Sunday 28 July 2019





Rabbi Levi ben Avraham ben Chaim (1245-1315) was a southern French rationalist who followed the ways of Rambam (1135-1204) and like his exemplar, he too was persecuted for his views.

He was the grandfather of R. Levi ben Gershon, also known as Gersonides or Ralbag (1288-1344).

R. Levi ben Avraham’s[1] mastery of Torah study should not be underestimated, as according to Yehudah Mosconi in his supercommentary on Ibn Ezra, R. Levi was regarded as one of the most prominent scholars of his time.

Besides being a Torah scholar, he was particularly interested in science and astronomy, and later championed a synthesis between Torah and secular study. Unfortunately for him, this occurred during the height of the anti-Maimonidean controversies of 1304-1305, when Rashba (R. Shlomo ben Aderet) issued a ban against Rambam’s philosophical writings.
The ban was directed against:
“...any member of the [Barcelona] community who, being under the age of 25 years, shall study the works of the Greeks on natural science or metaphysics [a veiled reference to Rambam’s philosophy][2], whether in the original language or in translation.”[3]

The Rashba’s ban, originally intended only for Barcelona, also included a prohibition against any allegorical interpretations of the Torah until the age of 25.

Rashba tried to get the rabbis of Southern France to officially enact the same ban as he had instituted in Barcelona, because: “[t]he [Jewish] people are split in two [as a result of the Maimonidean rationalists].[4] 

This ban, in the form of a letter, was dramatically read out by R. Abba Mari on a Shabbat morning in a synagogue in Montpellier (Southern France) on Erev Rosh haShana in 1304. And R. Levi ben Avraham was singled out as one of its chief targets.

An objection was immediately raised by R. Yaakov Ibn Tibbon, and chaos and confusion ensued in the synagogue and the community.

When the Jews of Southern France refused to accept such a ban, Rashba himself imposed it directly on them, going over the heads of their own rabbinic leadership.[5]

Within days of the issue of the ban, a group of enraged southern French rabbis excommunicated Abba Mari (who also hailed from southern France) for recruiting and inciting Rashba against them. In response, Abba Mari excommunicated them.

In all this chaos, R. Levi ben Avraham remained the centre of Rashba’s attention. Why was he singled out for such persecution?


Geographically, much of the opposition to Rambam was based in Northern France and Germany which was a stronghold for the (often mystical) Baalei haTosafot. Supporters of Rambam, however, were generally based in Provence located in Southern France. This unfortunately created a vicious north and south divide.

[For more on the conflict, see Maimonidean Controversies Part I and Part II.]


Before Rashba’s ban was issued, Levi ben Avraham had been staying with the wealthy Shmuel haSulami[6] in Narbonne in Southern France, but immediately after the ban became known, Shmuel felt pressured to expel his guest from his home.

The Rashba, in a letter to Levi ben Avraham, gave him the option either to solely occupy himself with Talmud and reject secular studies - or face excommunication. R. Levi chose to continue his secular studies and was soon excommunicated.

Being poverty struck, R. Levi then went to stay with his father-in-law until the Rashba wrote to his new host who was forced to expel him for the second time.

This despite the fact that R. Levi was: “very reserved and was communicative only to those who shared his views.[7]


According to a communication between Don Crescas Vidal and Rashba, Crescas was amazed that Rashba attacked R. Levi ben Avraham because:

What novelty is now in their land [of southern France][8], in the camp of the Hebrews, that has not long been, that they now bring their case before [you, Rashba] the judge? What do those who slander this country say such that [their countrymen] might be called the first to study philosophy and non-Jewish works? From long ago until now they have grown up with a mixture of [holy books and] the books of the Greeks.”

This appeal had no effect on Rashba and continued relentlessly:

 “Regarding the books that any one of those among them wrote, we judge its owner a heretic and the books as the books of the magicians. They and anyone who owns them stand in excommunication until they burn them completely and no longer mention their name [contents].”[9]


Rationalists lean towards allegorization while mystics lean towards mysticization. It is not clear if any mystics were ever condemned for over-mysticization[10] but R. Levi was certainly hounded for his strong tendency to rationalize and to allegorize. He took his cue from Rambam who believed that it was necessary, for example, to allegorize all the scriptural references to G-d having a body.

It is interesting to note that according to Rabbi Shmuel of Marseilles, most of the rabbis of Northern France were of the belief that G-d comprised some type of bodily form or corporeality.[11]

Rashba was fanatically opposed to the allegorists or darshanim of his time, writing that:
“Let the spirits of these people be snuffed out, and may a fire that never dies consume them. May their forms flit about in Sheol [hell][12], for the merit of the Patriarchs is insufficient to redeem them.”

Rashba wrote specifically of Levi ben Avraham:   
“A Mohammedan is far dearer to me than this man...

[who] is not ashamed to say openly that Abraham and the other patriarchs have ceased to exist as real personages and that their places have been filled by philosophical concepts...
Levi and his adherents are enemies not only of Judaism, but of every positive religion.” [13]

The attack got even more graphic:

“The other nations would punish them as heretics,
For even just one of the things - the corrupt teaching - that they write in their books!
If any [Christian or Muslim] would say that Abraham and Sarah represent Form and Matter,
They would put him on the pyre and burn him to lime!”

This was nothing new because a generation earlier, R. Yona Gerondi (the teacher of Rashba) went to the Christians – first the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:
“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[15]

So too now, it was hoped that by presenting red meat to the non-Jewish base, they would take care of people like R. Levi ben Avraham in an appropriate manner.[16]

A.S. Halkin describes R. Levi as follows:

“Undoubtedly Levi indulges extensively, - one might say: excessively – in allegorization.”[17]

According to R. Levi ben Avraham, the entire biblical Flood story, for example, was also about a flood or overpopulation of humans who did not indulge in intellectual pursuits and the Ark and all its details were woven into an intricate tapestry indicating how man can indeed rise above the floodwaters of debased humanity.

(It should be noted that Mystical and Chassidic interpretations of various biblical events and personalities also indulge in extreme allegorization, albeit in a Kabbalistic or Sefirotic sense. Thus Avraham, for example, relates to the attribute of Chessed etc.)

According to Minchat Kena’ot, some of the southern French rationalists were indeed quite outspoken, and he refers to them as ‘youths’:

“[One of the darshanim] announced in a loud voice that anyone who believes that the sun actually stood still in the time of Joshua is making a mistake, a fool who believes in any impossible thing.”[18]  


In fairness though, R. Levi, aware of perhaps a fundamental and radical form of over-allegorization taking hold, often introduced his allegorical interpretations with the statement:

Although the literal meaning is undoubtedly true, however, the words of Torah take on several meanings, being like a sledge-hammer which splits a rock.

Regarding the Revelation at Sinai, R. Levi writes:

Moses saw things clearly, without parable or riddle...Therefore those who convert the miracles or the precepts and laws into symbols, and discover illegitimate meanings in the Torah are heretics and Epicurians, and alter the words of the living God.[19]


It should be pointed, however, out that Rashba did not have firsthand knowledge of R. Levi’s writings, and acknowledged that he based his impressions on hearsay.[20]


Nevertheless, Rashba was joined by R. Abba Mari (who recorded 127 letters of correspondence in his Minchat Kena’ot, or Offerings of Zeal.[21]) and Rosh who all declared R. Levi to be an apostate.

R. Abba Mari was also concerned that the allegorists had gone too far. Although he rarely mentioned any of the allegorists by name, he wrote:

“They have nearly stripped all the literal meanings from the Torah and displayed her naked.”

The Rosh wrote:

“It is known to Your Honor that it was with unhappiness that I signed this document [of cherem]. How could I sign that they not study it until the age of twenty-five, thus implying that after twenty five I am permitting it, while in fact I believe it is prohibited to study it at all in this generation. But, it is only not to discourage others from signing that I signed.”[22]


R. Levi ben Avraham did not act or write in isolation but was part of a French group of followers of Rambam which included R. Moshe ben Shmuel Ibn Tibon[23], R. Yaakov Antuli, R. Yitzchak de Lattes, and of course his grandson, the Ralbag. He was also praised by the Meiri and Yedaya Bedarshi.[24]


In Yedaya Bedarshi’s letter to Rashba in defence of Levi ben Avraham, he says that he investigated the matter and found that the accusation was based on a misunderstanding of the role of a darshan (allegorist) and that even when an allegorical interpretation is presented it does not exclude the literal meaning. He goes on to quote a principle from Rambam[25] that where a literal meaning is quite tenable, there is no need to seek out an allegorical interpretation.

Rashba, however, wasn’t convinced. Instead, he furthermore claimed that R. Levi did not believe in any miracles. When he was informed that the only miracle he denied was the Talmudic[26] claim that the letters in the Ten Commandments were suspended in air, Rashba responded that this was sufficient to prove that he denied all the other miracles as well.[27] 

R. Levi claimed that small supporting stone braces prevented the middle of the mem and samech from falling out of the carved tablets of stone.

Yedaya Bedarshi implored the Rashba to withdraw his ban against studying Rambam. He pleaded with him to understand that the only reason the Christians and Moslems of his time respected the Jews, was because they were intelligent in matters of science and philosophy which they had also learned particularly from the Rambam’s influential Moreh Nevuchim.

Yedaya Bedarshi wrote:

“And despite their [the non-Jewish][28] hatred of us, they are not ashamed to admit the truth. And out of respect for him [Rambam], they even show honor to those Jews who identify with his works. How can we rise up and estrange ourselves from this honor and the source that remains to us and our Torah as protection from disrespect amongst the nations and our enemies who insult Israel and attribute to us ignorance of all knowledge and of all truth?
How can G-d cause us to act foolishly, to destroy from our midst, and to the benefit of our enemies, that residue of truth and honor that has remained with us? There can be no greater profanation of the Name than this.”[29]


Asher Bentzion Buchman explains what he considers to be the real reason for the ban, and it relates to the ongoing conflict between the mystics and the rationalists:

“Rashba, a master of kabbalah...therefore exhorts the scholars of Provence [who were followers of Rambam’s rationalism][30] who have immersed themselves in science and philosophy to turn instead to the true wisdom of kabbalah to understand the secrets of the Torah.”


The fact is that it was the collator of Minchat Kena’ot, Abba Mari himself, who pressured Rashba to issue his anti-Maimonidean ban. Rashba is recorded in Minchat Kena’ot as saying that there were three rabbis in Provence who were ‘endangering the survival of the Torah.’[31]  

However, although R. Levi ben Avraham wrote a letter in defence of himself to Rashba, his
letter was never published. Only Rashba’s response was published!

Nor did R. Abba Mari publish the arguments against the ban which were presented by the Meiri![32]


The mystics wanted nothing to do with the rabbis of Southern France and according to Asher Benzion Buchman:

It seems that for centuries the works of the followers of Rambam in Provence vanished from the public scene; only in this century was the invaluable work of Meiri published for the first time. Was this a result of the cherem of 1305?”[33]


Halkin concludes his textual study of Levi ben Avraham’s various writings with the following observation:

“[A] grave injustice has been done to Levi ben branding him a heretic, a seducer and a subverter. His love for his faith, coupled with his admiration for philosophy, impelled him, as it did his fellow intellectuals, to strive zealously to demonstrate that Judaism contains all wisdom, nay, that it is the mother of all the learning which is now the proud possession of others.”

According to Dr Gregg Stern:

“There is nothing hateful or antinomian about the interpretations of this Jewish community [of southern France][34]; they are quite Maimonidean. It is striking to see that – in the shadow of Maimonides – Rashba mistook the philosophic interpretation of the Commandments as antinomian.”


This article dealt with the systematic elimination of Maimonidean thought in Provence, Southern France, in the early 1300s.

However, within significant circles of religious Judaism today, there still exists a strong opposition to reading secular literature and even to studying Maimonides’ philosophical writings. [See Halachic Attitudes Towards Secular Studies, and Secular Education – A Great Divide.]

Asher Benzion Buchman writes that even today, there are: “...rabbis who are idolized in certain circles [who] utter such phrases as ‘the Rambam could say it; we cannot.’ 

In other words what Rambam wrote 850 years ago is too religiously controversial for our sensitive modern minds today.

Rambam’s philosophical teachings continue to be subverted precisely at a time when this generation of searchers from without, and especially from within the religious community, need them more than at any other time in Jewish history.

Buchman pleads, as the history of suppression of Maimonidean thought continues to repeat itself:

Let us hope that [the silenced voice of][35] Provence is poised to rise again.”



Rashba used a metaphor to describe how the rationalists of France were behaving: “They have taken foreign women into their homes and cast aside the daughter of Yehudah.” (Minchat Kena’ot. no. 20.)

Buchman comments:  
“According to Rambam’s approach, such a metaphor would be totally inappropriate...the other wisdoms are the wisdoms that were once known by Torah scholars and are part of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereishis. All wisdom is part of the same whole...These wisdoms are a part of Torah itself.”

It is interesting to see that even R. Abba Mari was not comfortable with Rashba’s analogy of the ‘foreign woman’ being applied to secular wisdom. He believed the ‘foreign women’ analogy should only apply to absolute heresy - and he wrote to Rashba for clarification which apparently never came.

R. Levi, basing himself on classical Maimonidean thought, maintained that knowledge of science and philosophy was originally held by the Jews but then became the province of the Gentiles. He writes that: “The sons of Japhet adorned themselves with the learning they took from Shem and the Hebrews.” And that this knowledge was then forgotten by its originators. (See R. Levi’s Batte haNefesh ve’haLechashim.)

R. Levi and the followers of Rambam believed they were restoring a component of Torah to its rightful owners.

[1] He is also referred to sometimes as Levi ben Chaim.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Responsa of Rashba 1, no. 416. See Avraham and Sarah in Provence, by Asher Bentzion Buchman. 
[4] Minchat Kena’ot p. 730.
[5] Minchat Kena’ot p. 734.
[6] Also known as Samuel l’Escaleta. Meiri praised R. Shmuel as being one of great Halachists of southern France.
[7] Minchat Kena’ot, no. 121.
[8] Parenthesis mine. Translation Dr Gregg Stern.
[9] Minchat Kena’ot p. 737. Translation Dr Gregg Stern.
[10] Besides the opponents to Hagshamah (the belief that G-d has a body), although not to the same vitriolic extent.
[11]rov chachmei tzorfat magshimim
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Minchat Kena’ot, no 14.
[14] Minchat Kena’ot p. 412. Translation by Dr. Gregg Stern: Allegorizers of the Torah and Story of their Persecution in Languedoc (1305).
[15] Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).
[16] Minchat Kena’ot p. 383.
[17] Why Was Levi ben Hayyim Hounded, by A.S. Halkin.
[18] Minchat Kena’ot p. 408.
[19] Translation by A.S. Henkin.
[20] Rashba admits this in one of his letters which is published in Minchat Kena’ot (Shut haRashba).
[21] R. Abba Mari explains why he compiled his Minchat Kena’ot: “I became enraged with zeal for the Lord, God of Israel when I saw a man of the Holy Seed defiling himself with ‘the food of the gentiles,’ destroying the narrative of the Torah [with allegory], while she had no one to inquire and save [her].” (MK p. 225.)
[22] Ibid. Avraham and Sarah in Provence.
[23] He was from the famous Ibn Tibbon family who translated, amongst other writings, Rambam’s Arabic writings into Hebrew.
[24] In the latter’s Iggeret Hitnatzlut.
[25] Moreh Nevuchim 2:25
[26] Shabbat 104a.
[27] Minchat Kena’ot , no. 42.
[28] Parenthesis mine.
[29] Yedaya Bedarshi’s letter to Rashba, translated by Asher Benzion Buchman.
[30] Parenthesis mine.
[31] Minchat Kena’ot, nos. 50, 94, 105.
[32] R. Levi’s unpublished letter is lost but Meiri’s letter still survives.
[33] Ibid. Avraham and Sarah in Provence.
[34] Parenthesis mine.
[35] Parenthesis mine.

Sunday 21 July 2019


Handwritten commentary by the Baruch Taam.
Recently a handwritten text by R. Baruch Teomim Frankel - also known as Baruch Taam[1] (1760-1828) - was discovered.

The text comprises thousands of his commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. The interesting thing is that it differs, in dozens of instances, from the printed version of his same text.

This is not an isolated instance where somehow the original text gets distorted and interpolated in the process of printing. And this occurred relatively recently - during the 1800s - but as we go further back into history we see the effects of this type of distortion even more acutely.

In this article, we will take an inside look at how handwritten rabbinic manuscripts were copied and transmitted during the Middle Ages. I draw largely but not exclusively from a paper by Professor of Codicology and Palaeography, Malachi Beit-Arié.[2]


In the first nine printed editions of Rashi, for example, not one of them is identical to the other! 

Rabbi Dr Shnayer Leiman illustrates just how variant the early printed versions of Rashi were, by comparing nine early editions of the first printings of Rashi on the same verse:


One may have thought that a simple solution would have been to consult earlier handwritten manuscripts of Rashi to ascertain which editions were more accurate - but the manuscripts were themselves even more subject to variations. [See And What Does Rashi Say?]

One advantage which the printed texts had was that if an author wished to update or change his first edition, he could simply produce a second edition. With manuscripts, however, the author had little or no control over his texts once they were copied.

There is evidence that - before the completion of an author’s entire work - sections of it would have already been copied and distributed. This is why often an author would suggest a correction to an earlier section, which is something he wouldn’t have suggested had the work been presented as a whole, because then he could have made the amendment himself. This indicates that an author had very little control over his writings once the copyists had gotten hold of them.

Here are some examples brought by Beit-Arie’:

Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) was aware of the distortion following in the wake of actions by manuscript copyists. He appealed to readers to check and emend his copied texts in instances where the content was presented inaccurately by the copyists. Of course this process would open a proverbial can of worms as he would have little or no control over what changes were made.


The grammarian Yona ibn Yanach (990-1055) writes in his Sefer haShorashim that he wanted to make an amendment to an earlier section but that section had already been copied and disseminated.


R. Levi ben Avraham’s (1245-1315)[3] writes in his colophon[4] to his Livyat Chen, that he made numerous corrections after some of the copyists had already begun to copy his text. He appeals to all who have those copies to correct them according to his updated version, or to replace the older copies with newer ones.

Two hundred years later, R. Yitzchak Stein wrote a commentary on the Semag or Sefer Mitzvot Gadol[5]. This commentary, in manuscript form, was copied and edited by his son in 1506. His son wrote that his father’s original copy had commentaries on almost every paragraph of the Semag, which his father intended to edit at some later stage. However, copies were made of the unedited text which was not finalized, without R. Stein even being aware of it.


These examples show that during the Middle Ages intellectual ownership of a text was different from the modern conception of such ownership which is far more controlled. During the Middle Ages it appears that there was the idea of ‘collective ownership’ of all Hebrew texts.

As Beit-Arié puts it:
“This...may also explain the editorial freedom exercised by scribes in reproducing texts...”

Scribes could freely emend (correct) and sometimes even amend (change) texts and such practices were not infrequent nor were they considered untoward - and were often even encouraged. In some instances, the scribes had such freedom that they may be defined more like editors than copyists.

Rambam writes in his Guide for the Perplexed, that: “I have divided it into chapters, each of which shall be sent to you as soon as it is completed.”[6] This again indicates that texts often were copied before the entire work was completed, and before the author could edit it with a full overview.

Rambam was very concerned that his texts be copied accurately, especially as he was known to fastidiously correct and re-correct his writings (particularly his commentary on the Mishna). He provides us with the only surviving example of an ‘authorized’ master version, or exemplar, from which future scribes could copy from. 

He took the unusual step to attach his signature to a section of his Mishneh Torah indicating that this was his final version. This Authorized Version with his signature is housed at the Bodleian Library.

Generally, though, it was uncommon for authors to authorize their works and instead copies were usually made without the consent or even the knowledge of the author.



In the non-Jewish world, up until the middle of the 1200s, Latin texts were copied and distributed by formal institutions such as scriptoria which were specifically set aside within monasteries for the copying of texts.


From the middle of the 1200s, with the rise of the universities, a process was established whereby a pecia or ‘piece’ of text was deemed to be accurate and authoritative for their students. Scribes were then hired to make copies, which became known as apopecia

The copying process became quite scientific as each authorized text was divided into smaller pieces, and each small piece was copied by a designated scribe. This scribal ‘production line’ proved to be quicker than one scribe copying an entire manuscript by himself.


Beit-Arié describes the difference between the process of copying Hebrew and Latin texts as follows:

“...Hebrew medieval books were not produced by the intellectual establishments, or upon their initiative, whether in religious, academic or secular institutional copying centers, but privately and individually.

A medieval Jew who wished to obtain or use a copy of a certain book would either purchase it from a private owner or hire a professional or semi-professional scribe to produce a copy for him, or he would copy the book himself...

While the institutional and centralized nature of Latin book production involved control and standardization of the texts produced, no authoritative supervision was involved in the transmission of Hebrew texts.”


While Hebrew texts did not emanate from formally controlled establishments, there emerged, however, a form of de facto ‘self-regulatory’ accuracy markers within the scribal community. That was attained to some degree by determining which category of scribe copied the text. 

There were two main categories of scribes: The professional or hired scribe and the scholar who copied the text for himself.

The hired scribe would have been more careful about copying just what he was paid to copy and did not usually try to change or correct the text. He produced the most accurate copies, but would also have reproduced and perpetuated mistakes in the original text because he was simply paid ‘to copy’.

On the other hand, the talmid chacham or scholar who produced the text for his own study and not necessarily to be part of the textual transmission process, would not have hesitated to ‘correct’ the text and to make ‘necessary’ changes.


The information as to which category of scribe copied a particular text is found in the colophons (copyist’s emblems) which are appended to the texts.

According to the Hebrew Palaeography Project, the number of extant Hebrew manuscripts numbers around four thousand. Of these, just over half were manuscripts produced by private owners or scholars for their own personal use. The more accurate manuscripts produced by professionally hired scribes, however, numbers just less than half.

The irony is that while these numbers show the extent of Jewish scholarship, they unfortunately also indicate less accurate texts.

Beit-Arié explains that a similar phenomenon existed within the Muslim world as well, where most of their manuscripts were not from hired professional scribes but rather from scholar scribes. This, despite the fact that their scholars were advised to either hire professional scribes, or to buy books, rather than copy the manuscripts themselves.


Both hired and private scribes were aware of their fallibility and many of them included appeals for forgiveness for any errors, in their colophons. They appealed to readers to correct the mistakes - which shows that they too were aware that their texts may have become somewhat corrupted. 

However, this acknowledgement was usually only the case in places in the Near East such as Yemen, as opposed to Italy, Northern France and Germany where this was not common practice. 

Instead these European scribes typically blamed their source material, the pressure of workload, poor working conditions and basic poverty, for any errors.

Beit-Arie’ cites an example of an Ashkenazi siddur copied around the 1300s. The copyist writes in his colophon:

“He who is going to curse me while reading this prayer book, the fault is mine and not mine, since I copied it from an erroneous exemplar. Furthermore, I was forced [to copy it], for I sold this prayer book, and having been hired, I was not able to pay attention to its essence.”


According to Sefer Chassidim, the copying of Hebrew texts was a job reserved for those who were incapable of studying even simple Torah and Aggadah. The wages of a copyist was lower than those of basic skilled workers.

Professor Yaakov Spiegel writes that the people of Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany) were known to have taken great liberties when it came to copying texts, even those of the Talmud itself and “the possibility of losing the original texts of these works was a genuine fear.”[7]

This was obviously an issue because Rabbenu Gershom (950-1028) - who lived in Mainz, Germany and who headed the Ashkenaz community - felt motivated to issue a decree that no one should add to or ‘correct’ a text they were copying.

Apparently, the copyists did not heed his decree.


The decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was primarily directed against the European Jewish scholars. However, in stark contrast were the Yemenite scholars who were known for their fastidiousness in textual accuracy.  


One European copyist who stands out as an exception to the rule was Yosef ben Eliezer of Spain, who, in the late 1300s, wrote ‘the scribes apology’. In it, he mentioned that his exemplar (a supercommentary on Ibn Ezra) was full of mistakes. In some cases, he felt that the author’s views did not make sense and he interpolated his own views instead - but this was noted and covered by his ‘apology’, a practice he encouraged other scribes to engage in as well.


The private or scholar scribe, on the other hand, viewed it as his sacred duty to correct and even edit the copy he was reproducing, and often he would make use of multiple source texts - exemplars - which differed from each other.

Yekutiel ben Meshulam, who copied Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary in 1312, mentions that he made use of two different exemplars.

Ibn Sancho copied Ein haKoreh from five variant exemplars.

A copy of the Aruch was made in 1444 by a copyist who used two exemplars, one long and one short, and both of which he declares were inaccurate.

Beit-Arie’ writes:

“These and other colophons imply that many late medieval copies, particularly those produced for private use, were actually eclectic editions, in which different versions and reading were intermingled and merged by a critical process which included not only selecting readings but also emending and completing, usually without providing an apparatus criticus. Such copies involved, in effect, recreating the text.”


The Leiden Codex of 1289, a manuscript copy of the Jerusalem Talmud which served as the basis for the first printed version of its publication by Daniel Bomberg in 1523, is as an example of how easy it was for mistakes to occur.

This important manuscript was copied by R. Yechiel ben Yekutiel haRofeh.

“For codicological reasons Yehiel copied twice the text of one folio, in large format. I. Z. Feintuch, who compared the text of the two parallel leaves and analysed the differences between them, found at least fifty disagreements in the seventy-six duplicated lines!”

Fifty disparate versions in seventy-six lines is hardly comforting for an ‘authorised’ printed edition of the Yerushalmi.

[To read how more accurate sections of the Talmud Yerushalmi were recently discovered, see The Italian Geniza.]


Beit-Arie’ cites Kantorowicz who encapsulates the unique attitude of some rabbinic scholars who generally wanted to create what they considered to be a ‘richtige’ or ‘correct’ version rather than an ‘eghter’ or ‘authentic’ version of a text. 

Of course, the criteria for determining a ‘correct’ version of any text will differ from person to person in the absence of formal objective norms and standards.


Beit-Arie’ concludes:

“Therefore, many principles and practices of classical textual criticism, such as the establishing of genetic relationships between manuscripts, stemmatic classification, the reconstruction of archetypes and the restoration of the original, are not applicable to Hebrew manuscripts, not only because many of these represent horizontal rather than vertical transmission and so provide us with open recensions, but also because their texts may have been affected by the intervention of learned copyists.

Thus, contrary to common belief, medieval verbal texts were not fixed once they were written down.” 

This being the case, he asks, then, whether we should not just abandon these texts, especially the later ones, because of their unstable nature? And he answers his own question with a resounding: no! – because these are the only texts we have.

But he does suggest that:

“[W]e must use them with great caution, suspicion and scepticism, and above all refrain from establishing authentic texts, or even critical editions, and rather resort to the safe procedure of multi-diplomatic, synoptic presentation of the transmitted texts, while proposing our critical analysis and reconstruction in the form of notes.”


The Reader must bear in mind that this article deals specifically with the scribal practices surrounding some rabbinic texts and in no way should this be confused with the very strict and controlled safeguards implemented regarding the copying of Torah texts.

Although we focussed on the scribal transmission of rabbinic texts from around the 900s, it is interesting to see that even earlier scribal transmissions underwent similar challenges as well:

Rabbi Dr Yaakov Ellman shows how the Savoraim or Stammaim (500-650) who edited the Talmud Bavli, also intervened dramatically in the transmission of the texts. 

R. Elman writes that the editorial work of the Stammaim: “constitutes just over half of the total text of the Babylonian Talmud and ...frames the discussion of the rest.”  [See: Were the Editors of the Bavli More Powerful than its Writers?]

Historically, it is astounding to see just how powerful the copyists/editors of the rabbinic texts have always been. Far from just functionaries in a mechanical copying process, and in the absence of formal oversight, it seems that their influence was far more extensive than one may have imagined.

This point is sometimes overlooked when we open up crisp, new, well-bound and authoritative looking printed editions of what once were scribal transmissions of manuscripts, transmitted along the lines outlined above.

[1] So named after one of his works.
[2] Publication and Reproduction of Literary Texts in Medieval Jewish Civilization: Jewish Scribality and Its Impact on the Texts transmitted, by Malachi Beit-Arie'.
[3] Levi ben Avraham was a rationalist who believed in a blending to Torah and secular wisdom.
[4] A colophon is the copier’s (or writer’s or printer’s) emblem appearing at the beginning or end of a work, providing information about the author and the writing.
[5] Sefer Mitzvot Gadol was written by R. Moshe miKotzi (Coucy) in 1247. He was one of the four rabbis who defended the Talmud during the Disputation in Paris in 1242. The Semag was an early codification of Halacha, which was most likely inspired by the need for such a Code after the burning of the Talmuds and the urgent need for definitive law.
[6]Guide for the Perplexed, Friedlander (2nd edition), 2.
[7] Amudim beToldot haSefer haIvri, by Yaakov Spiegel.