Torah Reading and the Documentary Hypothesis

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This Shabbos it was my pleasure to join a retreat at a conference center. Jewish learning in a relaxed atmosphere, a mixture of serious discussions and fun had by all — what could be better?

We only had one Torah scroll, which was fine… until a tiny defect was discovered during the fifth aliyah, the fifth reading in this week’s parsha. The problem was trivial: two letters were in contact with each other. But because of that simple error, the reading continued without any of the blessings normally said. When we finished, the scroll was wrapped with the “belt” on the outside of the covering, the traditional way of indicating that the Torah scroll inside was found to have a defect.

Truth be told, I think we could have continued [for those in the know, see Mishna Berurah 143:4 sk 25, starting seven lines from the bottom in column one on that page (26b). The additional brush stroke seemed to have happened later. Oh, and then while looking closely, one of the Rabbis present made the “ink” between the letters fall off, so it obviously wasn’t written there at all!]. But I found a larger point to be made in the fact that we halted the reading.

Obviously, we are not the only ones with texts which we consider holy and revered. The Christians have their Gospels and “New Testament”, and the Muslims their Koran. I found this web page which mentions that there are a great number of tiny differences in various manuscripts… but those differences are irrelevant. As it says in the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible, published 1946:

It will be obvious to the careful reader that still in 1946, as in 1881 and 1901, no doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of the thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.

Unlike the Christians, we are scattered across the world, living in isolated communities often oppressed by the local government. So if our penmanship were less exact, and errors more frequent, I think we could have been forgiven.

Yet the very opposite is true, and to an extreme degree. There are only about 10 differences between Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite texts. Most of these are differences of spacing only, meaning one text has a compound word where the other divides the two words (leapyear vs. leap year). Others are “vavs and yuds,” optional letters which ensure proper pronunciation of the underlying root word. The only letter difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is whether a particular word ends with a silent aleph or silent heh.

So there are no thousands or hundreds or tens of variant texts. There are no changed paragraphs, switched passages or omitted sentences. There isn’t even a single word pronounced differently in any valid Torah scroll, anywhere in the world. Any text with a broken letter is considered unfit for use, much less one with an extraneous or omitted letter, much less one with an extraneous or omitted word.

What does this have to do with the Documentary Hypothesis? Simply put, someone had to do an incredible sales job on the Jewish nation. At one point — according to the Hypothesis — there were different texts created by different groups, which means that the descendents of each group revered its own version. Then along comes a redactor who puts them all together, and then manages to convince all of the groups that not only is this the correct text to follow, but it has always been the right text, and therefore must be copied with an exactitude known nowhere else in human history. That someone managed to do that seems a miracle in and of itself, which is of course the very thing the DH was designed to avoid.

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17 Responses

  1. Sara says:

    Here is a great article on the Documentary Hypothesis by Rabbi Yakov Yosef Reinman reprinted with permission.

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/Biblical_Criticism.htm

  2. Charles B. Hall says:

    It is clear that arguing over vav’s and yud’s misses the point — that there is enormous agreement on the text of the Torah. Given the examples given here, why does Artscroll say, “Rambam sets forth at much greater length the unanimously held view that every letter and word of the Torah was given to Moses by God; that it has not been and cannot be changed; and that nothing was ever or can ever be added to it.” We’ve seen that we have the few discordant spellings between Ashkenazim, Sefardim, and Yemenites, we have the normative opinion that the end of sefer Devarim was actually written by Yehoshua bin Nun (which is mentioned in an Artscroll footnote at the appropriate verse!), etc., etc. Why would Artscroll make this obviously inaccurate statement?

  3. [email protected] says:

    “There are only about 10 differences between Ashkenazic,
    Sephardic and Yemenite texts. Most of these are
    differences of spacing only…”

    In Rabbi B. Barry Levy’s “Fixing G-d’s Torah”
    (pp. 38 and notes, pp.192);

    -9 differences of SPELLING,one is a plural verb instead of singular, the rest are plene and defective – not differences of spacing. He notes only the plural difference is of morphological significance. Source is Torah Hayyim, vol 7, ed. M.L. Katznellenbogen (Jerusalem:M.H. Kook, 1993)

    -note 116 to the material above includes a list by Uri Dasberg (in “Zihui Sefer Torah”, Tehumin 1 [1980]: 511)., that includes the nine from Torah Hayyim, as well as 5 additional differences;

    “…the unity of Poti-Phera in Gen.41:45, Ashkenazim have as two words; (2) the size of the mem of mqda in Lev. 6:2, which Ahkenazim (sic) have undersized; (3) a paragraph division that ashkenazim lack in Lev. 7:22; (4) a paragraph division that Yemenites lack in Lev. 7:28; and (5) the shape of the waw in slwm in Num. 25:12, which Yemenites write in the regular way while ashkenazim have it ‘cut'”.

    All this is to say the majority of differences, obviously if one includes the 5 listed by Dasberg, are not of spacing.

    -Rabbi Sid Z. Leiman in his “Masorah and Halakhah: A Study in Conflict,” in Tehilla le-Moshe. Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, ed. M. Cogan, B.L. Eichler, and J.H. Tigay (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbraun’s, 1997), pp. 291-306., lists several occuring between the Torah and Talmud, as well as offering some source material for how the Sifrei Torah we are familiar with became unanimous.

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    DovBear,

    I don’t want to go around and around with this, so I’m stopping comments here so that I can go on to new things.

    Your quote from Ibn Ezra is what is called constructing a mountain from a molehill. See Rashi to Devarim 34:5, and you realize immediately that Ibn Ezra says nothing unique, much less radical. We routinely say “the Torah was given to Moshe” although it is well known that the last verses were not, at least according to one completely normative opinion (which says that Yehoshua wrote them after Moshe died). “G-d gave the entire Torah to Moshe” is what we commonly say, and the Ibn Ezra certainly agrees with that. Biblical critics misread Ibn Ezra, do not sign on to their misreading.

    If Ibn Ezra believed the Torah was the Word of G-d, as unquestionably he did, then it’s illogical beyond reason to imagine that he would have thought it was “edited” by humans later. Ditto your tikkunei sofrim, it is simply illogical to imagine that Chazal were suggesting the text of the Word of G-d was edited by human beings to make the language nicer. On the contrary, see Rashi’s commentary there also.

    Perhaps I don’t know how to learn, but it’s still not me who is “glossing over” the Baalei HaTosfos, whose explanation of Sanhedrin 4b you still seem to be ignoring. In that Tosfos it is very clear that their scroll was not in accordance with how Rebbe Yishmael supposedly had it, yet they did not correct their scroll to match his, and also did not fall back on “we are not expert in Vavs and Yuds.”

    You wrote “Rabbi Yshmael derives a law from the spelling of the word totafos. However, in all known copies of the Bible the word is not spelled the way Rabbi Yishmael has it.” But according to the unanimous opinion of the Baalei HaTosfos, this is wrong — Rebbe Yishmael was not deriving his halacha from a spelling which differed from ours. See my earlier comment (#5), because I don’t want to seem to brush off the obvious fact that there are differences, but neither should we magnify them. As I said in my earlier response to you, the very fact that all the Baalei HaTosfos didn’t chalk this up to a scribal difference tells you that they were exceedingly rare.

    It’s not only Reb Moshe who said that’s not the standard text of the Midrash. No one questions that manuscripts of Midrashim developed many different scribal errors, since no one attempted to copy them as accurately as we copy the Torah. Yes, it is entirely too simple for the same scribal error to pop up in two places.

  5. DovBear says:

    i>the Eighth Principle of Maimonides does not say that our Torah today is letter-for-letter the same, but rather that G-d gave the entire Torah to Moshe

    The Ibn Ezra believed the last 12 verses (all of Deut 34) were written not by Moshe, but by Joshua. He also suggests that there are verse in the Torah that may have been edited after the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, as it would be anachronistic, or inncorrect for Moshe to have written them.

    Talmudic-midrashic and medieval sources list between 7 and 18 Biblical passages containing “corrections of the scribes” (tikkunei soferim). The sources preserve two traditions as to what these corrections involve: some sources describe the corrections as euphemisms in which the Biblical text used a seemingly incongruous phrase to avoid using an expression that might seem disrespectful toward God; other sources hold that the text originally did contain a seemingly disrespectful phrase and that the scribes changed it to avoid disrespect.

    In other words, this is much more than a matter of vavs and yuds, or color and colour. These are full-word differences.

    Despite the fact that we do acknowledge “vav and yud” errors, none of the Baalei HaTosfos say that this [Rabbi Yishmoel’s spelling of Totafos] is one of those errors. They all explain what Rebbe Yishmael was saying without falling back on the idea that his text varied from theirs (also ours).

    You appear not to know that from the 13th through the 19th centuries, major rabbinic authorities insisted that Torah scrolls be corrected to adopt the Talmudic readings, at least in passages where a law was based on a particular reading, but they insisted to no avail. Youy also seem to be glossing over the Baalei HaTosfot who said: Hashas shelonu cholek in haseforim shelonu (our gemrah disagrees with our books)

    Regarding #2, there are apparently two versions of that Medrash. One is accurate, the other is a rarely-found text that is usually considered a scribal error. You quoted only the latter version.

    I did not omit the standard text of the Midrash. What you are claiming here is based on a Teshuva of Rav Moshe. However, Rav Moshe does not explain why the idea appears to two midrashic sources. Was the same scribal error committed in both Avot d Rabbi Nathan and the Moidrash Raba?

    Anyway, the standard text of the Midrash is as follows:

    Ezra reasoned thus: If Elijah comes and asks me ‘Why have you written these words?’, I shall answer ‘That is why I dotted the passages’. And if Elijah says to me ‘You have done well in having written these passages’ then I shall erase the dots over them.”

    In other words, Ezra was uncertain whether the letters in question belonged there or not.
    His practice corresponds to that of Alexandrian grammarians who used dots to indicate doubtful passages.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Ori, the page I mentioned in my post excerpts the comments of an Islamic scholar referencing at least hundreds of variants.

    confused (and DovBear), the Eighth Principle of Maimonides does not say that our Torah today is letter-for-letter the same, but rather that G-d gave the entire Torah to Moshe. This is why we’ve done such a good job preserving it, but we don’t claim perfection. Maimonides was, in fact, one of those who noted differences between scrolls and worked to fix errors — but what we call an error in Torah is at an entirely different level than what would be considered an error in any other text. In any other situation, no one would claim that changing “color” to “colour” was changing the text.

    DovBear, most of your points are thus irrelevant to the point being made. We certainly know that errors of the “vav and yud” variety have entered the text. That would cover your third and fifth examples, and also the first. However, I find it odd that you would omit reference to the Tosfos on Sanhedrin 4B which discusses your case, and offers multiple opinions about what Rebbe Yishmael was saying, given that we don’t have that vav in our text. Despite the fact that we do acknowledge “vav and yud” errors, none of the Baalei HaTosfos say that this is one of those errors. They all explain what Rebbe Yishmael was saying without falling back on the idea that his text varied from theirs (also ours). So, in fact, this passage is a strong counter-proof to your underlying argument that there are lots of differences — the Tosfos certainly knew that “we are not expert in vavin and yudin” but didn’t consider this sufficiently frequent to explain Rebbe Yishmael’s vav.

    Regarding #2, there are apparently two versions of that Medrash. One is accurate, the other is a rarely-found text that is usually considered a scribal error. You quoted only the latter version. As with your failure to quote Tosfos above, omission of the standard text of the Medrash is mystifying.

    I am entirely unfamiliar with the Radak you mention, but would be more than a bit surprised were he to genuinely have argued that the Torah has full-word differences. Considering that it is his commentary to the Prophets that is most studied, I suspect you may have confused Torah and Prophets.

  7. dovbear says:

    yaasyachid, careful what you call “accepting” DH —it’s all well and good to say that this or that may look like something different, but as soon as one says that even a single word doesn’t come from G-d it is no longer a Torah philosophy.

    Hmmm… so what do we do with this:

    1 – Sanhedrin 4b: Rabbi Yshmael derives a law from the spelling of the word totafos. However, in all known copies of the Bible the word is not spelled the way Rabbi Yishmael has it. There are about 20 example of this, and regarding this phenomenon Tosfot says Hashas shelonu cholek in haseforim shelonu (our gemrah disagrees with our books)

    2 – Avot d’rabi Nathan and the Midrash Raba both suggest Ezra, and not Moshe, wrote the dotted words.

    3 – The Talmud tells us that three scrolls containing varient readings were once found in the Temple courtyard. The differences were resolved, in each instance, after the majority. It’s unlikely that the result, in every instance, matched the original revelation.

    4 – We also have a system in which marginal notes indicate that certain words are to be read differently than they are spelled in the text, called “kere and ketiv.” Regarding this the Radak wrote: “It appears that these words are here because during the first Exile, books were misplaced and lost and scholars died; when the Great Assembly restored the Torah they found conflicting information in manuscripts and went according to the majority. ” Again suggesting that our current Torah is not a perfect word-for-word match to the original.

    5 – – In his introduction to Masoret Seyag LaTorah, the Ramah wrote: “If we seek to rely on the proofread scrolls in our possession, they are also in great disaccord. Were it not for the Masorah which serves as a fence around the Torah, almost no one would find his way in the controversies between the scrolls. Even the Masorah is not free from dispute, and there are several instances disputed [among the Masorah manuscripts], but not as many as among the scrolls. If a man wishes to write a halakhically “kosher” scroll, he will stumble on the plene and defective spellings and grope like a blind man through a fog of controversy; he will not succeed. Even if he seeks the aid of someone knowledgeable, he will not find such a one. ”

    Please clarify, Rabbi Mencken. Have you just said that Rabbi Yishmoel, Avot d’rabi Nathan, the Midrash Raba, the Radak and the Ramah all taught things about the Torah that weren’t Torah philosophy?

  8. S. says:

    >I thought that its part of the Rambam’s “ani mamin’s” that the Torah we have today is the same Torah that Moshe received. How can you say there is even 1 error, Sephard or Ashekenaz?

    A good English translation of the 8th principle can be found here:

    http://www.aish.com/spirituality/philosophy/Maimonides_Eighth_Principle_The_Divinity_of_the_Torah.asp

    The Rambam didn’t say what you think he did. The Rambam was well aware of textual concerns with the Torah texts of his day, endorsing one particular version, what is today called the Keter Aram Sova, which was then in Egypt and which he used to fulfill the mitzva of writing a sefer Torah.

  9. confused says:

    I thought that its part of the Rambam’s “ani mamin’s” that the Torah we have today is the same Torah that Moshe received. How can you say there is even 1 error, Sephard or Ashekenaz?

  10. yaasyahid says:

    Rabbi Menken
    I tried to parse my words carefully. Rabbi Breuer doesn’t c’v accept Wellhausen’s multiple author hypotheisis but does propose a unique approach to the Torah, one which I think is highly speculative as well.

    http://64.233.167.104/search?q=cache:Va2ka9lXF84J:www.lookstein.org/retrieve.php%3FID%3D1400975+mordechai+breuer+documentary&hl=en

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Menken,

    Rabbi Menken: Ori, I followed everything you said right up until “surely you would copy this Torah with the same care that scribes still follow today.” There is no case on earth that would help you to substantiate this conjecture. The Christians and Muslims can each provide you with thousands of counter-examples.

    Ori: You’re right, I was wrong on that point. I still believe that most Judeans in the first generation of the Babylonian exile wouldn’t have had access to the Torah, though.

    BTW, could you point me to evidence that the Kuran has multiple versions? I thought they were as careful about it as we are about the Torah.

  12. Netanel Livni says:

    There is only one difference that I know of between the Ashkenazi and Sefardi scrolls that actually changes the meaning of a word (but does not change the meaning of the sentence in a very significant fashion. In Bereishit 9:29, the first word is sometimes ויהי and sometimes ויהו. I still think that regardless of the natural mistakes that occur when copying texts, no society has ever done a better job in the preservation of written text in the history of mankind.

  13. Yaakov Menken says:

    Some good comments!

    yaasyachid, careful what you call “accepting” DH — it’s all well and good to say that this or that may look like something different, but as soon as one says that even a single word doesn’t come from G-d it is no longer a Torah philosophy.

    Shamai, while we are all small in knowledge, I believe in this area the facts are clearly with me (although I agree with you that the actual number is 9; I said “about” 10 in case I was mistaken on that). First and foremost, for 2300 years people used nothing but scrolls. Because a printer in one location did it a certain way, you think all the differences went out the window? Variances between the Yemenite, Sephardic and Ashkenazic texts were preserved for over a millenium of little contact, especially between the Yemenites and the others. A printer’s word would hardly have overridden any other differences that cropped up in the meantime.

    Also, even relatively recent printings (especially those more than 30 years old) are far less accurate than our written scrolls. With the vowels included the printer often saw no reason to print (or omit) a vav or yud as found in the scroll.

    Marty, the case on Shabbos 55a is from Shmuel Aleph (I Samuel), not the Torah. Yet it also consists of merely a yud. The collected examples are, similarly, from throughout the Bible and not the Torah. Some of the discrepancies are even more trivial than what I described above — for example, where we may see a different number of verses than they did. There are no delimiters of sentences (periods, “.”) in the Torah, so it’s all a matter of oral recollection rather than preserved text.

    Most of the remainder, and, if I’m not mistaken, all of the discrepancies in the Torah itself, are limited to spaces between words and vavs and yuds, as we find between communities today. The most significant differences — which I suspect, but did not verify, are from Nach rather than Torah — are an aleph vs. ayin or sin vs. samech. Again, no word differences at all. We already know from Chazal that “we are not expert in vavs and yuds.” But what they call “not expert” involves a vanishingly small number of actual differences.

    Ori, I followed everything you said right up until “surely you would copy this Torah with the same care that scribes still follow today.” There is no case on earth that would help you to substantiate this conjecture. The Christians and Muslims can each provide you with thousands of counter-examples.

    I’m not claiming that this is a particularly strong counter-proof to the DH or proof of the Torah’s authenticity… but that’s merely by comparison with some of the others. From a sociological perspective, no document has ever been copied so carefully — and there’s no reason to believe that this would have been possible had not the first text been revered as the Word of G-d from Day One.

  14. Marty Bluke says:

    See R’ Akiva Eiger (Shabbos 55a) where he collects over 20 cases from all over Shas, medrashim, etc. where our mesora differs from either Chazal’s or the Rishonim.

  15. Ori Pomerantz says:

    In your version of the documentary hypothesis, the pre-Torah texts were revered and considered full and authoritative by their respective groups. Then, when the redactor came up with the final version, he would have been faced with a task about as difficult as convincing you that the Torah scroll you have now is the wrong text. As you said, that would take a miracle.

    However, this assumes a lot about ancient societies that we are not very familiar with. You assume that at each point in Jewish history full and accurate copies of the scriptures were plentiful and available to every Jew, the way they are now. This may have not been the case.

    Imagine the following situation: you are a Judean, born in exile in Babylon. Your father was a priest in the Temple before the exile. When the Babylonian soldiers forced your parents and other refugees to march to exile, he wanted to take a Torah scroll with him. However, they searched his belongings and took it away, either to break the Jews spirit or because it was heavy and they prefered their slaves to concentrate on survival. Your poor father spent the entire march trying to remember as much of the Torah as possible, and as soon as he got to the village where you grew up, he immediately wrote down everything he remembered on whatever was handy (mostly broken pottery, the ancient equivalent of scratch paper). Once the exiled community was rich enough to do it without starving, they bought parchment and wrote the best Torah scrolls they could. Those are the Torah scrolls you were taught to read.

    If you were in such a situation, would you revere the Torah scrolls you have, and follow the laws in them to the best of your abilities? Probably. Would you be sure that what you have is the complete Torah? Probably not. If somebody told you that they had a copy of the complete Torah, and that what your father remembered is a part of it (and they showed you where in their Torah the text you know was), would you believe him? I’m not sure, but if you did, surely you would copy this Torah with the same care that scribes still follow today.

    I’m not saying that the Documentary Hypothesis is correct. I do not know enough to argue that point one way or the other. I am merely saying that this argument against it is invalid. If I am wrong, please show me where.

    Thanks,
    Ori

  16. Shamai says:

    Unfortunately you don’t have a clue as to the history of the Torah text. Before the invention of printing there were loads of differences. The fact there are are 9 (not 10) today, is because of of the invention of printing.

  17. yaasyachid says:

    Very interesting post on a controversial topic. See Prof Marc Shapiro’s “Limits of Orthodox Theology” for a well researched discussion of the mesorah. R Shneyur Leyman and R Barry Levy are also Orthodox academcians who have written extensively on this topic. R Mordechai Breuer actualy “accepts” DH but of course explains it in a manner which he feels is accpetable to a frum perspective.