David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Bamidbar – Not one iota

Painting by Cesare Nebbia of Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Painting by Cesare Nebbia of Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In the year 325, Bishop Hosius of Corduba chaired a council of some 300 bishops from the east and west to resolve one of the most fundamental theological issues in Christianity. The meeting took its name from the city in which it was held, Nicea – modern-day İznik, Turkey. Emperor Constantine provided travel expenses and accommodation to the Bishops who attended the Council of Nicea. As leader of the empire, he was keen to put an end to public unrest within the Christian community, especially in Alexandria which had become a troublesome hotspot.

Although Constantine was by this time nominally a Christian himself, his coins and official motifs before Nicea associated him with the pagan sun cult of Sol Invictus. It is possible that the emperor’s main motivation in convening the council was not primarily theological, but with the aim of maintaining peace within the new Christian empire.

The Bishops traveled for months to discuss two main agenda items – whether Arianism was an acceptable theology, and how to calculate the correct date of Easter. There were other items on the agenda, but these two, which had deeply divided the nascent church, were top of the list.

The date of Easter was originally calculated using the Jewish calendar. But many bishops by this point wanted to clearly separate Christianity from Judaism and pushed to create a uniquely Christian calendar for their festivals.

The synod of Nicaea, Constantine and the condemnation and burning of Arian books, illustration from a northern Italian compendium of canon law, ca. 825. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The issue of Arianism was an even more fundamental issue that the church had to settle. There was a dispute between Arius, a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, and Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Was Jesus of the “same substance” as God, or of “similar substance”?

Athanasius said that Jesus was identical to God, whereas Arias complained that, “We are persecuted because we say, ‘the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.’”

To cut a long story short, the council decided that Jesus and God were of the same substance, and that Arianism was a heretical doctrine. Constantine decreed that all Arian books be burned, and anyone possessing such texts would be put to death (Edict by Emperor Constantine against the Arians).

In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment. …

However, far from ending the debate, the ongoing conflict between Arian and Nicean factions led to countless wars, persecutions, and deaths across the Christian world over the next several centuries.

In Greek, the dispute was expressed in the words homoousios versus homoiousios. Essentially, the letter “i” – the Greek letter iota – ended up becoming the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, and in many cases the difference between life and death.

Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chapter 21, page 339) summarized the debate as a “single diphthong.”

The profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians.

So, next time you say “It makes not an iota of difference” (or “not a jot of difference” – “jot” is the English translation of “iota”) bear in mind how many thousands of people died for exactly one iota of difference.

The truth is, that the expression was used earlier, before Nicea, in the New Testament (Matthew 5:17-18):

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one iota or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

In this context, the iota (or tittle) represent the smallest detail which is nevertheless critically significant.

Letter yud with the kotzo shel yud (according to Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion) circled. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Judaism has a similar expression – kotzo shel yud – the point of the letter yud. Yud is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, but if even the tiniest part of that smallest letter is missing, it could invalidate an entire Sefer Torah (Menachot 34a).

I’m reminded of the tiniest point of the yud making not an iota of difference when I read one of the names at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar.

There is a list of the heads of each of the twelve tribes. The leader of the tribe of Gad is named “Eliasaph the son of Deuel,” (Numbers 1:14). He is mentioned again later in the book (7:42, 7:47 and 10:20).

However, in the second chapter of Numbers, the leader of Gad has a slightly different name (2:14):

And the tribe of Gad; the prince of the children of Gad being Eliasaph the son of Reuel,

Were there twin brothers named Deuel and Reuel who both had sons named Eliasaph, who became joint leaders of the tribe of Gad?*

The difference between Deuel and Reuel is the tiny difference between the Hebrew letters dalet and reish. A reish is a curved line bent 90 degrees, whereas a dalet is the same but the corner is square and not rounded.

Hebrew letters reish (r) and dalet. (taken from CC BY-SA, Michael Revach/ Wikimedia Commons)

I’m going to suggest something that at first seems heretical, but I’d like to also show that according to almost all mainstream opinions it is not heretical.

Is it possible that a scribe somewhere in the history of time accidentally copied a dalet as a reish and the error remained, copied faithfully through the millennia until it appears in the Torah scrolls that we read from today?

This is clearly a heretical suggestion. After all, Maimonides, in the eighth of his 13 Principles states:

I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.

This seems explicit. The entire Torah, including every letter, every kotzo shel yud, that we have today is identical to that which Moses received.

But actually, this formulation of the 13 Principles was not written by Maimonides, but by an anonymous author, who translated, summarized and simplified what Maimonides wrote and included it in the Ashkenazi prayer book. But this is not what Maimonides actually wrote. In fact, it is not even what the Sefardim have in their prayer book. For example, the eighth principle according to the Ish Matzliach Siddur is:

That the entire Torah is given from Heaven

Here there is no mention of our Torah being identical with the Torah of Moses.

Similarly, the Yigdal prayer, which is another formulation of Maimonides’s principles reads:

God gave the true Torah to His people through His prophet, who was the faithful of His house.

Maimonides actually wrote his principles in Arabic, in his Commentary on the Mishna (Introduction to Chapter Hekel). There he writes:

The Eighth Principle: That the entire Torah in our possession today was given [to us] by the Almighty through Moses, our teacher, by means of the medium we metaphorically call “speech.” No one knows the real nature of this communication except Moses, to whom it was transmitted. He was like a scribe receiving dictation. He wrote the history, the stories, and the commandments. Therefore, he is called [the] inscriber…

Someone who says that some of these verses and stories were written by Moses from his own mind, such a person is considered by the Sages and prophets to be a denier [of Torah] and more brazen than all the other deniers. Because such a person thinks that the Torah has an [important] core surrounded by [less important] coverings. [He thinks] that the history and stories have no purpose and they are from Moses.

Maimonides’s point is not referring to the Torah scrolls that we have today, but to the original Torah scroll that Moses wrote. The fundamental principle of belief is that Moses did not add or subtract anything to that which God dictated to him.

Similarly, in Mishne Torah, Maimonides’s legal compendium, written in Hebrew, he writes:

There are three categories of people who are called ‘deniers of Torah’: Someone who says that Torah is not from God – even a single verse, or a single word – if he said that Moshe added it by himself he is considered a denier of Torah.

And there is a very good reason that Maimonides does not claim that the Torah we have today is identical to the one that Moses wrote. Because (despite what many people think or claim) it is clear that this is not the case.

For example, in Masechet Sofrim (6:4) Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish states that there were three Torah scrolls kept in the Temple and each of them was slightly different than the other two. The rabbis followed the principle of majority and wrote their Torah scrolls according to the word contained in two of the Temple Torahs.

This means that even in the time of the Temple scribal errors had crept into the Torah. Following the majority is the best way of resolving doubt, but does not mean that the resulting Torah scroll – which was different than all three of the Temple Torahs – was identical to the original.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) gives a count of the number of letters and verses in the Torah. An anonymous editor added a marginal note showing that this is different than the number of letters and verses that we have in our scrolls today. Rav Yosef, a third century Babylonian scholar, admitted that the earlier generations were experts in the correct spelling of words, but by his time their scrolls were no longer accurate.

Several times it is clear from Rashi’s commentary on the Torah that he had slightly different words than we have in our scrolls today (e.g. Exodus 25:22).

Tosefot in their commentary on Shabbat 55b and Nida 33a point out that the Talmud had a slightly different version of the Bible than they did.

Our Talmud disagrees with our Torah scrolls.

But they did not suggest altering the text of their modern Torah to align with the Talmud.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his gloss to Shabbat 55b lists dozens of places in rabbinic literature where the text differs from our modern Torah scrolls.

Rambam himself admitted that most of the Torah scrolls and books about how to write them were wrong (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4):

Because I saw great confusion in all the Torah scrolls that I have seen… and the experts in tradition who write and compile lists of the open and closed portions disagree on these matters… I saw fit to list all the portions of the Torah, the closed and the opens… to fix all the scrolls and correct them.

Maimonides explained that he relied on the tradition of Aharon ben Moses ben Asher, a 10th century scribe who lived in Tiberias. He was the scion of a family of scribes known as Ben Asher which was considered the most reliable and authentic. They wrote the masorah (a commentary on the Bible noting linguistic peculiarities), so they became known as the Masorites.

There was another family of Masorites called Ben Naphtali who had their own version of what they considered the authentic text. Some, including Rav Sa’adia Gaon, considered the Ben Naphtali version more authentic.

The actual text Maimonides used to write his Torah (as he states in Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:5), is almost certainly the book known today as the Aleppo Codex (the story of that Bible, including how it went from Cairo to Aleppo and eventually Jerusalem is interesting and controversial, but not for now).

The Torah scroll I relied on in these matters is the well-known scroll in Egypt… which was in Jerusalem for many years previously… which everyone relied on because ben Asher corrected it and edited it for years…

The Aleppo Codex text, also known as Keter Aram Tzova, was printed in the past few decades. Ironically, the text that Maimonides considered to be the most authoritative was banned by many ultra-Orthodox Jews because it different substantially from the Torah scrolls and printed versions of the Chumash that most communities use nowadays. I remember in 1995, seeing posters in Mea Shearim banning that Bible, and I thought that was beautifully ironic.

The very same text that Maimonides said was the only one that is kosher, was declared not kosher by modern-day rabbis.

Yet, their argument would be that of Tosefot. Our scrolls differ from those of the earlier rabbis. But that does not mean we change our Torah scrolls. We stick with the ones we have.

If the text of the Torah has changed so much over the centuries, how come we often hear that one of the “proofs” of the authenticity of Judaism is that all the scrolls, throughout the world, are identical?

Firstly, that is not entirely true. Yemenite Torah scrolls have 24 differences from the scrolls used by Ashkenazi and Sefardi communities.

But it is true that the vast majority of Jews in the world use a scroll with only one difference (the word “daka” in Deuteronomy 23:2 is written in some scrolls with an aleph and in others with a heh).

And this is due primarily to Rabbi Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia, who lived in Spain from about 1170 – 1244. He collected as many Torah scrolls as he could, and based on the rule of majority, compiled what he felt was the most accurate version. He published his findings in Masoret Siyag La-Torah, and scribes came from as far as Germany and North Africa to copy his text of the Torah.

Of course, nowadays, we have computers that can check there are no words or letters missing in the Torah. But we cannot guarantee that the version programmed into the computer is the most accurate. It is almost certainly not identical with the one Moses received.

But it is the one we use, so it our tradition. And therefore, whether it is the same as Moses’s Torah or as Maimonides’s Torah makes not one iota of difference.


* Nahmanides explains that Eliasaph’s father was known by two names. He was called De’uel because he knew God, but also known as Re’uel because God put ideas into his head. Hizkuni also notes the difference of name. But I didn’t find any earlier source which addresses this point.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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