תיקוני סופרים – “Scribal corrections”
Tikkunei Soferim and the Ironic Emendation of Rashi's Interpretation
Rabbinic literature makes reference to תיקוני סופרים, literally scribal corrections (of the Bible). Different works of classical rabbinic literature have different lists of these “scribal corrections,” totaling between 7 and 18, from all over Tanach, including three verses from the Torah (Genesis 18:22, and Numbers 11:15 and 12:12).
What did the rabbis mean when they claimed that a phrase in a biblical verse was a “scribal correction”?
The Scribes Changed the Words
The simplest understanding is that the scribes of rabbinic times changed the wording of various verses in the Bible.
Touching God’s Eye
For example, in Zech. 2:12, God is quoted as saying:
הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּכֶם נֹגֵעַ בְּבָבַת עֵינוֹ
Whoever touches you touches the pupil of his own eye.
A number of rabbinic texts claim that the uncorrected wording was actually:
“Whoever touches you touches the pupil of My [= God’s!] eye.”
Midrash Tanhuma calls this “a scribal correction [made] by the Men of the Great Assembly” (שהוא תיקון סופרים אנשי כנסת הגדולה). Writing in the Jewish Study Bible, Ehud Ben Zvi paraphrases this rabbinic comment:
“The original text read, ‘the pupil of My own eye,’ and was changed by the soferim (scribes) so as to avoid the obvious anthropomorphism.”
Attempting to explain this apparently brazen attitude to sacred text from religious leaders, the 20th-century scholar of rabbinics, Saul Lieberman, argued that some rabbis justified their emendations based on the Talmudic saying:
אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן מוטב שתעקר אות אחת מן התורה ואל יתחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “It is better that one letter be removed from the Torah than that the Divine name be publicly profaned.”
Moreover, they may have found precedence for their work in the emendations of Homer in ancient Alexandria. Lieberman adds:
There is an immense difference between the Greek and Jewish textual alterations. The Soferim altered the text only when the honor of God was involved. The Alexandrians changed it whenever it was not in conformity with the manners of the courts of the Ptolemies, or the customs of certain Greeks.
In short, the scribes may have believed God’s honor to be more important than the inviolate nature of the biblical text.
Adjustments by the Original Author
In contrast, the majority of relevant passages in classical rabbinic literature present these textual “corrections” not as the work of a later hand, but as changes made by the original authors in order to avoid potentially troubling language. The verse from Zechariah is described by the Sifrei as being a case where כינה הכתוב, the text–i.e., the original author–expressed an idea euphemistically, in less jarring wording, in the hope that readers would understand the more jarring message:
וכן הוא אומר כי הנוגע בכם כנוגע בבבת עינו ר’ יהודה אומר… כביכול כלפי מעלה הכתוב מדבר אלא שכינה הכתוב.
So it is written: “whoever touches you touches the pupil of his own eye.” Rabbi Yehudah says: . . . The verse is referring to the deity but the [author of the] text wrote euphemistically.
Moving ahead to medieval times, let us examine Rashi’s attitude to such “corrections,” as demonstrated in his commentary to the story of the visiting angels and God’s conversation with Abraham about Sodom (Genesis 18:22).
In Genesis 18 Abraham entertains three “men” or angels who come to tell him that Sarah will soon have a baby:
יח:טז וַיָּקֻ֤מוּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיַּשְׁקִ֖פוּ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י סְדֹ֑ם וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הֹלֵ֥ךְ עִמָּ֖ם לְשַׁלְּחָֽם:
18:16 The men set out from there and looked toward Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off.
An interlude of two speeches by YHWH follows, and then in vs. 22:
יח:כב וַיִּפְנ֤וּ מִשָּׁם֙ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ סְדֹ֑מָה וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם עוֹדֶ֥נּוּ עֹמֵ֖ד לִפְנֵ֥י יְ-הֹוָֽה:
18:22 The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before YHWH.
How could Abraham “remain standing before YHWH,” when we last heard that he was accompanying the men as they walked off toward Sodom?
Bereshit Rabbah (49) addresses the problem:
א”ר סימון: תיקון סופרים הוא זה, שהשכינה היתה ממתנת לאברהם:
Rabbi Simon says: This is a tiqqun soferim. [Actually] God was waiting for Abraham.
According to R. Simon, YHWH was waiting for Abraham while Abraham accompanied the men on the first steps of their journey to Sodom. When Abraham returned from that walk, he found YHWH still waiting. In other words, the intended text is really וה’ עודנו עומד לפני אברהם, YHWH remained standing before Abraham.
Rabbi Simon’s formulation can be understood according to either of the two models of interpretation mentioned above: either (1) the biblical text shows restraint or self-censorship. To avoid saying that Abraham had left God waiting, the Torah more respectfully describes Abraham as waiting for God. Or (2) a later rabbinic or pre-rabbinic hand, with the same motivation, made the change. C. D. Ginsburg explains:
As the phrase to stand before another is sometimes used in the Scriptures to denote a state of inferiority and homage it was deemed derogatory to the Deity to say that the Lord stood before Abraham. Hence . . . the phrase was altered by the Sopherim.
In his Torah commentary on v.22, Rashi, following Rabbi Simon in Bereshit Rabbah, labeled the last five Hebrew words of our verse a “scribal correction.” But which of the two understandings of this phrase did Rashi have? The answer depends on which edition of Rashi’s Torah commentary you read.
Multiple Editions of Rashi’s Commentary
The first printing of Rashi’s Torah commentary, reads:
והלא לא הלך לעמוד לפניו אלא הב”ה בא אצלו ואמר לו זעקת סדום ועמורה והיה לו לכתוב וה’ עודנו עומד על אברהם אלא תיקון סופרים הוא זה שהפכוהו רבותי’ לכתוב כן.
Actually Abraham did not go to stand before God. God came to him to tell him that “the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah [Gen 18:20-21]. . ..” So the text should have read “God was still awaiting Abraham.” But this [= our biblical text] is [the result of] a scribal correction. The rabbis reversed the phrase to write it this way. (emphasis added)
In this wording, Rashi directly and unambiguously asserts that “scribal correction” means that the text of the Bible that we have is not the original one but the result of a rabbinic correction.
Berliner’s Skepticism: Not Original to Rashi
In the last few centuries, many scholars and rabbis have argued that the last four words (שהפכוהו רבותינו לכתוב כן) were a later addition to Rashi’s commentary. Even the respected Rashi scholar, Avraham Berliner (1833-1915), wrote in the introduction to his edition of Rashi’s Torah commentary that these words were not original to the text of Rashi’s commentary.First, he claims that he had found them in only one problematic old Rashi manuscript among the many he had examined for his edition:
וברור הוא אצלי שההוספה הזאת אשר כבר עמדו עליה אנשי שם ואשר לא מצאתיה בכת”י האחרים הישנים באה אל פירוש רש”י פנימה מתוך כתב היד הזה ומעולם לא עלה על דעת רש”י ז”ל להוציא דברים כאלה מפיו הטהור.
It is clear to me that this addition [=these four words] which was already discussed by great individuals, and which I did not find in any other old manuscripts, entered into editions of Rashi’s commentary from this one [problematic] manuscript. It never would have crossed Rashi’s mind to allow such words to come out of his pure mouth.
Second, he invokes a number of traditional sources who push against the idea that the rabbis could believe that the text was changed by later scribes. Most of these sources, however, don’t actually say anything about Rashi’s commentary and the authenticity of these four words. One source, the Me’or Einayim by R. Azariah De Rossi, does address this question and seems to be the first writer to argue that Rashi could not have written these words.
הנמצא לרש”י ז”ל בקצת הנסחאות… הוא טעות בלי ספק חלילה לפה קדוש ממנו… הלא בזה נסביר פנים להעתקת השבעים שקדמה לרבותינו המעידה כאשר תראה ממנה ליונים ולרומיים שהכתובים מעקרם הם עודנו עומד לפני ה׳… בבת עינו וכן כולם…
The wording found in some versions of Rashi… is certainly an error. It is unthinkable for his [=Rashi’s] holy mouth… Certainly we should give credence here to the Septuagint, a translation that predates the [classical] rabbis, where we can see that for the Greeks and the Romans, [in the alleged instances of “scribal corrections”] the [Septuagint] texts read [the same as the Massoretic text, including] “remained standing before YHWH”… “the pupil of his eye” and so all of them.
Original to Rashi: R. Mizrahi, R. Bokrat, and Modern Scholarship
But what about the Rashi manuscript evidence? Despite Berliner’s claim, most of the old Rashi manuscripts available today, more than were available to Berliner, contain the four words that say that the rabbis changed the text of the Torah. But even before Berliner, the manuscript evidence pointed to the authenticity of the four words. Mizrahi, whose knowledge of Rashi was based on manuscripts, explains why he personally rejects the idea that the rabbis emended the text of the Bible, but adds:
אבל רש”י הוסיף ואמר תיקון סופרים הוא זה שהפכוהו רבותינו
Nevertheless, Rashi added the explanation that this is a scribal correction, that the rabbis reversed the phrase to write it this way.
Similarly, another respected super-commentator on Rashi, Rabbi Abraham Bokrat,vigorously opposes the idea that the rabbis emended the Torah text, but concludes his comment to this verse:
והכל הוא תיקון יפה אבל מה אעשה שמדברי הרב לא משמע הכי שהרי בכל הנוסחאות שראינו חדשות גם ישנות כתוב הפוכוהו רבותינו לכתוב כן . . . וצ”ע
All [of what I wrote above promoting the self-censorship understanding of “scribal correction”] is well and good. But what can I do, since what Rashi himself wrote does not support it. In all the versions of Rashi’s commentary that we have seen, recent or old, the text reads, “the rabbis reversed the phrase to write it this way.” . . . The issue requires further study. (emphasis added)
Modern scholars have come to the same conclusion: the preponderance of manuscript evidence is that Rashi really did write those final four words. The best edition of the Miqraot Gedolot today (Bar Ilan’s HaKeter edition) includes these words and does not put them in brackets.
Ironic Conclusion: Scribal Emendation of Rashi
Ironically, because of Rashi’s claim that the ancient rabbis emended the text of the Torah, later Jews emended the text of Rashi’s commentary to remove that claim. In the eleventh century, Rashi still felt free to promote a viewpoint that many would later label heterodox. Maimonides’ list of thirteen principles, like other lists of Jewish dogmas that were promulgated after Rashi’s time, insisted that Jews believe that the entire Torah that we have in our hands today is the Torah that Moses received at Mount Sinai. Apparently, Rashi did not consider such a belief a binding dogma.
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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