Sunday 11 December 2016


The tomb of Ezra the Scribe in the Shiite district of Amarah in Iraq

Many would be surprised to discover that there are a number of Tikunei Sofrim or Emendations of the Scribes - instances where (at some stage in history) the actual text of the Torah has intentionally been altered or emended. These emendations have been acknowledged and documented by some of our leading Sages who have given their versions as to the reasons for them.

In this essay, we are going to try to ascertain exactly who these Scribes were and why they deemed it necessary to make their changes.


It is generally accepted that there are eighteen places in Tanach where changes were made,[1] but not everybody agrees as to the exact number.
Rashi comments on eight instances of Tikun Sofrim.

Barnes quotes Schechter;

“...the number ‘eighteen’ appeared in Shemot Rabbah...Elsewhere these alterations are reckoned as ‘thirteen’ or ‘fifteen’... ‘eighteen’ would seem to be a merely symbolic number.”[2]
Some say the number may even be as high as thirty.[3]


A common thread that appears to run throughout many of these ‘corrections’ is that they were made to preserve the honour of G-d. The argument is that the ‘original version’ may not have been as respectful to G-d as it should have been.

For example, in Genesis (regarding the story of the three visitors to Abraham) the text originally referred to G-d who remained waiting for Abraham. This was changed to read Abraham remained waiting. It was considered disrespectful to say that G-d waited for Abraham to finish with his guests. Rashi in his commentary on the story records this as an example of Tikun Sofrim.

Another example is Navot who is accused of cursing G-d. The text uses the word blessed instead of cursed.[4]

A third example is where Moshe says to G-d; ‘I will not see my evil[5]. This refers to Moshe not wanting to have to witness G-d’s punishment of the people and preferring to die instead. Again Rashi explains that the text is not technically accurate and should rather have read; ‘I will not see Your (referring to G-d’s) evil’. However because of Tikun Sofrim the text was amended out of respect to G-d.[6]

In Iyov, Rashi clearly acknowledges the phenomenon of text changing when states; “This is one of the places where the Scribes emended the language of the text.”[7]

Thus we find that Rashi makes numerous references to textual emendations.



Rashi, (and his contemporary Rabbeinu Natan author of) the Aruch, and the Midrash Tanchuma[8] maintain that the Sofrim who made these changes were the Scribes during the times of Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly.[9] Ezra’s power and authority must not be underestimated. One must remember that the Talmud records; “Had the Torah not been given to Moshe it would have been given to Ezra.”[10] 

Furthermore, Ezra and his Sanhedrin had the authority to determine which books of the Tanach were canonized and which were to be left out. If he could do that, he certainly could have made minor textual emendations too. He also presented the people with the second Master Copy of the Torah text after Moshe’s Master Copy had been hidden away during the persecution towards the end of the First temple and never found again (see here).


On the other hand, the commentator Eliyahu Mizrachi, who quotes both Rashba and R. Yosef Albo, has a very different take. They maintain that the latter Scribes never emended anything at all. The term Tikun Sofrim is in their view very misleading. Instead of referring to latter Scribes, the term refers directly to the original authors of the Biblical books including Moshe and the Prophets. They were the intended Scribes or Sofrim. It was they who (out of respect) labeled the texts in their original form and the texts remained unchanged since then.

Rashba expressed his great opposition to Tikun Sofrim in a responsum where he mentions a Christian theologian (probably Raymond Martini) who claimed that the Jews had fabricated parts of the Bible. The theologian based his claim on his knowledge of the notion of Tikun Sofrim which existed in rabbinic literature. Rashba emphatically denounced the way Tikun Sofrim was generally understood as an emendation of the latter-day Scribes, and claimed instead that the original authors were the Scribes who made the changes.

Ibn Ezra similarly does not believe in the Tikun Sofrim concept. In his commentary on Tanach he writes; “We have no need for Tikun Sofrim....and...those who speak about it know something I don’t know.[11]

According to this view the texts were never emended but remain original. Although they acknowledge that the wording may still have been ‘changed’ by the original authors, the texts remained untouched thereafter.

Technically, according to this view, the correct term should not be Tikun Sofrim, but rather Kinah haKatuv, which implies an original and intended euphemistic metaphor as opposed to an emendation. This term was in fact used by the Halachik Medrashim of the Sifrei and Mechilta.

Here is a summation of this Tikun Sofrim concept in beautiful scholarly English by W. Emery Barnes in 1900, which ties in with these views: 

The student of the Old Testament is so much accustomed to the story of the scrupulous care with which the Scribes guarded the Sacred Text, counting even its letters, that it comes as a shock to him to be told that, according to Jewish tradition, he has before him in eighteen places of his Hebrew Bible not the original text, but a text altered by the Scribes!

In these eighteen passages...the original meaning was altogether displaced from the MSS (manuscript), as being un-becoming (or, indeed, in some cases, almost blasphemous), and a Scribe’s emendation took its place, the memory of the original reading being preserved in tradition only...
...Yet the evidence alleged for the theory is very thin. The early evidence is ambiguous, while what is unambiguous is too late to be of any real value.[12]

However, if one follows the view of those like Rashi who understand Tikun Sofrim as a real latter day change in the text, it raises an interesting theological question:

It’s all very well being respectful to G-d but do we have the right to emend or 'improve'  a G-d given text - and once we start changing even the smallest iota are we not placing ourselves on a very slippery slope?
Is this not at variance with the eighth Principle of Rambam:

"We believe that the entire Torah in our possession today was given by the G-d through Moshe Rabbeinu...”[13]  

Although, as mentioned, Rambam’s eighth Principle appears to present difficulties for the Tikun Sofrim concept, there are ways to reconcile it.

Firstly (as we saw with the views of Rashba and those who held like him) one could interpret Tikun Sofrim more along the lines of Kinah haKatuv where the ‘emendations’ were originally made by Moshe and the Prophets instead of latter day scholars.

Secondly one could adopt a surprisingly open interpretation as offered by R. Yaakov Weinberg[14]

Rambam knew very well that those variations existed when he defined his Principles. The words...‘the entire Torah in our possession today’ must not be taken literally, implying that all the letters of our present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intent and purpose the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.”

In a similar sense, Rav Hai Gaon was not afraid to posit that the Torah text may have changed over time. He based his view on the fact that the Talmud in many places, particularly in Kiddushin, has different versions of Torah text compared to the text we have today. But he has no issues with that because as long as we follow the Mesorah (tradition) and keep to Halacha, the Torah effectively remains the same because we do the best we can under the historic circumstances. (See here)


It is interesting to note that the Karaites were probably even more opposed to any notion of textual emendation than were some of the Rabbinites. They were strict guardians of the literal and original versions of the Torah text. Yaakob Al-Kirksani, Karaite scholar of the 900’s mentions that one of the key points of contention between Karaites and Rabbinites was this very concept of Tikun Soferim, something they rejected in its entirety.

This just shows how widespread the Tikun Sofrim idea must have become within rabbinical circles at that time. It is also significant because the Tikun Sofrim theory is strikingly absent from both the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi!

As an aside it would be fascinating to find out why that was so, and why the issue only became active in post-Talmudic times (after the 500’s).


It is interesting to see that after Rashi wrote; “Tikun Sofrim”, he elaborated; “the rabbis changed the way it was written.” Although these words do appear in the early printed versions of Mikraot Gedolot[15], they are omitted from ArtScroll’s Saperstein edition (without even a footnote explaining or even referencing their omission from a classical text).

In the ArtScroll Series Rashi al HaTorah, Rashi’s comments on Tikun Sofrim are also omitted.
In their scholarly ArtScroll Tanach Series, regarding the example we brought earlier on the question of Abraham waiting for G-d (instead of G-d waiting for Abraham)[16], there is no mention of Rashi’s view on Tikun Sofrim. It uses a clever if not manipulative translation of Tikun Sofim as “literary refinement” instead of a more accurate “emendation of the Scribes”. 

And then in a footnote it cautions;

G-d forbid that one heretically misinterprets the term Tikun Sofrim to suggest that later Scribes dared tamper with the Holy text of the Torah and alter it in any way by replacing it with an ‘improved’ expression, regardless of the sensitivities involved!...Rather, as the commentators explain, the Torah was originally composed by G-d to convey a sense of reverence and propriety.”

This footnote effectively labelled the views of Rashi, the Aruch and the Midrash Tanchuma[17] heretical without even acknowledging an equally legitimate counter view by major Rishonim.


It is fundamentally crucial for us to have clarity on whether or not our prime Biblical texts have been tampered with or not.

As we have seen, in Talmudic times (0-500) there were no references to Tikun Sofrim. This implies that at the time it must have been commonly accepted that the Torah texts had never been touched.
Only in post-Talmudic times (as evidenced by the Karaite opposition to Tikun Sofrim during the 900’s) did the debate begin to rage. This came to a head during the period of the Rishonim (1038-1500).
Significantly, though, many of the greatest Rishonim were divided on the issue of (albeit minor) textual tampering.

In recent times, as if the debate of the Rishonim is too controversial for modern minds, some respected contemporary scholarly works choose to obliterate any mention of the concept, never mind the debate.

Whatever one’s view on, or definition of Tikun Sofrim, it must be acknowledged that a great debate ensued within the Torah world over the issue of whether our Primary Texts were subjected to some form of emendation or not.

[1] According to some counts the following are the eighteen instances of Tikunei Sofrim:                  Bereshit 18:22, Bamidbar 11:15, 12:12 (2X), Shmuel 3:13, 16:12, 1 Melachim 12:16, Divrei haYamim 10:16, Yirmiyahu 2:11, Yechezkel 8:17, Hosea4:7, Habakuk 1:11, Zecharia 2:12, Malachi 1:13, Tehillim 106:20, Iyov 7:20, 32:3, Eicha 3:19.
[2] W. Emery Barnes, Ancient Corrections in the Text of the Old Testament, p. 414.
[3] See Avrohom Lieberman, An Analysis of a Masoretic Phenomenon.
[4] 1 Malachim 21:12-13
[5] Bamidbar 11:15
[6] Some editions of Rashi have; ‘I will not see their evil’, referring to the people.
[7] Job 32:3 “ze echad min ha’mekomot she’tiknu soferm et lashon hakatuv.”
[8] Beshalach 16
[9] This would have been around the time of the Second Temple.
[10] Sanhedrin 21a
[11]ein tzorech le’Tikun’haomrim kein yedu mah she’ne’elam mimeni
[12] W. Emery Barnes, Ancient Corrections In the Text of the Old Testament, 1900.
[13] See Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith.
[14] He was the late Rosh haYeshiva of Ner Yisrael. Avrohom Lieberman quotes Prof. Marc Shapiro in Fundamentals and Faith, p. 116. (Emphasis mine.)
[15] Such as the Gutnick edition.
[16] Vayeira, Bereishit 18:22
[17] In fairness there is some debate over whether the Tanchuma (which states that the emendations were done by the Men of The Great Assembly) was authentic or whether a printer was acting disingenuously (as claimed by R. Azariah de Rossi known as Meor Enayim).  Either way, Rashi and the Aruch still held that emendations were made at that time. And this is what should have been pointed out as a legitimate counter view by major Rishonim.

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