The Accuracy of Our Written Torah
Rabbi Dovid Lichtman
Our Torah scroll is perhaps our most revered physical possession today. The honor and respect with which we handle our Torah in synagogue results from our knowledge that it contains the words of Hashem as dictated to Moshe over 3,300 years ago. Meticulous care has been taken to insure the proper transmission of the Torah. There are many factors which collectively contribute to the wholeness of the Torah, but perhaps the single most important factor is the orthography, or proper spelling of each word. In fact, the orthography of the Torah is considered so important that the scribe is instructed to "be careful with your task, for it is sacred work; if you add or subtract even a single letter, [it is as if] you have destroyed the entire world!" (Eruvin 13a). The Rambam writes (Hil. Sefer Torah 7:11) that if one letter is added to or missing from a Torah, it is invalidated and is not conferred the sanctity of a Torah scroll.
Special mechanisms were established by the Sages to ensure its accurate transmission through the generations (see, for example, Megilah 18b; YD #274). (From the wording of the Rambam, it appears that this is true even if the wanton letter does not affect the meaning of the word. This is also the ruling of the Tikunei ha'Zohar (#25), Ramban end of Introduction to the Torah, Magen Avraham and Vilna Gaon OC 143:4, Sha'agat Aryeh (#36), Chatam Sofer (OC #52), in contrast to Minchat Chinuch's ruling (#613) that a missing or additional letter does not invalidate a Torah scroll unless it affects either a word's pronunciation or its literal or exegetical meaning.) Originally, the Torah was so well preserved that every letter was counted (Kiddushin 30a), which is why the early scribes were given the title "Soferim" ("Counters/Scribes").
Thousands of traditions were handed down specifying orthographic details. One of the more well-known is that the letter 'Vav' of the word 'Gachon' Parasha Vayikra (11:42) is the middle letter of the Torah (Kiddushin, ibid. -- refer to Rabbi Kornfeld's "Torah from the Internet" p. 122 for an in-depth discussion of this and similar traditions.) Indeed, the text of today's Torah scrolls the world over are uniform, with very few exceptions. As we will demonstrate, the Mesorah (transmitted tradition) of our text was well tended to; its margin of error appears to be less than .00004, and to involve only insignificant letters at that.
However, upon investigation it is evident that there existed many variants among older Torah scrolls. This prompts us to ask a number of questions: (a) First, one must ask how it came to be that there existed such diverse texts. Did they derive from individual copyists' errors, or were there differing Mesorot? (b) Second, one must ask how we came to accept at present one text as "correct" from among the many that once existed. (c) Third, can we have any degree of certainty that the present day unified text is the accurate text of the Torah as transmitted to and transcribed by Moshe? In this essay, we will attempt to address these questions.