The greatest book, the original version

BIU experts seek way to reconstruct Bible ur-text.

May 21, 2010 03:46
4 minute read.
dead sea scrolls

scroll 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

Is there a way to scientifically reconstruct the original biblical text? And if so, what would the halachic ramifications of such an achievement be?

These were two of the central questions that arose at the ninth meeting of Bar-Ilan University’s Nitzozot study series last week, which brought together experts from the fields of computer sciences, Bible study and Halacha for a discussion on the origins and fluctuations of the biblical text.

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According to the post-Talmudic tractate Sofrim, there were three Torah scrolls in the Temple court, each slightly inconsistent with the others. Since there was no way to determine which text was the original, the halachic principle of “ruling by the majority” was applied: The version that appeared in two out of the three scrolls was accepted as the standard text, even if the minority text, in theory, might have borne the original version.

Over the centuries, generations of scribes copied the Torah scrolls, and scribal errors inevitably crept in. To safeguard the holy text, the mesora, the oral tradition that noted the correct spellings of words, paragraph inclinations and cantillation notes, was also passed on within various families.

In the first half of the 10th century, a prominent member of a mesoratic family in Tiberias, Aharon Ben-Asher, created a written book version of the biblical text, a codex that, unlike the Torah scrolls, could also contain the accompanying mesora notes Ben-Asher inscribed. As it was a “crowning glory” of biblical texts, it became known as a Keter (crown), and after it ended up in Syria, the Aleppo Codex, or the Keter Aram Soba.

The biblical text was based on a cross-reference of the contemporary versions available to Ben-Asher, probably including his own memorized version, to create the most accurate corpus possible. At the same time, it was not able to reconstruct the original Second Temple-era version. The Keter received a major stamp of approval from Maimonides, who in the 12th century declared it to be the codex he trusted above all others.

Nature tends to be cyclic, as evident in the lunar and solar systems, or the transcription of the sound waves in a plot of speech over a few thousandths of a second, or the measurement of the volume of ice on a glacier over thousands of years. And when a cycle is identified, yet for some reason its data is incomplete, the lapses within it can sometimes be filled in based on the larger picture of the cycles.

Based on the principle of cycles in nature, Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, head of the Beit Midrash at Bar-Ilan’s Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies and the organizer of the Nitzozot series, asked the internationally renowned computer science professor and dean of the College of Exact Sciences at Bar-Ilan, Amihood Amir, who is an expert on reconstructing data, whether the same scientific principle of correcting cycles might be applied to the biblical text, which contains scribal errors created over the generations during the cycles of copying and recopying of Torah scrolls.

Amir’s lecture at Nitzozot last week presented the ways to reconstruct an original cycle that engendered following cycles, which could be applicable when the mistakes in the data used to reconstruct the cycle fell under certain conditions, such as in the case of bible copying.

As the biblical text comes with a codex, Prof. Yosef Ofer of Bar-Ilan’s bible department, whose expertise also covers the mesora, spoke of the parallels between digital algorithms created to prevent textual mistakes and those created and used by the mesora-holders to ensure the ongoing accuracy of the Torah.

In his address at the conference, Rappaport dwelled on the significance that the Torah text’s originality bears. The version we use today, he said, is not necessarily what Moses received at Sinai, but it is what God wants us to use, as it represents the best available version.

However, Rappaport stressed that the age-old halachic principle of ruling by the majority, such as in the case of alternating Torah versions, was not a solution based on statistical probabilities, but rather one applied only when there was no other way to resolve a specific quandary.

A definitive version of the Torah, scientifically reconstructed back to the ur-text the People of Israel received at Mount Sinai, may provide groundbreaking insights and shed new light on the most sanctified and widely disseminated and interpreted text in history.

“This is a fascinating and important project waiting to be undertaken,” Rappaport told The Jerusalem Post. “Now that the theoretical infrastructure to attempt to reconstruct the original text exists, the ways to apply it in order to achieve such an end will be examined.”

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