The Accuracy or Our Written Torah
Rabbi Dovid Lichtman
[Page 2] Originally, it was easy to attend to the Mesorah of the Torah text. A Torah scroll written in Moshe's own hand was kept in or near the Holy Ark in the Holy of Holies (Bava Batra 14a). This text, which apparently was accessible to the Kohanim (Rashi Bava Batra 14b s.v. Sefer; see also Tosefot, Bava Batra 14a s.v. Shelo), undoubtedly served as the proof text for all other texts. The scroll which each Jewish king was required to write and bear at all times was likewise copied from this scroll (Rambam, Hil. Sefer Torah 7:2, based on Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:6). The kingly scrolls, in turn, served as proof texts after their owner's death. The destruction of the first Beit ha'Mikdash most likely brought with it the destruction of these proof texts. Ezra the Scribe, who led the people back to Eretz Yisrael and began to rebuild the Beit ha'Mikdash, set to reestablishing a proof text. At this point, a defining event occurred.
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 4:2), three ancient scrolls were found in the Temple confines which had slightly variant texts. (Although the Yerushalmi does not specify when this occurred, other sources relate that it happened in the days of Ezra and according to some versions, it was Ezra himself who found the scrolls -- see Torah Sheleimah, Shemot 24:25.) The Yerushalmi then relates that the correct version of the Torah was determined by virtue of a majority of 2 against 1. Throughout the period of the Second Beit ha'Mikdash, a scroll referred to as 'Sefer Ezra' or 'Sefer Ha'azarah' (Moed Katan 18b) served as the standard for all others. Sefer Ha'azarah was either the very scroll that was written by Ezra the Scribe or one that was copied from it (Rashi, ibid.). Professional Soferim were employed at the Beit ha'Mikdash to correct private scrolls based on this scroll (Ketuvot 106a; Shekalim 10b). These highly accurate scrolls and their copies remained the standard until well after the destruction of the second Beit ha'Mikdash. The Talmud in Kiddushim (30a) establishes that the accurate counting of the letters of the Torah was preserved at least until Tanaitic times (2nd century CE).
A century or so later, in the times of the Amora'im, Rav Yosef commented that this accuracy was already somewhat diluted. Such a lack of accuracy can only have been made apparent by the existence of divergent texts. The Gemara makes it clear that even this dilution of accuracy was only with regard to Malei and Chaser. (Malei and Chaser refer to unpronounced letters, such as 'Vav' and 'Yud,' which lend added accent to vowels. Their presence or absence does not affect the meaning of a word). Nor does the Gemara state in how many instances doubts arose regarding orthography. It is possible that these uncertainties were limited to a very few instances. In fact, nowhere in the Talmud or Midrashic sources is there recorded a dispute over the orthography of a specific Malei or Chaser, either before or after the time of Rav Yosef. (It should be pointed out that according to some, Rav Yosef was merely stating that *he* could not determine the exact number of letters in the Torah, since he himself was blind and could not count them by heart and he was not willing to rely on another person's count -- see Rav Reuvain Margulies in "HaMikra V'HaMesorah," #4). Due to the dispersal of the Jewish people and the lack of a central supervising authority, variations in scrolls continued