Sunday 7 July 2019




As we shall see, based on two Talmudic, one Midrashic and one Aggadic account[1], there appears to have been a weak point in the integrity of a perfectly unblemished line of transmission from Ezra’s Sefer Torah to ours.

In this article, we will attempt to show how - fascinatingly - in a 100-year-old scholarly paper[2], Jacob Lauterbach reinterprets aspects of these rabbinic accounts, thereby strengthening what otherwise may have been a weak link in the rabbinic narrative of that transmission.


After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews went into exile in Babylon for a period of about seventy years. During that exile, Torah observance and study went into sharp decline and it became impossible to find accurate Torah scrolls.

The situation took a turn for the better when Ezra the Scribe led the Jews[3] back to the Holy Land, and built the Second Temple. One of the first things Ezra did was to write a Torah scroll which was be become the Master Copy  from which all future Torah scrolls would be copied and checked against.

When Ezra decided to write his Master Copy, he found three Torah scrolls, and no one was sure which one was the previous Master Copy from earlier times. The problem was that there were some discrepancies in the texts. 

To rectify the situation it was decided to accept the versions of two out of the three Torah scrolls which (better) matched each other, and by that majority, the new Master Copy was established.[4]

In the words of the Talmud[5], they authorised two and rejected one version.

THE TALMUDIC TEXT (Masechet Sofrim):


The Talmudic opening statement records:

“R. Shimon ben Lakish says: ‘Three books were found in the [Temple] courtyard - the Maon book, the Za'atutei book, and the Hi book...’”
This implies that each of the three Torah scrolls had a unique textual variant and the scrolls, therefore, assumed the name of the particular variant in order for it to be identified.


Then an explanation ensues where the differences between the three scrolls are specified:

"In one scroll, the word מעונה was written מעון without the final ה.

In another, the word נערי was written in its Aramaic translation זאטוטי.

And in the third, the word היא was written as הוא (but vocalized as 'hi') in eleven places.” [6]

All in all, there were, according to this account, thirteen ‘minor’ discrepancies between them.

“So they retained the [majority] reading of the two and abandoned the [minority] of one...”


The problem is that by accepting two out of three, although their accuracy rate would score very high, we must remember that we are dealing with our Primary Source - the Torah - whose every nuance has meaning. And now the Torah’s unbroken chain, by the Talmud’s own admission, is not entirely unbroken.

According to this Talmudic account which we have just described, the possibility remains for some error because perhaps the correct text was the one that was disregarded.[7]


To alleviate this problem, the traditional answer, as (always) well articulated by R. Gil Student[8], is summed up follows:

“Other than these [minor discrepancies][9], the texts matched exactly which, frankly, is outstanding for texts produced by human hands.”

But again we want a perfect Torah, not just an outstanding one.


Many would probably rest better had these few lines of Talmud not existed, because then the assumption - at least based on Talmudic literature - would have remained that the Torah is perfectly preserved.

Well, in a great scholastic irony, Jacob Lauterbach[10] (1873-1942) researched this particular text and shows very convincingly that it is probable that the three books or ‘Sefarim’ are not referring to Books of the Torah at all, but rather to books of genealogical records!


According to Lauterbach, the actual historical report is limited to the opening statement of ten words. The names are ‘archaic’ and not found elsewhere in the Talmud. The author’s account is brief and to the point and appears to be speaking about either a contemporaneous or a well-known event. He assumes that his audience would be well acquainted with the particulars:

 “Three Books were found in the [Temple] Courtyard: The Book of Me’ona, the Book of Za’atutei and the Book of Hi.”

In fact, this original statement is so old that when the later Talmudic Amoraim debated this issue, they were completely unfamiliar with its original intent.

According to Lauterbach:

It may, accordingly, be assumed with reasonable certainty that our report originated at a very early date, possibly during the time when the Temple was still in existence; at least, not long after its destruction...

The later teachers, who found the brief statements of this old report without any comment to it, could only guess at its meaning.”

The rest of the account, therefore, which lists the details of the variations in the three scrolls, is not part of the original text, but, according to Lauterbach’s analysis, a later interpolation or commentary on it. And we, therefore, have four ‘commentaries’ from our four rabbinic sources, with the details of the versions of text all differing somewhat and even contradicting each other.

The Talmudic Amoraim (or possibly even the later editors or redactors) assumed ‘Sefarim’ meant Sirfei Torah or Torah scrolls and that, therefore, three Torah scrolls were found in the Temple.

Writing in 1918, Lauterbach states:

“To my knowledge, at least, no one has questioned the correctness of the assumption that our report speaks about Torah scrolls.”

He proposes that the ten-word opening statement did not originate with R. Shimon ben Lakish[11] (200-275) nor did he write the detailed description of the differences between the books in the subsequent commentary. Rather, it was an old report which was just cited by him.

Lauterbach continues his methodical investigation:

“To understand correctly this ancient report we must try to find its real meaning independently of these explanatory remarks of the later teachers. We must even be careful not to allow ourselves to be biased by their guesses in favour of their supposition. The proper way to proceed, then, would be to ignore their commentary altogether and consider only the text of the report itself.”


If we just look at the ten words of the original opening statement, there is no reason to suggest that they even refer to Torah Scrolls. In its literal and simple meaning ‘sefarim’ means books. And books do not necessarily have any sacred connotations.


Generally, during Temple and Mishnaic times (0-200CE) when referring to the Five Books of Moses, the term Torah was used. As was the plural Torot used instead of sefarim.

When the term sefarim was used, it usually referred only to the Nach or Books of the Prophets and the Writings, but not to the Pentateuch.

So, for example in Mishna Megilah (3:1), a hierarchical scale of holiness is presented where we see that it is permissible to sell a (smaller village as opposed to an established city) synagogue, in order to buy an Ark (because an Ark is more holy than an informal place of worship). They may sell an Ark to buy coverings for a Torah scroll. They may sell coverings for a Torah scroll in order to buy ‘sefarim’ (i.e. Book of the Prophets and the Writings.) They may sell ‘sefarim’ in order to buy a Torah scroll, but they may not sell a Torah scroll in order to buy ‘sefarim’.

Clearly, the term ‘sefarim’ does not refer to the Torah. 

And since our ten-word opening statement goes on to mention three names of books, it can be assumed that they were not sacred books, but general books called Me’ona, Za’atutei and Hi.

Lauterbach continues:

“The first part of this report tells us that these three books were found in the [Courtyard of the][12] Temple of Jerusalem. This does not mean that these books were accidentally found in the Temple, but it means rather that these books were found in the Temple, because the Temple (i. e. its archives) was the place where these books were always kept and preserved...
We have only to find out what kind of books were especially preserved and kept in the Temple archive.”


These books were well-known as Sifrei Yuchasin, or Books on Genealogy, which contained archived records of the nation’s lineages.

Josephus records, for example, that the Temple contained exact records of families of priestly Cohanim.[13] He also attests to having consulted the archives to ascertain his own lineage.

Also, the Talmud refers to the  
as a tribunal which sat to determine who were Cohanim and Leviim.[14] This tribunal convened in the Lishkat haGazit which was situated within the Temple and it is reasonable to assume that records were kept in easily accessible archives close at hand.

Another archive existed containing records of who was a Jew. Josephus also references this archive which a priest must consult before taking a wife, so as to ensure she was of pure Jewish descent.

The Mishna[15] implies that an archive was consulted to confirm lineages, and mentions that altogether there were ten genealogical classes that came from Babylonia together with Ezra when he built the Second Temple. Ezra started keeping lineage records in a book known as Sefer haYachas, or Book of Genealogy. These later developed to become the official Sifrei Yuchasin.

The Mishna informs us that we only need to go back one generation to prove a lineage. Thus a Cohen only needs to prove that his immediate ancestor worked around the Altar. A Levi needs to prove that his immediate ancestor worked on the Duchan (the Platform from which Leviim sang), and a Yisrael only needs to show how his immediate ancestor served on the Sanhedrin. The assumption was that before any of those immediate ancestors would have been allowed to assume those positions, they too would have been scrutinised as to their genealogy, and that was sufficient to provide proof of lineage.

Special records also had to be kept for converts to Judaism, which become quite commonplace particularly after the time of Ezra. The Jews in Israel had an intermarriage rate of close to 90 per cent and Ezra made a decree that all Jews who had intermarried had to divorce their non-Jewish wives, until they converted properly to Judaism.

There is even an account by Eusebius that Herod destroyed some of these registers so as to hide his own non-Jewish origin and thus claim Jewish ancestry.

According to the last book of the Prophets, Malachi, written around the time of Ezra[16], a special register was opened for sincere converts to Judaism (despite the anti-assimilation policies of the time) and this record was kept within the Temple.

“Then those (converts) who feared the Lord talked with each other (protesting their exclusion), and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.”[17]

Lauterbach reads this verse very simply as meaning that a Book of Records was opened up for sincere converts who were known as ‘yirei Hashem’- the G-d fearing - recording their names and archived ‘lefanav’ - before Him - i.e. filed in the Temple.


This action formally recognized converts as having official Jewish status. There were now four categories of Jews: Cohen, Levi, Yisrael and Yirei Hashem (converts) and all were archived in the Sifrei Yuchasin (Books of Lineage) in the Temple.

Regarding the expression Yirei Hashem, Rashi in his commentary (Psalms 115:11) interprets it to mean converts.[25] 

There is a parallel to this in Tehilim (Psalms)[18]:

The various ‘Houses’ that praise G-d are defined as the Cohanim (Beit Aharon), Leviim (Beit Levi), Yisrael (Beit Yisrael) and converts (Yirei Hashem).


The fact is that the priestly tribes of Cohanim and Leviim were often grouped together as one. In Devarim[19] the Cohanim and Leviim are referred to as ‘Cohanim haLeviim’ with regard to the laws of inheriting the land. And the Talmud[20] gives 24 examples of where Cohanim are called Leviim.

We also see, again, in Tehilim[21]:

Here Cohanim and Leviim are grouped together under Beit Aharon, with Beit Yisrael and Yirei Hashem making up the other two groups – essentially presenting the Jews as comprising three categories: The Priestly Tribes, the Israelites and the Converts.

It was these three archives, according to Lauterbach, which are referred to as the Three Books - not Torah Scrolls, but genealogical records - which were found in the vicinity of the Temple courtyard!


One Book was called Meonin. Maon literally means ‘dwelling place’ and is often used in reference to the Temple itself. This was the archival record of those who served in the Temple, namely, the Cohanim and Leviim.

The second Book was called Za’atutim. Zata literally means ‘born’[22], and za’atut means an infant, indicating a childlike form of purity. These were the people who were born as Jews and did not convert to Judaism.

Sefer Za’atutim, in our context, refers to archives of the ‘nobles’ or those of pure Jewish descent, (much like the pedigreed ‘Children of Israel’[23]).

The third and final Book was called Hi[24]. This was the record of the converts to Judaism. The archive was originally called Sefer haYirei Hashem, the Book of the G-d-fearing (converts). 

The Hebrew; 
would have been abbreviated as;
Hence the record of the converts became known as the Book of Hi.


Fascinatingly, Lauterbach backs up this thesis by pointing out that in the Talmud Yerushalmi version of our text, the very next section references R. Levi who speaks about an allied topic concerning a ‘Megilat Yuchasin’, or a scroll containing genealogical records which probably also came from the Temple archives. This places our entire discussion, according to the Yerushalmi version, well within the context of genealogical records, and not alluding to Torah Scrolls.


Jacob Lauterbach’s fascinating research, whether he intended it or not, may alleviate the difficulties of having to accept the perceived Talmudic view that our Torah scrolls which we use today, are just a chance result of a majority principle which simply selected two out of three variant scrolls.

Although this research does not prove anything about the traditional Torah transmission process, it nevertheless removes the apparent Talmudic admission that there was a weak link in the chain.



The following are the four ‘commentaries’ to the original statement that Three Books were found in the Courtyard - the Me'ona, Za'atutei and the Hi:
Yerushalmi text:

Avot de R. Natan (700-900CE):

Masechet Soferim:


[1]Masechet Sofrim 6:4. Yerushalmi Taanit 3:4.  Sifre Devarim 356. Avot de R. Natan 46. (There are some minor variations between these different sources). Note that none of the references are from the Babylonian Talmud.
[2] The Three Books Found in the Temple at Jerusalem, by Jacob Z. Lauterbach (1918). I thank my dear friend the Honourable Mr Jack Bloom for alerting me to this source.
[3] The majority of Jews, however, chose to remain in exile. It is estimated that just 40 000 Jews returned to Israel with Ezra, out of a Population of half a million. The greater scholars, the elite and the Levites largely stayed behind in Babylonia. (See R. Berel Wein: Ezra and Nehemiah). 
[4] According to some, the discovery of the three scrolls took place 400 years later, during the persecutions which took place around the end of the period of the Second Temple.
[A source, however, for the discovery of the three scrolls during Ezra’s time is in Torah Sheleima vol. 19 p. 254 n.29 and Rashi, 1 Chronicles 8:29.]
[5] Yerushalmi Taanit 3:4 and Masechet Sofrim 6:4. Masechet Sofrim is from 750 CE, which places it about two centuries after the Talmudic period (this technically excludes it from being labelled as Talmudic, although the term is still used because of the Talmudic nature of the work). It forms part of what is known as the Masechtot Ketanot, or Minor Talmudic Tractates.
[6] See Yerushalmi version in Appendix.
[7] Although the principle of Rov, or following the majority, is a well-established expediency of Jewish Law, it is not comforting to see it used in relation to the authenticity of the Torah text.
[8] Torat Emet: On the Text of the Torah, by Gil Student.
[9] Parenthesis mine.
[10] Jacob Lauterbach was a contributor to hundreds of articled in Jewish Encyclopaedia and specialised in Talmudic and Midrashic literature. His father, Israel, had fallen under the spell of the Haskalah Movement, but later had a change of heart and he put all his Haskalah books into a ‘Geniza’. These books were later to be discovered by his spiritually adventurous son. His mother was from a devout Chassidic family and he attributed his interest in Jewish folklore to her. Jacob Lauterbach was not afraid to use manuscript comparison and decryption to better understand the Talmudic texts. He was ordained at the Berlin Rabbinical seminary in 1902, and later received his PhD from the University of Gottingen.
[11] Also known as Reish Lakish.
[12] Parenthesis mine. The assumption is that the after the Temple was pillaged and destroyed, items of lesser value to the conquerors may have been left scattered around the courtyard.
[13] Contra Apionem, I,7.
[14] Kiddushin 76 b.
[15] Kiddushin 4:1 and 4:4.
[16] According to a Targum, the author was indeed Ezra himself, as malachi simply means a messenger.
[17] Malachi 3:16.
[18] Psalm 135: 19,20.
[19] Devarim 18:1.
[20] Yevamot 86b.
[21] Psalms 115 12,13.
[22] In the Zend Language,
[23] Parenthesis my suggestion. Zatutei also corresponds with Na’arei as we see in the ‘commentary’ section of the texts.
[24] Pronounced ‘hee’.
[25] On the other hand, Radak and  Malbim say it refers to Jews with great wisdom, whereas Ibn Ezra and Meiri say it refers to righteous gentiles.


  1. > Ezra made a decree that all Jews who had intermarried had to divorce their non-Jewish wives, until they converted properly to Judaism.

    What do you mean? I thought they just sent them off and that was that. Where does it say they converted to Judaism later?

  2. Lauterbach suggests that they may have been sent away until they converted later. But either way, it does seem that around that time special archives were opened for Yirei Hashem so it must have had some bearing on reality (especially with an assimilation of perhaps 90 per cent).

  3. A few points:

    The interpretation of the statement as referring to books of Torah is presumably tannaitic, not amoraic, since it appears in Sifre.

    The derivation of זאטוט from Avestan is less probable now since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which routinely spell the word זעטוט (the consonant ע would presumably not be used in a borrowing from Avestan).

    And the explanation of the book היא seems to me the weakest argument:

    1. ספר היראי אדני isn't good Hebrew (it should be ספרי יראי אדני). For a medieval book it would be possible, but not on a book written by Ezra!

    2. The word was pronounced אדני but written יהוה, so the abbreviation should have reflected the written spelling.

    3. An abbreviation is impossible unless this statement שלושה ספרים נמצאו etc. came from a written source, but the Amoraim relied on oral sources more than written ones.

    There are some more recent articles by Talmon and Rendsburg on the subject (both of which assume the story is about Torah scrolls). Talmon mentions Lauterbach's theory and dismisses it without much comment.

  4. Thank you. Your points are well taken.

    Lauterbach explains that as Yirei Ad-noy is a compound word, used as a designation for a special class of people, it could well receive the article 'heh' - the use of the article 'heh' before such compound words is not frequently found, as e.g. Ekek. 45 16 'haAm ha Aretz'...

    It is of interest in this connection to notice that the teacher Bar Heh Heh mentioned in the Talmud was the son of a convert, he received the title heh heh an abbreviated form of 'ha' Yirei 'ha' Shem.

    He also suggests that abbreviation marks may not have been used in ancient times.

    I would imagine that the name Hashem instead of Ad-noy may not have been strictly adhered to in earlier times, especially in an important book kept in the Beit haMikdash. (Even today some say it may be used during Torah study.)

    At the end of the day, even Lauterbach uses words like 'in my opinion'and clearly presents his views as a 'theory' or thesis and not as an absolute proof.

  5. Although the Sifre to Numbers appears to have originated with R. Yishamael, and Sifre to Deuteronomy originated with R. Akiva, the final redaction of the Sifre would have taken place in Amoraic times as it contains names of Amoraim such as Rabbai Bannai and R. Yose bar Chanina (2nd generation Amora).

  6. Rashi on Divrei Hayamin 8:29 explains that many more books on genealogy including those 3 were found and the majority was followed. 

    ובגבעון ישבו אבי גבעון. ... וזהו שמפרש בסוף מגילת ירושלמי ג' ספרים מצא עזרא ספר מעונים ספר זאטוטי ספר האחים ובטלו דברי האחד וקיימו דברי השנים וכן מצאו הרבה ספרי יחוסין כשנמצא ג' או ה' בטלו המועט וקיימו המרובים ......

    Also interesting is the Megaleh Amukot 182:1 who says that these were 3 Sifrei Torahs and that Ezra used them to correct all vowels, crowns and letters. But the crowns were later removed by King Yannai so the oral Torah would be forgotten. The hint to this is why the Torah is written without a letter Hey  in the verse Shmot 4:2
     וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֵלָ֛יו יְהוָ֖ה מזה [מַה־] [זֶּ֣ה] בְיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מַטֶּֽה׃
    The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.”
    So that the acronym
           מעון "זאטוטי "היא היא"
    could be remembered.

     אופן קפב. ..., ואיתא בספר סודי רזי שבימי עזרא שתיקן כל הטעמים על הנקודות והתגין והאותיות, על ידי שלש ספרי התורות שנמצא אחר החורבן, האחד שמו ספר מעון, השני ספר זאטוטי, השלישי ספר היא היא, וכשהיו מחולקין הג' ספרי תורות אלו באותיות ובנקודות ובטעמים ובתגי"ן, הלכו אחר הרוב, אחר כך כשהרג ינאי המלך לחכמים וכפר בתורה שבעל פה, ולא רצה להאמין רק בתורה שבכתב, ומחק כל התגין שבספרי התורות, ולולי חסדי ה' שאשתו של ינאי הטמינה את אחיה הקטן נקרא שמעון בן שטח (ברכות מ"ח.), היתה תורה שבעל פה ח"ו נשתכחה מישראל. והנה דבר זה גם כן מרומז בתורה כי לית לך מלה דלא רמיז באורייתא (כדאיתא בתענית ט'.), כשאמר הקב"ה למשה בתחלת שליחותו מה זה בידך (שמות ד ב), כתיב מזה, רמז על התורה שלא תשכח התורה, ......., מכל מקום ג' ספרים נרמזים במלת מז"ה יהיו בעולם שלא תשכח התורה, שכן מז"ה נוטרייקון "מעון "זאטוטי "היא היא, ומאלו הג' ספרים ילמדו ישראל כל רזי התורה טעמין בתגין על כל קוץ וקוץ תילי תילין של הלכות......

  7. It's a worthwhile possibility. Except in the Yerushalmi online, the passage in Ta'anit actually specifies Torah verses for which "[the] two are established and [the] one is negated":

    באחד מצאו כתוב מעון אלהי קדש ובשנים כתיב (דברים לג) מענה אלהי קדם וקיימו שנים וביטלו אחד. באחד מצאו כתוב וישלח את זעטוטי בני ישראל ובשנים כתוב (שמות כד) וישלח את נערי בני ישראל וקיימו שנים וביטלו אחד.

  8. Very nicely written. However...

    1) As you write, "when the later Talmudic Amoraim debated this issue, they were completely unfamiliar with its original intent." And you quote Lauterbach who says that these Amoraim "could only guess at its meaning." What reason is there to assume that we are more knowledgeable than the Amoraim (or possibly Tannaim, as one commenter here points out) about something which is even more ancient history to us than it was for them?

    2) If, as you quote, we should "ignore their commentary altogether and consider only the text of the report itself," and we are going to disregard what they say in the Talmud when it's inconvenient, then we might as well just disregard any parts where it's implied that the Torah was transmitted in an unbroken chain. Problem solved.

    3) Anyway, as admirable as this all is, the Talmud in Kiddushin 30a LITERALLY admits that their copy of Torah is not the same as the original, so there is no reason to try to defend the "unbroken chain," since the Talmud admits there that the chain had already been broken by that time. The Rabbi Yosef there literally states that "we are not experts" in the proper lettering or verse-parsing, and his claim is not disputed. If they believed they had an accurate copy, then they would have considered themselves experts.

    Of course, if we are simply disregarding the inconvenient parts of the Talmud, I suppose we can just say he too was unfamiliar with the subject matter....

    Not to mention that you are seemingly ignoring the whole body of work by the Minchas Shai, and also Abulafia before him, who both are partially responsible for the version of the Torah we have today.
    Not to mention the Dead Sea Scrolls which have thousands of inconsistencies from the current version of the Torah.
    Not to mention the fact that some of Rashi's comments are clearly referring to a different version of the Torah.
    The consensus already asserts that the chain has been broken, so there is nothing to defend.

  9. I think one needs to look at it philosophically and theologically and not just on a literary level. Just as G-d is essentially unknowable but we still pour out our souls to Him - so is His Torah essentially unfathomable but we still apply our minds to understand it as deeply as possible.

    Neither can be a perfect pursuit from our part but we go as far as we can.

    The 'unbroken chain' has to be on the deepest of levels but it also needs to be as honest and true as humanly possible (as you point to the 'admission' in Kiddushin).

    You also point to additional material, which support the question as to why we seem to go against these rabbinic sources in peddling the unbroken chain narrative which most hold as binding and the only alternative.

    And then what about the 'Torah Chadash' in mystical literature in Mashiach times? The 'newness' of it also implies some form of break in the continuum...but it is still Torah.

  10. Very nice post. While this theory seems too weak to stand on its own, it’s a fascinating discussion.
    It seems to always come back to Ezra’s work and the extent of his amendments, as we have little information about that. The script
    change in his time was in itself a major “break”, and according to Avot deRabbi Natan he had a few words he wasn’t sure to write, presumably because of differing traditions. If Ezra’s work was a break, that has to be addressed before the three books of the Azarah.