Letters in the Torah – Ben Asher Version – Which One is Right?

There is a famous saying, from the Zohar Chadash on Song
of Songs (74d), that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. The Megaleh
Amukot (186) explained that these letters correspond to the 600,000 Jewish
souls that exist (evidently, a person can have part of a soul because there
are more than 600,000 Jews). He also suggested that the word Yisrael is an
acronym for “Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiyot LaTorah” – “There are 600,000 letters
in the Torah”. The difficulty with this is that the Gemara in Kiddushin 30a
says that there are 5,888 verses in the Torah. Even if each verse had 100
letters, and a quick check will reveal that the average is well below that,
the Torah would still have less than 600,000 letters (see Chavot Yair 235).

Furthermore, our Torahs have 304,805 letters. This can be verified by
counting and is recorded by the famous 10th century Masorete Aharon Ben
Asher in his Dikdukei Taamim. For the Torah mentioned by the Zohar Chadash
to have 600,000 letters it must be almost twice as long as our Torah.
However, we have ancient Bibles such as the Septuagint (third century BCE)
and the Samaritan Torah (from before Ezra) that are almost identical to our
texts (we discuss the differences elsewhere). It is inconceivable that there
was ever a Torah that was twice as long as the Torah we currently have.
Rather than this saying being a statement about ancient Torah scrolls and
therefore an indictment of ours, it is a puzzling statement that does not
seem to describe any known or possible variant of the Torah.

The puzzle is solved, however, when we remember that this saying is
recorded in kabbalistic books. Characteristic of this genre, the statement
is referring to mystical issues and not the simple letters of the Torah. Some
claim that it refers to the strokes a scribe requires to write the letters
while others suggest that it refers to both the written and unwritten
portions of a scroll. See R’ Reuven Margoliyot’s Hamikra Vehamesora ch. 12.
Whatever the saying means, we can be certain that it does not mean that there
are literally 600,000 letters in the Torah.


Letters and Words in the Torah

Words Letters
Genesis 20,512 78,064
Exodus 16,723 63,529
Leviticus 11,950 44,790
Numbers 16,368 63,530
Deuteronomy 14,294 54,892
Total 79,847 304,805


While we are on the subject of letters, let us mention that Rav Saadia Gaon
wrote a poem about the letters of the Torah whose total of 792,077 does not
match ours of 304,805. However, as R’ Chaim Yair Bachrach pointed out in
his Chavot Yair (235), Rav Saadia Gaon’s list is impossible. The list has
the alephs, gimmels, and zayins with almost the same
frequency in the Torah while everything we know about the Hebrew language
tells us that this is not naturally possible. Aleph is an extremely
common letter while gimmel and zayin are not. The Tanach Yehoash
has a list of how many times each letter appears in the Torah.
Aleph appears 27,057 times while gimmel appears 2,109
times and zayin 2,198 times. Aleph is more than ten times more
frequent than either gimmel or zayin. Similarly, we counted
in Genesis ch. 1 and found aleph 158 times, gimmel 5 times, and
zayin 11 times. From where Rav Saadia Gaon got his list we do not
know. But he definitely did not get it from counting letters in his Torah.
How he could have used that list and exactly what this sage meant remains a


Letters in the Torah
Total: 304,805

Letters Letters
א 27,057 ל 21,570
ב 16,344 מ 25,078
ג 2,109 נ 14,107
ד 7,032 ס 1,833
ה 28,052 ע 11,244
ו 30,509 פ 4,805
ז 2,198 צ 4,052
ח 7,187 ק 4,694
ט 1,802 ר 18,109
י 31,522 ש 15,592
כ 11,960 ת 17,949


Is this number of 304,805 letters in the Torah exact? Did G-d give Moshe
a Torah with precisely that number of letters? We do not know for sure but
we know that it was very close to that number. The reason we cannot be certain
is twofold. First, the Gemara in Kiddushin 30a says that we are not experts
in chaser and yeter. There are certain vowel sounds in Hebrew
that can be spelled with (yeter) or without (chaser) an
assisting letter. It is important to note that the presence or absence of
this letter make no difference in terms of meaning and pronunciation. The
words and verses mean exactly the same whether they are spelled chaser
or yeter, which may be how these uncertainties crept in. Because of
this, there are certain discrepancies between even good versions of the Torah
in this respect. Beginning in the 8th century, the Masoretes tried to
standardize the spelling of chaser and yeter words by recording
them in their masoretic notes. Surprisingly, even some excellent manuscripts
do not follow this Masora precisely (see R’ Mordechai Breuer’s introduction
to The Aleppo Codex and the Accepted Text of the Bible, par. 20).
However, this standardization of chaser and yeter came after
the talmudic statement that we are not experts in them so the standardization
is not final (see Rama, Orach Chaim 143:3). Therefore, there remain
differences between texts in terms of chaser and yeter. Again,
it is important to emphasize that these minor differences do not change the
meaning or pronunciation of the words (see ).

The second reason that there might be slight discrepancies between Torahs
is that there are some words whose spelling is a matter of dispute. In the
Torah itself, there are two major questions. Genesis 9:29 has a word that
may be spelled
Ashkenazi Torahs have the former
and Yemenite Torahs have the latter. The difference is between singular and
plural and is insignificant enough to be lost in translation from Hebrew to
English. Small as it is, it is still a difference. Similarly, there is a
question in Deuteronomy 23:2 whether a word should be spelled
Here, there is no difference in meaning at all. Some would
suggest based on midrashim that there are a handful of other single-letter
differences in the Torah but others argue that this is merely a misunderstanding
of midrashic techniques (we discuss this at length in our essay on The Text
of the Torah).

In the end, out of over 300,000 letters in the Torah, there are at most a
dozen or two instances where a letter is under question. This means that
the Torah text we have is over 99.99% correct. That is important to remember
when discussing this issue.

The Accepted Text of the Torah

Some may wonder whether the less than one hundredth of a percent that is
under question presents an halachic problem. How can we make a blessing over
the reading of the Torah in synagogue if we are not entirely certain that
the Torah has been written correctly? The simple answer is that the Rambam
wrote in a responsum (Pe’er Hador, 9) that, for the purposes of synagogue use,
even an invalid Torah scroll may be used. While many disagree with this ruling,
we rely on it in times of great need (see Rama, Orach Chaim 143:4 and Mishnah
Berurah, 29).

However, we do not need to rely on this ruling of the Rambam because of
two important halachic concepts. The first is that of majority. In Sofrim
6:4 we are told that this is a valid method of determining an authoritative
text of the Torah (we discuss this passage at length elsewhere). By taking
well-known, reliable texts we can resolve the few differences based on majority.
This is certainly sufficient halachically (Chullin 11a-b) but is also an
excellent tool for arriving at the original version of the Torah. All scribes
err occasionally but excellent scribes do so only rarely. By taking the
majority of readings, we can be fairly certain that the resulting version is
based on error-free transmission. The second tool we have is that of
tradition – masora. We can rely on good ancient texts because they were accepted
as authoritative in their time. Similarly, we can rely on the Masoretic
notes because they were written based on intensive study of manuscripts that
were ancient even in the days of the Masoretes.

These two principles have been used before. In 1525, Daniel Bomberg’s
publishing house printed a rabbinic Bible – Mikraot Gedolot – that
was arranged by Yaakov ben Chaim. In addition to arranging this edition,
Yaakov ben Chaim gathered together the masoretic notes from many different
manuscripts into one text that he called Masora Rabbata. Many like to
exaggerate his role in the transmission of the Torah because, later in his
life, he became an apostate by converting to Christianity, thus embarrassing
traditionalists who rely on his work. However, his accomplishments were
not original but technical. He helped publish things that had already been
written and attempted to publish them as accurately as possible. Yet, his
rabbinic bible is still riddled with errors that had to be corrected later. This
was done by R’ Menachem di Lonzano in his Or Torah and R’ Shlomo Yedidiah
Nortzi in his Minchat Shai. These two scholars used the tools of majority
and tradition to clarify the accepted text of the Bible and their work
remains the guide for scribes as codified by R’ Shlomo Ganzfried (the author
of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) in his Kesset Sofer. The claim that Yaakov ben
Chaim determined the basis of the accepted text is entirely wrong. He
contributed to the confusion by printing a mistaken text and to the solution
by printing masoretic notes. The true determinators of the accepted text
were the authors of Or Torah and Minchat Shai (see Breuer, par. 23).

Recently, R’ Mordechai Breuer applied this same methodology to the best
and most ancient texts of the Bible available. He used the following versions:
The Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex, the British Museum Manuscript, the
Cairo Codex, and the two Sasoon Manuscripts of the Bible. Based on the
principles of majority and tradition, he arrived at a text of the entire
Bible that is consistent with the Masora and is, surprisingly, almost identical
to the Aleppo Codex. See his The Aleppo Codex and the Accepted Text of the
Bible. His edition of the Bible is already becoming standard in many libraries
and synagogues.

Going back to our original question, when we use the halachic principle
of majority then there is no problem of making a blessing. Halachically,
this Torah is considered acceptable. Similarly, there is no problem in
fulfilling the mitzva of writing a Torah scroll. While the Chatam Sofer
(Responsa, Orach Chaim, 52) suggested that we do not recite a blessing on
the mitzva of writing a Torah scroll because of the doubts regarding
chaser and yeter, this has been refuted by later halachists.
See his student the Maharam Schick’s work on the 613 Mitzvot (613:2-3),
Responsa Ginat Vradim (Orach Chaim 2:6), Yabia Omer (vol. 8, Yoreh Deah,
36:3), and Ateret Paz (1:2, Yoreh Deah, he’arot 12:2). With the accepted
text based on the majority of manuscripts and Masoretic notes, we can
assert that we have confidence that even the less than 0.01% of letters that were in
question have been resolved correctly.

However, we cannot be absolutely certain. Therefore, a Torah based on an
ancient tradition that was in the minority cannot be summarily rejected. For
example, a Torah that has Genesis 9:29 written as
ויהיו, based on the
minority Yemenite tradition, cannot be considered unacceptable. While it
should not be written that way, a Yemenite scribe who followed his
tradition and wrote it that way did so based on an ancient masora. We must
therefore accept it as a possible version. See the sources quoted by R’
Ovadia Yosef in his Yechave Daat 6:56. He cites rulings by R’ Avraham ben
Harambam, Meiri, Radbaz, and others as precedent. However, as the Meiri
wrote in his commentary to Kiddushin 30a, only variations that have
traditionally been in question may be considered acceptable ex post facto.
For the over 99.99% of the spellings in the Torah in which we are expert, including
the thousands of chaser and yeter that have never been questioned,
variations are not acceptable.

Verses in the Torah

We have already cited above the Gemara in Kiddushin that there are 5,888
verses in the Torah. Some versions of the Gemara have 8,888. This version
is clearly incorrect because it implies a Torah that is over 50% larger than
the Torah we have. We can again turn to the ancient Samaritan Torah and
Septuagint that do not imply a book that is 150% the size of our Torah.
However, this version of 8,888 caused great anguish to many commentators,
including the Minchat Shai, who were puzzled that our Torah is thousands
of verses shorter than that mentioned in the Gemara. We can say with confidence
that this was simply due to a copyist’s error.

The Gemara also says that Psalms has an additional eight verses and
Chronicles has eight less. With this, we find two puzzles in this Gemara.
The first is that our Torahs have 5,845 verses rather than the 5,888 stated
in the Gemara. The second is that Psalms and Chronicles do not have anywhere
near that number of verses. Psalms has 2,527 verses and Chronicles has
1,764 verses. That is far from being within eight verses of 5,888.

R’ Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah, vol. 28 addenda ch. 12) quotes an
explanation of this Gemara from R’ Yehuda Epstein, a student of R’ Chaim
of Volozhin. R’ Epstein pointed out that there are 43 verses from the
Torah that are quoted in Psalms and Chronicles – 8 in Psalms and 35 in
Chronicles. If these Torah verses that are cited in Psalms and Chronicles
are added to the 5,845 verses in the Torah we arrive at the number of 5,888
that the Gemara mentions. While the exact wording of the Gemara is still
difficult, the meaning seems to have been elucidated. It is not that Psalms
and Chronicles have a few more or less verses than the Torah. Rather, if
we add certain Torah verses from these books to the count in the Torah then
we arrive at the number cited by the Gemara.

The Middle of the Torah

That same Gemara in Kiddushin states the following: The vav of
gachon (Leviticus 11:42) is the middle of the letters of the Torah,
darosh darash (Leviticus 10:16) is the middle of the words of the
Torah, and the ayin of miyaar (Psalms 80:14)
is the middle letter of Psalms. Simply counting the letters and words
of these two books shows that everything on the list is incorrect. Does
this shed doubt on the authenticity of our books? Not only are they incorrect,
but for the vav of gachon to be the middle of the Torah, the
Torah would need another 9,667 letters. That is a large number of letters
to be missing.

R. Menachem Kasher (ibid.) quoted R. Yitzchak Yosef Zilber (in Shmaatin
issue 43) who offered the following explanation. Almost all of the letters
of the Torah are written in the standard Hebrew script in the standard size.
However, there are some letters that are written in an unusual fashion and
some that are written large or small. If one were to count all of the small
and large letters in a standard Torah, one would find that there are exactly
16 of these letters.
Of these, the ninth, the middle one, is vav of gachon. In
other words, the Gemara was not referring to vav of gachon as
the middle of all the letters of the Torah. Rather, it was referring
to it as the middle of all the unusually large and small letters in the Torah.
However, there is another tradition of large and small letters, that of R’ Yosef
Tov Elem. But, even according to that tradition there are 32 such letters and
the sixteenth is vav of gachon. While this explanation seems
far-fetched, it is confirmed by noting that there are exactly
seven unusually large and small letters in Psalms and the fourth – the middle
letter – is ayin of miyaar.

Similarly, there are 77 instances of double words in the Torah (like
Avraham Avraham and Lech Lecha). Of those 77 cases, the 39th instance – the middle one –
is darosh darash. It is not the middle of all the words in
the Torah but it is the middle of all the unusual double-words.


Large and Small Letters in the Torah

1. Genesis 1:1 5. Exodus 34:7 9. Leviticus 11:42 13. Deuteronomy 6:4
2. Genesis 2:4 6. Exodus 34:14 10. Leviticus 13:33 14. Deuteronomy 29:27
3. Genesis 23:2 7. Leviticus 1:1 11. Numbers 14:7 15. Deuteronomy 32:6
4. Genesis 27:46 8. Leviticus 6:2 12. Deuteronomy 6:4 16. Deuteronomy 32:18


The Script of the Torah

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 21b-22a tells us what at first seems very surprising. However,
after a careful reading and placing the events in an historical context they do not seem
surprising at all.

Mar Zutra and some say Mar Ukva said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel
in Ktav Ivri (paleo-Hebrew characters) and in the holy lanugage. It was given again to
them in Ezra’s time in Ktav Ashurit (Assyrian characters) and in Aramaic. Israel selected
for themselves Ktav Ashurit and the Hebrew language… It was taught: Rebbe said: Torah
was originally given to Israel in Ktav Ashurit. When they sinned it was changed to Roetz
(Ktav Ivri). When they repented, Ktav Ashurit was reintroduced… R’ Shimon ben Elazar
said in the name of R’ Eliezer ben Parta, who said in the name of R’ Elazar Hamodai: This
writing was never changed…

We see three opinions regarding the script of the Torah. According to Mar Zutra, the
Torah was given to Israel in Ktav Ivri and in Hebrew but Ezra changed it to Ktav Ashurit
and Aramaic. The people, however, only accepted Ktav Ashurit and Hebrew. According to
Rebbe, the Torah was given in Ktav Ashurit but was changed to Ktav Ivri due to the
people’s sins. According to R’ Elazar Hamodai, the script of the Torah never changed.

This passage raises a number of questions. How could Ezra change the script of the
Torah? How could he change the Torah’s language from Hebrew to Aramaic? Furthermore, if
he found the authority to do so, how could the people determine an outcome against his
decision? According to Rebbe, why would the script of the Torah change based on whether
Israel sinned or repented?

R’ Reuven Margoliyot (Margoliyot Hayam, Sanhedrin ad loc,; Hamikra Vehamesora, ch. 9)
answers all of these questions with the following historical reflection. It is known that
some ancient cultures had one script for sacred purposes and one for everyday use. For
example, the Indians only used Sanskrit for religious purposes and not for the mundane.
The talmudic sages mentioned in the above passage were debating the extent of this
practice of having a script for only holy purposes in Israel. However, according to
everyone this was the practice, similar to the talmudic dictum, “Something that is used
for the sacred may not be used for the profane” (Avodah Zara 52a).

According to Mar Zutra, the first tablets of the ten commandments were written in Ktav
Ashurit (see Responsa Radbaz 3:442) but once Israel sinned with the Golden Calf they were
deemed unworthy. They could not be trusted to use Ktav Ashurit for purely sacred matters.
Therefore, the second tablets and the Torah scrolls written for general use were in Ktav
Ivri. This can, perhaps, be seen from the fact that in Megillah 2b Rav Chisda says that
the mem and samech in the tablets were miraculously hanging in the air. This can only
happen in Ktav Ashurit and not in Ktav Ivri. However, in the Gemara in Sanhedrin quoted
above, Rav Chisda seems to agree with Mar Zutra that the Torah was originally given to
Israel in Ktav Ivri. Therefore, it seem that Rav Chisda would have to say that the
tablets were in Ktav Ashurit and the Torah in Ktav Ivri. Or, as the Radbaz suggested,
everything was originally in Ktav Ashurit but after the sin of the Golden Calf the second
tablets and the Torah were in Ktav Ivri. But not all of the Torahs were in Ktav Ivri.

That the original tablets were given in Ktav Ashurit but not the second tablets can
be seen hinted in a number of sources. For example, the Gemara in Pesachim 87b says
“the tablets broke and the letters floated in the air”. Exactly what it means that
the letters floated in the air is unclear. However, on that same page the Gemara says,
“Three things returned to their origin… the script of the tablets”. That sounds like
Ktav Ashurit being replaced with Ktav Ivri. Similarly, the Mechilta on Exodus 17:8
says that after the tablets were broken “the heavenly writing returned to its place”.
We perhaps also see evidence of the disappearance of Ktav Ashurit much later in history.
The Tanchuma on Vayeshev 2 says, “What did they do [in response to the Samaritans]?
Ezra, Zerubavel, and Yehoshua gathered the community to the sanctuary… and excommunicated
the Samaritans with the sacred name of G-d, with the script that was written on the
, with the decree of the heavenly court,…” The use of the “script that
was written on the tablets” is important for two reasons. First, it seems that this
script was unique. Furthermore, we know from the Gemara in Sanhedrin and from other
historical sources that the Samaritans used Ktav Ivri. The contrast between the Samaritans
and the “script that was written on the tablets” implies that this script was not Ktav
Ivri. We thus see that there is ample material supporting the Radbaz’s claim that the
first tablets were in Ktav Ashurit.

Recall that Mar Zutra said that the Torah was given to Israel
in Ktav Ivri. The Ritva deduced from this that the special Torah of Moshe that was
kept in the ark and later in the Temple was in Ktav Ashurit. Only Torahs for the people
were in Ktav Ivri. The ability to read Ktav Ashurit was maintained by priests and
scribes, which is why King Yoshiyahu needed a priest to read to him from Moshe’s Torah
when it was found in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8-11; Abarbanel). The king had never before
seen Ktav Ashurit and his reaction to seeing it fo the first time, and in the Torah scroll
that Moshe himself had written, demonstrates the deep religious emotion it evoked. We perhaps
find hints of this in Isaiah 8:1 where the prophet is commanded, “Take a large tablet
and write on it in common characters”. This is must have been referring to Ktav Ivri
that was used by the common people (see Rashi). Ktav Ivri had gained such prominence
that the existence of ending letters (ךףץןם)
was forgotten by the masses and had to be restored (Megillah 2b-3a).

However, Ktav Ashurit was still studied by the priests and scribes, of which Ezra was
both. When he saw that Ktav Ashurit was so forgotten that, when it was written on the
wall of King Belshatzar of Babylonia, only Daniel could read it (Daniel 5) he realized
that it must be reintroduced to the people. Yet, he still had the dilemma that people
would then be writing Hebrew in the holy Ktav Ashurit for improper purposes. His solution
was to translate the Torah into Aramaic and introduce the Aramaic Torah in Ktav Ashurit
into common usage. That way people would become familiar with Ktav Ashurit without using
it in their daily Hebrew writing. This is what is meant in Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read
from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.” It was interpreted by
translation into Aramaic (Megillah 3a). (This translation was later recreated by
Onkelos). However, the people had lived their whole lives with a Hebrew Torah and
were not ready to change the language of their holiest of books. Therefore, they decided
to retain a Hebrew Torah in Ktav Ashurit but conduct their daily business in Aramaic.
This would produce the results that Ezra desired because Ktav Ashurit in Hebrew would not
be a part of the daily routine.

Rebbe agreed with this historical reconstruction but attributed the original transition
from Ktav Ashurit to Ktav Ivri to the idolatrous era of the First Temple rather than the
episode of the Golden Calf. According to Rebbe, it is even more plausible that the
scholars always retained knowledge of Ktav Ashurit. It was only the masses who were busy
with their daily lives and/or idolatrous ways who forgot Ktav Ashurit when the Torahs
were changed to Ktav Ivri.

R’ Elazar Hamodai does not necessarily disagree that people forgot Ktav Ashurit. He
only argued that the Torahs were never changed from one script into another. However, he
agreed that people had forgotten Ktav Ashurit, the script used only for sacred purposes,
and that Ezra had to re-educate the masses in the holy script (see Teshuvot HaRambam, ed.
Blau no. 268).

As a final note, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 22a offers two opinions why the script is
called Ktav Ashurit. One is that the Jews brought it back to Israel with them from
Babylonia/Assyria (Ashur). The other is that it is a beautiful script (me’usheret). Since
the literal translation of Ktav Ashurit is “Assyrian script”, we must ask why the Gemara
even asks such a basic question. It is called Ktav Ashurit because the Assyrians used it.
Furthermore, the view that it is called Ktav Ashurit because the script is beautiful
strains credibility. We already know that it is called Ktav Ashurit because it is an
Assyrian script, as the words simply mean.

We have seen that many questions can be raised about the validity of our Torahs.
However, Judaism, like any other serious thought system, is complex. While by necessity
we were taught simplicites in our childhood, we need to sieze all available
opportunities to broaden our perspectives and deepen our faiths. Rather than using
questions as reasons to reject traditional Judaism, we must use them as opportunities
for intellectual and religious growth.

Post originally found here: AishDas.org in 2002