Many, if not most, rabbis, even ultra-Orthodox rabbis, recognize that as Judaism evolved, changes were introduced into the Torah wording for a myriad of reasons. Tikkunei Soferim, which can be translated as “corrections by the scribes,” refers to at least eighteen changes, and probably many more, that were made in the original wording of the Hebrew Bible during the Second Temple period, perhaps sometime between 450 and 350 BCE.[1]

Alterations Were Made to the Torah Text

Most of the scribal emendations were made to enhance the honor due to God, to avoid a problem, or to use less harsh words. Some sources suppose the changes were made by Ezra the Scribe and/or the Men of the Great Assembly.[2] We do not know exactly when Ezra lived, but he probably lived around 450 BCE.[3] We also do not know with any degree of certainty why he was called a scribe or what the function of a scribe was.

The eighteen alterations of Scripture, listed in the classic work Ochlah W’Ochlah,[4] are as follows: (1) Genesis 18:22, (2) Numbers 11:15, (3 and 4) Numbers 12:12, (5) I Samuel 3:13, (6) II Samuel 16:12, (7) I Kings 12:16, (8) II Chronicles 10:16, (9) Jeremiah 2:11, (10) Ezekiel 8:17, (11) Hosea 4:7, (12) Habakkuk 1:11, (13) Zechariah 2:12, (14) Malachi 1:13, (15) Psalms 106:20, (16) Job 7:20, (17) Job 32:3, and (18) Lamentations 3:19.

The following are several examples:

  • In Genesis 18:22, the original text stated “God was still standing before Abraham”; this was changed to “Abraham was still standing before God.” The former is debasingly anthropomorphic; it depicts God in a somewhat servile manner, waiting upon Abraham.
  • The original wording in Zechariah 2:12 has God saying that “whoever touches you [Israel] touches the apple of my eye.” The metaphor of someone poking a finger in God’s eye suggests that God has an eye and can be harmed. It was replaced to “his eye,” implying that whoever touches Israel will be punished so severely that it is as if he damaged his own eye.
  • The context of I Kings 21:13 indicates that Nabothis being accused of cursing God, but the act is so despicable that “cursed” was replaced by “blessed.”[5]

There are scholars who claim that the number eighteen does not count all of the alterations made to the Hebrew text. There are many more than the rabbis identified and the true number may be closer to thirty.[6]

Not Everyone Agreed That Words Were Substituted in the Torah

Various Midrashim, such as Tanchuma, Exodus Rabba, and Genesis Rabba, as well as many traditional commentators, such as Rashi and Minchat Shai,[7] unabashedly and explicitly accepted that the divine text was changed. They believed that those who made the change felt that their respect for God required that they hide the true text and portray God in a better light than what was in the original wording of the Bible.

However, the idea that anyone, even a biblical figure such as Ezra, would tamper with the divine Torah is so startling that not everyone agreed that it was done. Traditional scholars such as Elijah Mizrachi, Rashba, Joseph Albo, Ibn Ezra, and Josephus in his Contra Apion 1:8 could not abide by the notion that anyone would tamper with the holy text.[8] They felt that statements saying the wording was changed should be understood to mean that it is “as if” the wording was changed; in other words, the original Torah text used these wordings in order to honor God. The modern ultra-Orthodox ArtScroll Chumash commentary, which deletes commentaries that are contrary to the editors’ theology, deleted Rashi’s statement that there are Tikkunei Soferim.[9]

How Should We Understand Maimonides?

Maimonides established thirteen fundamental principles of Judaism.[10] His eighth principle maintains that the Torah in our hands today is identical to the Torah given by Moses. How can we reconcile the idea that changes were made in the Torah with Maimonides’s eighth principle? Didn’t Maimonides know that changes had been made? After all, it was Maimonides who examined the various Torah texts of his generation and determined that the Aleppo Codex was the most authentic version.

One answer was offered by my late teacher Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland: “Rambam knew very well that those variations existed when he defined his principles. The words of Ani Ma’amin and the words of Rambam, ‘the entire Torah in our possession today,’ must not be taken literally, implying that all the letters of our present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intent and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.”[11]

Another answer is that Maimonides wrote the thirteen principles for the general population. He intended them to be what he called “essential truths” – ideas that the general population needed to know, even though they weren’t actually true. In fact, Maimonides himself did not believe all of the thirteen principles, only the first few dealing with God. For example, at the start of the essay containing the thirteen principles, Maimonides states that he does not believe in resurrection. Yet at the essay’s end, he includes resurrection as one of the principles of Judaism.

[1] The Midrashim Sifrei Numbers 10:35 and Mekhilta Exodus 15:7 use the expression kina hakatuv, “the verse was substituted.”

[2] While the present-day consensus is that the changes in the Torah were made by Ezra, some sources insist that they were done by either Nehemiah, Zechariah, Haggai, or Baruch. See the sources in Saul Lieberman’s Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (Jewish Theological Seminary, 1994), 28–37, and Menachem Kasher, Torah Sheleima, Parashat Mishpatim (Jerusalem, 1992), volume 5, book 19, pages 374–75.

[3] Ezra’s activities are described in the biblical book bearing his name and in the biblical book Nehemiah. He was a priest. Ezra 7–10 and Nehemiah 8 state that he reintroduced the Torah to Jews in Jerusalem, enforced the observance of the Torah, and exhorted Jews about intermarriage with pagans.

[4] Das Buch Ochlah W’Ochlah (NY: Ktav, 1972), 113. First published in Hanover, 1864.

[5] Apparently thinking that readers would be confused to read that Naboth is being accused of blessing God, the JPS translation changed the wording back to “cursed.” The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text (Jewish Publication Society, 1917).

[6] See Tikkunei Soferim: An Analysis of a Masoretic Phenomenon, by Avrohom Lieberman, in Hakirah: The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought 5 (2007): 227–36.

[7] Minchat Shai notes and explains most of the eighteen Tikkunei Soferim in its commentary to Zechariah 2:12.

[8] See Kasher’s Torah Sheleima and ibn Ezra’s commentaries to Numbers 11:15, 12:12, and Job 32:3.

[9] Nosson Scherman, ed., The Chumash: The Stone Edition (ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993). Another example of ArtScroll censorship is the deletion of Rashbam’s comment in the first chapter of Genesis, where he states that according to the Torah the day begins in the morning, not at sunset, for the Torah states that God performed certain acts of creation and then “there was evening and morning” and a new creation was made after the morning on the new day.

[10] Found in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Mishna Sanhedrin called Chelek.

[11] Quoted from Rabbi Weinberg’s lectures in Yaakov Weinberg, Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam’s 13 Principles, ed. Mordechai Blumenfeld (Targum Press, 1991), 116.