous generations, rendering their sefarim for us as halachically pasul. 

In the same way that Moshe, if imaginarily placed in Rabbi Akiva’s academy, would not have understood his oral Torah (Menachot 29b) so, too, he might not have found Rabbi Akiva’s written Torah completely identical to his own.

It is abundantly clear that the present sefarim do not fully correspond with the ancient ones.[16]

Many midrashim and rishonim used sefarim that differed from ours...In their days and places, they were halachically correct; in ours, we are... 

Halacha is rooted in current, ongoing reality and is neither shaken nor fortified by any evidence ferreted out from remote ages...

Halacha requires, thus, that we carefully copy only the prevalent, available, and approved text of the day, not an old and lost one...but a text that has passed the test of time and sanction of the rabbinic tradition, which is dynamic, progressive, compliant and concessionary...
We engage not in bibliolatry but in kiyum mitzvoth (keeping the commandments).”

So, according to the view of the Chazon Ish, if we were to discover Moshe’s original Torah tomorrow: 
- it would be different from the version we use today 
- it would be pasul - and we would not be allowed to read from it in our shulls 
- and we would have to amend it to comply with our halachically correct sifre Torah.


In a way I can understand the view of the Chazon Ish. In a secular sense it is almost like abiding by the ruling of a court of law or the outcome of a political election - whether one agrees with the outcome or not - for the sake of a civil society. There are some processes one just has to accept. So too, in order to preserve halachik integrity, one needs to accept the inevitability of following due process.

It is of interest to note that Rabbi Natan Slifkin similarly writes;

“There is a strong basis for arguing that if a practice has become enshrined in Talmudic law by the Sages, it is authoritative even if the basis turns out to be mistaken...If we were to say that the halacha should change based on each generation’s understanding of scientific truth, then the ramifications for the body of halacha as a whole could be drastic.”[17] 

On the other hand, as we have seen, there are others who do take a different position and try blend respect for traditional halachik process with empirical factors that are still part of the very same methodology.

I think it was Heschel who said; “Law without Spirit is a corpse. Spirit without Law is a ghost.” Human beings have to operate somewhere in-between.

Perhaps there is a space for what Rava called the Gavra Rabbah[18], or Great Personality who is higher than the Scholar, who is able to strike that seemingly impossible balance.

Either way, hypothetically, I certainly would not want to be the person who has to tell Moshe Rabbenu that his Torah is pasul.


The Role of Manuscripts In Halachic Decision-Making: Hazon Ish, his Precursors and Contemopraries – by Rabbi Moshe Bleich,  Tradition 27, No. 2 Winter 1993.

The Role of Archaeology in Halachic Decision-Making – by Rabbi Chaim Jachter.

Hazon Ish on Textual Criticism and Halacha – by Rabbi Dr. Zvi A. Yehuda, Tradition 18 (2) Summer 1980.

[1] Hilchot Malveh VeLoveh 15:2
[2] Ramban’s commentary to Shemot 30:13
(The Shulchan Aruch, however, does not rule according to Ramban or Rashi; Abarbanel says that this may be because it lost some of its weight over time. Tashbetz says that this may be because Ramban relied on the Samaritans to help with the coin, and we ascribe no authority to them.)
[3] See Ramban commentary on Niddah 64a.
[4] These happen to be in the exact same order as that prescribed by Rashi and Rambam, as opposed to Tosfos. See Orach Chaim 34.
[5] Orach Chaim 120
[6] Iggerot HaReiyah 423
[7] See Kovets HeArot, on Yevamot.
[8] Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah II:7 and III:14
[9] Bava Batra 73b
[10] Nefesh HaRav p.53 footnote 26
[11] Iggerot Chazon Ish, III:48
[12] There is at least one instance, however, where Chazon Ish did accept the authenticity of manuscripts; “It appears obvious that this responsum was authored by a Gaon”. (Orach Chaim 39:6)
[13] Tradition Winter 1993, Vol. 27, No. 2
[14] Hebrew manuscripts: A Treasured Legacy, Cleveland and Jerusalem, 1990.
[15] See Hazon Ish On Textual Criticism And Halacha, Tradition 18(2) 1980, by Zvi A. Yehuda.
[16] See Shabbat 55b, Tosafot and R Akiva Eger’s gloss.
[17] See Sacred Monsters by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, last chapter.
[18] Makkot 22b. This is a reference to the gavra rabbah reducing the number of malkot from 40 to 39 or less.


  1. In practice, there is a simple principle at work alluded to in a few of the excerpts you quoted: If a new manuscript appears and it has stricter opinions, it will immediately supersede our texts and be accepted as "the true version". If it has lenient opinions it will declared unauthoritative, a forgery, etc.
    After all, if we find the actual Torah of Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, and disregard it then we are disregarding truth itself.

  2. One thing is certain (in my view) without have the Chazon Ish as quoted here in writing you definitely can not rely on it actually existing or the Chazon Ish having actually said it

  3. Thanks for the well researched articles.
    Hypothetically speaking, if a sefer torah from Moshe Rabeinu is discovered we could not ignore it (or change it). Especially if it is found inside the Aron next to luchos and has exactly 600000 letters.

  4. HERE a really interesting plausible explanation about this subject..
    Very short version... were not taking about 3 torah scrolls but about 3 genealogy books

    very interesting