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Torah Transmission

How do we know that the Torah we have today is the same text given on Mount Sinai? Maybe it's all just a game of "broken telephone."

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Excellent question!

The Torah was originally dictated from God to Moses, letter for letter. From there, the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 9:4) tells us:

Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (along with the Tablets). If anyone would come and attempt to rewrite or falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark would "testify" against him.

Similarly, an authentic "proof text" was always kept in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, against which all other scrolls were checked. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Sages would periodically perform global checks to guard against any scribal errors.

To eliminate any chance of error, the Talmud enumerates more than 20 factors mandatory for a Torah scroll to be considered "kosher." This is the Torah's built-in security system. Should any one of these factors be lacking, the scroll then has the same status as one of a printed book. It does not possess the sanctity of a Torah scroll, and is not to be used for a public Torah reading.

The meticulous process includes these following guidelines:

- A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added.

- A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is deleted.

- The scribe must be a learned, pious Jew, who has undergone special training and certification.

- All materials (parchment, ink, quill) must conform to strict specifications, and be prepared specifically for the purpose of writing a Torah Scroll.

- The scribe may not write even one letter into a Torah Scroll by heart. Rather, he must have a second, kosher scroll opened before him at all times.

- The scribe must pronounce every word out loud before copying it from the correct text.

- Every letter must have sufficient white space surrounding it. If one letter touched another in any spot, it invalidates the entire scroll.

- If a single letter was so marred that it cannot be read at all, or resembles another letter (whether the defect is in the writing, or is due to a hole, tear or smudge), this invalidates the entire scroll. Each letter must be sufficiently legible so that even an ordinary schoolchild could distinguish it from other, similar letters.

- The scribe must put precise space between words, so that one word will not look like two words, or two words look like one word.

- The scribe must not alter the design of the sections, and must conform to particular line-lengths and paragraph configurations.

- A Torah Scroll in which any mistake has been found, cannot be used, and must be fixed within 30 days, or buried.

Maintaining the accuracy of any document as ancient and as large as the Torah would be very challenging even under the best of circumstances. But consider that throughout history, Jewish communities were subject to widespread persecutions and exile. Over the last 2,000 years, Jews have been spread to the four corners of the world, from Yemen to Poland, from Australia to Alaska.

Other historical factors make the accurate transmission of the Torah all the more difficult. For example, the destruction of the Temple nearly 2,000 years ago saw the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish central authority which traditionally would lead and unify the Jewish people in case of any disagreements.

So let's investigate the facts as we have them today: If we collect the oldest Torah scrolls and compare them, we can see if any garbling exists, and if so, how much.

There are 304,805 letters in the Torah. If you were to guess, how many do you think are in question?

The fact is, that after all the trials and tribulations, communal dislocations and persecutions, only the Yemenite Torah scrolls contain any difference from the rest of world Jewry. For hundreds of years, the Yemenite community was not part of the global checking system, and a total of nine letter-differences are found in their scrolls.

These are all spelling differences. In no case do they change the meaning of the word. For example, how would you spell the word "color?" C-O-L-O-R. That's how you spell it in America. But in Canada, it's spelled with a "u," C-O-L-O-U-R.

Such is the nature of the few spelling differences between Torah scrolls today. The results over thousands of years are remarkable – especially when compared to other documents such as the Christian Bible (which has approximately the same number of words).

Here are the nine discrepancies:

Genesis 4:13 - "M'n'soh" (whether to have a Vav before the Alef)

Genesis 9:29 - "V'yiyu" (whether to have a Vav at the end of the word)

Genesis 25:6 - "Pilagshim" (whether to have a Yud before the Mem) - ibid 25:6.

Exodus ch. 29 - "Aharon" (whether to have a Vav before the Nun)

Leviticus 7:22 - whether to have parsha separation

Leviticus 7:28 - whether to have parsha separation

Numbers 7:1 - "Kalot" (whether to have a Vav before the Tav)

Deut. 1:13 - "V'Asimem" (whether to have a Yud after the Sin)

Deut. 23:2 - "Daka" (whether to have an Alef or a Hey at the end)

Such is the nature of the few spelling differences between Torah scrolls today. The results over thousands of years are remarkable!

The Christian Bible has better conditions for preserving the text – it is about half as old, Christians haven't gone through nearly as much exile and persecution as Jews have, and Christianity has always had a central authority (the Vatican) to ensure the accuracy of their text.

Yet the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, a book written to prove the validity of the New Testament, says: "A study of 150 Greek [manuscripts] of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings... It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the [manuscript] is wholly uniform."

Other scholars report there are some 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, representing about 400 variant readings which cause doubt about textual meaning; 50 of these are of great significance.

The Torah has nine spelling variants – with absolutely no effect on the meaning of the words. The Christian Bible has over 200,000 variants and in 400 instances the variants change the meaning of the text.

The point of course is not to denigrate Christianity. Rather, this comparison demonstrates the remarkable accuracy of the Jewish transmission of Torah.

(sources: "Divrei Chachamim" Y.D. 27 by Rabbi Shalom Yitzhak Halevi; "Divrei Yatziv" Y.D. 170 by Rabbi Y. Halberstam; "Yechaveh Da'at" 6:56 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; Aish HaTorah's Discovery Seminar)

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