Sunday 1 August 2021



The Regensburg Codex from around 1300.


The Regensburg Torah scroll (Ms. Jerusalem IM 180/52) was written in around 1300 and reflects some of the mystical writing practices of the German Pietists known as Chasidei Ashkenaz. Of interest is the unusual use of taggin (crownlets) that differs from our style today and other peculiarities that emphasise the mystical theology of Chasidei Ashkenaz. The Masora notes in the margins include many commentaries that clearly go beyond the usual scope of Masora notes. This article is based extensively on the research by Professor Hanna Liss[1] from the University of Heidelberg.


Until the invention of printing in the late 1400s, most ‘books’ were essentially scrolls. Today it is only regarding the Sefer Torah and Megillat Ester that we still maintain the requirement to use scrolls for liturgical purposes. There was, however, another medium in use even before the 1400s and that was the codex, or hand written book with pages in manuscript form and not a rolled scroll. Exactly when codices were first used is unclear. The Hebrew term for a codex is ‘mitzchaf’.

R. Yitzchak ben Moshe Or Zarua (c. 1200–1260) wrote, surprisingly, that his teachers, R. Yehuda ben Shmuel heChasid and R. Avraham ben Moshe, relied on such codices even with annotations, for Torah readings.[2] The Or Zarua was a member of Chassidei Ahkenaz and this was a reference to R. Yehudah heChassid, one of the leaders of Chasidei Ashkenaz.

Israel Yeivin points out in his The Biblical Masorah[3], that one aspect that has often been overlooked is that the Karaites always read from a Torah scroll which included punctuation and accentuation marks,  because according to their tradition the punctuation and accentuation marks were given at Sinai – and the Karaites only obeyed Biblical law and disregarded rabbinical law.

Yeivin believes that codices did not exist before 700 CE. He also maintains that even from early times there existed ‘profane scrolls’ which contained punctuation marks but that these were not used as part of the official liturgy. Liss, however, points out that Yeivin’s distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘profane’ readings is not so clear because “the fragments of the various scrolls remaining to us often do not permit us to understand what purpose they originally served.”

In 1963, based on his examinations of the Cairo Geniza fragments, Moshe Goshen-Gottstein distinguished between three distinctly different types of codices:

1) ‘Masorah codices’, which were complex and included punctuation and other markings, and which also served as ‘master copies’ and exemplars of the Torah text for future scribes to accurately copy from,

2) ‘Study codices’, which were also vocalised but less detailed.

3) ‘Listener’s codices’, which were less carefully produced and only meant for the congregation to follow the Torah reading from, during prayer services.

Again, Liss questions the accuracy of such typologies and designations because “we know of copies of the Pentateuch that could very well have been intended for liturgical use, but also contain Masoretic metatexts”. Furthermore, no one had yet determined if practices differed based on community customs of different geographic locations (as we have seen with Chasidei Ashkenaz who seemed to have permitted such codices for liturgical usage).

It is interesting to note that there is the view that early Christians chose the codex form as their preferred method of recording biblical texts in order to differentiate between Christian texts and those of other religions that used scrolls. There is also the question as to whether or not Christians viewed their Bibles as sacred objects and apparently, this remains an underexplored subject.[4]


Liss decided to explore the matter further with particular focus on the Regensburg Pentateuch and by comparing it to other biblical manuscripts. It turns out that all these codices differ dramatically from each other in their ‘extra-textual’ annotations and composition.

Liss notes that:

“who was permitted to use these manuscripts, to what end, and in which context he was supposed to use them has thus far barely been posed.”

These are interesting questions because it’s not just a simple matter of permitting or disallowing the use of a codex for liturgical purposes, as it may depend on what material is contained within the codex. Is there artwork, are there instructions, is there commentary and at what stage would these constitute a problem with regard to the Halachic requirements for reading the Torah text?

Liss writes:

“Given this rather preliminary state of affairs, my analysis is, above all, intended to help pave the way for a larger research project.”


Liss explains that an understanding the status of the Regensburg Pentateuch cannot be accomplished without resorting to external information such as its contemporaneous minhag or custom so that one can “endeavor to understand the thinking and writing of the human beings who created those artefacts for a specific purpose and interacted with them in a special way.”

The Regensburg Pentateuch was probably compiled by two scribes and four Masoretes (scribe-scholars) around 1300. It seems to have been commissioned by a Rabbi Gad ben Peter ha-Levi, who is mentioned as the owner of the manuscript and the son of a money lender in Regensburg. The two scribes were David bar Shabbatai and Baruch. It comprises the Torah, the Five Megillot, the Haftarot, the Book of Job, and parts of the Book of Jeremiah (for the reading on the fast of the Ninth of Av). It also includes blessings for the Torah and Haftarah and has elaborate illumination.

The scribe, David bar Shabbatai seems well aware of regional customs. He writes how he copied the practices of R. Yehudah heChassid from Chasidei Ashkenaz:

“(With respect to the) petuḥot and setumot of the Esther scroll, I obtained (them) from a personally (handwritten) manuscript (ketivat yado) from R. Yehuda the Pious (he-Ḥasid), son of Rabbenu Shemuʾel the Pious, may his soul be bound up in the bond of life…And he who is precise in this regard (והמדקדק), upon him be blessings.”


Around the twelfth century, there was much debate between Ashkenazic and Sephardic poskim, or Halachic decisors, on whether one could read from a Chumash in codex form, if no Torah scrolls were available.[5]

As a rule, Spanish, Southern French (Provencal) and initially Northern French scholars permitted such readings. Ashkenazic rabbis forbade this as it would be considered a bracha levatalah, a blessing over the Torah said in vain. It was only from the time of Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, that it was agreed to comply with the Ashkenazic view prohibiting such readings in Northern France.

Maimonides, based on the Gaonic decisors, permitted a blessing to be recited over a hand written Chumash and did not differentiate between a public reading with a minyan and a private reading, because both were considered Torah study. The Gaonim had deliberated over whether one was permitted to read from a non-kosher Torah scroll and had decided that this ought to be permissible because the blessing is said over the ‘reading’ not the ‘object’: והשיב שמותר לברך שאין הברכה אלא על הקריאה.

It is interesting to note that theoretically an argument can be made for the elevation of a codex to a status perhaps similar to a Sefer Torah. Ibn Ezra writes that the Masoretes, who introduced the concept of the biblical codex, were shomre chomot haMikdash, or ‘guardians of the walls of the holy place’, and vezeh haMikdash heim sifrei haKodesh, ‘and the sanctuary, these are the holy scriptures’. One could infer from this an elevated status attached to Torah codices. Perhaps the integration of oral Torah (as found in the codices) may even have been considered as increasing the sacredness of the codex itself!

What comes out of all this is the apparent disconnect between practices from the golden age of Judaism and today. From the various sources we have seen, there does not seem to have been much of an issue concerning the use of such codices for liturgical Torah readings – yet today (while printed Chumashim are obviously different from the older hand-written codices) very few would imagine anything other than a Sefer Torah scroll for such purposes.

[1] Liss. H., 2017, ‘A Pentateuch to Read in? The Secrets of the Regensburg Pentateuch’, in: Jewish Manuscript Cultures. New Perspectives, ed. by Irina Wandrey, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2017, 89-128.

[2] Sefer Or Zarua, Part 1, Hilchot Keriat Shema, 11.

[3] Yeivin, I., 2011, The Biblical Masorah, 3–5.

[4] THE SHAPE OF THE THING: THE SCROLL, THE CODEX, AND HEBREW AND LATIN BIBLES by Laura Light, November 15, 2016. See also: Archaeological Views: Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll? by Larry W. Hurtado.

[5] See Ta-Shma, I. M., 1999, Early Franco-German Ritual and Custom. 3rd revised edition, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 171–181.


  1. Fascinating Or Zarua. Perhaps we can add to this the famous Rosh that one can fulfill the Miztva of writing a Sefer Torah with codices - it might very well be connected to this discussion.

    On a side point, many have quoted this Rosh in order to connect the mitzva of writing Torah and purchasing Seforim, but as you have mentioned, a distinction should be made between a written sefer and a printed one.

    Shana Tova,

  2. Yes, interesting connection to the Rosh. Best to you too.