Photo Credit: courtesy Sotheby's
Ancient Torah scroll

A complete, 13th century (circa 1270) Ashkenazi Torah scroll, one of the oldest in the world, was discovered in the US about six months ago and sold at auction by Sotheby’s in New York on December 22, now resolved an old controversy over the correct spelling of a word in Deuteronomy 23:2, Matzav Haruach reported. The common tradition regarding the verse, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord,” holds that the Hebrew word “Daka,” for crushed testicles, is spelled with the letter Heh in the end, while the Yeminte Torahs and the Torah text approved by the “alter Rebbe,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, spell it with the letter Alef in the end. And so does this 750-year-old manuscript.

The age of the scroll was determined by North Carolina State University physicist Dr. Hong Wand, using carbon-14 in a particle accelerator. Dr. Yossi Peretz, head of the Hebrew language specialty at Orot Israel College, was asked to analyze and verify the ancient scroll, and last week lectured on his findings at the College’s 16th annual Colloquium at its Elkana campus.


Dr. Peretz has demonstrated that the medieval Torah manuscripts as well as the few Torah scrolls which survive from that period can be typologically categorized by their geographical area of origin; this is accomplished by comparing the incidence of various features (textual variants, the presence or absence of certain “open” and “closed” section divisions, the layouts of the two biblical “songs” as well as occasional halakhic references which may help to ascertain when and where certain customs or practices obtained) to both the very few other known exemplars of early scrolls, and even more importantly, to the numerous dated and localized codices of the Torah. For the purposes of this type of research, the benchmark comparison is to the Aleppo Codex, (10th century, Tiberias) universally recognized as the most accurate revision of the traditional text of the Hebrew Bible.

According to Peretz, the scroll that was sold in auction is made up of 86 sheets, with 257 columns, each column holding 48 rows, rather than today’s 42-row standard. The Yemenite scrolls hold 51 rows, normally.

The original scribe insisted on the custom of starting each column with the letter Vav, which means “hook” in Hebrew, symbolically “hooking” each column to the one that preceded it. In order to keep up with his ambitious task, the scribe was forced to stretch or squeeze lines, occasionally overdoing the letter-stretching in order to reach the next Vav. Today’s scribes also maintain this custom, but they copy from guide books (“Tikuney Sofrim”), where all the space issues have been resolved for them, whereas our 13th century scribe was making it up as he went along.

One of the challenges of this type of comparative analysis has always been the tendency of later scribes to “correct“ the work of their predecessors, reflecting shifts in the development of halakhic understanding of the ancient traditions surrounding the writing of the Torah. These well-meaning efforts to achieve a more “accurate” Torah Scroll have all too often yielded the unintended consequence of rendering the original scribal traditions unrecognizable. Fortunately, technological advances in multispectral imaging (a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum) are now capable of peeling back these accreted layers of later scribal interference and revealing the original scribe’s work with renewed clarity.

And so, the scholars have been able to discern that in addition to the distinctive thirteenth-century Ashkenazic square script, the present scroll includes many features, which attest to its extremely early date and its specifically Ashkenazic character. It is one of, if not the earliest, complete Ashkenazic Torah Scrolls written in the thirteenth century. When paired with the latest available scientific methods of multispectral imaging and comparative analysis of both the text and layout of the scroll, this Sefer Torah provides the earliest and best baseline reference with which to compare all later examples of Torah Scrolls written according to Ashkenazic tradition over the next eight centuries.

A steal at only $310,000.

For more on the different spellings of ancient Torah manuscripts, read On the Text of the Torah by Gil Student.


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