Most Sabbath mornings, my choice of synagogue does not make much of a difference. Sure, there are minor differences in the liturgy, but aren’t we all reading from the same Torah? Ashkenazim may wrap it in embroidered velvet and Sephardim may encase it in a hard shell, but it’s still the same ink, parchment, sinew and wood, right?


The one on the right is showing a bit too much leg. I’d avoid certain neighborhoods.

51 out of 52 weeks, you’d be right in that assumption–but not for this weekend’s portion, Parashat Noach. Genesis 9 concludes:

So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.

That, at least, is the (an) English translation, but what is the original Hebrew text? In Yemenite scrolls, it’s ויהיו; in others, it’s ויהי. The former is plural, while the latter is singular; either one seems grammatically correct, based on the phrasing in Gen. 5. It’s a minor difference, surely (one of twenty-one distinctive features of the Yemenite Torah), but still more than enough to invalidate a Torah scroll.

However, if one wrote the short form of a word that should be spelled using a long form, or the long form of one that should be spelled using a short form, it is invalid… It does not have the holiness of a Torah scroll and, instead, is considered as one of the bibles from which children are taught.

That’s what Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11), and the text he endorses is the Yemenite one (ibid. 8:4). Still, the ramifications would seem to be even greater in his Eight Principle of Faith:

I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah in our hands currently is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace upon him.

You may recognize this principle from the campaign to delegitimize the critical analysis of Torah text. But considering that this would indicate that any variation from “the entire Torah in our hands currently” is not only fallacious but heretical, does Maimonides consider anyone not using a Yemenite Torah scroll to be an infidel?

Of course, it’s not only a matter of divergent Jewish communities of the past millennium. In the 3rd century, R. Joseph b. Hiya noted that his generation did not have the expertise in the spelling of the text to be able to count the letters (Kiddushin 30a), while Mar Zutra maintained (Sanhedrin 21b):

Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Sacred Tongue; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Assyrian script and the Aramaic language. They selected for Israel the Assyrian script and the Sacred Tongue, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the commoners.

Are these Talmudic authorities also denying the authenticity of the Torah according to Maimonides? The problem is that the Thirteen Principles of Faith, starring in your local prayer-book, were actually written not by Maimonides, but by Maaminides.

Who’s Maaminides? That’s an excellent question, one we don’t have the answer to. All we know is that he (she?) wrote the “Ani Maamin” prayer which I quoted earlier, but It first surfaced in the very late 16th century, close to 400 years after Maimonides’ death, in European liturgy. The actual thirteen principles are much longer, found in Maimonides’ Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1), and written in 12th-century Judeo-Arabic. Translations vary, partly because this was Maimonides’ first composition, and he continued to revise it throughout his lifetime. But how does he define al-qaeda al-thamina?

The eighth foundation is that “the Torah is from the heaven,” namely that we believe that the whole Torah now in our possession, which is the Torah given by Moses, comes in its entirety from the mouth of the Almighty.

This is only the beginning of Maimonides’ explanation, but he does eventually get around to defining heresy, which he finds so important that he codifies it (in Hebrew) in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:8), a slight paraphrase of Sanhedrin 99a:

One who says the Torah, even one verse or one word, is not from God, if he says: “Moses made these statements independently,” he is denying the Torah.

In other words, Maimonides’ goal here is not to ensure that Moses does not receive too little credit, but that he does not receive too much; he does not speak of “the whole Torah now in our possession” because, while he does believe that he has the proper text, he does not view the others as heretical. Maaminides, on the other hand, eliminates God from this principle and puts the stress on “the entire Torah in our hands currently,” equating it to that which Moses received on Sinai, brooking no dissent.

This is worth keeping in mind as people continue to invoke the Eighth Principle in order to stifle discussions of the text of the Torah. Considering how few of those who do so have good Yemenite names like Qafih and Tawil, they might be wary that their Maaminidean incarnation of Maimonides would rank them as heretics as well!