Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Torah Codes and the Talmud

I'm sure readers are familiar with Torah Codes. If not, here are two websites, one in favor (link) and one against (link). I've been asked a few times to post my thoughts on these codes.

I most definitely have thoughts on this matter, but I was gratified to discover a few years ago that Dr. Ya'akov Elman had reached the same conclusion for the same reason as I had (link).

It boils down to this: The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) is explicit that we are not experts on the exact spellings in the Torah that are haseros and yeseros. I explained this in a lengthy essay as follows:

In Kiddushin 30a, Rav Yosef (early fourth century) says that we are not experts in chaserot veyeterot (defective and plene spellings). There are certain vowel sounds in Hebrew that can be spelled solely with vowelization (chaser=defective) or also with a letter vav or yud (yeter=plene). Both spellings are grammatically equivalent and are pronounced the same. At some point in time, doubts arose among the scribes regarding some words in the Bible, whether they are spelled chaser or yeter. While some have tried to minimize this statement to refer only to Rav Yosef who was blind (R' Reuven Margoliyot, Hamikra Vehamesora, ch. 4), the commentators and halachists did not understand it this way. Some have also tried to limit it to unusually large or small letters. However, R' David Metzger has demonstrated that this is insufficient to explain the entire talmudic passage (Torah Shelemah vol. 28 p. 288). Additionally, the rishonim clearly did not read the passage this way. Thus, the Rama ruled in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 143:4 that if a Torah scroll during a public reading in the synagogue is found to have a mistake then it must be closed and another Torah taken out. However, if the mistake was a chaser or yeter that differs from the textus receptus then we do not take out another Torah. Who can say, the Rama implied, that the new Torah that presumably matches the textus receptus is more correct than the current Torah being used? On this one issue ­- chaser and yeter - the textus receptus is considered imprecise (with one exception that we will discuss later). This does not, however, affect the meaning of the Bible, which is perhaps how these errors crept in.
According to the Gemara, Rishonim, Posekim and Aharonim, we are unsure whether the vowel-vav's and -yud's are missing or extra. Therefore, if we find a deviation in a Torah scroll from what is generally written, it does not disqualify the Torah scroll. The only exception is if that letter (or lack of letter) is used for an halakhic midrash.

CD Ginsburg collected variations in the Massorah codifications of the text of the Torah, selections of which are published in R. Menahem Kasher's Torah Shelemah encyclopedia.

The bold claim by proponents of Torah Codes defy this halakhically acknowledged deficiency, seemingly in contradiction to the Gemara and post-Talmudic authorities.

Recall that Torah Codes are discovered by counting letters. If even one letter in the middle of a code is missing or additional then the entire code is disturbed. That would seem to imply that, because of our lack of expertise in haseros and yeseros, the Torah Codes we have must either bypass all questionable passages or -- what seems more likely -- be simply false.

In response to this challenge, as presented by Dr. Elman, proponents of the Torah Codes answered as follows:

1. First, it must be remembered that the spelling differences in the various texts of Torah mentioned by the poskim are few in number.

But posekim are not the only places to look for variants in haseros and yeseros. Codices and Torah scrolls are!

2. And of all the differences between the Masoretic text and the quotations from the Talmud used to derive specific halachos none are found in Genesis.

This is irrelevant. The halakhic midrash is evidently an exception to our lack of expertise and not the exact opposite -- the place where our lack of expertise lies.

3. As the Meiri writes in Kiryath Sefer: The absence of disagreement between ba'alei ha'mesorah and the Talmud is itself the greatest proof of authenticity for a given text

See CD Ginzburg and the Masorah collections.

4. In addition, there are almost no divergences in Genesis between the kosher sifrei Torah of different communities.

The lack of expertise was already in existence in the time of the Gemara. Our communal standardizations came into place centuries after that lack of expertise was established.

5. When we repeated the "Great Rabbis Experiment" reported in Statistical Science using the Yemenite text of Genesis, we achieved results of the same statistical significance as those of the published experiment.

Here is what I would like to see. I would like them to randomize every questionable case of haser and yeser -- or, even better, every single case in the whole Torah -- and repeatedly run the codes on random versions of the Torah. If the Torah Codes are true, there should be a handful of versions that have exceptional results that are clearly above all of the rest. These would be the versions that have the original and correct text of the Torah, with only differences that do not affect any codes throughout the Torah. To my mind, that would be the only way to prove that the Torah Codes exist. Anything less than that is simply going against the Gemara and post-Talmudic authorities. (Is it heresy? It's hard to say that it is, although some of the logic used against R. Nosson Slifkin would seem to apply here also.)

6. Finally, as a believer in Torah, I am not just concerned with scientific proofs of information encoded in ELSs. If it were shown that the phenomena exist only in the Masoretic text but not in any deviant texts, our belief in the hashgacha pratith that caused this particular text to be accepted throughout the Jewish world would be strengthened, without the probative value of our experiment being diminished in the slightest.

Are they implying that Rav Yosef in the Gemara did not believe in hashgahah peratis? Or the Rema? Or the Rishonim? This belief of theirs seems to contradict practical halakhah and, as such, is suspect in my eyes.

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