By Rabbi Shlomo Cohen
I am often asked, at seminars, how it is possible for the Torah to have been passed down, unchanged, over the course of 3,300 years. The original message must be shrouded in the mists of antiquity. A bunch of old, gray bearded Rabbis probably changed all sorts of things and passed it off as “oral law”.
To address this issue, we need to rethink those 3,300 years. Although a generation is usually given as 25 years, we will use thirty to keep the math simple. 3,300 divided by thirty equals 110. That is the number of generations from Har Sinai until today. I personally remember my father, grandfather and great- grandmother. That’s four generations. My great-grandmother knew her father and grandfather. I, therefor, have a direct connection to 6 of the 110 generations, or 5% of the time back to Har Sinai. From that point of view 3,300 years doesn’t seem quite as long.
Recently, my son was Bar Mitzva. He needed a pair of Tefillin. Originally, Moshe Rabbeinu was shown a pair of Tefillin made of fire. When he came down from the mountain he fashioned a pair of Tefillin as per Hashem’s instructions. In the world’s first arts and crafts fair, all the adult males looked at Moshe’s Tefillin and made an exact copy for themselves. My son had only to look at my Tefillin to know what his should look like. However, he need not have looked at mine. He could have inspected his grandfather’s Tefillin. In other words, he could skip a generation. If that had been done all along we can then divide the 110 generations by two. There would then be a chain of 55 pair of Tefillin stretching back to the original pair. I do not suggest that any single pair of Tefillin today have such a provenance. However, the numbers work and once again we’ve shortened 3,300 years into a more manageable number.
Similarly, one can easily point out any number of 60 year old Rabbis. 60, being twice 30, would again halve the generations leaving us with a chain of 55 Rabbis from Har Sinai. (It is not unthinkable to have 90 year old Rabbis either. If so the chain of Mesora only passes through 37 hands.) The immediate question asked regards the little children’s game of telephone. The more people the message passes through the more likely it will be garbled.
To rebut this point, we must remember that part of the fun of the game is to garble the message. It is also played by children. If the game is played by adults and a $10 reward is paid to each person not garbling the message, most people would agree that the chances are much higher of receiving a clear message. The odds improve even more if each person will get $1,000. What if a gun is brought into the picture and the participants are told that anyone garbling the message will be shot? This has ceased to be a game. The message now becomes a matter of life or death. The likelihood of garbling the message has been drastically reduced. Torah was, and is, a matter of life and death to our Rabbis. Just look at how many, not only Rabbis, have given up their lives rather than forsake the Torah.
To strengthen this point, we may then point out that if the greatest living Rabbi were to make an announcement that Tefillin are really not supposed to be black cubes. Rather they should be pink and round. Not one person would come to Shul wearing pink round Tefillin. Ours is not a mystery religion where some witch doctors make up the rules as they go along. Every Jewish child from even a nominally orthodox home knows what Tefillin should look like. Any Rabbi making that statement would have placed himself beyond the pale. Nobody would ever ask him another Halachic question!
So our 3,300 years is now down to 55 Rabbis. Let’s go on.
In any group of non-orthodox Jews it is still safe to assume that many, if not most, have been to some form of a Pesach Seder. Ask how many have been to a Seder with their grandfather and the response will be that quite a few have. Grandfathers don’t lie to their grandchildren. Your grandfather told you the Hagada story. In fact, he may have mentioned hearing the exact same information from his grandfather when he was a child. Chances are his grandfather heard it from his grandfather.
At the first level we have: 1- You 2- your father 3- your grandfather
Grandpa heard it from: 4- his father and 5- his grandfather
His grandfather heard it from: 6- his father and 7- his grandfather.
The average person, therefore, has received believable information, only secondhand, from seven generations, 210 years, back. With a seven-generation skip, there have been 17 Pesach Sedorim since the very first one. This information has been passed on by highly credible people.
Look at this same scenario from the other end. The Jews made one Seder prior to the exodus. The next Seder was made in Israel after the forty years in the desert. Picture this scene. Yehoshua is conducting his Seder. He takes a grandson on his knee and tells him “When I was your age we were slaves in Egypt and Hashem took us out with a mighty arm and miracles”. Many years later, that grandson takes his own grandson on his knee and tells him “My grandfather, Yehoshua, told me….”. That grandson, in a Seder many years after the event will still pass this family history forward. “My grandfather told me that his grandfather’s grandfather was Yehoshua Bin Nun who told him….”
17 Sedorim is still a little too high a number.
How old would you estimate the average Torah to be? I sometimes get answers of thirty, fifty and once in a while, a hundred years old. Not counting the new Sifrei Torah, which have been written since the late sixties, the average scroll is about 300 years old.
I grew up in Syracuse, New York. I once counted 50 Torah scrolls in a city of 10,000 Jews. I asked one of the elderly men when the last new Sefer Torah came into the community and he answered “Not in my lifetime.” He was in his late eighties and this was over fifteen years ago. I have traveled extensively. Wherever I’ve been, the Jewish community has any number of Sifrei Torah. There are tens of thousands throughout the world. This does not even count the untold numbers destroyed by the nazis and communists, Yemach Shemom.
Prior to the late sixties, few, if any were written in America or Israel. None were written in Europe going back through W.W.II. Between W.W.I and W.W.II, none in America, probably none in Israel and only a very few in Europe. (Jewish life was severely disrupted by W.W.I followed by a massive influenza epidemic, depression and upheaval.). This means that the newest of the old Torah scrolls are from before 1914.
It takes a scribe one full year to write a Torah. Today, perhaps 20 new scrolls are written per year, almost all in Israel. We can assume that this rate has not changed too much. If so, how do we account for the large numbers of scrolls? Even if we say that 50 were written per year and that there are only 12,000 it would give us an average age of 300 years. Torahs are made of parchment, which ages very slowly. It will take over a hundred years for the parchment to turn even a slight tan. Deep chocolate brown parchment is probably seven or eight hundred years old.
3,300 divided by 300 equals 11 Torah scrolls if one were to have been copied from the other. Again, this is not to suggest that any Torah today has such a provenance. The point is merely that the numbers work.
Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the first Torah in the thirty-eighth year of the sojourn in the desert. That scroll was placed in the Aron of the Mishkan. The Mishkan stood for 400 years until the first Bais HaMikdash was built. At that time the Aron was transferred to the Kodesh Kadashim. The Aron remained there until shortly before the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash, which also stood for about 400 years, meaning we had the original copy in our possession for a period of nearly 800 years.
3,300 – 800= 2,500 years left to account for. The oldest known Torah texts come from fragments found at Masada discovered by Yigal Yadin. He was a secular Israeli who would have had no problem publicizing the fact that this ancient scroll was different from those we have today. In fact, he proudly proclaimed that it is the same letter for letter. Masada was destroyed 2,000 years ago. “Parts of the fragment had been eaten away, but those that were undamaged were very well preserved and we could immediately identify them as several chapters from the Book of Leviticus, chapters eight to twelve, and to note that this scroll too was absolutely identical with the traditional text of Leviticus. Moreover, there was the same division into sections, the traditional division into ‘open’ and ‘closed’ ones…” In addition, in a Geniza under the Shul they found other scroll fragments containing the two final chapters of Deuteronomy and parts of Ezekiel. “It need hardly be added, at this stage that these two scrolls, too, are virtually identical with the traditional biblical texts. There are only a few slight changes in the Ezekiel scroll.” [Note: he makes no mention of any variations in the Deuteronomy text]. He adduces from their location that, “…The date of the scrolls cannot possibly be later than 73 CE and not even the most skeptical of scholars can challenge this”. (MASADA, Yigal Yadin, Random House, 1966). (It is highly unlikely that it was buried when new, thus perhaps another hundred or two hundred years could be added to its age leaving even less of a gap.)
2,500 – 2,000= 500. There is only a 500-year gap in the Mesora. Essentially one and one-half Torah scrolls.
Keep in mind however, this archaeological gap is ours. At the time, they had no gap at all. Scrolls were taken into exile and most likely some of the same scrolls were brought back. This 500- year period occurs at the destruction of the first Temple, the seventy-year exile and the second Temple period. Who were the Jewish leaders of those times? Mordecai and Esther, Yirmiya, Chaggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Hillel, Shammai, Rebbe Akiva… need I go on?
These were hardly the people we would claim are going to mess up the Mesora.
Far from being lost in the mists of antiquity, it is easy to demonstrate that our tradition is intact and unchanged. In fact 3,300 years seems like no time at all.
The Torah is given at Har Sinai 2448 1312 BCE
Mishkan Shiloh begins 2503 1257 BCE
Mishkan Nov begins 2871 889 BCE
Mishkan Givon begins 2884 876 BCE
Shlomo HaMelech begins construction of the first Bais HaMikdash 2928 832 BCE
Shlomo HaMelech finishes construction of the first Bais HaMikdash 2938 822 BCE
First Bais HaMikdash is destroyed 3338 422 BCE
Second Bais HaMikdash completed 3412 348 BCE
Second Bais HaMikdash is destroyed 3828 68 CE
Masada destroyed 3833 73 CE
The Mishkan is in the desert and wandering for 55 years
Mishkan Shiloh stands for 368 years
Mishkan Nov stands for 13 years
Mishkan Givon stands for 54 years
The original Torah remains in the first Bais HaMikdash for 350 years
Original Torah in our possession for 840 years
The Torah was given 3314 years ago –840 years the original was in our possession = 2474 years remaining.
The oldest Torah, from Masada, is minimally 1930 years old
2,474 – 1930 = 544 gap