Eliezer Lawrence
Rabbi, Judeo-Linguist, Educator and Mohel

Mistakes, Manuscripts and Mankind

Scribe looking at manuscript (image created using Dall-E 2)

In this week’s parasha, Rashi makes a comment explaining the function of what seems to be a superfluous “vav” before the word “et” in 25:22. This comment would be in line with many of his other comments, if not for one significant detail: there is no such “vav” before the “et” in our chumashim.

Now this may seem like a pretty big deal! How could Rashi—the parshan we most rely on—make such a mistake? Because of this issue, as one might expect, some versions of Rashi’s commentary either include only part of his comment or eliminate it altogether; “there can be no record that such a Torah giant could make a mistake!”

But the history of how this error was documented tells a different story. The Leipzig manuscript is considered the most authoritative manuscript for Rashi because R’ Makhir, the manuscript’s scribe, copied Rashi’s commentary from the text of one of Rashi’s direct students, Rabbi Shemayah. As a note in the margin to the “ve’et” comment, R’ Makhir reports, without judgment, that Rashi’s comment “was crossed out by R’ Shemayah.” It should be noted, many of Rabbi Shemayah’s annotations to Rashi’s text are said to have been at the behest of Rashi himself. Rashi must have seen other manuscripts of the Torah and realized he was mistaken.

Fast forward about 900 years, and we live in a cultural moment where things said on the record, or written publicly, are not as easily retracted or updated in light of new information. Think about it—any politician who has ever evolved on an issue is first charged with the sin of inconsistency, rather than lauded for the quality of being growth-oriented. 

And with the democratization of the digital “town square,” some of our commentary will inevitably not age well, or may no longer be consistent with the up-to-date data or our evolving set of ideas and values. But would it be better to leave those well intended ideas unstated?

When Rashi made his comments, he did so to the best of his knowledge, based on the data he had in front of him: the manuscript of the Torah he had access to (incidentally, Ibn Ezra also had “ve’et” as opposed to “et”). But once it became clear that a mistake had been based on faulty data, Rashi did not feel the need to defend or even explain the error or change, he just corrected it—as simple as that.

Rashi was certainly adept at pointing out apparent inconsistencies; the very pasuk in question contends with an apparent contradiction regarding whether God speaks from Ohel Moed as a whole, as stated elsewhere, or as the pasuk states “from above the kaporet between the kruvim.” But unlike the Torah which is the word of God, the inconsistencies of us humans need not be so seriously investigated. They should be acknowledged, but from the standpoint that humans are not God. Errors in judgment or understanding, life-long emotional and spiritual growth, and the act of simply changing our minds “just because,” are all part of the human experience. 

So let’s continue in the tradition of Rashi. When we recognize our own mistakes, we should own them, we should take necessary accountability, but then we should move forward. When we encounter the mistakes of others, let’s engage less punitively with the knowledge that they too, like Rashi, are human.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence is a passionate Jewish educator and certified Mohel who uses his various platforms to enrich identity and instill meaning to Jewish texts, language and ritual. An alumnus of Columbia University and the Kollel of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, Rabbi Lawrence holds MAs in Bible and Semitic Languages and in Teaching Hebrew as a Second Language. He has taught Gemara, Tankah, Yiddish and Hebrew in both Jewish day school and adult educational settings and has written about language and Jewish identity for various publications. Alongside his community work as a Mohel, he currently serves on the faculty of the Hebrew department at Yeshiva University.
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