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Writing the Torah

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

Who composed the original Torah? How is a scroll written today? Is our current text accurate?

An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought.

The Torah is the foundation of Judaism. Without it Judaism cannot exist.

God revealed the Torah through Moses. It is thus written, "Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob" (Deut. 33:4).

It is a foundation of our faith to believe that Moses was the greatest of all prophets, both past and future. It is thus written, "There has not arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face" (Deut. 34:10).

The revelation of Moses was . It differed from all other prophecy both quantitatively and qualitatively. Moreover, Moses was the first prophet with a message for others.

Moses was therefore born with the capacity for great spiritual accomplishment. Regarding his birth, it is written, "[His mother] saw that he was good" (Exodus 2:2).

Moses made use of his inherent spiritual gifts to negate himself completely before God. It is thus written, "The man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3).

All prophets saw through a dull glass, but Moses saw through clear glass.

Since Moses' personality was completely nonexistent before God, his physical nature no longer acted as a barrier between him and God. Moses' revelation was therefore of a direct nature, as it is taught, "All prophets saw through a dull glass, but Moses saw through a clear brilliant glass."

Therefore, unlike other prophets, Moses received his revelation clearly, not masked by symbolism. God thus said, "I speak to [Moses] mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in allegory" (Numbers 12:8).

Unlike other prophets, Moses would receive his revelation while wide awake and in full command of his senses. God thus said, "When [I] God speak through one of you… I will speak with him in a dream. Not so My servant Moses…" (Numbers 12:6).

Unlike other prophets, Moses did not experience God's revelation as an overwhelming occurrence. It is thus written, "God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:11).

Unlike other prophets, Moses was always in a potential state of prophecy. He could therefore receive God's revelation at will. It is thus written, "When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed), he heard the Voice speaking to him…" (Numbers 7:89).

When asked an opinion, Moses was able to answer, "Stand by, and let me hear what instructions God gives regarding you" (Numbers 8:9). Moses was able to receive revelation from God at any time and in any place.

Unlike other prophets, whose revelation was limited, Moses had access to all the gates of wisdom. God had thus promised him, "I will make all My benefits pass before you" (Exodus 34:19). God likewise said, "[Moses] is trusted in all My house" (Numbers 12:7).

Moses was therefore the master of all the prophets. All other prophecies are alluded to in the Torah. God even revealed to Moses many future speculations and discussions surrounding the Torah.

It is a foundation of our faith that the entire Torah, both written and oral, was revealed to Moses by God.

Moses performed greater miracles than any other prophet. Still, it is not because of miracles that we believe his revelation, but because God Himself bore witness that Moses was the bearer of His word. God thus told Moses, "I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak with you, and they will believe in you forever" (Exodus 19:9). The authority of the Torah does not come from any miracle, but from God Himself.

Eternal Torah

It is a foundation of our faith to believe in the eternal authority of the Torah. It is thus written, "Things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deut. 29:38).

Just as God Himself does not change, so the Torah which is His eternal testimony to Israel, cannot be changed. Moses thus said, "You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor shall you subtract from it; you must keep the commandments of God your Lord, which I command you" (Deut. 4:2). Therefore, no commandment of the Torah can ever be abrogated or changed.

The Torah scrolls that we have today are exactly the same as the Torah given to Moses by god.

The Torah consists of five books:

• Genesis - Bereshit
• Exodus - Shemot
• Leviticus - VaYikra
• Numbers - BaMidbar
• Deuteronomy - Devarim

It is a foundation of our faith that every word of the Torah was dictated to Moses by God.

A person who denies the divine origin of even a single word or variant spelling or reading in the Torah is considered a nonbeliever who has no portion in the World to Come. Concerning such a person, it is written, "Because he has despised God's word… his soul shall be utterly cut off; his sin shall remain upon him" (Numbers 15:31).

Dictation by God

The entire Torah was therefore written by Moses as dictated by God. This included all the happenings recorded in it from the time of creation.

Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecies are contained in the Torah. Nevertheless, they were written by Moses as dictated by God.

Although the Book of Deuteronomy is written as the testimony of Moses, every word in it was written at the express commandment of God. God dictated the book as if Moses himself were addressing the people.

There is a controversy regarding the last eight verses of Deuteronomy (34:5-12) which deal with Moses' death. Some authorities maintain that they were written by Moses himself at God's dictation. Others maintain that these verses were written by Joshua.

Just before the revelation at Sinai, Moses wrote everything that had transpired up until that point. It is thus written, "Moses wrote all of God's words" (Exodus 24:4). Before completing the covenant, he read this part of the Torah. It is written, "[Moses] took the Book of the covenant, and read it so that the people would hear. They said, 'All that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen'" (Exodus 24:7).

After this, God would call Moses to the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed) to dictate the Torah to him. God would call Moses, and Moses would acknowledge that he was ready.

God dictated each passage, and Moses repeated it aloud.

God would dictate each passage of the Torah to Moses, and Moses would repeat it aloud. He would then write it down.

God would dictate a paragraph to Moses, and then give him a break in order to consider it. These breaks are preserved in the Torah in the form of spacings, dividing the text into paragraphs (parshiot).

Moses would transcribe each of these portions as a small scroll. Shortly before his death, he combined all these portions to form the Torah that we have today. According to another opinion, however, with the exception of certain portions that were needed earlier, the entire Torah was preserved orally until just before Moses' death when he wrote it all down at once.

Since parts of the Torah were not assembled until many years after they were given, they are not always in chronological order. However, wherever chronological order is ignored, there is something to be learned from the ordering in the Torah. According to some authorities, laws can even be derived from the ordering of the paragraphs in the Torah. With regard to the book of Deuteronomy, which was written all at once, there is a unanimous opinion.

The entire Torah was given to Moses during two intervals. The first part was given during the year after the Exodus. The rest was given shortly before Israel crossed the Jordan at the end of the 40 years in the desert. Between these two periods, there was a hiatus of 38 years, during which no portion of the Torah was given.

God always dictated the Torah, as well as other books of the Bible, in the language used by the people at the time.

Standard Text

Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah scrolls. Twelve of these were given to the 12 tribes. The thirteenth was placed in the Ark of the Covenant. This was eventually deposited in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

This last Torah was the standard by which all other scrolls were judged. It was occasionally removed from the ark for this purpose.

There were times that this Torah was almost lost. A number of Israelite kings had attempted to uproot or change the teachings of the Torah. Thus, during the reign of Achaz (3183-3199; 578-562 BCE) many Torah scrolls were destroyed. Because of this, the Kohen-priests hid the Torah written by Moses in order to safeguard it.

Later during the reign of Manasseh (3228-3283; 533-478 BCE), efforts to destroy the Torah were so successful that the existence of the Torah written by Moses had to be concealed from all but a dedicated few. It was only later, during the reign of Yoshia (in 3303; 458 BCE) that this Torah was found hidden in the Temple. It is thus written, "Chilkiah the Kohen-priest found the book of God's Torah, [written] in Moses' hand" (2 Chronicles 34:14). King Yoshia used this as an occasion to rededicate the people to the observance of the Torah.

The Tablets of the Ten Commands were concealed in a catacomb prepared by King Solomon.

When Jerusalem was in danger of invasion, King Yoshia hid the Ark containing the original Torah and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was concealed in a catacomb that had been prepared by King Solomon when he had first built the Temple. It is still there today.

During the Babylonian exile (423-353 BCE), there was a decline in knowledge of the Torah. Intermarriage made headway, and many people forgot the Torah and its commandments. When Ezra and Nehemiah returned to the Holy Land, they restored the Torah to its original place. Ezra also wrote a letter perfect Torah scroll to be used as a standard.

Write Your Own Torah

It is a positive commandment for every Jew to write a Torah or have one written for him. It is thus written, "Now write this song for yourselves" (Deut. 31:19). Since it is forbidden to write portions of the Torah separately, this commandment is an injunction to write the entire Torah.

In order to fulfill this commandment, one must write a letter perfect Torah. If the Torah contains the slightest error, even in a variant spelling, it is not valid for the fulfillment of this commandment, although in some cases it may still be publicly read in the synagogue. Therefore, the most scrupulous care was taken to copy the Torah, letter for letter.

Moreover, every Israelite king was also commanded to write a second Torah, which was always to accompany him. It is thus written, "When [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write a copy of this Torah… It shall be with him, and he shall read from it, all the days of his life" (Deut. 17:18-19).

During the time of the first Temple, it was the practice of the Sanhedrin to correct the king's Torah from the Torah written by Moses which was kept in the Temple. After the death of the king, these highly accurate Torah scrolls were kept by the Sanhedrin.

A Torah was likewise kept in the Second Temple which was read at the great assembly on Yom Kippur and at the Public Reading every seven years. This Torah was also used as a standard to correct all other Torah scrolls. Some say that this was the Torah written by Ezra.

Preserving the Accuracy

Throughout all generations, great care was taken to preserve the Torah exactly as it was given by Moses. The scribe is thus given the advice, "Be careful with your task, for it is sacred work – if you add or subtract a single letter, you will destroy everything." (Talmud)

Since every Torah must be letter perfect, it must be carefully copied from another scroll. It is forbidden to write a single letter without copying it from another Torah.

Moreover, the scribe must repeat every word out loud before writing it down, so as to insure accuracy in copying. This was the custom among the prophets, as we find, "He pronounced all these words for me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book" (Jeremiah 36:18).

If a Torah or other sacred writings are incorrectly written, it is forbidden to keep them for more than 30 days, lest they be used or copied. After this period, they must be either corrected or hidden. It is thus written, "Do not let wrong remain in your tents" (Job 11:14).

Originally, the Torah and other scripture were so carefully preserved that every letter, word, and sentence was counted. Traditions still exist based on this knowledge.

However, after the Babylonian exile, it became impossible to find precise Torah scrolls, and several questions arose regarding the exact reading of the Torah and other scripture. Therefore, when the Great Assembly fixed the Bible canon under the leadership of Ezra, they also restored the exact readings of the scriptures…

Script and Vowelization

Although the "Old Hebrew" script was commonly used in ancient Israel, the original Torah scrolls, as well as the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, were written in the same Ashurit script used for Torah scrolls today. According to other opinions, however, the Ashurit script was forgotten during the Babylonian exile, and the common Old Hebrew script was used for Torah scrolls, until the Ashurit script was restored by Ezra. A third opinion is that the Torah and Tablets were originally given in the Old Hebrew script, and the Ashurit script was introduced by Ezra.

The original Torah scrolls were written without vowels, just as they are written today. However, just as the exact text of the Torah was given to Moses, so were the precise readings. These were preserved orally until they were finally put in writing.

It is for this reason that every word must be correctly pronounced when the Torah is read. There is a great deal of significance in the vowel signs used in the Torah.

Nevertheless, the written word is pre-eminent. When it contradicts the traditional pronunciation, we always interpret according to the written word.

Similarly, the Torah was never written with punctuation, although its sentence structure was revealed to Moses and transmitted orally. Since there is a reason for the Torah's sentence structure, when reading scripture, one should complete an entire sentence, and not just read part of it.

Likewise, the notes used in chanting the Torah were originally taught to Moses. Similar notes were also used by the prophets, but they were chanted with a somewhat different melody. One should therefore be extremely careful to use the correct chant when reading the Torah. Although we do not always follow the accents in interpreting scripture, the notes have a very deep significance.

There are passages which are traditionally counted as "rectifications of the scribes (tikkun sofrim). In the Torah, these can only be interpreted as interpretations of the scribes, since even a prophet cannot add a single letter to the Torah. However, in other books of the Bible, where the majority of these emendations occur, they may actually be changes introduced by the Great Assembly when they fixed the Bible canon.

Similarly, Moses was taught that certain words in the Torah should be written and not read, read but not written, or read differently than they are written. Since they understood the reasons for this, the Great Assembly occasionally used similar devices when they had to change or correct a reading in the other books of the Bible.

Layers of Meaning

Because the Torah reveals God's will to man, it was given letter by letter to avoid any misinterpretation. Therefore, even the most seemingly trivial passages and variations in the Torah can teach many lessons to the person who is willing to explore its depths.

Although the Torah can be read by the simplest individual, one must delve beneath its surface meaning if one is to discover its true treasures. We thus find that "Ezra set his heart to delve into God's Torah" (Ezra 7:10). It is similarly taught, "If you seek it as silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you shall… find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:4).

Since the Torah is a finite book expressing the will of an infinite God, many lessons must be derivable from each passage.

Many allusions and mysteries can be found when probing beneath its surface.

The Torah can be understood according to its simple meaning, or according to more complex exegesis. Besides this, many allusions and mysteries can be found when one probes beneath its surface.

Even the seemingly simple narratives in the Torah contain many secret meanings and lessons. If they were mere stories, they could have been written by the hand of man, rather than through the highest forms of inspiration.

Therefore, a person who seeks to explore the true depths of the Torah finds himself on a road that has no end. It is thus written, "Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea" (Job 11:9).

The key to understanding the Torah is the oral tradition handed down from the time of Moses and embodied in the Talmud and Midrash. However, even these traditions must be carefully studied, since they were often handed down word for word.

There are, however, many cases where even the original meaning and wisdom behind these traditions have been forgotten. This was predicted by the prophet: "The wisdom of the wise shall perish" (Isaiah 29:14). Since these traditions may be as difficult to understand as scripture itself, one may occasionally depart from them in interpreting the Torah, as long as no question of law is involved. However, where questions of Torah law is involved, the Talmudic traditions must be followed at all times.

Non-Literal Meaning

The Torah must be studied as a whole, since one ambiguous passage may be clarified by another. One must be careful to take an overall view, and not interpret any scripture out of context.

There are times when the Torah speaks in allegory and metaphor. There are four conditions under which there is a tradition that the Torah is not to be taken according to its literal meaning:

  1. Where the plain meaning is rejected by common experience.
  2. Where it is repudiated by obvious logic.
  3. Where it is contradicted by obvious scripture.
  4. Where it is opposed by clear Talmudic tradition.

Where none of these conditions hold, the scripture must be taken literally, and not rejected on the basis of mere prejudice. In such a case, even when a passage is also interpreted allegorically, the literal meaning must still be retained.

The Torah always speaks in the language of man. God worded the Torah so that it would be accessible to all people for all times.

Names of God

The most frequently used names in the Bible are the Tetragrammaton (YHVH), and Elohim. Each of these has special significance.

The name Elohim represents God as Ruler of creation, and thus, the same word is used for judges and angels. The name Elohim is therefore interpreted to indicate that God is the "master of all power." This also indicates that God's primary relationship with the universe is to oversee all the forces of creation and providence. When the name Elohim is used in God's relationships with man, it indicates that He is acting in justice, according to laws as strict as those of nature.

The Tetragrammaton (YHVH) is used as a proper name of God, denoting Him as the ultimate Source of all existence, high above the universe and its laws. The Tetragrammaton is therefore interpreted to mean that God "was, is and will be," indicating that He is outside the realm of space, time and all other attributes of nature. Therefore, when the Tetragrammaton is used in relation to man, it indicates that God is acting in mercy, transcending all the rules of providence.

Source of Inspiration and Study

Since The Torah was dictated by God, there are many instances where it speaks about things that took place after it was written. The Torah likewise contains other information that could only have been obtained prophetically.

There are instances where the Torah appears to contain self-contradictions. However, with careful study, one can always find another passage or an oral tradition that reconciles all contradictions.

God wrote the Torah in a complex manner so that it would be a never ending source of inspiration and study. Just as new scientific concepts are derived from apparent contradictions in nature, so can knowledge of God's purpose and law be derived from the apparent self-contradictions in the Torah. If the Torah were written as simply as other literature, it would hardly be the object of intensive study, much less lifelong devotion.

The values of the Torah occasionally may not correspond to those of contemporary society, or they may seem irrelevant to our times. However, while contemporary values are of human origin and transient, those of the Torah are divine and eternal. It is taught that when King Solomon, the greatest genius of all time, considered certain commandments irrelevant, God said, "A thousand like Solomon will pass away, but not a single jot of the Torah will be changed."

Every glory and wonder, and all deep mysteries are hidden in the Torah and sealed in its treasures. There is no branch of wisdom, natural or divine, that is not contained in its depths. The Psalmist therefore prayed, "Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of Your Torah" (Psalms 119:18).

The divine origin of the Torah is manifest by its incongruity with the age of its birth, its original, unborrowed, solitary greatness, and the suddenness with which it burst forth in an age of violence and superstition, shining forth on the world like a beacon of truth.

For over 3,000 years, the Torah has been kept by the Jewish people, not so much because of the miracles which accompanied its revelation, but because it embraces the depths and heights of human nature, fulfilling a need that God knows to exist in man. The Torah is therefore intrinsically perfect, and requires no further external evidence for the truths it teaches. The Psalmist thus said, "God's Torah is perfect, it restores the soul" (Psalms 19:8).

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.


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