Transliteration of the Torah, revisited

      Some while ago I wrote an essay showing that when our religious leaders wished to amend the halachah they assumed that they had the authority to do so. I gave Ezra's transliteration of the Torah as an example. The subject has nevertheless been on my mind for I still wonder what "Transliteration" involves. Further research left me wanting yet further clarification. I therefore sent a letter along the following lines to some 20 orthodox rabbis and academics, friends and acquaintances, hoping for enlightenment. I give below two of the more profound replies that I received. This was my letter:- 

      "I wish there was a website where matters of Jewish interest could be discussed, in addition to the usual 'Ask the Rabbi' columns. I have questions which I have never seen discussed and I am intrigued by them. Hopefully, one of the recipients of this letter might be able to throw some light on, and contribute something to this discussion. I look forward to hearing from him. Maybe my understanding is faulty. 

      It is a little known fact but the experts agree, and the rabbis confirm in Gomarra 'Sanhedrin' that the origin of the square script, which we use for writing our Torah today, dates only from circa 800 BCE, some 400 years after Sinai.  

      Ezra transliterated the Torah into this square script circa 450 BCE, some 750 years after Sinai. The reason given for his doing so is that the Jews of his period could no longer read the original script. The original script was a form of Phoenician script. 

            Neither the original script nor the currently used square script have vowels and so they are difficult to read in any event and so misreading, and therefore misunderstanding, can easily occur.

      I compared the two scripts in the Encyclopedia Judaica and noticed that the square script contains two or three additional letters which are not contained in the original Phoenician script This might suggest that Ezra's transliteration might not have been very accurate. 

            My question is "If both scripts are difficult to read because of the lack of vowels and if the Phoenician script used for writing the original Torah may have been imperfectly transliterated, how can the rabbis claim to know with absolute certainty, and claim to understand, the Torah's precise meaning, intention and all of its nuances?" 

            To add to the dilemma, the Maftir read on our festivals speaks of having a "Holy Convocation' (Mikre Kodesh). What would have comprised a "Holy Convocation" in the Mishcan or in the First Temple and what would its purpose have been?  

            On referring to a dictionary I found that 'Mikre' means a 'reading' not 'convocation'. So what is it that the Torah wanted the People to read? It could have been only the Torah. 

            I then had another thought about the accuracy of the Transliteration. I again compared the Phoenician and Square Hebrew alphabets. As I understand it, the letter 'Kuf' which appears in both of the words 'Mikre & Kodesh' had no equivalent letter in the Phoenician alphabet. So why were they inserted by Ezra into the Torah's square script?

            In these circumstances, how accurate can Ezra's transliteration of the Torah be? How accurate can the rabbis understanding of the original intentions of the Torah be? I hope that you can enlighten me and I look forward to hearing from you." 

      The first reply that I now discuss was from a prominent, internationally recognized and respected orthodox rabbi. I mention this because I have recently been accused of quoting only 'rabbi bashing' rabbis. He wrote:- 

      "Too much to answer all this!  Read the book: The Limits of Orthodoxy Theology by Marc Shapiro, Littman Library and your eyes will fall out (Chas ve shalom!). shana tova." 

      I bought the book and learned that Marc B. Shapiro is a graduate of Brandeis and Harvard universities and holds the Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton. I am told that he is also a graduate of Yeshiva University. The book is a discussion on Maimonides' 'Thirteen Principles". Its cover states, "It is commonly asserted that Maimonides famous Thirteen Principles are the last word in Orthodox Jewish theology. This is a very popular notion, and is repeated by scholars from all camps of Judaism. Yet such a position ignores the long history of Jewish Theology in which Maimonides' Principles have been subject to great dispute."

      In the introduction to his book he makes it perfectly clear that he will refer only to those religious leaders who considered themselves, and who were considered by a significant part of the traditional community, to be part of it.

      So what is it about the book that makes my friend the rabbi fear that my 'eyes will fall out'? Each chapter starts off quoting one of the Thirteen Principles and it then gives many contradictory opinions from the fore mentioned religious leaders. The 'Principle' which directly affects this essay is the 'Eighth Principle' which teaches "That the Torah was divinely revealed and that the Torah in our hands is exactly the same as the Torah that Moses presented to the Children of Israel". In view of the Talmud's acknowledgement that there was Ezra's transliteration from one script to another, this Principle by Maimonides is obviously wrong.

      I now draw attention to a few of the many examples of the contradictory opinions which fill twenty pages of the book. I have not mentioned names for they are numerous but they are clearly mentioned in the book.

  1. Numerous detailed examples, quoting chapter and verse, are given of major variants in the Torah texts, some reaching back to Temple times including variant examples found among the Dead Sea scrolls.
  2. When we currently speak of the unified Masoretic text we are referring to the edition of the bible edited as late as the sixteenth century.
  3. Rabbinic sources speak of textual changes deliberately introduced by scribes, including Ezra, where they thought it appropriate.
  4. There are accidental errors by scribes when copying texts. This is not an unusual phenomenon. The opinion is expressed that in the early days the scribes were not as diligent as they are supposed to be today.
  5. During the first exile, texts were lost; scholars were dispersed, many died. Some claim that the deliberate changes were made by divine inspiration.


      These are but a few examples. If you are interested in the subject I recommend that you buy the book. It makes an interesting read. 

      The second reply I received was from a Jewish orthodox academic, a Ph.D. whose field of research covers the subject now under discussion. I copy it without comment other than to say that if after reading it you doubt whether he really is orthodox I would say that I believe that he is a member of a synagogue that allows only strictly observant persons to join.    

Dear Woolf, 

I am interested in your query but must warn you that it opens up a can of worms, if one can use that expression about our Sacred Texts.  

There are not just two scripts, Paleo-Hebrew and the square script (what the

Talmud calls Ivrith and Asshurith in Sanhedrin) but a number of intermediate

steps leading from one to the other, and within each group.


There is no consensus that the change occurred in 800 BCE, rather that it was at the time of the Babylonian Exile in about 550 BCE, but that is not final. 

My guess is that the paleo-Hebrew was influenced by the Cuneiform writing then current in Babylon, but this is also not yet proven. All letters in one script exist in the other, except the final forms that came later.  

Your questions raise the problem of when was the Torah written or edited?

Most Bible scholars of the four-part theory of the Pentateuch (and that is most

of them) will say that the Torah was put together by Ezra and not just rewritten

in a different script. The fact that the Rabbis do not agree this does not make it Unhistorical, in fact you cannot take rabbinic opinions of the Talmud and later as authoritative, and if you raise questions about their views, you will have to be prepared to see that they are just wishful thinking and not historically accurate. 

To date, many Rabbis will still not agree that the Torah, which they say is early, was originally written in Paleo-Hebrew. As there is no evidence of the square script at an early date, they are unwittingly agreeing to a late date!  

The main question really is, can we square Rabbinic tradition with the scholarly analysis of the Torah, and the answer is really, we cannot. There are so many passages which do not fit the idea of Moshe writing at the dictation of Hashem, and so many internal contradictions, that the idea of one single early authorship does not wash. 

Therefore to ask if the transmission is correct, means you may have to accept the fact that it was not a question of transmission, accurate or otherwise, but a question of human editing, by Ezra or others, of various earlier texts.  

As for the script, you should read "Early History of the Alphabet" by Joseph Naveh, Magness Press, HU, 1982 or 7, which is the authoritative book on the alphabet. There is quite a good section on the scripts in the Bible Lands Museum, J'm. The one in the Israel Museum is closed for renovation, but they sell (or used to) a good chart with a whole range of the different Hebrew scripts (about 15 of them).  

I think you will find that these questions are more complicated that they look on the surface and there are no easy answers that suit our tradition.


      So how do I, personally, react to all of the above? Let me start by saying that I am pleased and comfortable being a Jew. I am very proud that we Jews, inter alia, gave the world a code of conduct better than anything that existed previously.

      I started researching only when latter-day rabbis started telling me that the Orthodox Judaism, with which I grew up, was wrong; that only their modern version is correct, implying that my then rabbis were more or less Apikorsim.

      I then started to question the status of such rabbis and came to the conclusion that they are not the intended teachers of Israel. See the essay on my website, 'Sadducees and Pharisees 2'*. However, they are what we now have and I love many of them.

      I then became concerned because, as I argue in my essay on the subject, the paragraph introducing ‘The Ethics of the Fathers’ is almost wholly incorrect.  

      When I read in the 'The Limits of Orthodox Theology' that many of our past great religious leaders contradicted and analysed Maimonides' concepts and also differed among themselves, I guessed that they too were only guessing, for how could they know what was in the mind of God and Maimmonides. They were engaged in post-facto rationalization to fit their own preconceptions. 

      Why is it that these contradictions and differences of opinions are not more widely known and discussed? 

      If Ezra's transliteration is probably not accurate, and if Dr. Marc Shapiro's research is correct, where does it leave our dogmas? Traditions do develop during the course of three thousand years, so all this would not trouble me if only our rabbis were not so dogmatic in saying with such absolute, unquestioning certainty that this and this written law and/or this and this oral law were received by Moses at Sinai. 

December 2008