Authenticity of the Written Torah

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
© 20’14 by Ask Noah International. Updated May 8, 20’14.

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 Moses Received Oral Torah and Written Torah from G-d

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 this foundational core of the Oral Torah that G-d gave through Moses at Mount Sinai. It is is not a post-Sinai interpretation of or commentary on the Written Torah. Rather, it preceded the completion of the Five Books of Torah that Moses wrote down at the end of his life.

When the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai 3326 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 Divine 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” (i.e. the spoken words) of the Al-mighty about details of the hundreds of Jewish commandments, and about the renewal of the Seven Noahide commandments with their details. After he descended and quickly dealt with the transgression of the gold calf which some of the people had committed, he immediately returned to the top of Mount Sinai for another 40 days and nights to pray for forgiveness for the Jewish People, whom G-d had threatened to obliterate (G-d forbid!) on account of the making and worshiping of the golden calf. After these prayers were accepted at the end of this period and G-d was reconciled with the people, Moses descended to hew the second set of tablets, and then ascended again 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 that Jews are commanded to observe as Yom Kippur (their Day of Atonement).

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 Stars [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. Each Jewish man in the next generation either inherited the scroll that belonged to his father, or commissioned a new scroll to be copied from an existing scroll.

How did the Jewish 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 way, the Written and Oral was faithfully transmitted throughout the entire Jewish People by making meticulous scribal copies of their Torah scrolls and teaching the Oral Torah by rote memorization. Any scroll that was found to contain a mistake, or any person who forgot or misinterpreted a detail of the correct explanation, would quickly be corrected. Furthermore, Moses himself instituted that throughout the communities of the Jewish People wherever they might be, there would be public readings from Torah scrolls on every Saturday morning (during the Jewish Sabbath), and on the first day of each month in the Hebrew calendar, and on every Jewish holy day (the Biblical festivals). In this system, the reading of the entire Five Books of Moses was 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 Jewish communal 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 Holy 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 recounted to each subsequent generation.

When the armies of the Babylon empire conquered the Holy Land, first the people of the northern Tribes of Israel were exiled, and as punishment for their sins, those Tribes were temporarily lost (until they will be gathered back to the Holy Land when the true Messiah comes, speedily in our days). Then the First Temple was destroyed, and most of the people of the remaining Tribes were taken captive to Babylon. Without the Temple in Jerusalem, 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. It is not a machine-printed typeset book such as most modern people are familiar with. 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 and reading 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] (The fact that Protestantism began only after the invention of the printing press explains in part their seeming belief in a self-interpreting Hebrew Bible text, since they have no historical memory of when the Hebrew Bible had to be written by hand, and taught, according to the details that are dictated by the Oral Torah.)

In particular, and of extreme importance, the text of the Torah scroll that was dictated to Moses by G-d was commanded to be written down in consonant letters only, with no vowels or punctuation. The vowels and punctuation, which are 100% necessary for meaningful words and sentences to exist, were preserved as part of the Oral Torah and not the Written Torah. This rule was also applied to the additional 19 Books of the Hebrew Bible from subsequent Jewish Prophets (the complete Hebrew Bible is arranged in a total of 24 Books). The machine-printed Hebrew Bibles we buy today have a system of dots to represent the vowels as well as the punctuation marks, but those written symbols are a more recent innovation [4]. In fact, the sentences of written text of the Hebrew Bible from Moses and the later prophets do not have a normal type of punctuation. Rather, the verses are to be sung/chanted according to the chant that was taught by Moses for the Torah scroll and the later Prophets for the books they wrote. The fixed punctuation is provided by the fixed rhythm of the chant (called the cantillation), and the “puncuation” marks are the “notes and rests” in the tune. The source for these is not found in the Torah scrolls, but rather they were passed down in the Authoritative Oral Tradition, without which the written Hebrew text of the scroll would be nearly useless to us, G-d forbid, as illustrated in this comparison photograph:

Torah text scribal and typed with vowels and catnillation

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!

Beyond this, 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 (called the trop in Hebrew) 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 written 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.

Share