Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
April 1999

Bible Manuscript Question

Library News and Exhibits


The Jewish music exhibit, "Songs of Our People," is continuing through the end of April. The next exhibit is in the planning stages.

During the past month we received gifts of books from four families. One gift came from a CRC member, another was from two retired professors who are moving out of Chicago, and the third from a widow of a CRC member who was moving to a smaller apartment. The fourth gift was from a faculty member who gave us some books for the teaching and study of Hebrew language and grammar. We also received a monetary gift from Shirley and Nathan Rothner with the request that others follow their example.

Bible Manuscript Question

I subscribe to a computer discussion list for Jewish librarians called HaSafran. A recent question aroused my interest because of its connection to Torah manuscripts. The librarian asking the question was from Brooklyn. Her brother-in-law, Dr. Jordan Penkower, a professor of Tanach at Bar Ilan University1, initiated this question. The question concerns the spacing of words. As you know, certain sections of the Torah are written in distinctive ways. If we change the spacing, the words remain the same and at least theoretically so should the meaning.

I want to illustrate the process of investigating his question rather than concentrate on the solution.

Sh'mot 15, Shirat HaYam, which we read on the seventh day of Pesach, is customarily laid out in a special form, as can be seen in the Koren Tanach. This is called "ariakh al gabei leveina." The professor is interested in the layout of verse 19. In the Koren Tanach In the Koren Tanach the words have extra spaces as in the Sefer Torah. This is the way it is laid out in both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Sefer Torah scrolls today. In the Tanach texts of Meir Letteris 3 the verse is laid out in the same paragraph as the rest of the Shirah, but the spaces between the words are different. He wants to find an Ashkenazi Torah scroll, more than 200 years old, that writes verse 19 as regular prose without the special open sections of poetry. He stated in a private e-mail that he has seen a Sefer Torah with verse 19 arranged as prose.

The first place I checked was contemporary printed texts from Koren and Letteris. These are the most common texts used in our Chumashim. These layout of texts in both examples are like the Sefer Torah. The Library owns one old Torah which is more than 100 years old4, however, we have no idea of its exact age and origin. This Torah has verse 19 as part of the poetical layout as in printed texts and other Sifre Torah.

The next step was to search Chumashim printed before 1852. In the chumashim that use the poetical format, all of them include verse 19 in the poetical layout. In the Mikra'ot Gedolot (i.e. Torah text with traditional commentaries) the whole chapter 15 is printed in block format.

The third step was to check manuscripts. I had two manuscripts available, the Leningrad Codex, about which I have written before, and the second was a manuscript that was used by sofrim to write Sefre Torah. This Bible manuscript was written in 1475. The original is manuscript no. 4 from Hebrew Union College Library in Cincinnati. The microfilm copy of this manuscript is from my personal collection. Neither of these manuscripts differ in the arrangement of verse 19. The verse is formatted as poetry.

Based on the evidence from contemporary printed works, printed works older than 150 years, and manuscripts, I conclude that the search is over. I have no reason to expect to find a Sefer Torah with verse 19 in a different layout than the poetical layout in our current texts. That does not mean none exisit, but rather an alternate spacing of the text would be hard to accept as an authentic alternative.



1. The professor is a serious scholar of Biblical manuscripts. In 1992 Bar Ilan University Press published his book on Torah text in the Aleppo Codex.

2. The Siddur has a different version. Some Siddurim such as ArtScroll print the Shir as in the Sefer Torah until verse 18. Verse 19 is printed afterwards as an added verse in regular paragraph format. In the Birnbaum and Hertz Siddurim verse 19 does not appear. In some Siddurim the whole Shir is in paragraph form or in poetry form that does not match the Sefer Torah. Since the editors have no requirement to follow the format from the Sefer Torah or Chumash, the format used is not a proof of anything.

3. Meir Letteris (1800?-1871), Hebrew poet, writter and editor wrote many works of poems, translations of European literature into Hebrew, and works of non-fiction. His most enduring work was the editing of the Hebrew text of the Tanach for the British and Foreign Bible Society of London in 1852. This work, while providing the basis for innumerable editions of the Hebrew text, also damaged Letteris' reputation among his fellow Jews.

The texts I checked were The Pentateuch with haftoroth... English translation by Alexander Harkavy. New York, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1928; The Pentateuch and the haftoroth. Rodelheim, M. Lehrberger, 1900; Torah, Nevi'im Ketuvim, ... \\ Norman Henry Snaith. [London], British and Foreign Bible Society, 1995. The format of the spacing is different than Sefer Torah. However, Dr. Penkower disagrees with my perception of the format. He says that the verse is in prose because the verse has no extra spaces between the words. I say that the verse is attached to the previous section because the Chumash has a "Peh" for parshah petuhah after verse 19. I am not sure if this is a scholarly debate or a disagreement of perception.

4. While it is very likely to find a 100 year old Torah scroll in an American synagogue, it would be very rare to find one older than 200 years old.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net/~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.

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Last revised July 7, 2003