Sunday 25 April 2021


Maimonides' Eighth Principle


Is a Jew required to believe that every single word and letter from the Torah is of divine origin? According to many - including Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles - the answers is a resounding yes.

In this article, however, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Professor Marc Shapiro[1], we shall explore whether or not this position of Maimonides is the final rabbinical word on matter.



Maimonides' Introduction to Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter 10, also known as Perek Chelek contains his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith.

The eighth principle states:

“That the Torah has been revealed from heaven. This implies our belief that the whole of this Torah found in our hands this day is the Torah that was handed down by Moses and that it is all of divine origin.

By this I mean that the whole of the Torah came unto him from before God in a manner which is metaphorically called ‘speaking’; but the real nature of that communication is unknown to everybody except to Moses…

And there is no difference between verses like ובני חם כוש ומצרים ופוט וכנען “And the sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim, Phut and Canaan” (Genesis 10:6)…and verses like אנכי ה’ אלהיך ‘I am the Lord thy God’ (Exodus 20:2), and שמע ישראל ‘Hear, O Israel’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). They are all equally of divine origin and all belong to the תורת ה’ תמימה טהורה וקדושה אמת “The Law of God which is perfect, pure, holy, and true…

[O]ne who believes that all the Torah is of divine origin save a certain verse which (says he) was not spoken by God but by Moses himself … of such a one the verse says כי דבר ה’ בזה ‘For he hath despised the word of the Lord’ (Numbers 15:31).”[2]

Here Maimonides clearly, and in no uncertain terms, lays out the fundamental parameters for the Jewish belief that the entire Torah which we have today is absolutely of divine origin. There can be no give or take - and if there is, one is a deemed a heretic.[3]

Accordingly, there can be no accommodation of a concept of ‘history’ or ‘development’ of the Pentateuchal texts.

Shapiro (2011:91) captures the prevailing sentiment as follows:

“In popular circles this aspect of the [Maimonidean][4] Principle is often repeated dogmatically as if traditional Judaism is unimaginable without it.”

Thus, across the spectrum of contemporary Jewish writings, we find expressions similar to the following:

“The text of the Torah has been preserved as it was given more than 3,000 years ago without an addition or deletion of a verse, a single word, or even a single letter.”[5]

Even the popular ArtScroll Chumash[6] (Pentateuch) refers to the “unanimously held view that every letter and word was given to Moses by God”, indicating that the matter has been settled for once and for all, and that this position is “unanimous”.



The standard version of the Torah text that we use today is known as the Masoretic[7] text, which essentially originated from Aaron ben Asher around the tenth century. Aaron ben Asher was one of three main schools of biblical grammarians and scribes at that time who collected and collated centuries of older scrolls. The Ben Asher scroll became the dominant version which Maimonides was later to endorse.

[See Kotzk Blog: 073) THE ALEPPO CODEX - The Mystery Surrounding the Most Important Manuscript in Jewish History:]

However, Maimonides’ son, Avraham ben haRambam, conceded that there was no one authoritative text. And although his father said that the text now known as the Aleppo Codex (which contained the Ben Asher Masoretic text) was the most accurate scroll, Avraham ben haRambam was not prepared to invalidate other scrolls that differed from his father’s scroll of choice.[8]

Interestingly, the Catalan Rishon, R. Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri (1249–1315) wrote about the Masoretic “texts” (in the plural).[9] It is correct that there may not have been major differences between the different Masoretic versions, but to say that they matched each other in every single word and letter would be incorrect.

Shapiro (2011:93) explains just how relatively recently the updated Masoretic version in use today is:

“When we currently speak of the Masoretic text or the textus receptus, we refer to the edition of the Bible edited in 1525 by the future apostate Jacob ben Hayim (c.1470-c.1538), including the corrections made to it by the Masoretic scholars R. Menahem de Lonzano (1550-c.1620) and R. Yedidyah Solomon Norzi (1560-1616). Before this time, pentateuchal texts, even though they can be termed Masoretic, were not united around a single text.”

Shapiro continues in a footnote:

“As for the apostasy of Jacob b. Hayim, earlier scholars were often unaware of this and thus referred to him in glowing terms…Communications not being what they are today, this is not surprising. However, in our day, when anyone can open an encylopedia and learn this information, it is truly remarkable that a book[10] could be published, in Benei Berak no less, which describes Jacob b. Hayim as one of the great scholars of Israel.”

In a similar vein, there is also evidence that Ben Asher himself may have been a Karaite Jew. Karaites were known to be meticulous in their reverence to the Written Law and opposed to the Oral or rabbinic tradition. If this is the case, it would mean that there is a surprising Karaite link in the Mesora chain.




Our Masoretic texts do have a number of variances, prompting R. Moshe Feinstein to write that “the kashrut of our Torah scrolls is not so certain.”

The Talmud itself contains quotations of verses from the Tanach that are different from our accepted Masoretic texts. There is even a responsum from R. Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba, c.1235-c.1310) who discusses when Torah scrolls need to be corrected in keeping with these Talmudic versions. One of these variants is found in the first verse of the text of the Ten Commandments where in one instance it has הוצאתך and in another, הוצאתיך.  Other times the differences are with entire words. And the Talmudic versions of the Tanach contain variances more stark than those in the Torah text.

R. Aryeh Loeb Guenzberg (1695-1785) and R. Eleazar Fleckeles (1754-1826) went so far as to suggest that (mide’oraita) we are no longer able to fulfil the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah because our present texts are not accurate enough to allows us do so. Also, if the Talmudic version is correct then our current Torah scrolls would certainly be invalid.[11]

With regard to the Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch, Peshitta, and Targumim, (while some variances may be due to scribal error) there are distinctly different textual traditions. This is noteworthy with particular regard to the Septuagint because we are quick to tell the story of the seventy-two sages who independently translated the Torah text into Greek in the third century BCE, and they duly produced the exact same word-perfect translation. What we forget is that the version of that Septuagint differs from our version.

During Temple times the variances in Torah scrolls is indisputable. R. Akiva and R. Ami spoke of the importance of using a corrected text:

  וכשאתה מלמד את בנך למדהו בספר מוגה

“[R. Akiva said] And when you teach your son, teach him from a corrected scroll” [12]


אתמר ספר שאינו מוגה אמר רבי אמי עד ל' יום מותר לשהותו מכאן ואילך אסור לשהותו משום שנא' אל תשכן באהליך עולה

“[R. Ami said] One may keep an uncorrected text for up to thirty days, but from then onwards one may not retain it, as it is said ‘And let not injustice dwell in your tents” (Job 11:14)’.”[13]

Midrashic sources tell of R. Meir who had a Torah scroll that differed from that of his colleagues.[14] Instead of his text of Bereishit reading  “G-d saw all that He had made and behold it was goodטוב מאד, it read “behold death was good טוב מות. Similarly, our texts read “garments of skinעור, R. Meir’s scroll read “garments of lightאור.

Shapiro explains that it is possible that R. Meir’s scroll came from Severus which is mentioned in Bereishit Rabati. This Midrash records some textual variants found in the scroll which “came out of Jerusalem in captivity and went up to Rome and was stored in the synagogue of Severus.

Yemenites today use a Torah scroll that have nine differences in single letters, to the texts used by most other Jews.

All this adds up to the fact that it is impossible to speak of the Torah “now found in our hands” which is the same one as G-d gave to Moshe at Sinai, because there is no singular text.

R. Yakov Kamenetzky (1891-1986) suggested that it is possible that Maimonides had a different text of the Pentateuch to ours.[15]



The rabbinic sages refer to tikunei soferim, or scribal corrections, where earlier copyists of the Torah scrolls sometimes ‘corrected’ the texts. These changes were made when it was considered that certain texts were disrespectful towards G-d, or when the text was too anthropomorphic (ascribing human characteristics to G-d):


a) BEREISHIT 18:22

An example of this is Bereishit 18:22 where, after the angels inform Sarah that she will have a child and then depart for Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham escorts them and he remains standing alone after they are gone. The verse reads:

“The men had turned from there and went to Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before Hashem”

וַיִּפְנ֤וּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ סְדֹ֑מָה וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃

The eleventh century biblical commentator Rashi explains that Abraham did not approach G-d but instead, G-d approached Abraham telling him that the cries of Sodom had become great. The text therefore, should have read that G-d remained standing with Abraham. However, that would have been disrespectful to G-d, so the scribes ‘corrected’ the text.

ואברהם עודנו עומד לפני ה'. וַהֲלֹא לֹא הָלַךְ לַעֲמֹד לְפָנָיו, אֶלָּא הַקָּבָּ"ה בָּא אֶצְלוֹ וְאָמַר לוֹ, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה, וְהָיָה לוֹ לִכְתֹּב "וַה' עוֹדֶנּוּ עוֹמֵד עַל אַבְרָהָם"? אֶלָּא תִּקּוּן סוֹפְרִים הוּא זֶה (אֲשֶׁר הֲפָכוּהוּ רַזִ"לִ לִכְתֹּב כֵּן) (בראשית רבה)

The bracketed section explains what tikkun soferim means: “[that] which our Rabbis, of blessed memory, altered, writing it thus”.

Rashi, quoting Midrash Rabbah, in this case clearly acknowledges some form of alteration to the biblical texts by the rabbis.

Shapiro (2011:98) mentions that this particular Rashi commentary does not appear in some manuscripts, and some, therefore, deny its authenticity. However, they seem to have overlooked Rashi’s commentary on Job 32:3 where he repeats this notion and gives further examples of tikkun soferim:


b) JOB 32:3

וירשיעו את איוב. זה אחד מן המקראות שתקנו סופרים את לשון הכתוב וירשיעו כלפי המקום בשתיקותם היה לו לכתוב אלא שכינה הכתוב

Commenting on the verse: “He was angry as well at his three friends, because they found no reply, but merely condemned Job”, Rashi writes:

“This is one of the verses wherein the Scribes rectified the language of the Scripture. ‘And they condemned,’ as directed against the Omnipresent, by remaining silent, should have been written, but Scripture euphemized.”


c) NUMBERS 11:15

Rashi then brings other examples, including one from Bamidbar 11:15 where Moses complains to G-d that he can no longer bear this nation and says it’s better to die,  ואל אראה ברעתי – “and let me not see my evil.” Rashi again states this as another example of tikkun soferim where the scribes “corrected” the text which originally read: ברעתו – “and let me not see His [G-d’s] evil”.

Rashi concludes by saying:

וכן הרבה מקומות בספרי ובמסורת הגדולה

“And there are many other examples of this [tikunei soferim] …”



Identifying just who these ‘scribes’ were who corrected the texts usually leads one directly to Ezra. Tikunei soferim is often used synonymously with Tikunei Ezra. A Cairo Geniza fragment refers to “a tikkun [textual correction] of Ezra and the scribes”.[16] Another fragment refers to “a tikkun of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zachariah and Haggai and Baruch”.[17]

The Midrash Tanchuma[18] similarly writes that it was Ezra’s Anshei Kenesset haGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly)[19] who changed certain words of the Torah.

Also of significance is the view of R.  Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238) the last leader of Chasidei Ashkenaz, who attributed the book of Psalms to Ezra and not to David. This represents a very radical departure from the traditional view on the authorship and provenance of the Book of Psalms.


According to Ta-Shma, in a text by a R. Shlomo ben Shmuel, student of R. Yehuda heChasid (1150-1217), the word “Azazel” (mentioned in Vayikra 16:10 in the story of the he-goat to be pushed off the cliff) is not a Hebrew word but is Aramaic. R. Shlomo ben Shmuel has no issue with saying that Moshe did not write that verse and that it is a later insertion. He writes:

“Do not be surprised at what I say, that another wrote it, because this is not unique, and there are many [verses] which Moses did not say…”[20]



Shapiro (2011:98) cites the following verse from Vayikra, as an example of disparate versions of the Masoretic text:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.”[21]

In the Hebrew, the grammar is inconsistent as the verse should read either in the singular אתך – ארצך, or the in plural אתכם – ארצכם.

Of course, one could adduce all sorts of interpretive reasons for this inconsistency but a variant reading of אתכם instead of our version of אתך is actually found in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmudim. And that same plural variant becomes the basis for the translations of Onkelos, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and Rav Saadia Gaon.

(One could also add that the plural version is found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, and is the basis for the translations of the Septuagint, Neofiti, Vulgate, and Peshitta.)

The Targum Onkelos reads:

וַאֲרֵי יִתְגַּיַּר עִמָּכון גִּיּוֹרָא בְּאַרְעֲכוֹן לָא תוֹנוּן יָתֵיהּ:

This version maintains the (plural) grammatical consistency throughout the verse, and seems to be based on a variant text.[22]

The same (plural) grammatical consistency in the verse is repeated in Targum Yonatan:

וַאֲרוּם אִין אִיתְגַיֵיר וְאִיתְחַזֵק עִמְכוֹן גִיוֹרָא בְּאַרְעֲכוֹן לָא תוֹנוּ יָתֵיהּ בְּמִילִין קָשִׁין

This Targum Yonatan also seems to be based on a variant text from the standard Masoretic text used today (and it adds the words בְּמִילִין קָשִׁין).



While popular Chumashim refer to the “unanimously held view that every letter and word was given to Moses by God”, we see a different stance taken by many classical rabbinical sources. The matter may be controversial but it is far from unanimous.

Certainly, not everyone would agree with the examples we have seen, and, at best would say that tikunei soferim refer somehow to the original biblical text being written with and containing these “corrections” in the first instance - or, at worst, would say that all these sources are not authentic and that they are even fraudulent. Others would take the middle ground and say they are merely the views of individual rabbis whose opinions have been rejected by the mainstream, and hence, irrelevant.

R. Shmuel Yaffe, author of the Yefeh To’ar commentary on Midrash Rabbah, writes:

“if we admit that the scribes altered [the text] in one place, what prevents us from saying so with regard to the other places?”[23]

On the other hand, rabbis like Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) maintained that it is not at all ‘heretical’ to point out that the text of the Pentateuch undergoes scribal emendations as even Rashi has shown that it does. On the contrary, he says, when dealing with such issues (such as the matters we are discussing) it is even considered part of the mitzvah of Torah study.[24]

Alternatively, one could adopt the approach of saying that textual analysis is textual analysis, and Halacha is Halacha. Although it is often tempting to blur the boundaries, both are very different worlds. The fascinating stance of seventeenth century Egyptian rabbi Avraham ben Mordechai haLevi is that once the Halacha concerning Sifrei Torah has been determined - which it has - we consider our current Torah text, for all intents and purposes, to be “as if” (ke’ilu) it is from Sinai.[25]

Wherever one chooses to position oneself within the divergent spectrum of all these views, at least we know that there is a spectrum, and that the rabbinic position, notwithstanding the view of Maimonides, is far from unanimous.


[1][1] Marc. B Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press; 1st edition (August 25, 2011).

[2] Maimonides' Introduction to "Helek" by Maimonides, translated by J. Abelson

[3] Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuva, 3:8. The Eighth Principle continues with the injunction to further believe that the Oral Law and rabbinic tradition is similarly of divine origin:

“The interpretation of traditional law is in like manner of divine origin. And that which we know to-day of the nature of Succah, Lulab, Shofar, Fringes, and Phylacteries (סוכה, לולב, שופר, ציצית, תפילין) is essentially the same as that which God commanded Moses, and which the latter told us.”

[4] Parenthesis mine.

[5] Avraham Kushelevsky, Meetings between Judaism, Science, and Technology on the Basis of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, Jerusalem, 2001, 86.

[6] Chumash, The Stone Edition, Mesorah Publication Ltd, edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, 1993, xix.

[7] ‘Masoretic’ is from the Hebrew word mesora which means tradition.

[8] Teshuvot Avraham ben haRambam, no. 91.

[9] Meiri, Beit haBechira on b. Kiddushin 30a.

[10] Moshe Tsuriel, Masoret Seyag laTorah, i. 9, 94 ff.

[11] Eleazar Fleckeles, Teshuva meAhavah, iii. 56b.

[12] b. Pesachim 112a.

[13] b. Ketuvot 19b.

[14] Bereishit Rabbah 9:5, 20:12, 94:9.

[15] R. Yakov Kamenetzky, Emet leYakov, 388.

[16] Taylor-Schechter Collection, Job (a).

[17] Taylor-Schechter Collection, Job (b).

[18] Beshalach 16. See also Yalkut haMachiri Zecharia 30-2.

[19] According to Jewish tradition, Ezra established this rabbinic Synod at around 516 BCE, and it continued to function until the beginning of the Hellenistic period (also known as Roman Greece) around 323 BCE.

[20] Ta-Shma, Israel, Bible Criticism in Early Medieval France and Germany, in Sara Japhet (ed.), Hamikra bire’i meforshav (Jerusalem, 1994), 455-6.

[21] Vayikra 19:33.

[22] Here is another version of Targum Onkelos: See  Note that in this version, the verse is given as Leviticus 19:35 and not 19:33!

וַאֲרֵי יִתְגַּיַּר עִמָּךְ גִּיּוֹרָא בְּאַרְעֲכוֹן לָא תוֹנוּן יָתֵיהּ

This version maintains the Aramaic translation which corresponds directly to our standard Pentateuch, where the grammar remains inconsistent.


[23] Yefeh To’ar on Bereishit Rabbah 49:12.

[24] R. Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki baKodesh, ii. 219.

[25] Ginat Veradim, Orach Chaim, kelal 2, no. 6.

Sunday 18 April 2021


Midrash Rabbah, printed in Cracow 1609.


When the Midrash Rabbah was first printed in the sixteenth century it contained ten collections[1] of Midrashic works which were collated largely at the discretion of the printers themselves without much rabbinic input. No similar anthology had existed before in manuscript form.[2]

This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Benjamin Williams[3], traces the development of this new anthology of Midrash Rabbah from its first printing to the format we have today.

Sunday 11 April 2021



Sefarim printed by the Helicz brothers on paper with an unusual watermark.


An interesting question is: What is more influential in shaping Jewish ideology - books or theology? Obviously, there is an overlap because you cannot have religious books without an underlying theology, but does theology create the need for books or do books inspire the theology?[1]

The stories behind the emergence of various sefarim or religious books (including the well-known Shulchan Aruch[2]) and their early reception, are indeed fascinating. It was never easy or affordable to publish books and often there was some degree of intrigue as to who got their books printed. Popular Jewish printing enterprises to this very day hold huge sway on the popular religious mindset.

This article, based extensively on the research by Magda Teter and Edward Fram[3], focuses on the three Helicz (הֶעֶלִיץ) brothers who started the first Jewish printing business in Poland in 1534. We trace the humble beginnings of their printing business to its failure, and then to its surprising subsequent rise to success, and investigate the dynamics of that series of events.


Monday 5 April 2021


"[Ashkenazim] consider anyone who spends his time on Scripture a fool, for the Talmud is central” -Ha’Efodi.


The first printed edition of the Chumash, Bologna, January 25 1482. 


It was only from as late as the ninth century in Muslim lands, and the eleventh century in Christian lands, that rabbis began to write formal commentary on Torah. One of the reasons for the lag of two centuries was that the Karaite Jews, who opted for anti-rabbinic and extremely literal interpretations of the Torah, were mainly active in Muslim countries, and therefore, Bible interpretation and commentary became a necessary defence against their literalism. Eventually, when Torah commentary penetrated through to Christian countries from around the eleventh century, there was an explosion of commentaries of all genres, and even commentaries on commentaries known as supercommentaries.

When the printing press was invented towards the end of the fifteenth century, the very first Hebrew book to be printed was Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. This was published even before the printed version of the Torah itself.