The Pusey House Torah Scroll of the 17th Century

Thursday, 30 August, 2018 - 7:56 pm

Torah.jpg Pusey House Torah scroll is an old Torah scroll from Prague being held for the past 100 years, since 1920-30s, at Pusey House Library, Oxford, an Anglican institution, associated with the University of Oxford. It was previously in the possession of an Anglican scholar before being donated to Pusey House, where there is a letter, buried in a pile of uncatalogued papers, about the donation of the Torah scroll to the library, asking for it to be looked after. The letter was written to the principal, Anglican priest and theologian, Dr. Darwell Stone (1859-1941), who was educated at Merton College and served as the principal from 1909 to 1934. The scroll was viewed in the 1980s by Professor David Paterson, former president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, requested by the archivist at the time, Ken Macnaeb.[1]


In this article, we will aim to give an overview of the details and unique features of what might be a four hundred year Torah scroll. Only two other complete Torah scrolls are known to exist in the Oxford libraries, both from the Huntington collection at the Bodleian Library, the older of which is the famous Kaifeng Torah scroll.[2] This would make the Pusey House Torah scroll one of only three known complete Torah scrolls in the Oxford libraries, and possibly the oldest of Ashkenazi origin.


Pusey House Torah Scroll details


The Pusey House Torah scroll is held on two rollers, known in Hebrew as Etz Chaim (Tree of life). They both have their tops cut off, possibly for storage purpose. The right hand roller is partially broken with half the section that separates one's hand from the scroll missing. The scroll has an average of seven or eight words per line, containing 30 letters each, coming to about 14 cm wide per column, with about three and a half cm between the columns. The width of the columns in the Pusey House Torah scroll follows the prevalent tradition of having thirty letters per line[3] – not too long that confuses the reader when trying to find the beginning of the next line[4] and not too short that the scroll has the appearance of a letter (igeret). The columns contain sixty lines each, coming to 77cm in height. This follows Jewish law that there must be no less than forty-eight lines in each column, according to Maimonides, and no more than sixty. Some opinions say no less than forty-two lines. If a Torah scroll has less or more it is still usable. Indeed some of the columns in the Pusey House Torah scroll have 61 lines. The number of lines are symbolic: Forty eight corresponds to the forty eight journeys of the Jewish people in the desert in Biblical times,[5] excluding Ramses and including seven when they retraced their steps after the death of Aaron.[6] Forty-two corresponds to the numerical value of the Hebrew word 'vam'[7] (them) in the verse:[8] 'The Lord was among them at Sinai in His holiness.' The number sixty corresponds to the number of men at the Exodus, besides women and children.[9]


Elongated letters


A further aspect of the Torah scroll is that it is not particular to follow the tradition of ‘vavei ha’amudim’ (lit. the hooks of the pillars),[10] that stipulates that all the columns of the Torah scroll, besides six, should begin with the Hebrew letter ‘vav.’ A second aspect of this tradition is that the columns should end with the completion of a verse. The tradition of ‘vavei ha’amudim’ is mentioned as early as the 11th century by Rabbi Simcha of Vitry.[11] In many Ashkenazi Torah scrolls and manuscripts the letters are elongated not just to justify the end of the lines neatly, as can be seen in certain words in the Pusey House Torah scroll, but done extensively so that the columns should a. end with the completion of a verse and b. the beginning of the columns should begin with the Hebrew letter ‘vav.’ This practice is however controversial in the medieval period. Rabbi Meir Hakohen of Rothenburg writes in Hagahot Maimoniyut:[12]


That ignorant scribes start each column with a ‘vav’, and called it ‘vavei ha’amudim’, seems to be an absolute prohibition, because they make some of the columns wide and some narrow, and sometimes there are large letters which are not according to Jewish law and sometimes irregular elongated letters to allow the ‘vav’ to reach the beginning of the following column. I have written these words to my teacher Rabeinu (Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg) and he agreed with me. This is what he responded: You asked me about a Torah scroll with ‘vavei ha’amudim:’ it is not correct in my eyes, as you have written, not from the Torah and not from the rabbis. There is however one scribe, R’ Luntin from Michelhausen, who showed his talent in this way. If I were to write a Sefer Torah I would be careful not to have a single column start with a ‘vav’ besides ‘v’a'ida bam’.


However, in the Regenburg Pentateuch (c. 1300) in Germany, housed in the Israel museum, Jerusalem,[13] it clearly recognises the importance of this tradition. It writes at the end of the Pentateuch (Chumash):


The total are of 150 columns and it is meant to serve as Tikkun (a correct parent copy) for copying Torah Scrolls in the ‘Vavei ha’amudim’ format with 60 lines per column, and each column should end with a full verse, except 6 columns, represented by the Hebrew letters in the words: b’kah sh’mo[14] (b’reishit,[15] Yehudah ata,[16] habaim,[17] shmar l’cha,[18] ma tovu,[19] v’aida bam[20]).


Authority in Jewish law Rabbi Yechiel Halevi (1829-1908) Epstein writes in his Jewish legal work Aruch Hashulchan:[21]


It has been for a long time already that they have produced a nice and beautiful script with ‘vavei ha’amudim’ - with ‘vav’ as the first letter on each column - without forcing any letters and scribes have had the custom to follow this style. For sure it is correct to do so and it is a great thing to do this.


It appears that the Pusey House Torah scroll in many cases does start with the letter ‘vav’ but in other cases it is not particular to do so.[22] This may point to the level of expertise of the scribe or to the fact that the place where this Torah scroll originates from didn’t follow the tradition of ‘vavei ha’amudim.’


Dating of the scroll


There are three aspects of the Pusey House Torah scroll that allows us to give a suggestion of a date for the scroll, indicating that it is not older than 12th century and most likely early 17th century. The feature that suggests an earliest date for the scroll is the shape of the letter ‘chet’. The accurate shape of the letter ‘chet’ is subject to a dispute in understanding a text in the Talmud in tractate Menachot, where it discusses the laws of writing a Torah scroll, Tefilin (phylacteries), worn by men during morning prayers, containing the declaration of faith in one G-d, the observance of the commandments and the Exodus, and Mezuzah – a parchment scroll affixed to the doorpost. The Talmud states: ‘Rav Ashi says: I have seen that the exacting scribes of the study hall of Rav would put a hump-like (chatrei) stroke on the roof of the letter ‘cḥet.’[23] The word ‘hump-like’ is a translation offered by Rabeinu Tam (1100-1171) of the Aramaic word ‘chatrei’ employed by the Talmud in its description of the shape of the roof of the letter ‘chet.’ Rashi (1040-1105), the grandfather of Rabeinu Tam, however, translates the word ‘chatrei’ related to a cane or staff. According to the latter, the shape of the ‘chet’ is with a flat roof, with a protruding stick (tag) arising upward from the left hand side corner of the roof of the letter. According to the former, the ‘chet’ had a hump-like – more like an upside-down V – roof that acts as a connector of the two parts of the letter - constituting in effect two instances of a ‘zayin’, connected above by an upside-down V.[24]


Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269-c.1343), who lived in Castille, quotes in his major work on Jewish law, Arba Turim, both opinions without offering a view whom to follow in practice.[25] The Keifeng Torah scroll at the Bodleian library appears to follow the opinion of Rashi, as can be seen also in the world's oldest complete Torah scroll, believed to have been written between 1155 and 1225, discovered in the library of the University of Bologna, Italy.[26] This debate was reconciled, however, by German Tosafist Rabbi Eliezer ben Samuel of Metz (died 1175) in his legal work Sefer Yereim[27] (Vilna 1892), where he suggests that both opinions should be followed in practice. Ashkenazi Torah scrolls thus have the letter ‘chet’ with both features: an upside-down V connecting the two ‘zayin’ letters, as well as a tag rising from the left hand top corner of the left ‘zayin.’ As the Pusey House Torah scroll follows this opinion in its script, it suggests the scroll is certainly not earlier than 13th century.


Abnormal letters


Torah3.jpg further aspect of the Pusey House Torah scroll that suggests a possible dating of the scroll is that it contains many unusual letters in the script. Variations to the standard letters found in the ancient Torah scroll are generally in the following thirteen categories: oversized letters, miniature letters, dotted letters,[28] inverted letters,[29] suspended letters,[30] raised letters,[31] backward letters, crooked letters, broken letters, crowned letters and crooked crowned letters. In addition, there are words spelt in one way but pronounced in a different way.[32] The number of unusual letters in the Torah scroll, passed down by the chain of tradition, are: 240 in Genesis, 167 in Exodus, 68 in Leviticus, 130 in Numbers and 155 in Deuteronomy. Total number is 723.[33]


A brief overview of examples of these features in the Pusey House Torah scroll include: large letters in Deuteronomy 6:4; Deuteronomy 18:13; Deuteronomy 32:5 and 32:6; and Deuteronomy 28:68. A double Hebrew letter 'pei', written inside the letter ‘pei’, called ‘pei kefulah,’ may be found in many verses in the Pusey House Torah scroll, for example, in the verse in Deuteronomy 29:17: 'Perhaps (pen) there is among you a man or a woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away (poneh) today from being with G-d, our G-d, to go and serve the gods of those nations; perhaps (pen) there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood.' The three Hebrew words: pen, poneh and pen, all have a double ‘pei’.


A more rare phenomenon in the Masoretic text is inverted letters. An example of a backward letter can be found in the Pusey House Torah scroll in a verse in Deuteronomy 23:21 regarding the subject of usury.[34] The verse states:[35] 'You shall not give interest to your brother, whether it be interest on money, interest on food or interest on any other item for which interest is normally taken. You may however, give interest to a gentile, but to your brother you shall not give interest, in order that the Lord, your G-d, shall bless you in every one of your endeavours in the land to which you are coming to possess.' The Hebrew letter lamed in the word ‘l'nochri', sanctioning usury to a gentile, in the Pusey House Torah scroll, is facing backwards.[36] A reason for this backward lamed is: since the verse says first: ‘You may give interest to a gentile,’ before stating: ‘your brother you shall not give interest,’ it suggests one should give precedence to lending a gentile with interest before lending one’s fellow without interest. The backward ‘lamed’ is therefore meant to instruct the opposite: one should rather lend one’s fellow without interest than lend a gentile with interest, suggesting the ideal is to lend without interest.[37]


Finally, in the last verse of the Torah, in Deuteronomy 34:12, one can find a curved ‘ayin’ in the verse: ‘And all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.’ In the Hebrew word ‘l’einei’ (before the eyes), The ‘ayin’ is extended and curved pointing backwards at the bottom end of the letter.


History of abnormal letters


A brief introduction into the history of the presence of unusual letters in the Torah scroll, will offer us insight into, not just a fascinating phenomenon relating to the Masoretic text (tradition of the Hebrew script of the Torah), but also an estimated date for the Pusey House Torah scroll. The history of the unusual letters dates back, according to Jewish tradition, to the beginning of the history of the Masora itself when the letters used in the Torah scroll were first established. According to Jewish tradition, Moses wrote the first Torah scroll before his passing.[38] In the 9th century Midrashic work Devarim Rabba,[39] it says, before Moses passed away he wrote in fact thirteen scrolls, one for each tribe, and a scroll to be placed in the ark, as a parent copy, to attest to the accuracy of Torah scrolls, in case of forgery. In tractate Soferim,[40] it mentions there existed three Torah scrolls in the Temple (azarah) courtyard with inconsistencies between them and they decided the correct version following the majority of the scrolls. According to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, these are the same three scrolls that Ezra the Scribe used to establish the correct version of the script after the return of the first exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE.[41] Subsequently, there existed a single accurate copy, called Sefer Ezra, which was used for all Torah scrolls to be corrected against.[42] This parent copy contained, alongside the standard Masoretic script, many dots on the lettering, and also many distinct abnormal letters, known as ‘osiyot meshunot.’[43] Although Sefer Ezra seems to have been lost,[44] copies remained that were considered the most accurate copy of the original scroll. In the 13th century, Maimonides alludes to the existence of such a parent scroll, while he was living in Egypt. He writes in his legal work Mishneh Torah, in the laws of Sefer Torah:


Since I have seen great confusion about these matters in all the scrolls I have seen, and similarly, the masters of the tradition who have written down and composed [texts] to make it known [which passages] are p'tuchot and which are s'tumot are divided with regard to the scrolls on which to rely, I saw fit to write down the entire list of all the passages in the Torah that are s'tumot and p'tuchot, and also the form of the songs. In this manner, all the scrolls can be corrected and checked against these [principles]. The scroll on which I relied on for [clarification of] these matters was a scroll renowned in Egypt, which includes all the 24 books [of the Bible]. It was kept in Jerusalem for many years so that scrolls could be checked from it. Everyone relies upon it because it was corrected by ben Asher, who spent many years writing it precisely, and [afterward] checked it many times. I relied [on this scroll] when I wrote a Torah scroll according to law.


In this same context Maimonides attests to a tradition that the Torah scroll contains a system of abnormal letters that are also considered part of the chain of tradition of the Masoretic script of the Torah scroll dating back to the original scrolls. Maimonides codifies this in his legal work Mishneh Torah indicating that the inclusion of the abnormal lettering was standard practise in his days and should be adhered to:[45]


One should be careful regarding the oversized letters, the miniature letters, the letters that are dotted, the letters that have abnormal shapes[46] - e.g., the pe'in that are bent over - and the crooked letters that the scribes have copied from each other in a chain of tradition. [Similarly,] care should be taken regarding the crowns and the number [of crowns placed on a letter]. There are some letters that have [only] one crown, and others that have seven crowns. All these crowns are shaped like zeiynin. They should be as thin as a hair.


The knowledge of this subject is from an ancient work of unknown origin, called Sefer Tagei, mentioned in a commentary to Kabbalistic work, Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation), by 10th century Sa’adia Gaon.[47] In addition, 11th century French Rabbi Simcha of Vitry[48] quotes it in his book of liturgy and Jewish law, Machzor Vitry, as does 13th century Nachmanides of Gerona. Reflecting the prevalence of this custom in the middle ages, Catalan Rabbi Judah ben Barzillai (Barcelona), of the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th century, writes that one who adds more of these abnormal letters is praiseworthy.[49]


While the age-old tradition to have abnormal letters in the Torah scroll is indisputable, either as a method of Biblical exegesis or for some other mystical reason, the continuity of the tradition seems to have faded over the last millennium to the degree that today almost no abnormal letters can be found in the Torah scroll. The following is a brief outline of the various views in the last thousand years pertaining to the tradition, and detailing how it fell out of use. Although not mentioned in much detail in the Talmud, classic Biblical commentator, Rashi, alludes to the custom in the 11th century,[50] and, as mentioned, his disciple Rabbi Simcha of Vitry discusses it in great detail. A change in the tradition may, however, be seen in the work of Maimonides. Although, he writes one should be careful to include them, he does not catalogue them himself for posterity in his Laws of Sefer Torah, even though he catalogues other important format details. Similarly, 16thcentury Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) in his Code of Jewish law omits the tradition.[51] 16th century Polish Rabbis Moses Isserles (1530-1572), in his gloss to Rabbi Joseph Karo’s code of Jewish law,[52] and Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe (1530-1612),[53] however, do mention the importance of including the abnormal letters, reflecting the fact that in their days the tradition still existed.[54]


In the 16th century movement clearly began, however, to discontinue the tradition. Rabbi Abraham ben David Portaleone (1542-1612), known as Abraham Harofe, in his work Shiltei Giborim, writes that he saw numerous Torah scrolls from Safed that had no abnormal letters and indeed they decreed not to continue the tradition of including abnormal letters in the Torah scrolls. The reason offered is, because the purpose of the variation of the letters was for exegetical purposes,[55] while studying the Torah from the scroll.[56] However, when the practise was no longer to study the Torah from a Torah scroll, but rather to read from it the synagogue, especially with the production of codices, and books with the invention of the printing press, the need to include abnormal letters in the scrolls declined.[57] Rabbi Moses Hagiz (1671 – c. 1750), of 17th-century Amsterdam, born in Jerusalem, writes in his work Leket Hakemach that one should not make any changes to the letters or words, neither additions, subtractions or changes in the shape of the letters. He instructed that all Torah scrolls that will be written from now on should not have any of these changes made to them, although he doesn’t go as far as to invalidate Torah scrolls that have already been written. Two reasons were given for the tradition to be discontinued: a. Due to the lack of reliable knowledge of the tradition. B. With the spread of knowledge of the scripture amongst non-Jews, it would attract accusations from non-Jews that Jews made changes to the script.


Bohemian rabbi and Talmudist Jonah ben Elijah Landsofer (1678 - 1712)[58] suggested a compromise that one may add crooked crowns to letters as long as it’s done discreetly with thin strokes of the quill in a way that does not change the shape of the letter. In addition, elevated letters should only be raised slightly, and when inverting the right head of the letter ‘ayin’, it should be not inverted completely but only slightly turning inward. Galician born Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margulius from Brod (1762-1828), however, in his legal work on the rules of the reading of the Torah, Sharei Efraim,[59] invalidates a Torah scroll that has abnormal letters that are different in their form from the original letter, like an inverted nun in the portion of Noah in Genesis 11:32 and lamed in the portion of Ki Tetze in Deuteronomy 23:21. Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai (1724-1806), known as the Chida, goes further and invalidates reading from a Torah scroll that has double pei, even though it does not fundamentally change the shape of the original letter. Finally, indicating the end of this ancient tradition, German Rabbi Moses Sofer, known as Chatam Sofer, considered the leading orthodox rabbi of the 19th century, testifies[60] that his scribes do not include any abnormal letters and it is appropriate that they don’t, since over the course of the long experience of exile this tradition that had been passed down from person to person through a chain of tradition has become confused and cannot be relied upon. In today’s times, while the shape of the Masoretic letters used in a Torah scroll have been scrupulously preserved, the system of the crowns on the letters that are mentioned explicitly in the Talmud are strictly followed, and the format of the columns and the spacing between sections are all maintained, the tradition to include abnormal letters in the scroll have almost completely discontinued. It is in fact an exotic find to come across such a Torah scroll nowadays.


Nevertheless, despite the decline, some of these traditions have persisted, including various dotted letters and words, inverted nun in the passage of V’yehi b’nsoa ha’aron in Numbers 10:35-36 and a broken ‘vav’ in Shalom in Numbers 25:12,all of which are explicitly mentioned in the Talmud. Based on the above overview, one may summarise that the Pusey House Torah scroll that contains a variety of abnormal letters, including double ‘pei’, inverted ‘nun,’ curved ‘ayin,’ as well as a backward ‘lamed,’ suggests that it was composed at a time that predates the decline of this tradition, most likely as far back as 400 years ago, in the early 17th century.



Perforated holes - Kosher



Torah2.jpgA further unique feature in the Torah scroll that may help in dating the Pusey House Torah scroll is the fact that it contains in two places perforated holes spelling the Hebrew word 'Kosher.' One such word may be found in the column containing Numbers chapter 26 and another one at the very end of the scroll in Deuteronomy. This perforation of holes in the parchment of a Torah scroll is based on Jewish law that not only the script must follow the strict criteria of how the letters must be written - a very precise tradition passed down through thousands of years - but the hide itself must be prepared in a prescribed manner according to Jewish law. Firstly, the skin must be from a Kosher animal, following the criteria in Deuteronomy of what makes an animal Kosher.[61] Such animals include cows, oxen, lambs, goats and other domestic or wild animals that chew their cud and have split hoofs.


In addition to the hide coming from a Kosher animal, the production of the hide for parchment also must follow Jewish law. To make the skin pliable, it is soaked in lime water, and treated with gallnut, various other chemicals, and flour. Jewish law stipulates that the parchment must however be worked on by Jews with the specific intent that it shall be used for writing a Torah scroll and for no other purpose.[62] 


There was a period in Provence in the 15th century, when the preparation of skins for parchment was a Jewish profession and the clergy would obtain their parchment from Jewish tanners.[63] In a place where the hide production was the profession of non-Jews the hide for Torah scrolls would be prepared in a non-Jewish tannery. The skin for a Torah scroll would then need to be placed in lime by a Jewish person with the intention that it is being done for the purpose of writing a Torah scroll. According to Maimonides (1135-1204), if a non-Jew processed the parchment, it disqualifies the parchment for a Torah scroll. Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327) writes that a non-Jew may process the hide as long as a Jew supervises and helps in a small part of the process. Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572) writes that in the Ashkenazi tradition such is the custom.[64] 


Once this parchment has been prepared in a Kosher manner, a special identifying sign would have to be marked on the parchment to confirm that it is Kosher, so not to confuse it with unfit parchment in the non-Jewish tannery. In the context of a discussion about cheese produced by a Jew in the house of a non-Jew, the French Rabbi Moses Coucy (1200-1260) includes a paragraph about the preparation of parchment by a non-Jew from Rabbi Yehudah Gaon: ‘When a Jew gives hide to a non-Jew to work on for the purpose of a Torah scroll, one should punch holes with an awl in the shape of letters in the middle of the pieces of parchment, even though it is very easy for the non-Jew to forge, by putting the holed parchment over the unholed parchment and make identical holes to those made by the Jew.’ Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehudah rules we are not concerned about forgery because the non-Jew will be scared his holes will not be precise and he will be caught. 


This ruling is also mentioned in a medieval commentary on Maimonides, Hagahot Maimoniyut, considered one of the most important sources for the Jewish legal rulings of medieval Ashkenazi rabbis, written by 13th century German Rabbi Meir Hakohen of Rothenburg, student of the great German rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1215-1293). He writes[65] that an additional reason why we are not concerned for forgery is because the holes by the non-Jew will be noticeably newer than the older holes.[66] This ruling is codified in the Code of Jewish Law by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) in the 16th century:[67] 'When hides are marked with an awl in letter-like shapes, we do not assume they are forged even it would be easy to do so because the non-Jew would be afraid that the Jew (who made the marks) would identify them’.


This view appears to be the established opinion in Jewish law up until the 17th century. In the second half of the 17th century, Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (c. 1635 - 1682) wrote the Magen Avraham commentary to Rabbi Joseph Karo's code of Jewish law, in which he quotes[68] an earlier opinion by another 13th century student of the great German Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, Rabbi Abraham ben Moses of Sinsheim, stating that one should rather write the name of the Torah portion of that week (shem haparsha shel otah shavua) on the inside of the parchment, at the beginning of the scroll (starting where the parchment is not yet treated, extending into the treated section).[69] One should not however punch holes with an owl or needle into the parchment because a non-Jew will certainly forge it if it is possible to do so. This view is qualified by 14th century Rabbi Samson ben Eliezer in his Jewish legal work on Torah scrolls, Baruch Sheamar,[70] that this restriction against punching holes is only the case when there the possibility that the non-Jew will gain financial benefit from forging the mark. If there is no such concern then one may use a needle or owl to make holes as a mark.


Torah1.jpg being a 13th century opinion, this view of Rabbi Abraham ben Moses of Sinsheim against punching holes in the parchment as an identifying sign is not mentioned in the work of Rabbi Joseph Karo of the 16th century. The first time it is quoted as a valid opinion in Jewish law is in the 17th century commentary to Joseph Karo by Abraham Gombiner. Subsequently, although ignored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his code of Jewish law Shulchan Aruch Harav,[71] it is brought as an additional view in the classic work Keset Hasofer on Jewish law pertaining to writing a Torah scroll by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1884-1886) and Mishna Berurah code of Jewish law by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1839-1933). The latter writes that ideally one should follow the opinion that one should not punch holes as an identifying mark, though ex post facto one may be lenient. 


In summary, it would seem that it was customary to punch holes in the Torah scroll as standard practice up until the 17th century when the production of parchment was done by non-Jews. Although Rabbi Samson ben Eliezer quotes the opinion to refrain from performing this practice in the 14th century, evidently, Rabbi Joseph Karo does not incorporate this view in his code of Jewish law. It is only in the second half of the 17th century in the Magen Avraham, the classic work in Jewish Law by Rabbi Gombiner, that we see the view quoted and subsequently included as a valid view in Jewish law that this practice is not reliable and should preferably not be performed. Based on this brief study, one may presume that the identification mark of holes in the form of the letters kaf, shin, reish (kosher) in the Pusey House Torah scroll, indicate that the scroll predates the 17th century work of the Magen Avraham.




A final interesting aspect of the Torah scroll is the spelling of the word ‘daka’ (crushed) in Deuteronomy:[72] “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” In many Torah scrolls the Hebrew word ‘daka’ is spelled with the letter ‘hey,’ while the Yemenite Torah scrolls and the Torah text approved by the Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813),[73] founder of the Chabad movement, spelled it with the letter ‘alef’ at the end, as opposed to a hey. In the Pusey House Torah scroll it follows the tradition that the word ‘daka’ is spelled ending with an ‘aleph.’




The Pusey House Torah scroll belongs to a period when Torah scrolls were written different than nowadays, based on a chain tradition that goes back to ancient times but has since been discontinued. While the overall style and format of the Torah scroll has remained intact over the centuries, the unique features of special letters that characterized the Masoretic text from the time of Ezra, serving a method of Biblical exegesis was faded out around the beginning of the 17th century. The same is true regarding a method of identifying parchment as valid according to Jewish law even while being houses unsupervised with a non-Jewish tanner. This method of perforating holes in the parchment was also faded out in the 17thcentury. As both these characteristics are present in the Pusey House Torah scroll one may suggest that this Torah scroll is from that period and thus constitutes a rare and valuable item reflecting a tradition that is no longer practised in the Jewish tradition pertaining to Judaism’s most holy object.






[1] The first rabbi to view the Torah scroll since its arrival in Oxford was Rabbi Eli Brackman in 2018.

[2] Other complete Torah scrolls in Oxford: 1. MS. Huntington Add. A: A Pentateuch roll with thaggin (Masoretic crowns), the script is German square characters and has 121 columns with 60 lines on each column. 2. MS. Huntington Add. B: A Pentateuch roll, bought from a synagogue in China. The letters have no thaggin, the script is Persian square characters, is on skin, has 239 columns with 49 lines in each column. This Torah is one of the twelve Torah scrolls sold to Christian missionaries in the 19thcentury after the decline of the Kaifeng Jews after having been there since the 10th century, under the Northern Song dynasty. Other Chinese Torah scrolls ended up in the British Museum, Cambridge University, Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It would seem however that as the Kaifeng Torah scroll in Oxford is part of the Robert Huntington (1637–1701) collection it must have been bought from Kaifeng earlier. Fragments of Torah scrolls in Oxford include four from the Huntington collection at the Bodleian Library and one at Merton College: 1. MS. Huntington 618: Pentateuch roll - ends Exodus 12:28. The letters have thaggin, the script is Oriental square characters. The scroll is on skin, there are 48 lines in each column. 2. MS. Huntington 619: Pentateuch roll - begins Exodus 17:9 and ends Leviticus 20:21. The letters havethaggin with the script in Oriental square characters. It is on skin, there are 59 lines in each column. 3. MS. Huntington 620: Pentateuch roll - beginning Leviticus 21:21. The letters have thaggin and are in Oriental square characters. The scroll is of vellum, with 50 lines in each column. 4. MS. Huntington 622: Pentateuch roll - containing Exodus 14:28 to 17:9, and Exodus 12:38 to 14:28. The letters have thaggin and the script is in square characters in two hands. The scroll is of skin with 6 columns, 45 or 47 lines in each column. 5. In addition, a fragment of a Torah scroll may be found at Merton College, possibly from the 18th century (Ref. MCR F.1.7A).

[3] Talmud Menachot 30a. Rabeinu Tam writes that if the script is a thicker script then the lines may be longer, as it will not confuse the reader (Tosafot ibid).

[4] Rashi comment on Menachot 30a,

[5] Keset Hasofer 13:3.

[6] Lishkat Hasofer 13:6.

[7] The word is spelt with a ‘bet’, though pronounced ‘vam’.

[8] Psalms 68:18.

[9] Exodus 12:7.

[10] This is based on the verse in Exodus (27:9-10) regarding the building of the Tabernacle: ‘And you shall make the courtyard of the Mishkan on the southern side [there shall be] hangings for the courtyard of twisted fine linen, one hundred cubits long on one side. And its pillars [shall be] twenty and their sockets twenty of copper; the hooks of the pillars (vavei ha’amudim) and their bands [shall be of] silver.’

[11] Machzor Vitry (519). It is also mentioned by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher in the early 14th century (Ba’al Ha-Turim, to Genesis 49:8). It is based on the idea that the Torah is a substitute to the Temple:;the hooks of the pillars are thus represented by the columns (amudim) beginning with the Hebrew letter ‘vav.

[12] Laws of Tefilin and Mezuzah 7:9.

[13] MS. 180:52. A lecture on the Regenburg Bible may be viewed at:

[14] Psalms 68:5.

[15] Genesis 1:1.

[16] Genesis 49:8.

[17] Exodus 14:28.

[18] Exodus 14:28.

[19] Numbers 24:5.

[20] Deuteronomy 31:28.

[21] Yore Deah 273:24.

[22] This can be seen for example in Numbers, approx. chapter 26, where one column begins with Ufkudeihem, the second one with vayirash, while the earlier column starts with leimor.

[23] The Talmud (Menachot 29b) offers a reason for this hum-like shape. Rava explains: They would put a hump-like stroke on the roof of the letter ‘cḥet’ as if to thereby say: The Holy One, Blessed be He, lives ‘ḥai’ in the heights of the universe.

[24] Tosafot Menachot 29b points out that the opinion of Rashi does not sit so suitably - ‘lo yisyashev kol kach’ - with the text of the Talmud in tractate Shabbat (104b): ‘If one emended a single letter on Shabbat, he is liable. Rav Sheshet said: We are dealing with a case where one removed the roof of a ‘cḥet’ and transformed it into two instances of the letter ‘zayin,’ effectively writing two letters with a single correction.’ This text clearly refers to the ‘chet’ as made out of two instances of the letter ‘zayin’ with a roof connecting them, similar to Rabeinu Tam. Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim (1727–1792) in his suppercommentary, Eshel Avraham, on Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 36:3) notes out thatTosafot does not use the term ‘kushye’ that would imply a difficulty for Rashi but merely the text of the Talmud in Shabbat does not sit so well. Indeed, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat, 11:13) appears to follow Rashi’s opinion while paraphrasing the above text of the Talmud: ’If one was checking a single letter and divided it, creating two letters, one is liable; for example, one divided ‘she’cholak’ the connecting lines of a chet, thus creating two zeinim.’ The word ‘she’cholak’ divided implies merely making a break in the roof of the letter, as opposed to removing the hump-like roof all together.

[25] Tur Yoreh Deah 275.

[26] Both Sefardic and Ashkenazic customs follow the view of Rabeinu Tam that the roof of the ‘chet’ consists of an upside-down V. There is however a dispute about what the two letters should be. Standard Sefardic and Ashkenazic scripts have two ‘zayins’, following the Talmudic text in Menachot and Shabbat. Rabbi Isaac Luria and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi opine that the letter consists of a ‘vav’ and ‘zayin.’ The Pusey House Torah scroll appears to have the two letters of the chet made up of two instances of the letter ‘vav.’ While Jewish law recognizes such a letter as valid, it is certain not a common phenomenon. 

[27] See Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 36:3.

[28] Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 34:5: In ten places in the Torah certain words or letters have dots over them.

[29] Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 34:4.

[30] Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 34:4.

[31] Like the raised head of the left arm of the ‘ayin’.

[32] Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 34:5: Eleven times in the Torah the Hebrew word he is spelt with a ‘yud’.

[33] Selection of variations in the Torah scroll is as follows:

1.     Yishpot Hashem in Genesis 15:5 – small ‘yud’.

2.     Cadorleomer (in verse: Ufichol sar tzevoi) in Genesis Vayera – broken into two words.

3.     V’yamot Terach b’charan in Genesis 11:32 - inverted nun.

4.     Derech etz hachaim in Genesis 3:24 – inverted ‘kaf’.

5.     Af ki amar in Genesis 3:1 – crooked ‘pei’.

6.     Lech lecha in Genesis 12:1 – two crooked ‘kaf’.

7.     Ar’ekah in Genesis 12:1 – crooked ‘kaf’.

8.     Lo ki ervas h’aretz in Genesis 45:12 – abnormal letter.

9.     Vayechalek aleihem haliylah in Genesis 14:15 – crown in the ‘yud’ on top and also on the rear of the letter.

10.   Vaye’maen in Genesis 37:35 – bent over ‘vav’.

11.   Shofech dam h’adam in Genesis 9:6 – long ‘chaf’.

12.   V’Cham avi Canaan in Genesis 9:18 – long ‘nun’.

13.   V’yashkef al pnei Sedom in Genesis 19:28 – long ‘pei’ and double.

14.   V’yifach b’apov in Genesis 2:7 – abnormal ‘chet’.

15.   Lech l’shalom in Exodus 4:18 – three crowns on the top of the neck and two on the corner of the leg.

16.   L’shimtzah Bekameihem in Exodus 32:25 – closed ‘kaf’ and no crowns.

17.   Lecha v’eshlachacha el Paroh in Exodus 3:10 – closed ‘hei’ in lecha.

18.   Gachon in Leviticus 11:42 – oversized ‘vav’.

19.   Legulgelosam in Numbers 1:22 – second ‘lamed’ curved below.

20.   V’yehi b’nsoa ha’oron  in Numbers 10:35-36 – two inverted ‘nuns’.

21.   Shalom in Numbers 25:12 – broken ‘vav’

22.   V’hem ha’omdim al Hapekudim in Numbers 7:2 - closed ‘kaf’ and no crowns.

23.   V’es bonov in Numbers 21:35 – missing ‘yud’.

24.   Vayichar af Moshe in Numbers 32:19 – left leg of ‘chet’ is curved.

25.   V’hi lo titzlach in Numbers 14:18 - abnormal ‘chet’.

26.   Chata’ah in Numbers 32:21 – curved ‘chet’.

27.   Vayehi b’nsoa in Numbers 10:35 – inverted ‘nun’ at beginning and end.

28.   V’yimsru m’alfei yisroel in Numbers 31:5 – ‘alef’ above the lamed in yisroel

29.   L’nachri tashich in Deuteronomy 23:21 – backward ‘lamed’.

30.   Hal’Hashem tigmlu zos in Deuteronomy 32:4 – ‘hey’ written separately.

31.   Ta’asena had’vorim in Deuteronomy 1:44 – inverted ‘nun’.

32.   Ki yipalei mi’mcha in Deuteronomy 17:8 – crooked and double.

33.   V’heshiv’cha Hashem Mitzrayim in Deuteronomy 28:68 – oversized ‘tzadi’.

34.   Pen yinachru tzareimo in Deuteronomy 32:27 – oversized and crooked ‘tzadi’.

[34] This variation is found also in all Yemenite Torah scrolls (Toras Shlomo, vol. 2, Kesav Hatorah V’osiyoseha ch. 9).

[35] Deuteronomy 23:20-21.

[36] The

[37] Another insight might be that while the text sanctions lending a gentile with interest, it is in fact preferable not to charge interest even to a gentile beyond what is necessary for him to earn a livelihood (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Malveh V’loveh 5:2).

[38] Deuteronomy 31:9: ‘Then Moses wrote this Torah, and gave it to the priests, the descendants of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.’ Rashi comments: ‘When it was entirely completed, he gave it to the members of his tribe.’ Similarly, in Deuteronomy 31:24-26: ‘And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion, that Moses commanded the Levites, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: Take this Torah scroll and place it along side the ark of covenant of the Lord, your G-d, and it will be there as a witness.’

[39] 9:9.

[40] 6:4: Three scrolls of the Torah were found in the Temple court: the Ma’om scroll, the Za’atute scroll, and the Hu’ scroll. See also Jerusalemite Talmud Ta’anit 20b.

[41] Rashi commentary to I Chronicles 8:29, quoting an unknown work called Megillat Yerushalmi. In Torah Shlomo, vol. 2, Kesav Hatorah V’ososeha ch. 7, it suggests that Rashi had the version Ezra instead of Azarah. There is debate however weather Rashi on Chronicles is from Rashi. The Chida concurs that it is of Rashi. The commentary on this verse however contradicts Rashi commentary on Moed Katan 18b that on the contrary the word is Azarah and not Ezra, even though the context is different. See following footnote.

[42] Moed Katan 18b: ‘One may not write Torah scrolls, phylacteries, or mezuzot on the intermediate days of a Festival, nor may one correct a single letter, even in the Torah scroll of Ezra, which was kept in the Temple and upon which all the Jewish communities relied.’ Rashi on the Talmud comments that it may also be read Azarah (Temple courtyard).

[43] A focus of the sages who worked on the accuracy of the text of the Torah scroll was the couning of the letters. According to Sa’adia Gaon there is 792,77 letters in total. According to Dikdukei Hatamim (p. 55) there are 409,45, according to Midrash Talpiyot, there are 404,805 or 320,674. See Encyclopedia Talmudis 1:193a. For this reason the early scribes were called Sofrim – counters.

[44] According to one legend it was lost at sea.

[45] Laws of Sefer Torah 7:8.

[46] The words ‘the letters that have abnormal shapes’ follows the Oxford Huntington 80 MS that writes in the Hebrew ‘oisiyos she’tzuroson meshunos.’ In other versions it omits however ‘she’tzuroson’ suggesting the translation as just ‘abnormal letters.’

[47] Pirush l’Sefer Yetzira ch. 5.

[48] Machzor Vitry p. 674 (Nirnberg edition).

[49] Toras Shlomo, vol. 2, Kesav Hatorah V’ososeha 8:1.

[50] Genesis 11:32.

[51] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 275:6.  The Tur (275) does mention the tradition.

[52] Yoreh Deah 275:6.

[53] Ateret Zahav Yoreh Deah 275.

[54] Rabbi Moses Isserles seems to follow Maimonides in mentioning the importance to include the abnormal letters in the Torah scroll, even though one may conclude the opposite from the omission of details by Maimonides.

[55] Menachot 29b: Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moses ascended to the heights [to receive the Torah] he found God sitting and drawing crowns upon the letters. Moses said to G-d, "Master of the Universe, what is staying Your hand [from giving me the Torah unadorned]?" G-d replied, "There is a man who will arise many generations in the future, his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every crown and mark." Moses requested, "Master of the Universe, show him to me." G-d said, "Turn backwards [and you will see him]." Moses [found himself in R. Akiva's classroom where he] sat at the back of the eighth row. He didn't understand what they were talking about and felt weak. Then, they came to a matter about which the students asked Akiva, "Rabbi, how do you know this?" He told them, "It is the [oral] law given to Moses at Sinai." Moses felt relieved. [Moses] returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be, and said before Him, "Master of the Universe! You have a man like this, and You are giving the Torah through me?" He said to Moses, "Be silent. This is what I have decided.

[56] See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 3:1, regarding the use of Torah scroll for study.

[57] Tur Yoreh Deah 270. See P’risha.

[58] Bnei Yonah, quoted in Lishkas Hasofer 16:7, by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried .

[59] 6:2.

[60] Responsa Yoreh Deah 265.

[61] 14.

[62] 'The Books of Books: The story of the Bible text' by Azriel Eisenberg, p. 2-3.

[63] S. Grayzal, "The Avignon Popes and the Jews: Historia Judaica, 11' Hakehila umosdoseha: chevra v'kalkala 101.

[64] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 32:9.

[65] Hilchot Tefilin 1:6.

[66] In the Semag this reason appears but only in regard to the discussion about cheese. It seems that there may have been some misunderstanding in the copying of this text, as this factor is indeed more relevant to cheese that changes in taste over time, as opposed to holes in parchment that might be harder to distinguish between older and newer.

[67] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 32:10.

[68] Orach Chaim 32:12.

[69] Mishna Berurah 32.

[70] He was named ‘Baruch Sheamar’ (blessed is He who said) because orphaned at eight years old, he would recite this morning prayer distinctly out loud, resulting in people calling him this name.

[71] Orach Chaim 32:13.

[72] 23:2.

[73] Hayom Yom, 7 Elul, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, containing anecdotal teachings of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn; ‘The Alter Rebbe instructed that in the phrase p'tzua daka, the word daka be written (in the Torah scroll) with an alef at the end, not with a hay. In Prague there is a Torah scroll which - according to local tradition - had been examined and emended by Ezra the Scribe. It is read only on Simchat Torah and is always rolled to the portion ofsh'ma. When I was in Prague in 5668 (1908) I saw that scroll, and in it daka is spelled with an alef. So too when I was in Worms in 5667 (1907), I saw a sefer-Torah written - according to their tradition - by Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg, and there too the word daka was written with an alef. See also Sh'eirit Yehuda, (Yoreh De'a, 16) and Divrei Nechemya (Yoreh De'a, 22) Mishnat Avraham (Sect. 32) cites a number of works that deal with this subject.’


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