Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Rabbi Menachem di Lonzano and the Masora


In our quest to understand how our Torah’s text became standardized, all roads lead to Rabbi Menachem di Lonzano and this post will focus on his work. 

While we have explored the establishment and popularization of the Tiberian Masoretic text in the 9 and 10th centuries in this older post, its adoption by Jewish communities around the world was rather slow and gradual. 

There were competing Masoras like the Babylonian Masora and other local traditions that were still present in Torah scrolls in many synagogues. The communities were often isolated from each other and had little access to or knowledge of the Tiberian Masora.

Rabbi Menachem Lonzano (1550-1623) was the leading Masora expert in the 16th century and was able to gain access to important codices and manuscripts, in an attempt to harmonize and standarize the Masora used by Jews in Europe and Arabic lands.

An orphan from an early age, Rabbi Lonzano had a very difficult life steeped in infirmity and poverty. He often writes that he grew up miserable and that after marriage he couldn’t provide for his wife and kids in Jerusalem. 

Rabbi Lonzano was forced to wonder from city to city collecting money for his family.  But his dire conditions didn’t stop his phenomenal scholarship and research capabilities, and as a true bibliophile he would use any spare income to buy important manuscripts in his travels. Additionally, his journeys afforded him the opportunity to learn new languages which would come handy when learning Torah and obscure words. 

Rabbi Lonzano’s works cover the spectrum of Jewish tradition - Talmud,  Midrash, Masora, music and even Kabbala, which was in its early days then. He was a contemporary of Ari’s disciples Chaim Vital and Israel Najara, and Rabbi Lonzano had no qualms to disagree with them in Kabbalah matters and occasionally,  even with the Ari himself - something almost no one dared to do given the Ari’s stature as the Kabbalist par excellence. 

When asked how he could disagree with the Ari, Rabbi Lonzano reasoned that if the Ari was mistaken it must have been “in his early days, before the Holy Spirit was accessible to him”. 

He often repeated the motto that is commonly attributed to Maimonides, that one should accept the truth from wherever it comes from, preaching intellectual honesty. 

His vast knowledge of lesser known manuscripts, Midrashim and responsa, coupled with his mastery of Greek and Arabic, afforded Lonzano a unique perspective and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind against anyone. 

His combative personality got him into a public spat with the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and son of the famous Moshe Cordovero (Ramak) from Safed. Rabbi Gedalia Cordovero was initially very friendly with Rabbi Lonzano, who initially helped him get the rabbinical post in Jerusalem, but it wasn’t long before Rabbi Lonzano declared that Cordovero had tricked him (details elude me) and he even composed poem wishing for Cordovero’s fall and demise. While they reportedly came to terms, the poem survives and is a testament of Rabbi Lonzano’s unrelenting personality. 

His unwillingness to submit or give up seemed to suit him well towards fulfilling his lifelong dream - to publish the optimal Torah text according to the most reliable sources. Rabbi Lonzano secured a letter of recommendation from eminent Rabbis in Europe to gain access to the codices of the Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian communities, and he would not take a no for an answer. 

He even visited the famed Geniza of Cairo, searching for an ancient scroll attributed to the prophet Ezra stored in an attic there. As is well known, that community believed that anyone entering the attic would be cursed by dying within a year. Rabbi Lonzano didn’t care for it and retrieved the scroll, which turned out to be what he called “a fake” - and he didn’t die from the curse. 

His research was primarily based on the opinions of Rabbi Meir Abulafia (Rama), Menhachem Meiri's Kiryat Sefer, Rabbi Kimchi's grammatical work, along with many other older manuscripts he had in his possesion.

After extensive travels, Rabbi Lonzano gathered just enough money to publish his Torah codice, called Or Torah, but he had to make a hard choice, as his family back in Jerusalem had no means to subsist and he had to choose between publishing the book or send the money back home. 

He decided to go ahead and publish, perhaps betting that if successful he would sell enough copies to sustain his family for the years to come but also because he knew the importance of his breakthrough work. 

While in Italy to publish his book, he stayed in the home of Rabbi Yedidya Norzi (1560–1626), who reviewed Rabbi Lonzano’s  manuscript and was greatly impressed by the project. A gifted grammarian and researcher himself, Norzi decided to conduct his own expanded study, in the footsteps of Lonzano, expanding it to the whole Tanach (Lonzano’s work only covers the Pentateuch). This book was initially called Geder Poretz but it was only published years later in 1742 with a new name - Minchat Shai

New edition of the Minchat Shai
New edition of the Minchat Shai
Rabbi Lonzano published his Or Torah at the end of his life and it quickly became the standard guide for all scribes and communities, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, as the most well researched reference in the topic of Masora. 

One of the major decisions he dealt with relate to Shirat Hayam’s layout, explored in a previous post in depth, and Rabbi Lonzano decided in favor of the Rama in detriment to the older (and more accurate) minhag that was still in use in many communities. 

Rabbi Lonzano was convinced that this was the original opinion of the Rambam and blamed any manuscript discrepancies to scribal typos (see below) - even though modern scholarship has proven that the Rambam had in fact a different layout. However his ruling took root and it’s the prevailing custom of Ashkenazim and Sephardim until today. 

Rabbi Lonzano clearly enjoyed unprecedented influence in the field of Mesora, and Rabbi Norzi’s expanded work further cemented Rabbi Lonzano’s opinions and research. 

Today, the Minchat Shai is the standard guide that is used for all Torah and Prophet’s scrolls. It is a very similar work to the Or Torah and even though it was published some 150 year later, its user friendly format and the fact that it covers all Tanach have made the Minchat Shai more popular than Rabbi Lonzano’s Or Torah.

Rabbi Lonzano, who overcame serious physical and financial troubles, cast his name as the Mesora’s most influential scholar of the past centuries. There aren’t many resources online about his story, and I hope I helped fill the void with this post, which was based on Prof Jordan Penkower’s book on this topic. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried - From the Keset Hasofer to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch

The most influential work in the field of Safrut is undoubtedly the Keset Hasofer, written by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, and I therefore think it’s relevant to have a post about him (I did write briefly about him and my vintage Keset Hasofer copy in an older post)

Born in Ungvar and orphaned at an early age, the young Shlomo was recognized as an “ilui” (child prodigy) and he was eventually fostered by the city’s chief rabbi.

Life in the 19th century Kingdom of Hungary was relatively peaceful and there were close to one million Jews living in its lands. Ungvar was an important Jewish community of around 5000 people, which at that time was a very large number. Today Ungvar is called Uzhhorod, part of modern day Ukraine, bordering Slovakia. 

After getting married, Rabbi Ganzfried tried his luck in the wine business and shortly thereafter was offered a position as a Rabbi of a small village called Brezovica in 1830, but the pay was low and he was looking for ways to supplement his income.  He started to write summary works in specialty fields such as Safrut and Shchita, proving to be specially talented at summarizing difficult topics in a easy to read fashion. 

Rabbi Ganzfried brought the manuscript of his Keset Hasofer (which means "A Scribe's Inkwell" and is taken from Ezekiel 9:2) to the Rabbi Moshe Schreiber / Hatam Sofer, who also lived in Hungary and was in his later years, widely acclaimed as the greatest sage of his generation. The Hatam Sofer gave him a glaring Haskama and his full backing for the adoption of the Keset by all scribes, which in the subsequent edition got a similar endorsement by the foremost Hasidic leader of that time, the Divrei Chaim of Zanz. 

My 1902 edition of the Keset

This is an edition published and stamped by his son, Yosef Ganzfried

Unlike Shechita and Rabbanut, the field of Safrut up to that time had no established framework of study and the Hatam Sofer sensed the opportunity to use the Keset Hasofer as the mandatory “bar” for all new and existing Sofrim. These are his words:

I order all my students who are required to obey me, that from the moment of printing of this book, they will not allow or provide any certificate of approval to any scribe unless he masters this book and knows it well ... and a scribe who does not master this book will be deposed from his profession. (tranl. by Prof Marienberg)

This was an interesting new development in the scribal field, and a good hand no longer guaranteed a scribe’s success - now the scribe needed to be an expert of the Halachic side of Safrut in order to sell a Mezuza, Torah or Tefillin.

The Halachot of Safrut are complex and can change over time, and scribes looking for practical guidance couldn't rely on the classic compendiums like Shulchan Aruch but had to look for scattered references in different works like the more ancient Kiryat Sefer, from the Meiri, and others. For instance, the Ashkenazi scribes in Europe don't use reeds, which are not commonly found in Europe but feathers and that is actually subject to Halachic debate. The Keset goes through these issues, noting the prevaling customs and, when necessary, justifying them Halachically in the notes. In fact, while the original edition featured only the basic handbook, in subsequent editions Rabbi Ganzfried added notes and extra information about open/closed parshiot and spellings (based on the Rama and the Minchat Shai, which were Masora experts and the major deciders of our Torah text version - we explored this topic in this post last month).


Up to this day, anyone wishing to become a Sofer must first be tested in his proficiency in the Keset Hasofer, either by a tutor, a local Rabbi or one of the specialized institutions in the Israel and US - just like the Hatam Sofer intended 200 years ago. 

It was surprising to see these Gedolim not only endorsing but requiring all scribes to purchase a sefer of a small town Rabbi who didn’t come from a prestigious Rabbinic family, had no political connections and wasn't even a scribe, and this early success gave Rabbi Ganzfried a first breakthrough in the Rabbinic world. A few years later, he got a prestigious position as a Dayan in his hometown Ungvar, which allowed his family to live in better conditions and allowed him to put to use his mastery of Halacha in this important city. 

Rabbi Ganzfried’s work as a Dayan seems to have brought him in the fore of the lives of his constituents, and in time he realized there was a need for a everyday Halachic work targeted for the general Jewish population, who were by and large not capable of learning the Shulchan Aruch and its lengthy commentaries. 

Rabbi Ganzfried selected the most relevant everyday Halachot, and omitted a large part of the Shulchan Aruch, which is long, detailed and include many subjects not commonly studied by the laymen. He called it "Kitzur Shulchan Aruch", which is actually not at all a summary of the Shulchan Aruch but a standalone handbook of the most vital everyday Halachot - similar in style to his Keset Hasofer for scribes. 

As he had shown in his previous works targeted at Halachic niches, this “populist” sefer was easy to understand and became an instant classic, being printed 14 times in the author’s lifetime - a feat difficult to match. 

While other similar works appeared around the same time, such as the Chaye Adam (who as the joke goes chose this name to preempt anyone trying to make a summary of his work, because no one will name it Kitzur Chaye Adam - it would mean “shorten a person’s life”), the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch proved to be more user friendly and had the perfect combination of length, depth and relevancy - perfect for brief study groups in the Shtetl synagogues, where the Kitzur quickly became the standard best seller. 

Many editions expanded and added notes to the Kitzur, most notably the Misgeret Hashulchan edition and the Chazon Ish's appendix that include the Mitzvot relevant for those living in Israel (these were altogether ommited by Rabbi Ganzfried). 

There's even a Daf Yomi style daily schedule for a year-long cycle I used in my high-school years. In fact, the Kitzur was the very first Sefer I picked up to learn by myself, when I was 13 years old and didn't know much Hebrew.

A steadfast traditionalist, Rabbi Ganzfried was an opponent of the Hungarian Neolog movement and even criticized the German model of orthodoxy headed by Hildesheimer’s Seminary in Berlin, which combined Jewish and secular studies. I’ve heard that his son eventually did attend this very institution but I believe the reference is to his grandson Chaim (Henrik) Brody, who was also born in Ungvar and ordained at the seminary, before becoming the Chief Rabbi of Prague and one of the leaders of the Mizrachi movement. 

Rabbi Chaim Brody

Rabbi Ganzfried’s early success with his Keset Hasofer was the stepping stone which gave him financial independence and, in his capacity as a Posek in Ungvar, a chance to write what is likely the most reprinted Halachic handbook of all time, the "Kitzur".

Rabbi Dr Dovid Katz recent podcast on this story is a great resource.
Prof Evyatar Marienberg's scholarly article was also very insightful, with many new references.

Monday, August 29, 2022

A Review of Yosef Ofer’s “The Mesora on Scriptures and its methods”

A scribe’s work is centered around the scripture’s text, and in the course writing a Torah Scroll, every word is accorded a great amount of importance and holiness. I spend a lot of time with the Torah’s text and I have therefore developed a great deal of interest around the development of our Mesora - tradition - of the accepted Torah text. 

After some research, it became clear that to understand how our text became universally accepted by communities around the world, the best course of action was to study the 10th century Tiberian Masoretes. While some scholars like Prof. Emanuel Tov go further back all the way to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are much older, the Tiberian Mesora was the point of harmonization of the text and we have many resources to study it today, more than ever before. 

Yosef Ofer’s The Mesora on Scripture and Its Methods was translated from Hebrew in 2018 and it is a great study.  It’s a detailed, balanced and informative account that is surprising easy to read, occasionally delving into intricate grammatical minutiae. Ofer is a student of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer Z"L, a leading expert of the Mesora and Aleppo Codex, and I always prefer to learn from professors who have a religious background and reverence to the text, so Ofer's book is a great choice.

Although the study of Talmud and scripture is widespread in religious communities today, the study of the development of our holy text has almost become taboo, and most institutions will stick to the story that the text as we have it is immaculate and that’s the end of the discussion. 

The basic description of the work of the Masoretes goes heads on against this assumption, as their occupation was precisely determining the most accurate text according to their traditions and manuscripts, and there were differences in the texts used around the communities at that time. The work of the Masoretes was the attempt to harmonize and define the ultimate text, culminating in the writing of the Aleppo Codex by Ben Asher, the definitive Codex endorsed by Maimonides. 

While we may have the impression that the Tiberian Mesora is not really necessary for the study of scripture today, the truth is that many commentaries often refer to it. Rashi, as pointed out by Ofer in pages 248-250, occasionally mentions the “Mesora Gedola” when giving an explanation to a verse, the Radak often mentions the Masoretes - and most students will not understand the reference unless they know the basics of the Tiberian Mesora. 

I found very interesting Ofer’s discussion about the alternative Mesora - the Babylonian Mesora studied in the Yeshivot in Bavel around the 9/10th century. The cantillation signs created by the Tiberian Masoretes differ greatly from their Babylonian counterparts, both in form and usage. The Babylonian Mesora fell in disuse, even though it was the tradition used in the circles that created the Talmud - the academies of Sura and Nahardea. The differences in question are rather minor although still significant - plene and defective spellings, arrangements of the two songs of the Torah (Shirat Hayam and Haazinu) and kri/ktiv special words, which are written but pronounced differently. 

The Tiberian cantillation signs became the norm, even if the actual way of pronouncing them differ from community to community - Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite ways of reading are all unique. See below the cantillation names in Hebrew; I wish Ofer would have spent some time going through them and their terminology.

(It's worthwhile to note that the Vilna Gaon frequently used the names of the Tiberian cantillation signs in order to find meaning in the text - see here one of my original posts on this and the ensuring discussion in the great parshablog).

Ofer notes that the Masoretes did not explore the topic of open and closed passages, which is subject to many discussions (Rambam vs Rosh, for example) and have serious Halachic ramifications. Clearly, the Masoretes specialized in the correct spelling of the words exclusively, ignoring open/closed passages and also any attempts to explain why letters were spelled plene or defective. The goal was solely to preserve the correct text, nothing else. 

And this approach did not sit well with Ibn Ezra, who openly criticized the Masoretes’ focus and resistance to elucidate the text according to their notes as mentioned in the book. 

Ofer did not speak about the debate whether Ben Asher, the most famous masorete, was a Rabbinic or Karaite Jew. I find this discussion pertinent in the context of the religious implications of the Masoretic text, and I assume he did not discuss this topic because we lack evidence to make a credible analysis, however there's academic research on this topic (see here a great resource from Prof Geoffrey Kahn) and the overall interchange between Rabbinical and Karaite communities. It's very interesting that both Rabbinic and Karaite communities adopted the Tiberiam Mesora unconditionally, even though the two sects were in constant disputes.

Ofer mentions briefly the influence of Rabbi Meir Aboulafia, who’s opinion impacted the texts currently used by Sephardim and Ashkenazi Torah Scrolls. However I wish this would be developed further, as Aboulafia was single-handedly responsible for the unified, common text of Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities - no small feat considering that the Ashkenazi communities were far away from him and very fragmented. He lived not long after Ben Asher in the 11th century and I would assume his impact on the text is relevant to the understanding of the spread of the Masoretic text. 

I like how Ofer teaches the reader like a student, first by going through examples and then by leaving open questions about the theme explored. It feels like a real lecture, and now I know how to read masoretic notes and abbreviations thanks to his exercises. 

Now I’m looking for a study of the post Masoretic text and how it was kept, and this will require a study of Rabbi Meir Aboulafia, Rabbi di Lonzano and the Minchat Shai - they are the Halachic reference for the text we use today. Professor Ofer has another book on the Minchat Shai so I hope to have a chance to study it soon and continue in the quest to understand not only how the Masoretic text was set but also how it came all the way down to our hands today. For the topic of the Tiberian Mesora in itself, Yosef Ofer's work is very thorough and a real gem.

Monday, July 18, 2022

The Last Two Lines of Shirat Hayam

This post is related to my last post on Shirat Haazinu - you might want to read that first.

The Talmud in Megillah 16b states:
אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר פָּפָּא, דָּרֵשׁ רַבִּי שֵׁילָא אִישׁ כְּפַר תְּמַרְתָּא: כּל הַשִּׁירוֹת כּוּלָּן נִכְתָּבוֹת אָרִיחַ עַל גַּבֵּי לְבֵינָה
Rabbi Chanina (...) says all songs are written a small brick (writing) above a brick (blank space), and a brick above a small brick.

The Talmud here is referring to the classic brick-and-mortar layout which is featured in all Torah Scrolls throughout time - 30 lines beggining with Az Yashir ending at Betoch Hayam. The layout is easily attainable up to the last two lines, which are much longer and therefore present a problem for the scribe - how should they be written?

Looking at historical and more recent scrolls, one can find three completely different arrangements of the last two lines, and the underlying discussion is if the two last lines are at all part of the Shirat Hayam. Unlike the other lines, the last two are not written in poetic language, and seem to revert back to the narrative preceding the Shirat Hayam - perhaps an indication that this section is different from the rest.

The first Mesora we have relies on this understanding and it has the last two lines written in regular prose, without any special layout or spacing. This tradition was popular in earlier times specially in Ashkenaz and proponents of this opinion bring a proof from our prayers in Shacharit, which repeats Hashem Yimloch LeOlam Vaed in the 27th line. This repetition indicates the ending of the song, similar to Psalm 150 which has the last pasuk repeated in morning prayers כל הנשמה תהלל יה הללו־יה, indicating the end of the psalms of praise. In any event, this structure is straightforward and easy to write - see below some examples:

This layout has fallen out of use in the last few hundred years, even though there's Halachic basis for it and it also seems to "fit" well in the overall symmtry of the text.

The second Mesora is assymetrical, and divides these two lines with one blank space causing the text to look different than the preceding lines. This layout is found in the most important historical Torahs and codices, including the Leningrad Codex , the Bologna Torah and finally Ashkar fragment (the oldest witness of them all - it only has a few pages and Shirat Hayam is one of them, and you can see the layout of the last two lines if looking attentively).

Leningrad Codex:
Leningrad Codex

Bologna Torah:

Ashkar fragment - hard to see but look closely

The Yemenite Torah scrolls have this layout too, and that's always a reliable indication of how ancient and well established this Mesora was in earlier times.

We now turn to the third layout, mentioned by Rabbi Menachem Meiri in his scribal work Keriat Sefer. The Meiri brings that Rabbi Meir Halevy Aboulafia (source here) he had in his possesion a booklet that was allegedly a reliable copy of the Rambam's text but Rabbi Aboulafia was unconfortable about the featured layout of the last two lines of Shirat HaYam found there, which looked like this:

Rabbi Aboulafia (known as the "Rama") held that this layout cannot be correct because in all preceding 3 stanza lines lines of the Shira, the first and last stanzas only have only one word, and in this layout there are three (את מי הים) in the beggining and two words in the end (בתוך הים). He therefore used a different but similar layout when writing his own two Torahs, in this way:

His influential scribal work Masoret Seyag LaTorah championed this layout and discussed it in detail, and being very well respected by Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities alike, Rabbi Aboulafia's layout quickly became the dominant layout in the Jewish world, even though today there are many questions surrounding this custom. 

Here are some examples of scroll utilizing the Rama's layout:

13th century Sephardic scroll sold by Sotheby's:

Another 13th century Sephardic scroll, sold by Sotheby's for 250,000usd, and in the item's description it is noted that the scribe followed Rabbi Aboulafia's layout:

The Sefer Torah of another rishon, the Rabbeinu Nissim of Girona (Ran) has survived (although recent scholarship challenges this attribution - see here for a detailed analysis) and we can see this layout there too - an indication that in Sepharadic lands this layout was already widespread at this time. It's interesting to note that Rabbeinu Nissim actually tweaked the layout just a little - the very last word of the Shira - הים - is not written all the way in the end of the page, but indented a little before. Professor Penkower (here, page 25) explains that this was done in the context of creating a Parasha Petucha, but that's beyond the scope of our discussion. See here a pic I took years back when visiting the National Library of the Hebrew University, and look closely at the very last word - it's written before the end of the line:

Coming back to the second layout, we should revisit the Rambam's opinion. As we have seen, Rabbi Aboulafia's booklet was attributed to the Rambam and it allegedly featured the last line divided in three, but this booklet seems to be problematic at least in this very specific instance.

Scholars today agree that the Rambam used the second layout in the Mishne Torah and not the Rama's, as he based his text on the famous Aleppo Codex. While the Shirat Hayam part of the Aleppo Codex dissapeared in 1948, research has shown conclusively that the codex had the same layout as the other ancient scrolls we have today (Leningrad, Bologna) and therefore it's no surprise that the Yemenite tradition follows that same layout.

However when you look at our versions of the Mishne Torah, you don't see the second layout - you see the Meiri's layout. See below:

Interesting to see that my copy has a note:
Rabbi Menachem di Lonzano wrote in his Or Torah: Don't heed to the layout found in (other) editions of the Rambam because they are mistaken and are not the layout written by the Rambam - the printers made the layout from their own heart.

 *In this edition we have printed the correct layout as seen in Or Torah (the publishers)

Clearly Rabbi di Lonzano, an influential Masora expert of the 16th century, was sure that the Rambam had the Ashkenazi/Sephardi (Aboulafia) layout, but this is most certainly incorrect as we mentioned above. And by the same token, the printers' correction of the layout was a mistake too, in effect causing a censhorship of the original design used by the Rambam - similar to the censorship of Shirat Haazinu discussed in my previous post. 

Now it's possible to appreciate the work of Shabtai Frankel, a Rabbi and businessman who funded a Kolel dedicated to researching and fixing mistakes in the Rambam's Mishne Torah. His acclaimed edition is a real gem for situations like ours - see below how he printed this page, opposed to my edition above:

See here a zoom of the last lines lines:

Frankel uses the second layout we discussed above, which was featured in the Aleppo Codex and is also seen in the Leningrad Codex - and not the Ashkenazi/Sephardi layout as we have it in our Torah Scrolls. By the way, note how the last line is indented similar to Rabbeinu Nissim's Torah Scroll discussed above - I haven't seem a consensus about this indentation in the Aleppo Codex so this is surprising.

Now note how afterwards Frankel elegantly mentions the layout "according to Rabbi Aboulafia's testimony" - the three stanzas the Rama saw in the booklet attributed to the Rambam (בתוך הים in one stanza), but not the Rama's ammended version, which he felt more confortable with but as we now know, was never written by the Rambam. Frankel's edition shies away from censorship and it's refreshing to see how openly his edition deals with this controversy, but this is a recent development.

Throughout many centuries, the layout of the only two songs found in our Torah scrolls were both censored in our standard Mishne Torah versions in order to comply with the dominant Ashkenazi/Sephardi Mesora - directly against the Rambam's detailed and clear account of how the two songs should look like. This is a good example of the limited success of some of the Rambam's directives in the Mishne Torah - sometimes he succeeded to popularize Halachot but sometimes, like here, he failed (see more about the scope of the Rambam's influence on Mesora here, page 16 - article by Prof Yosef Ofer). 

It's also interesting to note that some scrolls will follow the Rambam's ruling in Shirat Hayam but not in Shirat Haazinu, although most will follow Rabbi Aboulafia in both songs. Dr Shlomo Zucker, when analyzing a unique old scroll auctioned by Sotheby's, notes that these small nuances allow us to identify a Torah's origin:

"The fact that the present scroll presents the Maimonidean division of the Song at the Sea and the Abulafian version of the Song of Moses is a clear indication that it was written in Spain. In Sephardic Torah-scrolls written after the expulsion in the lands of the Sephardic diaspora, both songs are always according to Meir ha-Levi Abul'afia, while only the Yemenites follow Maimonides' order in both songs."

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, one of the leading experts of the Aleppo Codex, conducted many studies of this codex versus the others and the result was always a clear superiority of the Aleppo Codex - exactly what the Rambam said almost 1000 years ago about this same codex, which he used for his own Sefer Torah. Rabbi Breuer even wondered if a new community in a new land should perhaps adopt his edition based on the Aleppo Codex for their Torah Scrolls, like the Rambam had hoped for (sourceYosef Ofer, The Masora on scripture and its methods).

While the scribes did eventually adopt the Aleppo Codex as the basis for scrolls of the Neviim and Ketuvim - there was no unified Mesora until the appearance of this codex - in regards to the Torah scrolls history has taken a different path and everyone continues to follow our Mesora, based on the Rama's ruling. Or as Rabbi Sorkin puts it, using a play with words from Exodus 14,  ובני ישראל יצאים ביד רמה - the Jewish People fulfill their obligation with the "Yad Rama" (name of another famous book from Rabbi Abulafia), i.e. we rely on the Rama's opinion to fulfil the Mitzva of Writing a Torah Scroll and this is the undisputed Halacha for almost a milennia.

- this article was based extensively on the excellent article by Y. M. Sorkin, entitled אריח על גבי לבינה.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Shirat Haazinu: 70 or 67 lines?

One of the few columns that stand out in a Sefer Torah is Shirat Hayam, with its “brick and mortar” shape, and Haazinu, with its “two towers” shape. As a general rule, the Torah Scroll has small blank spaces scattered around every column, and they serve to delineate paragraphs and to provide to the reader a moment of reflection.

I have written about the importance of the correct placement of these blank spaces, called in Rabbinic parlance Parshiot Petuchot and Setumot, in an older post and I encourage you to look there too.

But as a whole, the Torah layout is a continuous prose in all its columns, save the two instances mentioned above. Both are songs, and it seems that the unusual layout is intended to highlight their poetic structure. Commentators offer more esoteric explanations, that the two towers Haazinu layout allude to the downfall of the wicked, which are mentioned in one of the stanzas (this explanation is also applied to the two tower layout of Haman's wicked sons in Esther's Scroll, discussed here).

The Rambam dedicates many pages to the correct layout of all Parshiot in the Torah, and he writes that Shirat Haazinu should be divided in 70 lines. Look at the text in Sefaria:
צוּרַת שִׁירַת הַאֲזִינוּ - כָּל שִׁיטָה וְשִׁיטָה יֵשׁ בָּאֶמְצַע רֶוַח אֶחָד כְּצוּרַת הַפָּרָשָׁה הַסְּתוּמָה. וְנִמְצָא כָּל שִׁיטָה חֲלוּקָה לִשְׁתַּיִם. וְכוֹתְבִין אוֹתָהּ בְּשִׁבְעִים שִׁיטוֹת. וְאֵלּוּ הֵן.

That’s indeed how our Torahs (see example pic at the top of this post) are structured - both Ashkenazi and Sephardi scrolls - in accordance to the Rambam’s account and we would expect that to be the case, as the Rambam had in his possession the prized Aleppo Codex - the most authoritative codex according to our tradition.

The Yemenite Jews have a handful differences in their Mesora of the Torah text, minor differences in the spellings but one very visible variance stands out. Their parshat Haazinu is written in 67 lines, unlike Ashkenazi and Sephardic scrolls.

When looking closely, they have a different arrangement in three stanzas, which are merged together forming a longer, more squeezed, line. Because of that, the layout of their Haazinu column is much less homogenic and the “two towers” are not perfectly aligned. See a picture of the Yemenite tikkun:

We all know the Teimanim follow the rulings of the Rambam closely, which in turn begs the question - how do they reconcile their Mesora with the Rambam?

Let’s turn to the Aleppo Codex again. As I discussed elsewhere, this codex is attributed to the Masorete Ben Asher, and was salvaged from the Aleppo synagogue pillaging in the 1947 Arab protests against the establishment of the State of Israel..

The local Sephardi community guarded the Codex closely, and very few outsiders managed to find a way to look at it. One of the few was Humberto Cassuto, a famous scholar who wanted to investigate if this Codex was indeed the one attributed to the Ben Asher lineage. Professor Cassuto was granted limited access and couldn’t study it throughly, but he cast doubt at the provenance of the Codex because he saw that the Haazinu of the Codex had 67 lines, and not 70 lines as discussed in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah.

Many scholars started to investigate this finding. It turned out that the Yemenites have a different reading of the Rambam and in their manuscripts it states that Haazinu has 67 lines - just like Professor Cassuto observed in the Codex, except he wasn’t aware that his own Rambam’s edition was corrupted. The very feature Prof Cassuto found to be suspicious turned out to be the best proof of the authenticity of the Codex. An early manuscript of the Rambam from Oxford's collection has the same version as the Yemenites, and that's how Mechon Mamre has it in their online Rambam:
יא  צוּרַת שִׁירַת הַאֲזִינוּ (דברים לב,א-מג)--כָּל שִׁטָּה וְשִׁטָּה, יֵשׁ בְּאֶמְצָעָהּ רֵוַח אֶחָד כְּצוּרַת הַפָּרָשָׁה הַסְּתוּמָה, וְנִמְצֵאת כָּל שִׁטָּה חֲלוּקָה לִשְׁתַּיִם; וְכוֹתְבִין אוֹתָהּ בְּשֶׁבַע וְשִׁשִּׁים שִׁטּוֹת.  וְאֵלּוּ הֶן

Although almost all the Chumash part of the Codex was destroyed (or hid away, as claimed by Matti Friedman’s great book discussed here), the Haazinu pages observed by Prof Cassuto have survived and can be seen in the Israel Museum and online. See it here:

The Yemenites kept the Rambam’s proposed Mesora (save one puzzling, small variance towards the end of Haazinu in the stanza starting with "Gam Betula" which the Yemenites start with the preceding "Gam Bachur" - the similar words seemed to have caused this confusion but perhaps there's a better explanation I'm not aware of). 

The Ashkenazi and Sephardi did not, and there was an obvious attempt to cover up the discrepancy between their tradition (70 lines) and the Rambam’s (67), and while a few expert scholars (like 16th century Menachem di Lonzanu, in his popular work Or Torah - see here at the bottom) eventually noted conflicting versions of the Mishne Torah, this caused much confusion and eventually most scholars became convinced that the versions of the Mishne Torah with 67 lines were simply wrong because they didn't comply with the vast majority of the existing scrolls.

The Ashkenazi and Sephardi structure of 70 lines has its source in the Masechet Sofrim 12 (exact link here, where it states the first word of every line totaling 70), which is one of the handful small tractates found in the Babylonian Talmud and is generally attributed to the Gaonic period. Even though the Codex was housed in Aleppo - a major Sephardic center - for a very long time, the Sephardic world adopted the 70 line tradition which was the most prevalent and based their text in Rabbi Meir Aboulafia’s (who was an opponent of the Rambam) authoritative compendium Masoret Seyag Latorah - not the Aleppo Codex. Ironically, the Aleppo community guarded the Codex as its prized relic while following another Mesora for the Haazinu parsha (credit for the great Prof Marc Shapiro for this insight).

A few scholars have attempted to conduct studies of Torah Scrolls from different pre-war communities in regards to their Haazinu structure, in order to discover how prevalent was the 70 line structure. Scholars have found that there were more than two options - some scrolls had a little more than 70 lines while others fewer than 67, some had no unique structure at all, while others had Haazinu in the brick and mortar layout of Shirat Hayam! It seems like the scribes generally knew that Haazinu had a special layout but had limited knowledge of how to write the special structure.

The difficulty in regards to Haazinu stems from this Talmudic passage in Megillah:
אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר פָּפָּא, דָּרֵשׁ רַבִּי שֵׁילָא אִישׁ כְּפַר תְּמַרְתָּא: כּל הַשִּׁירוֹת כּוּלָּן נִכְתָּבוֹת אָרִיחַ עַל גַּבֵּי לְבֵינָה  חוּץ מִשִּׁירָה זוֹ וּמַלְכֵי כְנַעַן, שֶׁאָרִיחַ עַל גַּבֵּי אָרִיחַ וּלְבֵינָה עַל גַּבֵּי לְבֵינָה. מַאי טַעְמָא — שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא תְּקוּמָה לְמַפַּלְתָּן — 
Said Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa, Rabbi Shila, a man of the village of Temarta, expounded: all songs -- all of them -- are written a small brick (writing) above a brick (blank space), and a brick above a small brick, except this song (Sons of Haman) and [the song of] the kings of Canaan, which are a small brick above a small brick and a brick above a brick.
Note that Haazinu is not mentioned as one of the exceptions, and you could infer from this passage that Haazinu should be written like all other songs - in a brick and mortar fashion! That is the likely explanation of why some older scrolls have this feature - perhaps some scribes based themselves in the simple understanding of this Gemara. The Noda Biyuda discusses the Halachic status of this layout and based on this understanding he tries to find a way to not invalidate these scrolls. See below how a Haazinu in brick-and-mortar shape would look like:

However, the Masechet Sofrim is categorical, and clearly states that Haazinu is not to be written like Shirat Hayam, and that's the normative Halacha - even though the Masechet Sofrim is from the Gaonic period and hence, theoretically less authoritative than the Talmud which seems to imply that Haazinu should be written like all songs - in brick and mortar layout.

Professor Mordechai Breuer, one of the leading experts of the Aleppo Codex, attempted to harmonize the Talmudic passage above with the ruling of the Masechet Sofrim by developing the idea that Haazinu is not a real Song/Shira, and therefore not the subject of the Talmud's discussion above. In other words, Haazinu is in a category of its own and it's unlike Shirat Hayam, Bnei Haman and Shirat Devorah (see here page 23 for further discussion and a great resource in this topic).

The complexity of this Talmudic passage is the best explanation of why there's not one single option when it comes to writing Haazinu - the Talmud is ambigious and the scribes had a tough time getting it right.

However, scholarly research has shown that in both Ashkenazi (Prof Goshen-Gottstein) and Italy (see Prof. Orlit Kolodny here with more details), the most common layout was undoubtedly the 70 line structure, as per the Masechet Sofrim. Less than 10% of the 250+ scrolls surveyed have the 67 layout, which means that the Rambam/Yemenite Mesora was actually not very popular. While the Rambam tried to push for the 67 Mesora in his very detailed account of how Haazinu should be written, it seems clear that already in his time this Mesora was not dominant and his initiative did not gain much traction in the wider Jewish world. The fact that the Rambam's manuscript was censored to conform with the 70 line Mesora is an indication that there was a push back to the Rambam's directive, and the censorship (see more about this in Prof Marc Shapiro's "Changing the Immutable") was a very efficient way to safeguard the prevalent Mesora of the Masechet Sofrim - it even fooled an expert scholar like Prof Cassuto.