Sunday 23 April 2017


Codex Cairensis compiled by Moshe Ben Asher, 895.


Before Moshe passed away he wrote thirteen Torah scrolls. One was given to each of the twelve tribes and the other was deposited in the Sanctuary. The Thirteenth Scroll served as the Master Copy against which all future Torah scrolls were to be checked.

Later this Thirteenth Scroll was placed in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple for safe keeping.
However, during the reign of King Achaz (578-562 B.C. E) there was a campaign to destroy all Torah scrolls, so the Kohanim of the Temple hid this precious Master Copy. 

It was only discovered one hundred years later by King Yoshia (around 458 B.C.E.) who - on threat of imminent invasion and attack on the Temple – hid Moshe’s Thirteenth Torah once again.

It remains hidden and has never been seen since.


After the destruction of the First Temple, during the subsequent seventy years of Babylonian Exile, there was a profound decline in Torah study and it became impossible to find accurate Torah scrolls. Ezra the Scribe then rose to the occasion and wrote a new Torah scroll which replaced Moshe’s Thirteenth Torah and it then served as the second Master Copy.

About four centuries later, just before the Second Temple was destroyed, it was discovered that there were, in fact, three scrolls - with slight variances - and no one knew for certain which one was Ezra’s Master Copy. It was decided to take two of the three scrolls which better matched each other, and that became the basis of the third subsequent Master Scroll.

During the persecutions which took place in the century following the destruction of the Second Temple it again became difficult to find accurate Torah Scrolls. This is why there arose some discrepancies between versions of some verses as recorded in our Torah compared to those same verses as quoted in some sections of the Talmud.


An example of Babylonian supralinear punctuation.

At that time, there were three primary schools of Hebrew text and vocalisation: One was in Babylonia, and another school was in southern Israel.[1] (Both these schools placed the nekudot or markings above the letters. This method of supralinear vocalisation, however, was no longer in popular usage after the eleventh century.)

The third and most authoritative school was in Tiberius which gave rise to the common system of vocalisation that we use today.

Ibn Ezra writes that; ‘The sages of Tiberius are the most accurate of all. From them came all our mesoras (traditions) and vocalisation.’

The Tiberius school was dominated by two families, Ben Naftali and Ben Asher and they had worked on the accuracy of Torah texts for generations. Their slightly different styles are recorded in Sefer haChilufin or Book of Differences. There are 867 differences and some examples follow:[2]

Eventually, a fourth Master Scroll was finally put together in Tiberius, written by Shlomo Ben Buya’a and corrected and annotated by Aaron (ben Moshe) Ben Asher[3] in 920 C.E.  Aaron Ben Asher was the last of five Ben Asher generations who had worked on the texts.[4]

Aaron Ben Asher’s accurate Codex became the basis for the Torah scrolls we use today.

This new Ben Asher Master Scroll was soon deposited in Jerusalem, in the Karaite synagogue where it remained until the First Crusade in 1099 when it was plundered and sold to the rich Jews of Cairo for a huge ransom.

This, now famous, Ben Asher Scroll was actually seen by Rambam (1135-1204) when he was in Cairo, and he wrote about it as follows:

Rambam Hil. Sefer Torah 8:4
Since I found many mistakes in the scrolls, and since there is much divided opinion[5]...The scroll that I relied upon is the well-known scroll found in Egypt...which was in Jerusalem beforehand for many years...This (scroll) was used as the standard text for the correction of Torah scrolls. Everyone relied on it as it had been corrected by Ben Asher himself who spent many years working on it. And I have relied on it for my personal Torah scroll that I wrote.”[6]

The Master Scroll of Ben Asher was later taken to Aleppo in Northern Syria where it became known as the Aleppo Codex.

[The above is a summary of my earlier article on The Aleppo Codex. For more details, see KOTZK BLOG 73) THE ALEPPO CODEX.]


When I first wrote about the Aleppo Codex, I was bothered by the Karaite connection. Why was such an important scroll handed over to the custody of the Karaites sect of Jerusalem?

The Karaites, as opposed to the Rabbanites, were a Jewish group which disregarded the Rabbinical Oral Tradition, and only relied on the literal meaning of the Biblical texts. It must be remembered that they were extremely influential and made up of the more elite and wealthy members of the Jewish community. At one stage they boasted more adherents than the ‘mainstream’ Rabbanites!

The date for the birth of the Karaite movement is usually given as around 770.

Karaism has been described as a ‘Muslim-influenced reform movement within Judaism[7], and initially, the adherents were known as Bnei Mikra, or Children of Scripture.  Karaites, or Kara’im in Hebrew, means: ‘readers of scripture’  –  or ‘people who call’, which again shows an Islamic Shiite influence, where the teacher is known as a da’i, or ‘caller’.[8]

Apparently one of the conditions of the transfer of the Ben Asher Master Scroll to the Karaites in Jerusalem was that they would allow free access to the scroll by the Rabbanites who would also need to peruse it from time to time in order to correct their Sifrei Torah.

I speculated that perhaps the reason why such an important document was given over to the Karaites was because they were known to be particularly concerned about the accuracy of Torah texts because they were literalists who only had the written Torah as their halachic Tradition.

However, upon further research, I discovered that the Karaite connection just wouldn’t go away.
The Ben Asher Scroll was not just housed in Jerusalem ‘for many years’, but it was ransomed by the Karaite Jews of Cairo, and again kept in a Karaite synagogue in that city![9]  



Likutei Kadmoniyot, by Simcha Pinsker 1860

Simcha Pinsker's dedication to his father and teacher, an 'expert Rabbi on Torah, Talmud and Spirituality, proficient at Revealed and  Mystical Wisdom, as well as Secular knowledge'.
Pivotal extract from Simcha Pinsker's Likutei Kadmoniyot.

No one seemed particularly bothered by the apparent Karaite connection until 1860, when Simcha Pinsker published his Likutei Kadmoniyot in which he documented Karaite literature and history. He maintained that, as a general rule, the grammarians of the Gaonic period[10] are usually considered to be Karaites unless there are clear indications that they were involved with Talmudic study. 

This was because the Rabbanites were not overly concerned with textual issues and focussed more of Talmudic issues. Later on, however, the Rabbanites did get more involved in textual matters as a response to the growing popularity of the Karaite movement.

Now people began to wonder whether Aron Ben Asher was perhaps a Karaite, as he doesn’t appear to have featured in the Talmudic world of the Gaonim!


From the Cairo Geniza fragments found in 1896, it appears that the Ben Asher family may have been a well known Karaite family extending back a number of generations, who were preoccupied with the preservation of accurate texts.

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) known for his fierce debates with the Karaites,
published a work known as “Elrad Aleeh Ben Asher” or “A Polemic on Ben Asherreferring rather critically to a certain 'Ben Asher'. However, no one connected him to the famed Aaron Ben Asher of the (later to be known) Aleppo Codex - until the relatively recent discoveries in the Cairo Geniza in 1896:

One of Rav Saadia Gaon’s students, Yaakov Ben Shmuel mentions five names of Karaites with whom his teacher was arguing against, and who were living in Egypt at that time. One of them was a certain Abu Altaib Algabli whose Hebrew name was Shmuel Ben Asher.

In the Cairo Geniza, a fragment was discovered by Max L. Margolis, which identified Shmuel Ben Asher as one of the leaders of Karaite Community of Cairo!

Although not conclusive, this is taken by many as a strong indication that the Ben Asher family may have been Karaites.


Another indication that Aaron Ben Asher may have been a Karaite can be seen in a quote from his Sefer Dikdukei haTe'amim which reads:

"The prophets...complete the Torah, and are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah."

This sentence may previously have been overlooked as an innocuous statement, but after Simcha Pinsker’s publication and the Cairo Geniza findings, it may support the notion that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite - as Karaites certainly do 'decide law from the Torah' (as opposed to the Rabbinical interpretation of the Torah which relies on the Oral Tradition of the Talmud).

This is not an entirely compelling argument as the Rabbinites also base their Law on the Torah, although, because of the Oral Tradition, with more latitude and less literalism.

The interesting thing though, is that Ben Asher’s manuscripts containing his Sefer Dikdukei haTe’amim were similarly kept by Karaites, in Crimea[11]. This suggests a sense of Karaite ownership of all the Ben Asher texts (his Codex and his other writings)!

Another support for the view that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite is that his contemporaries referred to him by the title haMelamed, or teacher. This was a common honorary title used by Karaites but not by Rabbanites. (Some counter that he actually was a teacher of children as well, which accounts for him being called a melamed.)


I then found something very interesting, which may have relevance to our discussion:

There exists another slightly earlier Codex, known as the Cairo Prophets Codex (or Codex Cairensis) which was written according to its colophon[12], by Moshe Ben Asher – the father of Aaron Ben Asher.

This Codex, which was written in 895,[13] is not as complete as the Aleppo Codex of his son, as it only contains the Books of the Prophets (whereas the Aleppo Codex originally contained the entire Tanach).

Cairo Prophets Codex or Codex Cairensis compiled by Moshe Ben Asher, 895.

What is interesting is that the story of the Cairo Prophets Codex  almost exactly parallels the story of the Aleppo Codex:

It was similarly presented to the Karaite community in Jerusalem – it was also plundered by First Crusades in 1099 - and it was also later redeemed by the Karaite community of Cairo!

While there does appear to be some controversy regarding the Cairo Prophets Codex’s dating, if the colophon is to be believed, this would be further evidence of a Ben Asher/Karaite connection to another very important Codex, perhaps showing a precedent for Karaites as custodians of important Biblical texts.


Not everyone is happy with this alleged Karaite connection to the Ben Asher family:

One of the reasons why some take issue with the notion that Ben Asher may have been a Karaite, is that it was popularised by the secular historian, Graetz[14] who endorsed Simcha Pinsky’s theory. (I’ll leave it up to the Reader to decide if there is merit in that argument.)

Aron Dotan suggests that the ‘Ben Asher’ who is the target in Rav Saadia Gaon’s polemic was indeed another Ben Asher who was a Karaite, but it was not Aaron Ben Asher.[15]

Some say that there is no evidence of Karaite communities living in Tiberius ‘at any time’, and that the major immigration of Karaites was directed mainly towards Jerusalem. It therefore ‘does not seem reasonable’ that before this immigration took place there was already an established family of learned Karaite grammarians living in Tiberius.[16]



If Aaron Ben Asher indeed was a Karaite, it would create an astounding halachic conundrum because Karaites fall into a category known as minim, or heretics. The law is that if a Sefer Torah is written by a min, it is to be burned!

Does this mean that we have to burn the Ben Asher Master Copy?[17]

Perhaps this difficulty could be resolved by pointing out the Aleppo Codex was never intended to be used as a kosher Torah. It was written in book (as opposed to a rolled scroll) form and also contains notes and nekudot (vowel vocalisation), something a Torah scroll does not have. It is more of a Technical Manual and Text Book than a Torah Scroll.

Therefore it does not have to be burned.


Rambam (who like Rav Saadia Gaon, also debated - but more amicably - with the Karaites) was known to have had quite good relations with the Karaite community, and we know that he endorsed Ben Asher's Torah.

Rambam wrote:

Jews should show the Karaites the honour due to every human long as they deal sincerely with the traditional Jews...We should circumcise their children even on Shabbat...Since we must practice the commandment of brotherly love towards non-Jews, then how much more so to the Karaites. We are allowed to enjoy their wine, for they are not idolaters.”

So Rambam seemed to place Karaites in a halachic category very close to that of the Traditional Jews, and may not have had issues with Ben Asher because he was perceived as having ‘dealt sincerely’ with Rabbanites, and was therefore deemed trustworthy.

However, in his Commentary to the Mishna and his Mishneh Torah, Rambam does refer to Karaites as minim, or heretics!

One could answer that Rambam does distinguish between various types of Karaites, because he writes in a responsum that:

The Karaites who live in Alexandria, Cairo and Damascus should be treated with respect and approached with honesty (i.e. they can be trusted).”

Accordingly, Rambam may have trusted certain Karaites including particularly Aaron Ben Asher.


Moreover, even from the wording Rambam used in his Mishneh Torah (quoted earlier on) referring to the ‘well known text in Egypt which had previously been in Jerusalem for many years which was used by everyone to check their texts’ – ‘everyone’ would have known that both in Egypt and in Jerusalem the Ben Asher Codex was housed in Karaite synagogues!

And the Karaite synagogue was situated ‘within shouting distance’ of the Rabbanite synagogues in Cairo, which means that there would have been no secrets regarding the origins of the text - nor where the text was housed.

This would imply that ‘everyone’ must have known of some Karaite connection, at least relating to the housing if not to the writing of the Ben Asher Codex.


The debate over whether Aaron Ben Asher was a Karaite or not, only came to the fore after 1860 when Simcha Pinsker published his Likutei Kadmoniyot. It then intensified a few decades later after the discovery of the Cairo Geniza fragments which appeared to link Aaron Ben Asher to the Ben Asher criticised by Rav Saadia Gaon in his polemic.

But there does not appear to have been any debate on Ben Asher’s credentials during the 900 years prior to the late 1800s. This makes the debate a rather recent one. But that should not take away from the merits of the debate.

Assuming the Ben Asher family was indeed a known clan of influential and scholarly Karaites, it is absolutely astounding that our most critical Master Scroll was collated and edited by them.

To think that our Sifrei Torah today are textually derived from Karaite sources, would be difficult for many to comprehend.

If this is true, the question begs:

- Was Rambam ignorant of the apparent origins of the Master Scroll which he endorsed?

- Or was he aware of its origins yet confident enough to rely on the Karaites regardless, because they (some) Karaites were known to be experts and particular about the accuracy of their texts?

Whatever the answer, it does make for a fascinating study to think that our final Master Copy of the Torah text which we use today, came from Aaron Ben Asher who may indeed have been a Karaite!


A New Ben Asher Manuscript, by Moshe Haberman. Hakira vol. 21.

Ben Asher’s Creed – A Study of the Controversy, by Aron Dotan.

Sacred Trash – The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.

A History of Palestine, 634-1099, by Moshe Gil.

[1] In the school of southern Israel, surviving manuscripts show the segol and tzere, the kametz and patach, are all used interchangeably, suggesting a pronunciation similar to modern Israeli Hebrew.
[2] Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, by Emanuel Tov, p. 44.
[3] Also known as Abu Sa’id in Arabic.
[4] The Ben Asher family began their textual work from the mid-700s.  For comparison, this was the same time as the Karaite movement was started by Anan ben David (715-795).
[5] Particularly regarding the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ sections. Some read the Mishneh Torah as Rambam endorsing only the 'open and closed sections and the songs' and nothing else!
[6] Laws of Sefer Torah, ch. 8. Hal. 4
[7] See Sacred Trash, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, p. 153.
[8]Ironically, in their attempt to return to a pure, unadulterated Judaism, the Karaites ended up - in ways they could not have anticipated – introducing the contemporary Arabic intellectual and religious Zeitgeist into the bloodstream of Hebraic culture, as they drew both the inspiration and technique for this linguistic inquiry from the Islamic context in which they lived.
Nowhere is that irony more pronounced than in the association between ‘marginal’ Karaites and the Masoretes – the eighth- and ninth-century Tiberian scholars who standardised the biblical text...“  See Sacred Trash, ibid. p. 158.
[9] For more discussion on whether the synagogue in Cairo was Karaite or Rabbanite, see A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 180. There is some debate over whether some of the colophons of the Aleppo Codex were forgeries in favour of either the Karites or Rabbanites.
[10] Gaonic Period (589 – 1038 CE).
[11] See A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 179.
[12] Colophon definition: ‘Publisher's emblem or imprint, usually on the title page of a book'.
[13] However, according to the Hebrew University Bible project it is dated as from the 11th century, and is not ascribed to Moshe Ben Asher.
[14] Graets wrote this around 1870, which was about ten years after Simcha Pinsky.
[15] See Ben Asher’s Creed, by A. Dotan.
[16] See A History of Palestine, by Moshe Gil, p. 182.
[17] Ironically enough, there are allegations of the scroll being burned while still in Aleppo during the uprising of 1948, as well as other allegations.


  1. You write, Just before the second Temple was destroyed it was discovered there were three scrolls in the Ark. How was this discovered, as there was no Ark in the Second Temple?

  2. Nice point. I used the word 'Ark'the same way as one would refer to the 'Ark' in a modern Shull where the Torah is kept.
    But I take your point, and will ammend the text accordingly. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for the article.
    Teshuvot haRambam mentions that Karaites are not minim but rather like Baitusim and Tzadukim.
    Recently read that R Shneur Zalman of Liadi in Likkutei Torah ,Behar, accounts for the missing letters in the Torah of 600000 to be those silent letters following a vowel "osiyos hemshech".
    Was there ever a complete Torah? Are vowels for shorthand purposes?

    1. You say that “[since] Rambam seemed to place Karaites in a halachic category very close to that of the Traditional Jews, and may not have had issues with Ben Asher because he was perceived as having ‘dealt sincerely’ with Rabbanites, and was therefore deemed trustworthy”.
      Rambam makes a difference between the leaders of the sect which his Beit Din pursued and put to death in Egypt (as he writes in his Epistle), and the people they misled which have to be treated compassionately and redeemed.
      In dealing with the death penalty, the Halacha does take into account the Karaite’s interpretation of the law, because in this case the AIM of the Beit Din is to extend as far as possible reasons to avoid the death penalty and that is a wonderful thing. But it is an exception. Rambam would not rely on a Karaite’s scroll to copy his own and that testifies that Ben Asher was not a Karaite. The scroll of a Karaite (one who denies the Oral Law) is to be put in a Gniza (R. Kappach).
      And you ask:
      “Was Rambam ignorant of the apparent [Karaite] origins of the Master Scroll which he endorsed?”
      Of course not, since he testifies it is the scroll “everybody” in Eretz Israel and the surroundings copied from - and by saying so, he confirms the tradition that was kept from generation to generation among the Sages of Israel. Mordechai Broyer (ברויאר) shows this was not the case for the communities who were far from Eretz Israel, and somewhat deviated from the tradition.
      In short, Rambam testifies that Ben Asher was not a Karaite.