The Accuracy or Our Written Torah
Rabbi Dovid Lichtman
[Page 3] Authorities in Israel and Bavel, independently, undertook to produce one highly accurate text. These authorities, called the Masorites, thrived and produced such works between the 8th and 10th centuries. Their methodology, which was based on the system described by the Yerushalmi Ta'anit (above, section II), may be called the "eclectic process," or majority rule. Simply stated, this process involves surveying a great variety of Torah scrolls whereby each letter of the text is compared and contrasted. The correct orthography is determined based on the majority of texts, and hence errors are weeded out. For example, if in a survey of 200 Sifrei Torah, 198 were found to have in one particular place a spelling of "honour" and 2 were found to have the spelling as `honor', it may be assumed that the former is the correct orthography, while the latter were introduced by careless scribes. (Of course, the eclectic process can only be employed using older texts of good standing to some degree. This is evident from the fact that only the three scrolls found in the Temple confines were considered for the process, in the time of Ezra. After all, certainly hundreds of scrolls were in existence at the time.)
The crowning jewel of the master texts produced in this manner was the one produced in Teveryah by Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher (known simply as "Ben Asher") of the late 10th century. The Rambam extols his text as being extremely accurate and it was adopted by the Rambam and many others as the standard (Rambam, Hil. Sefer Torah, beginning of 8:4). In the Rambam's time, this Torah was known to be in Alexandria, Egypt. (Traditionally, the "Keter Aram Tzova," or Aleppo Codex, presently in Yerushalayim, is purported to be the Ben Asher manuscript. Unfortunately, only the Nevi'im and Ketuvim sections of this manuscript remain intact, as virtually the entire Torah section of the manuscript was lost to fire a few decades ago.) Today, the Teimani (Yemenite) Torah scrolls are very likely exact copies of this text. It is well known that the Yemenite Jews adhered firmly to the Rambam's rulings in every matter of Halachah. The limited size and dispersion of their community throughout the generations made it much easier for them to preserve their Mesorah. Indeed, there is no variance among Teimani scrolls today.
Despite the Rambam's efforts to ensure the perpetuation of one standardized text, divergent scrolls began to propagate once again. A contemporary of the Ramban, the RaMaH (Rav Meir Halevi Abulafia -- early 13th century), undertook to reesttablish a text of exceptional accuracy. The RaMaH again used the eclectic process, surveying hundreds of old and reputable scrolls. (RaMaH did not have the Ben Asher manuscript at his disposal.) The resultant text was published in his work "Mesores Seyag la'Torah." Given the great effort that RaMaH invested in this project and his standing as a leading Halachic authority, his work became the definitive standard until today, certainly with regard to orthography (see Ohr Torah, Minchat Shai and Keset ha'Sofer). We have thus answered the first two of our questions: (a) Since a standard, approved Mesorah for the Torah text existed throughout much of our history, in all probability the variant texts of early Torahs may be attributed to sloppy copyists, who did not carefully compare their work with the Masoretic proof-text of the times, or were not able to do so. (b) The manner in which the mistaken texts were weeded out from the correct ones was the eclectic process of the Yerushalmi in Ta'anit, which has been employed regularly since the time of Chazal in order to ensure proper transmission of the Torah.