The Torah Scroll: How the Copying Process Became Sacred
Contemporary Halakhah for the Writing of Torah Scrolls
The contemporary halakhah (Jewish law) for scribes writing a Torah scroll is exceedingly stringent. The scribe of a Torah scroll should be a God-fearing person. Before beginning to write, as well as before the writing of a holy name, the scribe must recite a blessing. Even the ink needs to be blessed. R. Solomon Ganzfried (1804–1886), in his Keset HaSofer—a standard if strict halakhic compendium for scribes— mentions the practice of scribes immersing themselves in a mikvah before writing a divine name:
קסת הסופר י:יח יש סופרים זהירים שלא לכתוב שם קודש בלי טהרת הגוף ונכון הוא. ולפעמים משום זה כותבין יריעה שלמה ומניחין פנוי מקום השמות לכתבן אח"כ לכשיטבלו במקוה טהרה וגם זה נכון.
Keset HaSofer 10:18 There are some zealous scribes who do not write the Name unless in a state of purity, and this is good. Sometimes, on account of this, they write a complete sheet and leave blank spaces for the Names, to write them in after they have been to the mikveh, and this is also good.
These scribal practices, which developed over many centuries, are a natural outgrowth of the sanctity of the Torah in Jewish tradition.
Ancient Reverence for the Torah
The Torah has been revered from antiquity until modern times. While Jewish tradition considers all biblical books to be divinely inspired, the Torah, which was understood to contain the direct words of God revealed to Moses, as well as divine prescriptions for life, is considered to be especially sacred. This hierarchy is expressed clearly in the Talmud through a practical rule:
בבלי מגילה כז. מניחין ספר תורה על גבי תורה, ותורה על גבי חומשין וחומשין על גבי נביאים וכתובים. אבל לא נביאים וכתובים על גבי חומשין, ולא חומשין על גבי תורה.
b. Megillah 27a One may lay a Torah scroll upon another Torah scroll, or a Torah scroll upon a chumash (= a scroll containing only one of the Pentateuchal books), or a chumash upon scrolls of the Prophets or Writings. But one may not lay scrolls of the Prophets or Writings upon a Torah scroll, nor may one lay a chumash on a Torah scroll.
The Talmud further explains that the Hebrew term for scribes, soferim, understood to be related to the root “to count,” derives from the precise work they would do in making sure they never missed or added a letter:
בבלי קידושין ל. לפיכך נקראו ראשונים סופרים שהיו סופרים כל האותיות שבתורה.
b. Kiddushin 30a The ancients were called soferim(lit. “counters”) because they counted every letter in Scripture.
This careful approach to copying was meant to apply to all scriptural works, but rules found in the Talmuds, as well as the post-Talmudic Tractate Soferim, focus especially on liturgical Torah scrolls, i.e., scrolls meant for public readings. Many of these laws deal with physical differences that distinguish such liturgical scrolls from other types of scrolls. These include:
Handles—The attachment of handle sheets and wooden bars to scrolls:
סופרים ב:ח מניחין בסוף הדף כדי הקיפו, [עושה עמוד בסוף הספר בתחלה כדי להקיפו] ואינו צריך לעשות כן בתחילתו, ולתורה מיכאן ומיכאן; לפיכך גוללין את הספר לתחילתו, ואת התורה לאמצעיתה.
Soferim 2:8 Enough space must be left at the end of the parchment to be able to wind it. [And a wooden bar should be placed at the end of the scroll, so as to wind around it,] but he need not do so for the scroll’s beginning. For a Torah scroll, however, (space for winding around a wooden bar) must be left on both sides. For this reason, a regular scroll is wound all the way (around one central bar), but a Torah is wound so that it can open from the middle.
Books—The beginning and end positions of scriptural books in the column (page):
ירושלמי מגילה פרק א:ט דף עא.ד וצריך שיהא גומר באמצע הדף ומתחיל באמצעיתו ובנביא גומר בסופו ומתחיל בראשו ובנביא של שנים עשר אסור.
j. Meg. 1.9 [p. 71d] (In the Torah) one has to finish in the middle of a page and to commence in the middle of the (same) page. In the Prophets one finishes at the end and begins at the top of a page, but in the Twelve Prophets, this is forbidden.
Space—The amount of space left at the tops and bottoms of the columns:
ירושלמי מגילה א:ט [עא.ד] צריך ליתן ריוח בספר מלמעלן שתי אצבעות ומלמטן שלש רבי אומר בתורה מלמעלן שלש ומלמטן טפח.
j Meg. 1.9 [p. 71d] (In scriptural scrolls), it is necessary to allow for a space of two fingerbreadths <3.04 cm> in the top margin, and three (fingerbreadths) <4.56 cm> in the bottom margin. Rabbi (Judah HaNasi) says: “For a Torah scroll, the top margin must be three [fingerbreadths] (4.56 cm) and the bottom, one handbreadth <7.62 cm>.”
The distinction in margin size between Torah scrolls and other scriptural scrolls is repeated in the Babylonian Talmud, but there the distinction is between liturgical Torah scrolls (all five books), and chumashim (one book):
בבלי מנחות ל. שיעור גיליון מלמטה טפח מלמעלה שלש אצבעות, ובין דף לדף כמלא ריוח רוחב שתי אצבעות. ובחומשין מלמטה שלש אצבעות ומלמעלה שתי אצבעות, ובין דף לדף כמלא ריוח גודל.
b.Men. 30a (In Torah scrolls), the width of the bottom marginshall be one handbreadth <7.62 cm>, of the top marginthree fingerbreadths <4.56 cm>, and of the intercolumnar margin two fingerbreadths <3.04 cm>. In the chumash scrolls, the bottom margin shall be three fingerbreadths (4.56 cm), the top margin two fingerbreadths (3.04 cm), and the inter-columnar margin a thumb-breadth (2.0 cm). 
This rabbinic rule relating to the relative size of the top and bottom margins in any scriptural scroll reflects the convention of most Judean Desert scrolls.
Erased letters—Other rules that likely applied only to Torah scrolls have to do with erased letters or errors that make scrolls unfit for reading:
סופרים ג:ח ספר שנמחק אל יקרא בו...
Sof. 3:8 A scroll (some of whose letters) are erased may not be used for the lections…
סופרים ג:ט ספר שנמחק בו שיטה אחת על פני כולו אסור לקרות בו, נמחק בו רובו ומיעוטו קיים מותר.
Sof. 3:9 A scroll of the Torah in which a whole line is erased may not be used for the lections. If the greater part of a line is erased and the smaller part intact, the use of the scroll is permitted.
סופרים ג:י ספר שיש בו טעות אל יקרא בו, וכמה יהיה בו, שלש בדף, דברי ר' יהודה, ר' שמעון בן גמליאל אומר אפילו אחת בדף אחד אל יקרא בו.
Sof 3:10 If a Torah scroll contains an error, it may not be used for the lections. How many? “Three in a column,” these are the words of R. Judah. R. Simeon b. Gamaliel says: “Even if there be one error in one column, the scroll may not be used for the lections.”
The precise requirements for Torah scrolls described in rabbinic literature reflect, and likely expand upon, the spirit of the activities of the proto-Masoretic scribes of the late Second Temple Period, who seem to have followed rules akin to those transmitted in later rabbinic works. Tradition as well as modern scholarship connects these scribes with the Pharisees, the forerunners of the rabbis.
Precision of the Proto-MT Scrolls and the Masoretic Tradition
The rabbinic tradition providing the special rules for the copying of Torah scrolls continued earlier traditions for the precise copying of all of Hebrew Scripture, manifested in the precise copying of all the elements of Scripture up to the smallest details. This precise copying was executed with such great care and with such success that several copies of the proto-Masoretic Text such as found in the Judean Desert, including tefillin, are almost identical (and sometimes: completely identical) with the medieval text of choice manuscripts after 1,000 years.
This precise copying included the reproduction of scribal marks, such as puncta extraordinaria (dotted letters) and the so-called inverted nunim, that were not intended to be copied but rather conveyed messages to the scribe to erase a letter or move a text. Nevertheless, since these scribes considered all of the inscribed surface of the scroll sacred, even these small details were included in the carefully copied text.
Scribal Methods Are the Same for All Scrolls
With very few exceptions, the manufacturers and scribes of the Judean Desert scrolls—whether proto-MT or from Qumran or from anywhere in ancient Israel—employed the same scribal methods for producing all the scrolls known to us, sacred or not. This pertains to all the aspects of the physical preparation of the scrolls by a manufacturer and the preparation of the scroll and the actual writing by a scribe, relating to the following parameters:
- writing materials,
- preparation of the skins,
- dimensions of scrolls, sheets, and columns,
- number of columns per sheet,
- height of columns,
- dimensions of margins,
- horizontal and vertical ruling,
- use of guide dots/strokes guiding the ruling;
- initial and final handle sheets,
- divisions between words, small sense units (stichs and verses), and larger sense units,
- special layout of poetical units in Scripture texts,
- scribal marks,
- correction procedures,
While rabbinic literature records rules for the writing of sacred texts, creating the impression that these scribal procedures were devised especially for the copying of sacred books, most of the details reflect the writing practices employed in nonsacred texts during the Second Temple period as well.
For example, the rule for indicating open and closed sections (Soferim 1:15) reflects the usual paragraphing system in the Judean Desert texts:
סופרים א:טו איזו היא פתוחה, כל שלא התחיל בראש השיטה, ואיזו היא סתומה, כל שהניח מבאמצע השיטה.
Soferim 1:15 What is an open section? Any line that does not begin with writing at the beginning. What is a closed section? Any line that has space left in the middle.
וכמה יניח בראש השיטה, ותהא נקראת פתוחה, כדי לכתוב שם של שלש אותיות. וכמה יניח באמצע השיטה, ותהא נקראת סתומה, כדי לכתוב שם של שלש אותיות.
How much space should be left at the beginning of the line such that it counts as an open section? Enough to write three letters. And how much in the middle of the line such that it counts as a closed section? Enough to write three letters.
This practice was followed in most compositions found in the Qumran corpus, biblical and nonbiblical. Thus, the practice itself was not sacred.
What became unique to the status of Torah scrolls in the proto-MT and rabbinic tradition was that a deviation in the paragraphing from a certain norm in a specific verse made the sacred scroll unusable, as stated in Soferim 1:15:
סופרים א:טו פתוחה שעשאה סתומה, סתומה שעשאה פתוחה, הרי זה יגנז.
Soferim 1:15 An open section (petucha) that was made as a closed section (setuma), or a closed section that was made as an open section—the scroll should be stored away.
While the rabbinic text, channeling the practice of the proto-MT scribes, clearly has a specific paragraphing arrangement in mind, we do not know what it was. There was probably a master scroll—possibly the “scroll of the temple court” mentioned in y. Sanhedrin (2:6; 20c)—and each new scroll would have been compared with it to ensure the new scroll was an exact copy. In the conservative proto-MT tradition, copying was strictly prescribed according to specific rules; copies that did not reflect those rules were not considered acceptable.
The Proto-MT against the Background of the Other Scripture Scrolls
The proto-Masoretic tradition played an important role in the transmission of Scripture and overall it contains an excellent text—certainly in the Torah where its conservative text is usually preferable to the often popular (easier) and harmonized text of the LXX, SP, and many Qumran scrolls.
It is difficult to date the proto-MT, that is, the text that was virtually identical with the medieval Masoretic Text. I’ve suggested that the proto-MT dates to the third or fourth century B.C.E., but the earliest documents are from the first century B.C.E. It is represented in some twenty fragments found at Masada (texts written between 50 B.C.E. and 30 C.E.) and sites in the Judean Desert such as Murabba‘at and Nahal Hever (texts copied between 20 and 115 C.E.
One place where proto-MT is not found is Qumran, where many scrolls were uncovered that are close to the proto-MT text, but differ in up to 10% of the text in small details from the medieval text. I have named these texts “MT-like” and they belong to the same larger text family that also contains proto-MT. But they are not proto-MT “proper,” and they were written by different scribes.
Not the Dominant Text in 2nd Temple Period
It is important to dwell for a moment on this point. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the proto-MT and later MT became the sole text used within Judaism. Therefore, the tradition of careful transmission and precision embedded in rabbinic literature became the natural and sole approach to copying the Scripture text. When this tradition began, however, it had nothing of the dominance it came to have after the destruction of the Temple.
We don’t know how widespread it was in the Second Temple period. The evidence of the Judean Desert Scrolls is probably misleading because that reflects the accidents of the archaeological record, namely that the writings of certain desert communities were preserved, while what text types were used elsewhere in Judea is mostly unknown.
But the fact that no such texts have been found at Qumran shows that it was far from universal. To explain, while a good number of biblical texts must have been copied at Qumran, others were imported to that community. As a result, through the mediation of the Qumran scrolls we gain insights into the scrolls used elsewhere in ancient Israel.
Although numerous Qumran texts are MT-like, out of the more than 200 texts found at Qumran, none reflect the proto-MT, at least in my (subjective) view of the evidence. If substantiated, the lack of proto-MT scrolls at Qumran is not coincidental since this tradition was probably fostered by the Pharisees who were the arch-enemies of the members of the Qumran community, the Essenes, and hence avoided at Qumran.
Still, we don’t know what percentage of the scrolls circulating in ancient Israel between 100 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. (the period of settlement at Qumran) has been preserved, leaving us with just the unquantifiable impression that proto-MT was not the dominant (or even a dominant) text used in ancient Israel. This may be surprising, given that after 70 C.E. it embodied the sole text used for Hebrew scrolls among Jews, but this is what the evidence implies.
The Sacred Status of Scripture Scrolls
While other texts do not show the same level of precision in copying as proto-MT—and even that text is not faultless—this does not mean that scriptural scrolls were not considered sacred. The Qumran community left us a very large amount of ancient scriptural scrolls. While they must have had specific ideas about the authority and religious importance of these scrolls, unfortunately, we have no parallel to what we find in rabbinic texts to assist us in articulating specific rules or instructions followed by a Qumran scribe (or any non proto-MT) scribe. Yet we can uncover certain details by way of inference.
It appears that the Qumran Scripture scrolls were regarded as divinely inspired, as the Qumran community quoted from its own scriptural scrolls in its sectarian writings, and commented on these texts in its sectarian commentaries, the pesharim. Specifically, the large Isaiah scroll found in Qumran (1QIsaa) has several features pointing to its status as an important text within the community:
- A host of marginal signs, among them letters in the sectarian cryptic-A script. indicate frequent use of that scroll by the community.
- The re-inking of the last column of that scroll shows the fading of the letters due to frequent use.
- It is written in a de luxe format (see below).
- It was once covered with a linen wrapping.
- It was reportedly enclosed in a jar.
Clearly, despite its liberal approach towards the copying of the text, the Qumran community considered biblical texts to be a sacred source of inspiration.
Moreover, as we might expect in any Jewish community, the Torah was especially venerated at Qumran. We learn from the Rule of the Community (1QS) that wherever ten people were present, a person well versed in Torah needed to be among them, and that one third of the night was spent at Qumran studying Torah and interpreting Scripture:
סרך היחד ו.ו ואל ימש במקום אשר יהיו שם העשרה איש דורש בתורה יומם ולילה ו.ז תמיד עליפות <חליפות> איש לרעהו והרבים ישקודו ביחד את שלישית כול לילות השנה לקרוא בספר ולדרוש משפט ו.ח ולברכ ביחד
1QS 6.6 In any place where is gathered the ten-man quorum, someone must always be engaged in study of the Torah, day and night, 6.7 continually, each one taking his turn. The general membership will be diligent together for the first third of every night of the year, reading aloud from the Book (=the Torah), interpreting law and 6.8 praying together.
The wording here implies that the community wished to fulfill YHWH’s command to Joshua:
יהושע א:ח לֹא יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכָל הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל.
Josh 1:8 This book of the Torah shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
In theory, the distinctive, sacred status of the Torah could have influenced scribes to approach that book with more care and a lower level of scribal or editorial intervention than the other scriptural books, yet this did not happen. As noted, with the exception of proto-MT scribes, most scribes did not apply the concept of sacredness to the exact copying of the text.
As a result, we find in Qumran numerous imprecise scrolls, even in the Torah: 4QNumb, 4QDeutj cols. 5–12, 4QDeutk1, 4QDeutk2, 4QDeutm. The lack of precision involved great inconsistency in spelling including many very unusual spellings, adaptations of unusual forms to the context or linguistic norms, numerous corrections, frequent errors, and sometimes also careless handwriting. In sum, the difference between the community of scribes producing proto-MT verses other scrolls did not lie in whether the scriptural texts were holy per se, but in what that meant vis-à-vis the transmission of the physical text.
Unique Torah Scrolls among the Judean Desert Scrolls
While overall, Torah scrolls seem to have been treated like any other scriptural scroll—in the Proto-MT tradition with great precision, in the other traditions, as evidenced in Qumran, with less—in two areas, the Torah was singled out for special care due to its sacred character:
Writing in Paleo-Hebrew Characters—Among the Qumran scrolls, twelve to fourteen Torah scrolls were found written in Paleo-Hebrew characters, i.e., in the ancient Hebrew script. The only other text written in this ancient script was Job, a work traditionally ascribed to Moses. The writing in this script was reserved for books that presumably were the most ancient ones in Scripture.
Texts written in this script were copied more carefully than most texts written in the updated “square” Hebrew script, yet notably, the scribes producing the Paleo-Hebrew scrolls were not the proto-MT scribes or “soferim” described above. We know this because, while most of the Paleo-Hebrew texts reflect the MT-like text, 4QpaleoExodm reflects the Pre-Samaritan text, which proto-MT scribes would not have been willing to produce. Proto-MT scribes produced proto-MT texts exclusively. Moreover, the writing of Scripture in the Paleo-Hebrew script was forbidden according to the Talmud:
בבלי סנהדרין כא: אמר מר זוטרא ואיתימא מר עוקבא בתחילה ניתנה תורה לישראל בכתב עברי ולשון הקודש. חזרה וניתנה להם בימי עזרא בכתב אשורית ולשון ארמי. ביררו להן לישראל כתב אשורית ולשון הקודש והניחו להדיוטות כתב עברית ולשון ארמי
b. Sanh. 21b Mar Zuṭra or, as some say, Mar ‛Ukba said: “Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters [בכתב עברי] and in the sacred <Hebrew> language [לשון הקודש]; later, in the time of Ezra, the Torah was given in the Assyrian script [כתב אשורית] and the Aramaic language <targum>. <Finally,> Israel selected the Assyrian script and the Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the ordinary people [הדיוטות]” (cf. b. Meg. 9a; y. Meg. 1.71b–c).
As rabbinic tradition continues that of the soferim, the rabbinic dismissal of writing in the Paleo-Hebrew script likely reflects the soferim’s sentiments. It would seem, therefore, that those responsible for producing the Paleo-Hebrew Torah and Job scrolls were special scribes trained in writing in this script. Thus, the careful copying of these scrolls should be associated with their training and cultural milieu. I have elsewhere suggested connecting these scribes to the Sadducees, but we are really groping in the dark when trying to characterize this group.
De Luxe Torah Scrolls—Several scrolls were written with large margins and with a large format. This de luxe style was used especially for biblical scrolls, most commonly for scrolls of the Torah books. These scrolls are more conservative (precise) than other scrolls and, display fewer corrections. The de luxe format was used mainly for scrolls of the Masoretic family. The majority were produced by the proto-MT soferim, but some are from the Paleo-Hebrew scribes, and others from neither group. Writing in de luxe format would thus seem to have been a conventional style for producing superior texts, with Torah scrolls being the most common choice.
Scrolls of the Complete Torah or of Individual Books?
In modern times the concept of “the Torah” is automatically associated with Torah scrolls containing all five books, which are meant for liturgical purposes. In the past, however, the combining of these books into one scroll depended on the technological abilities of stitching together a large number of sheets and holding them in one unit.
For such large units preferably wooden sticks (bars, rollers) (עמודים ‘amudim) were used, on one or both sides, enabling the easy handling of the large scroll. These sticks were found attached to one of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, and they have also been found attached to the burnt Ein-Gedi Leviticus scroll that was photographically reconstructed. That scroll was paleographically dated by Ada Yardeni to the second half of the first century B.C.E. or early second century C.E.
We don’t know when parts of the Torah were first written down, but in those early centuries B.C.E. when that occurred, sections of the Torah were copied into small scrolls of papyrus or animal skins. This suggestion was made especially by Menahem Haran in his various writings. When the Judean Desert scrolls were written (3rd century B.C.E – 2nd century C.E.), the technology was more advanced, and we see mainly copies of single books of the Torah (and of the other Scripture books).
The writing of separate scrolls of the Torah books was not a sign of the absence of unity of the Torah, but of the lack of the technological ability to produce a scroll of some 25 meters. The following number of copies of the Torah books were found at Qumran:
- Genesis: 23–24,
- Exodus: 21 (16),
- Leviticus: 15 (13),
- Numbers: 9 (5),
- Deuteronomy: 35 (32).
With a few exceptions, all these are copies of single books. As a sign of technological limitations, in other cases long books were divided into two or more scrolls. In a few cases, parts of books were copied into personal copies of small scrolls found at Qumran, such as the small-sized scroll that probably contained only the song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32 (4QDeutq).
It is likely that several scrolls found at Qumran contained two of the Torah books, and probably no more since there is no evidence that early scrolls written on skins could have encompassed such a large amount of text, probably amounting to 25–30 meters. From later times we have the reconstructed evidence of a scroll from Murabba‘at (Mur 1) that may have contained all of the Torah, but at that time (c. 115 C.E.) technology may have been more advanced. Hence, with one possible exception, the earliest references to complete Torah scrolls are from the rabbinic literature dating to the first centuries of the common era, while conclusive Judean Desert evidence is lacking.
The Codex: A Parallel Development
In a parallel development, the codex (similar in shape to the modern book) was invented in the first centuries C.E. as an easy medium for transmitting compositions improving upon the cumbersome medium of the scrolls that needed to be rolled and unrolled time and again. In due course also the Torah was written in codices (Hebrew: מצחפים) as part of the complete Scripture text. The content of the Torah as written in scrolls and codices was equally sacred.
It took some time for Jewish scribes to adjust to the new developments in book production. While most people in the ancient world had abandoned scrolls for codices by the fifth century C.E., Jewish scribes still used this medium a few centuries later. We don’t really know exactly when the first Scripture codices were written, because the Dark Age in the evidence between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Genizah hardly left any Scripture evidence. The oldest known scriptural codex is the Aleppo Codex from 925.
The Sanctification of Torah Scrolls
In modern times, scrolls are specialty items, written on parchment with special ink and quill; these features reflect the work’s sanctity. Given this, plus the extreme care and reverence for every word in the Torah that we find in Jewish tradition, and the stringent requirements for Torah scribes, we can easily experience surprise when we learn that scribal practices for copying Torah scrolls in antiquity was similar to non-Torah scrolls.
The extra care taken by proto-MT and Paleo-Hebrew scribes to copy with precision, and to avoid mistakes and the consequent corrections, reflects a first step towards the the emergence of the special, sanctified status of Torah scrolls so evident in modern scribal practice.
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Prof. Emanuel Tov is J. L. Magnes Professor of Bible (emeritus) in the Dept. of Bible at the Hebrew University, where he received his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies. He was the editor of 33 volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert. Among his many publications are, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Textual Criticism of the Bible: An Introduction, The Biblical Encyclopaedia Library 31 and The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint in Biblical Research.
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