Authenticity of the Written Torah (a lesson for Shavuot)

In this essay, we present the refutation to those who claim that the Five Books of Moses were not actually transmitted to the Jewish People by Moses, or that the handwritten scribal text of the Torah scroll has been altered since the time of Moses, G-d forbid.

By the Director of www.asknoah.org and a Noahide friend
© ’06-’12 by Ask Noah International

1. Introduction

Our goal is to open people’s eyes to the truth of the Torah, and to give rest to tormented and searching souls who have not known this until now. With this knowledge, all intellectually honest people will be drawn to Torah because it is TRUE, ancient and unchanging, and timeless in its Divine messages for both Gentiles and Jews. It is now time for people to learn the historical reasons for the unsuperseded Torah of Moses.

There are two ways to approach this explanation. One way is to assess the handwritten scribal text of the Torah scroll as it has remained unchanged since Biblical times, and to trace this exact text back to Moses. The other way is to describe the Written Torah that Moses gave over, and to show that it has been precisely transmitted throughout the ages. The conclusive point is the same when considered from both of these directions.

2. How the Oral and Written Parts of Torah were Received

Let us begin with a description of the original situation to which we refer. The following is from the “Introduction to the Mishneh Torah,” by Moses Maimonides, or “Rambam,” 1135 – 1204 C. E. (our free translations from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah closely follow the translations in the volumes published by Moznaim Publishing Corporation):

“All the commandments that G-d gave to Moses at Sinai were given together with their explanations, as it is said [Exodus 24:12], ‘And I will give you the tablets of stone [upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved by G-d] and the Torah and the mitzvah.’ ‘The Torah’ refers to the Written Torah; ‘the mitzvah‘ refers to its explanation. G-d commanded us [the Jewish People] to fulfill ‘the Torah’ according to the instructions of ‘the mitzvah.’ And this ‘mitzvah‘ is called the Oral Torah.

The entire Torah [the Five Books of Moses] was handwritten [as a complete scroll] by Moses our teacher before he died. He gave a scroll of the Torah to each of the Tribes of the Jewish People, and he placed one Torah scroll in the Holy Ark as a testimonial, as it is said [Deuteronomy 31:26]: ‘Take this Torah scroll and place it [beside the Ark of the Covenant of The L-rd your G-d], and it shall be there as a testimonial.’

And ‘the mitzvah,’ which is the explanation of the Torah, he did not write down, but he commanded it to the elders, to Joshua, and to the rest of the Jewish People, as it is said [Deuteronomy 13:1]: ‘Be careful to observe everything I command to you.’ For this reason, it is called the Oral Torah.”

It is important to clarify a misunderstanding that many people have about what the Oral Torah is. The Oral Torah is not a post-Sinai interpretation of or commentary on the Written Torah. In fact, the Oral Torah preceded the completion of the Five Books of Moses.

When the Jewish People stood at Mt. Sinai 3323 years ago, G-d openly revealed Himself on one day to the entire nation (on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, in the year 2448 of the Hebrew calendar), and He spoke to them the Ten Commandments. This unique event had many millions of eye witnesses: over 600,000 Jewish men aged 20 and older, all the younger Jewish males, all the Jewish females, and the vast number of Egyptians (insincere converts – the Erev Rav) who followed these more than 3 million Jews out of Egypt.

Immediately following this open revelation to millions of people, Moses ascended to the top of Mount Sinai, and then he entered into the cloud of G-d’s glory and ascended into the heavenly realm (the “mountain of G-d”) [Exodus 24:15-18]. There he spent a first period of 40 days and nights learning from the mouth of the Al-mighty about details of the hundreds of Jewish commandments, and about the renewal of the Seven Noahide commandments. After he descended, he quickly returned for another 40 days and nights to pray for forgiveness for the Jews who had participated in the building of the golden calf. After his prayers were accepted at the end of this period, he descended to hew the second set of tablets, and then ascended for another 40 days and nights. During this last period, G-d taught Moses the details of the Torah laws (the halachot), along with midrash and aggadot (homiletic teachings, parables, stories, maxims, non-literal expositions, etc). Moses then descended for the final time on the day of Yom Kippur.

For the next 40 years that the Jews spent in the wilderness, Moses taught these details to the Jewish People orally, on a nearly daily basis during their periods of encampment. How was this done? As stated in the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin, p. 54b), Moses had learned the details of the commandments from the mouth of the Al-mighty while he had ascended to Heaven from Mt. Sinai. For the remainder of his lifetime which was spent leading the Jews during their journeys through the wilderness, on the days when Moses taught the people it was according to the following procedure:

“Moses went into the Tent, and Aaron [1] went in with him. Moses then stated to him a single time the mitzvah he had received and taught him its explanation, (following which) Aaron moved to the right of Moses. Then, Elazar and Itamar, Aaron’s sons, entered and Moses told them what he had told Aaron, and then they stepped back. One sat to the left of Moses, and the other on the right of Aaron. Then the seventy Elders arrived, and Moses taught Aaron and his sons. Following this came the masses of people and every one seeking G-d, and Moses placed before them the mitzvah, until all had heard it from his mouth.

The result is that Aaron heard that precept from the mouth of Moses four times, his sons three times, the Elders twice, and the remainder of the people once. Moses then left, and Aaron repeated the explanation of that mitzvah which he had learned, having heard it from the mouth of Moses four times, to all those present. Aaron then left, after his sons had heard the precept four times (three times from Moses, and once from Aharon). After Aaron had departed, Elazar and Itamar repeated and taught that mitzvah to all the people present, and then ceased their teaching.

Thus we find that the seventy Elders heard the precept four times: twice from Moses, once from Aaron, and once from Elazar and Itamar. The Elders themselves then repeated and expounded the mitzvah to the people one time. As a result, we find that the entire congregation heard the precept in question four times [during the daily lesson]: once from Moses, once from Aaron, a third time from his sons, and the fourth time from the Elders. [The greatest student of all was Joshua, about whom it says, 'His attendant Joshua bin Nun, a young man, would not depart from within the Tent.' (Ex. 33:11)]

After this, all the people went to teach one another what they had heard from Moses and to write that mitzvah on [their own personal] scrolls. The leaders would roam through the Israelites to (insure that the people) learned and applied themselves until they would know [the established version of] that mitzvah and were fluent in reading it. They would then teach the explanations of that G-d-given precept. That explanation would include all aspects, and they would write the precept and learn by heart the Oral Law.” [2]

3. False Claims

Now we all know the claim that has been advanced for the past 2000 years or so, by individuals and groups who wished to deny the Oral Torah, that in its origin the Oral Law was a fiction of the first-century C. E. (Common Era) Pharisees to justify their own “minority” positions, and that it was only due to historical accidents that Pharisaic Judaism became normative Rabbinic Judaism after the loss of the Second Temple. What is the origin of this awesome lie? In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah published by Moznaim, vol. 3, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim (Laws of the Worship of Starts [and Idols]), the translator explains in a footnote how this came about:

“In his commentary on Tractate Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 1:3, Rambam writes that Tzadok (a High Priest who became the first Sadducee) and Baithos were students of [the leading Sage] Antigonus of Socho. When they heard their teacher declare, ‘Do not serve the Master [G-d] for the sake of receiving a reward,’ they were upset, since they thought that he was implying that no reward would be given for the performance of mitzvot [Torah commandments]. They spoke about the matter between themselves and decided to reject the Torah.

They began splinter groups which rejected the core of Jewish practice and coveted material wealth [and political influence]. They found that they could not convince the majority of the people to reject the Torah entirely, so they adopted a different tactic. They claimed that they were true to ‘Torah,’ but that the only Torah that was Divine was the Written Law, [and that] the Oral Law was merely a human invention.

This claim was only a ruse [as it remains today!] to sway people from the performance of the mitzvot. Accordingly, the Sages would frequently refer to all those who deny the Torah and its tradition as Sadduccees (‘followers of Tzadok’) or Baithosees (‘followers of Baithos’).”

It wasn’t until 40 years after the revelation of G-d at Mount Sinai to the entire Jewish People, that just prior to Moses’ death and the Jewish People entering the Land of Israel, that the complete Written Torah (consisting of its narratives and the source verses for the commandments) was given to the Jewish People. At that time, the original thirteen Torah scrolls were written by Moses and distributed to the Tribes and to the Mishkan (the traveling Temple, or “Tabernacle”). How did Moses receive the Written Torah? It was dictated to him by G-d, letter by letter and word by word (exactly 304,805 letters in all). Furthermore, G-d showed to Moses the Written Torah as it was existing since before the creation, 2000 Heavenly levels beyond this world, written by G-d “with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire” (Zohar 3, Parshat Naso p. 132a).

Note: after the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, in the few days before the Ten Commandments were spoken by G-d, the Book of Genesis, and the Book of Exodus up that point, were written down in a scroll by Moses. At that point he read it the assembled Israelite nation, and they sealed a covenant upon it with G-d. See “Timeline” on our web page Locate Sources.

How did G-d in his Infinite Wisdom ensure that the Written Torah would never be changed? G-d included in the Torah a commandment that every adult Jewish male must personally acquire and study his own Torah scroll. From the time that Moses gave over one Torah scroll to each Tribe, the trained scribes among the people made Torah scrolls for every Jewish man by exactly copying from one of the scrolls that Moses wrote. The Jewish men in the next generation either inherited the scroll that belonged to their father, or commissioned a new scroll to be copied from an existing scroll. Before they reached maturity, how did the children learn Torah? They learned by memorizing both the Written Torah and its explanation in the Oral Torah. The Talmud explains the system of learning (Tractate Chagigah p. 9b): “Who is one who is not serving G-d [since he is learning only according to the accepted norm]? Someone who reviews his lesson 100 times. Who is one who serves G-d? One who reviews his lesson 101 times.” In this system, the entire Torah was faithfully transmitted throughout the entire Jewish people by meticulous scribal copies and rote memorization. Any scroll that was found to contain a mistake, or any person who forgot a detail of the correct explanation, would quickly be corrected. Furthermore, Moses himself instituted that throughout the Jewish nation there would be public readings from Torah scrolls on every Saturday morning (during the Jewish Sabbath), on the first day of each month in the Hebrew calendar, and on every Jewish holy day (the Biblical festivals), with the reading of the entire Five Books of Moses being completed with the Sabbath readings on a three-year cycle. (Ezra the Scribe instituted additional public readings from Torah scrolls every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon. A one-year cycle of readings on the Sabbath was adapted after synagogues became the centers of worship.)

Furthermore, G-d included in the Torah scroll narratives of the events that happened to the entire Jewish nation during their enslavement in Egypt and their 40 years in the wilderness. After the death of Moses, for the generation of Jews which then acquired the land of Israel, each family in the entire nation owned one or more identical Torah scrolls which contained a national record of the events which those same people had personally experienced, and which were passed on to each subsequent generation. This continued until Babylon conquered the Holy Land. First the people of the northern Tribes of Israel were dispersed and lost. Then the First Temple was destroyed, and most of the people of the remaining Tribes were taken in chains to Babylon. Without the Temple, the main place of worship was moved to the local synagogues. With the shortage of scribes, it became accepted that the men in each congregation would fulfill the commandment to own a Torah scroll by becoming joint owners of the several Torah scrolls that were located in each synagogue.

4. The Torah Scroll

Now let us explain why the ultimate form of G-d’s Word is the Torah Scroll. This is not a machine-typed book such as most modern people are familiar with. (The fact that Protestantism began only after the invention of the printing press explains in part their seeming belief in a self-interpreting book, since they have no historical memory of when books had to be written by hand.) Rather, it is a hand-copied parchment scroll that is written according to incredibly strict rules. These rules for copying Torah scrolls are not written in the Torah scroll, but are rather included in the Oral Torah. What greater refutation of the deniers could exist? Thus one who claims that there is no certain Divine Tradition outside of what is written explicitly in the Torah, Prophets and Hagiographa [the written Hebrew Bible], is coming to claim that these millienia-old rules do not exist (G-d forbid!), which implies that anyone could write or produce a “Torah” of any kind and it would be valid! Ironically, such a reliance on the text alone, since it does not include the rules for writing the Torah, would have destroyed the unchanging, uniform text and appearance of the Torah Scroll as it has existed throughout the ages. It is actually the thousands of rules included in the Oral Torah for the writing a Torah Scroll that assure that every “kosher” Torah Scroll is an exact duplicate of the 13 Scrolls written by Moses, each of which was itself an earthly duplicate of the Great Heavenly Scroll written by G-d in letters of “black fire upon a scroll of white fire.” Without these rules, all we would have today at best would be a Torah of plain letters alone, without the scribal crowns, spaces, different sizes and shapes, etc. which define the “kosher” letters and words in the Torah Scroll which have always been and still remain universally identical among all Jews everywhere in the world. [3]

Furthermore, the written text dictated to Moses by G-d was consonant letters only, with no vowels or punctuation. The vowels and punctuation, which are 100% necessary for meaningful words to exist, were preserved as part of the Oral Torah and not the Written Torah. It is true that the machine-printed Bibles we buy today have a system of dots to represent vowels (as well as the other pronunciation, punctuation and cantillation marks [4]), but this is no different from the traditional Rabbinic commentaries which many machine-printed Hebrew Bibles have: they are not found in the Torah scrolls, but rather in the Authoritative Oral Tradition, without which the written text would be useless to us, G-d forbid. More recent religions, which debunk the idea of an Oral Torah from Sinai, advertise that they are founded upon the written “Old Testament” which they admit to, but which only exists as words and sentences as a result of the very Oral Torah which THEY deny!

The only required leap from common understanding is to realize that the Torah of Moses which continues to reside with us today explicitly communicates two parallel paths to fulfill G-d’s will: the Seven Noahide Commandments for Gentiles and the 613 Jewish Commandments for Jews.

Footnotes

[1] Of great interest is the “Cohen gene” which has been passed down from Aaron, the first Jewish High Priest and the brother of Moses, through males of the Jewish priestly family [Cohanim or Kohanim]. From Jewish Action magazine, Winter ’99:

“The finding of a common set of genetic markers in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Cohanim [Jewish father-to-son descendants of Aaron] worldwide clearly indicates an origin pre-dating the separate development of the two communities around 1000 CE. Date calculation based on the variation of the mutations among Cohanim today yields a time frame of 106 generations from the ancestral founder of the line, some 3,300 years, the approximate time of the [Israelite nation's] exodus from Egypt, the lifetime of Aaron the [first] Cohen.”

[2] Note that all of the Jewish men at the time of Mount Sinai were literate in reading and writing Hebrew.

[3] The Torah Script

A common argument relates to the assumed history of the style of Hebrew script in Torah scrolls – Ivri script (Ancient Hebrew) vs. Ashuri script (in universal use today). This whole issue is explained and resolved in the Appendix of the book “The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet,” published by Artscroll. To the extent that this is important for the present essay, we refer to and excerpt from that reference.

The explanation is summarized as follows. “Ashuri,” the holy Torah-scroll script, is from the Hebrew word “asher” that denotes the concepts of: wealth, joy, fortune, exaltedness. This was the holy script that G-d inscribed on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, that Moses saw in the Heavenly scroll of “black fire on white fire,” and that Moses wrote in the Torah scroll that placed by the Tablets in the Holy Ark. The common Hebrew script for daily use at that time was Ivri, or “(Ancient) Hebrew” script. Moses wrote 12 additional Torah scrolls for the use of each of the Twelve Tribes, from which Torah scrolls would be copied for each Jewish man for his daily study, in Ivri script. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the 22 letters in the two script types.

Over the generations, the Ivri script was in general daily use, and only the special spiritual leaders continued to pass down the tradition of the form of the Ashuri script that was on the scroll and tablets in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

The appendix in the Artscroll book goes on to explain that as many of the Jewish People fell into idol worship toward the end of the First Temple period, because of their low spiritual level the Ashuri script was forgotten by all but the most holy people. This continued into the Babylonian exile, until the event of the “Handwriting on the Wall” described in the Book of Daniel. The miraculous handwriting was in Ashuri script, which almost nobody knew how to read! They had to bring in the Prophet Daniel, who was one of the very few remaining prophets to whom the tradition of the Ashuri script had been passed down. The Jewish spiritual leaders then realized that the Ashuri script was in danger of being totally forgotten. So the leader Ezra decreed that it should be used from then on in every holy Hebrew scroll, so it would be known universally and preserved during the years of spiritual darkness until the coming of the Final Redemption.

[4] The fixed cantillation notes [the trop] for the verses of the Five Books of Moses were received by Moses from G-d as part of the Oral Torah. These notes for chanting the verses define the punctuation of the verses, and neither the notes nor the punctuation are written into the Torah scroll. Amazingly, these notes take precedence over the grammar for the words of the Written Torah itself. For example, when the feminine form of a word fits better with the cantillation of the verse than the expected masculine form, the gender of the Hebrew word switches from masculine to feminine. This proves that the Oral Torah (at least this aspect) was given to Moses along with the Written Torah.

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