The following essay is an excerpt from:
The Religious and the Scientific Aspects of the Debate on the Codes Hidden in the Torah at Equidistant Letter Sequences
whose full text can be found here.

The Opinion of the Torah Greats Throughout The Generations on the Historical Accuracy of the Torah Text

Menachem Cohen

Professor of Bible, Bar-Ilan University
Director and Editor, Miqra'ot Gedolot HaKeter Project

All Torah greats, in all generations, who through their authority as Halachic arbiters or as writers of the laws of Torah scrolls gathered information on the question of the accuracy of the text, made a distinction between an unfortunate textual reality which no longer allows the identification of the true historic text and between the Halachic authority which allows the determination of an authorized version at any time and in any place, according to Halachic criteria. Everyone agrees about the historic question; there is no Torah scroll about which it can definitively be said that it is a true representative of the text which was given to Moshe at Sinai. On the other hand, we can find various opinions about the fitness of a Torah scroll, all relying either on the principles of Halachic arbitration such as following the majority or an expert, or on a certain acceptance of the diverse reality, based on "When it is the time to act for the Lord, overturn the Torah," or conceding that we have been "forced." The examples which will be brought below are only reference points in the Halachic debate which raged on this topic. We will proceed from the more recent to the earlier.

The Chatam Sofer, in answering a question asked several times, why we do not make a special blessing when finishing the writing of a Torah scroll, though it is a commandment from the Torah, says in one of his responsa (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Part One, 52):

"To my mind there is no need for this question, for had Chazal been experts in defective and plene spelling, they would have set a blessing for the Torah scroll, but as they themselves were not expert, as brought in Kiddushin (30a) that they were not expert even on the verses, and even more so as the Masorah sometimes disagrees with the Gemara and we write according to the Masorah; a scroll written according to the Gemara is invalid. It is asked in Tractate Niddah 36a and the Tosfot there, on the topic of defective spelling (HN$A), that it was missing a vav, see there; the law is as in the Gemara, but when writing a Torah scroll we write it plene, with the vav"

The Chatam Sofer leaves no room for doubt about his stand on the situation of Torah scrolls in any recent historical period, from the days of Chazal to our times: we are not expert in the matters of defective and plene spelling in the Torah, not even on the verses. This basic stance he gleans from the famous words of Rav Yosef in Tractate Kiddushin (30a) on the state of manuscripts in Babylon: "They are expert in matters of defective and plene spelling; we are not expert." Similarly, he points out that there are contradictions between the Masoretic text and the versions mentioned in the Gemara, and often we even find Halachic midrashim based on versions which do not exist in the Masoretic text. According to the Chatam Sofer, Halacha settles these differences by making a distinction between two levels: A. the manner in which scrolls are written, following the Masorah, and B. the laws learned from another version which still has some measure of authority.

The Chatam Sofer says his words briefly, and he does not go into a discussion of several basic questions which may arise on this matter, such as: how can this stance be reconciled with the known Halachic statement, "A Torah scroll missing even one letter is invalid" (Rambam, The Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzot, and Torah Scrolls, 1:2). This statement is one of the main causes for the common notion that many hold about the undamaged transmission of the Torah. How shall we understand it against the background of the Chatam Sofer's words?

This very question, about the seeming contradiction between the assumption that we are not now expert in the details of the letters of the Torah scroll and the Halachic formula of the Rambam, stands at the center of a discussion by Rabbi Abraham, the son of Mordechai HaLevi, the author of "Ginat V'radim," who preceded the Chatam Sofer by some hundred years. Below are the main points which touch on the topic we are discussing (Responsa Ginat V'radim, "Orach Chaim", rule 2, section 6):

"Question: Rabbi, tell me. The Rambam said in the Laws of Torah Scrolls that there are twenty things of which if even one occurs the scroll hasn't the sanctity of a Torah scroll and we do not read from it in public. Among these twenty things is if even one letter is missing or there is one extra letter. This is difficult, for at this time we do not have any scrolls which are truly kosher and which are as the Torah was given at Sinai. Even at the time of the Talmudic sages there were no kosher scrolls at all, as brought in Kiddushin 30a: The vav of Gachon is half of the letters of the Torah scroll. Rav Yosef asked if it were on one side of the center or on the other. They wondered why one would question, when he could count it in the Torah. He explained that we are not expert in the matters of defective and plene spelling. Now, if the sages of the Talmud before us were not expert in matters of defective and plene spelling, what of us, who have been tossed and turned time after time and our hearts have grown smaller? And so, shouldn't the Rambam have at least said that this is the way it should have been according to the Torah, but in these times, when we have no Torah scrolls that are as they should be, exact in defective and plene spelling, one should allow it; it is not possible otherwise.

Answer: It is said in Tractate Soferim (6:4) that three scrolls were found in the Temple court. In two it was written meonah and in one maon. They went according to the two and rejected the one, and the same with zaatute versus atziley. They did correctly when they ignored the single scroll in favor of the two others, for from the Torah we are told to follow the majority in every issue, though it is possible and even common that we miss the truth… and likewise, the people of the Temple court, when they found a disagreement in the scrolls, went according to the majority…. Therefore we find that the words of the Rambam OBM were correct, because… each scroll can be checked to see how it was, and we can settle controversies between the scrolls by following the majority. A scroll which is checked this way will be considered as though it had been given at Sinai, and any defective or plene spelling different from that will be considered as invalidating, and such a scroll would have none of the sanctity of a Torah scroll…And therefore the scribe's copybook, set for us by the Rishonim, should not be added to nor taken away from, for it is as though we have received it from Sinai…

Both the question and answer are interesting and most instructive. The question is asked on the ideological plane and not necessarily connected to any actual problem. The questioner finds it difficult to reconcile the words of the Rambam about the matter of a single letter invalidating a Torah scroll with the well known assumption amongst the cognoscenti, which he does not doubt, that no one knows the authentic letter sequence of the Torah, not at this time nor at the time of Chazal. In his answer, the author of "Ginat V'radim" separates between the two ways of viewing this issue: A. the ideological view and B. the historical view. Historically it may in fact be true that Torah scrolls in different communities are not exactly the same text as that given at Sinai. But Halachically one must apply the notion of "Torah from Sinai" to every human decision made according to the Halachic principle of following the majority. The first testimony of such a textual determination in this manner is found in the story of the three scrolls found in the Temple court, and it therefore is discussing Second Temple reality. In the Holy Temple itself there were scrolls which were textually unlike each other, and they decided amongst them to determine an authorized text. From that moment on the scroll which represented those decisions (apparently the "Masoretic text") is considered as though it were given at Sinai, though it is possible that the text does not represent the correct version from a historical standpoint. In a similar fashion, there have been decisions based on the majority from time to time, and the rule about these decisions is not different than that of the first decision. The words of the Rambam about the addition or lack of a single letter invalidating a Torah scroll deals, according to the author of "Ginat V'radim," with the consolidated text determined by those decisions.

We will now consider an even older textual reality, the one which prevailed in the different centers of transmission throughout the Diaspora, and how the Torah greats related to it when they wrote the laws of a Torah scroll in an effort to instruct the scribes in their writing. We will begin with the decision of the Ramah (Rabbi Meir the son of Todros HaLevi, from Toledo in Spain, who lived in the 13th century), one of the great Spanish Halachic arbiters (author of the "Yad Ramah") and a great expert on matters of the Masorah and text. In his book "Masoret Syag LaTorah" he writes, among other things:

"All the more so now that due to our sins, the following verse has been fulfilled amongst us, "Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, Even a marvelous work and a wonder; And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the prudence of their prudent men shall be hid"(Is. 29:14). 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 Halachically "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. When I, R. Meir HaLevi Ben Todros of Spain, saw what had befallen the scrolls, the Masorah lists, and the plene and defective spelling traditions, due to the ravages of time, I felt the need to search after the most precise and proofread codices and the most reliable Masoretic traditions, to resolve the conflicts. The newly-produced scrolls should be abandoned in favor of older, more faithful ones and among these the majority of texts should be followed as commanded in the Torah to decide any controversy, as it is written: "After the multitude to do"...(Ex. 23:2)."

The Ramah was one of the few Torah greats of any time who not only was a sage in the Torah, but also was an expert on matters of Mesorah and text. Not for naught did he become the recognized expert in this field, both in his generation and in the generations following. His book, "Mesoret Syag LaTorah," represents an expert's painstaking comparison of thousands of Masoretic notes and examination of scrolls which he calls "the most precise and proofread." The results of this comparison were applied in his instructions on writing Torah scrolls. This work had a decisive influence on the shaping of the Torah text in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, an influence which was already growing during the era of manuscripts but which reached its full force in the age of printing, the revolutionary technology which created new possibilities for accelerating the unification of the text everywhere. New means of distribution, which allowed quick and wide-spread distribution of authoritative books, led to an accelerated unification of the text around the image of the "Masoretic text," even in places where the text used for hundreds of years was quite different than this image, such as Ashkenaz (see below). The Torah text printed in the first edition of "Mikraot Gedolot" is still not identical to the letter-sequence the Ramah suggested [it has dozens of changes, fifteen in Genesis alone, including: "meneurav" (MN@WRYW) (Gen. 8:21), "hakimoti" (HQYMTY) (Gen. 9:17), "vayehe" (WYHYW) (Gen. 9:29), and "ohalo" (AHLH) (Gen. 26:25)], but printings of the "Tikkun Sefer-Torah" based on the Ramah's decisions, along with a few additional decisions made by R' Menachem Di Lunzano (end of the 16th century), in his book "Or Torah," formed the precise Masoretic text common today in the Torah scrolls of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities; it is also the text of the Torah in the Koren Tanach.

We will now move on to the Rambam, one of the greatest of Torah greats in all generations and an older contemporary of the Ramah. He also wished to show the way for scribes in their writing of Torah scrolls. The Rambam was then in Egypt, and the description of the textual situation which appears in his Laws of a Torah Scroll [chapter eight, Halacha four] reflects mainly the textual reality in Eastern lands. The description centers mainly on the "open" and "closed" chapters and the structure of the songs, an inexactness in which can also invalidate a Torah scroll, but there is no doubt that he also meant other textual phenomena, such as defective and plene spelling:

"Since I have seen great confusion in all the scrolls in these matters, and also the Masoretes who wrote [special works] to make known [which sections are] "open" and "closed" contradict each other, according to the books on which they based themselves, I took it upon myself to set down here all the sections of the Law, and the forms of the Songs [i.e. Ex.15, Deut.32], so as to correct the scrolls accordingly. The copy on which we based ourselves in these matters is the one known in Egypt, which contains the whole Bible, which was formerly in Jerusalem so that scribes might correct copies according to it. Everybody accepted it as authoritative, for Ben Asher proofread it and was exacting about it for many years. And I used it as the basis for the copy of the Torah Scroll which I wrote according to the Halacha."

So here, too, textual reality teaches us about the many differences between the texts of Torah scrolls, but the solution which the Rambam offered is different from the solution of the Ramah. Since he had a famous scroll available to him, written by one of the great Masoretes, Aharon Ben-Asher (this scroll is the "Keter Aram Sova," now found in the Israel Museum), he does not follow the majority, but relies upon the vast expertise of Ben-Asher and in accordance writes his own scroll, which later serves as a model for the writing of other scrolls. [It appears that the text of the Yemenite community is copied from this scroll.]

A much more serious textual situation of the Medieval Torah scrolls, is reflected in the words of Rabbenu Tam, the greatest Tosaphist and the leader of the Ashkenazic Jewry in the first half of the 12th century. He also checked the Torah scrolls in his area while preparing to write the laws of Torah scrolls, and the results are reflected in his words [The Laws of Torah Scrolls, Machzor Vitri, pg. 654]:

"From now on, pay attention to the exactness of scribes and the bodies of the letters, for they are not expert in the accuracy of the text, as Rav Yosef said at the end of chapter one of Kiddushin: "They (in Eretz Israel) are expert in defective and plene spelling; We are not expert." And because it is a time to act for the Lord, our scrolls are also considered 'kosher.'

Thus, Rabbenu Tam determines that the Torah scrolls in the area of Ashkenaz are not exact due to the lack of expertise on the part of the scribes. The textual situation is similar to the situation in Babylon of Rav Yosef's time. Rabbenu Tam does not even suggest deciding upon a text, following the majority, for the textual state of scrolls in Ashkenaz was so diverse that there would be no point in deciding according to the majority. The validity of Torahs scrolls does not stem from their level of exactitude, but only from the power of the Halachic rule, "When it is time to act for the Lord, overturn the Torah."

This situation did not significantly change in Ashkenaz until the end of the Middle Ages, as can be proven from the testimony of one of the leaders of the generation at the end of the 14th century and beginning of the 15th, Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Millhousen [in his book "Tikkun Sefer Torah"]:

"Because of our many sins, the Torah has been forgotten and we can not find a kosher Torah scroll; the scribes are ignoramuses and the scholars pay no attention in this matter. Therefore I have toiled to find a Torah scroll with the proper letters, open and closed passages, but I have found none, not to mention a scroll which is accurate as to the plene and defective spellings, a subject completely lost to our entire generation. In all these matters we have no choice [i.e. we are Halachically considered anusim]"

We should note that Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman Millhousen, who served as a religious judge (dayyan) and head of yeshiva, particularly in the city of Prague, was known for his wanderings and his activity throughout the wide Ashkenazic sphere of influence, starting in Germany and ending in Poland. The tone of despair about his fruitless efforts to find a properly written Torah scroll thus encompasses all the above territory. We find, therefore, that nothing substantial changed in the Ashkenazic areas since the days of Rabbenu Tam. Not only that, but the spreading of the Germanic community eastward into Poland and Russia only expanded the territory subject to this reality.

We will conclude our overview with the words of the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi), one of the great Medieval Bible commentators, who brings an opinion on the formation of the Masoretic text itself. At the end of his introduction to the early Prophets, he mentions some of his principles for Biblical interpretation. Among others, he explains how to handle the interpretation of ktiv and kri, and even brings his opinion on the source of the phenomenon. The Radak apparently thought of the reference in Chazal to the three scrolls found in the Temple Court and finds therein an echo of widespread textual activity by the Men of the Great Assembly to set an authorized text for all holy books after they had been distorted in the first exile. In this framework many determinations were made between different versions (above and beyond the three examples mentioned in the passage by Chazal) based on the Halachic principle of majority versus minority. These determinations are no longer to be observed in our text; the only remnant left of that process is the phenomena of ktiv and kri which were created in those cases which could not be decided, and therefore both versions were adopted. This is what he writes:

"And I will also write the reason for ktiv and kri, and for what is written but not read and what is read but not written, when I can give a reason for each of them, each in its own place. It seems to me that these words are found here because in the first exile books were lost and unsettled, and the sages who knew the books died, and the Men of the Great Assembly returned the Torah to its former glory. They found disputes between scrolls and went according to the majority; when they could not completely clarify the matter, they write one and did not pointillate it, or wrote in the margin and not in the text, or wrote one way in the text and another way in the margin."

There is no doubt, therefore, that had Witztum lived in one of the earlier generations, from the days of the Second Temple to the 19th century, and had he brought a clearly formulated question to any sage of his generation in any land, asking about the success of the transmission in maintaining the original letter sequence of the text, he would have been answered in the negative. So why is our generation different from previous generations? Has something happened to clarify to the religious arbiters of our days what was not clear to earlier generations? Based on what did Rabbi Fisher give the positive answer which allowed the wild dance of Codes research? The unambiguous answer which a man of Halacha would be obligated to give would be similar in essence (though not necessarily in details) to the answer which would have been given by one who researched the history of the text, had he been asked: No edition of the Tanach, neither the Koren edition nor any other edition, represents, nor can it represent, the original text of the Torah down to its letter sequences, since there is a great deal of testimony from each and every generation of a varied textual reality (and this does not mean isolated changes, but hundreds and even thousands of changes) which required Halachic determination at different times and places to set an authorized text. Therefore any statistical research made on the basis of an assumption that the text is historically accurate is necessarily based on nothing. At this point Rabbi Fisher should have stopped the pretension of Witztum's statistical research by a reasoned Halachic decision.