The Pentateuch:

The Samaritan Version and the Masoretic Version, edited and annotated by Avraham Tal and Moshe Florentin. Tel Aviv University Press (Hebrew), 763 pages, NIS 149

On a recent flight from New York, I was seated next to a 40-year-old man dressed in a black hat and jacket. Though he was clean-shaven, he had long peyot (sidelocks ) winding behind his ears. There was little doubt this was an ultra-Orthodox Jew. When he turned on his computer, I saw a page of Gemara on the screen, and we launched into a discussion.

He was born in Israel and lives in the north. He trains rabbinical court judges and writes essays on the weekly Torah portion, which he says are well-respected. Clearly possessed of a sharp, inquisitive mind, he could be described as a religious sage. During the flight, he was preparing a commentary on the Torah portion of Miketz, in Genesis, and he shared various questions and insights with me. I referred to variations of certain words in Genesis as they appear in the Samaritan Pentateuch, and to how the Greek Septuagint translation of the Bible contains sentences that do not appear in the Masoretic version.

My fellow passenger did not know what I was talking about. Not only was he unaware of the existence of ancient versions of the Bible, but he also lacked knowledge of the essence of the Masoretic text - the canonical Hebrew text redacted by scholars in Palestine and Babylon toward the end of the first millennium. He did not know, for instance, that the diacritical marks date only from the 10th century, or that manuscripts and later printed versions of the Masoretic text are not identical.

In truth, he is no different from the hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and television viewers in Israel who each week listen to discussions about the Torah portion; nor is he unlike millions of Israelis who have taken Bible exams in high school without possessing basic information about how the text evolved and became a cornerstone of culture in general, and of Judaism and Israeli identity in particular.

Making these comments, I can imagine an interlocutor's incredulous look. What difference does it make, one might say: One word more or less; the 10th century B.C.E. or the 10th century C.E.? Isn't the main thing the content, the messages and the text's literary character? What difference do esoteric factoids uncovered by scholars really make?

Indeed, not every textual finding is of interest outside of scholarly circles. Yet the image that takes shape when the findings are put together is vitally important. Awareness of the processes by which the Bible was written and passed down, and knowledge of nuances and differences in its various versions, confer to the reader a historical dimension crucial for the understanding of the cultural essence of the sacredness that generations of faithful have attributed to the Bible.

Anyone who grasps that the Bible we have in hand is not the "first" version of the holy book will not be susceptible to the pseudo-kabbalist masters who purport to predict the future based on the text. In addition, awareness of the existence of various versions of the Bible, and the process by which they were relayed from generation to generation, impedes fundamentalism and is a prerequisite for the development of a rational, cultural approach to the Bible, one that regards the text as an exemplary human creation.

Stamp of sacred authorization

The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible was consolidated in Tiberias in the 10th century and codified by Aaron Ben Asher, whose aim was to perpetuate the holy tradition of writing, and reading, the biblical text. Its important features are the diacritical marks (vocalization and other punctuation ), and the cantillation marks for chanting. The final stamp of sacred authorization was given to the Masoretic text by Maimonides, who in the Mishneh Torah certified that "the codex that we used in these works is known in Egypt ... and was edited by Ben Asher, who studied it carefully for many years and edited it many times." (The exact identification of this specific manuscript is still disputed among scholars. )

The Masoretic text formed the basis of the most important printed version of the Bible, which was edited by Jacob ben Hayyim ben Isaac ibn Adonijah, and printed in Venice between 1516 and 1518. This version is the basis of most printed copies of the Bible up to the present day. During the 20th century, other editions of the Bible were printed, including the Biblia Hebraica editions and the Aron Dotan edition, both based on the St. Petersburg manuscript of the Bible. But despite minor differences in these editions, all are considered the Masoretic text.

The Masoretic text was consolidated some 1,200 years after the last book of the Bible (Daniel ) was written, some 1,700 years after the composition of Isaiah, and some 2,000 years after the era of David and Solomon. Since many copies of the manuscripts were filled with errors and provided a forum for deliberate interpolations, the question arises: How loyal is the Masoretic text to the oldest known version of the books of the Bible?

This question is what pushed Bible scholars to search for even earlier versions of biblical texts. There are two types of earlier versions: ancient translations into other languages, and Hebrew versions that predate the Masoretic text. Three important examples of the former are the Greek Septuagint translation (dating from the 3rd to 1st centuries, B.C.E. ), the Onkelos Aramaic translation (1st to 3rd centuries, C.E. ) and the Vulgate Latin Bible (390-405 C.E. ).

The early Hebrew versions include the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include fragments from all the books of the Bible but Esther, and the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch, whose scholarly version, edited by Avraham Tal and Moshe Florentin of Tel Aviv University, is the topic before us.

Up to one million people

The Samaritan community is comprised today of fewer than 1,000 people, who live primarily in Nablus and Holon. During the Samaritan golden age in the fourth century, it had up to one million adherents, living in all parts of the country. The Samaritans revere the Pentateuch - they have their own version of it - as the sacred part of the Bible, and this serves as the sole source of religious law for them. They view the Masoretic text as a forgery created by Ezra Hasofer in the fifth century.

There are clear differences between the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch and the Masoretic text. The most conspicuous difference is the writing itself: Letters in the Samaritan Torah are similar to ancient Canaanite-Phoenician writing (an example of such lettering can be found on the NIS 10 coin, above the image of the palm tree ); scholars acknowledge that such letters represent the original writing of the Torah, which was subsequently replaced by our familiar Hebrew lettering. Another conspicuous difference between the Masoretic and the Samaritan texts is the lack of diacritical and cantillation marks in the Samaritan version.

Linguistically, the Samaritan text shares traits with other writings and cultural phenomena of the Second Temple period. "The Samaritan version went through a process of linguistic adaptation and adoption by members of the community; and it is no surprise that this version has features resembling language patterns in the Second Temple Period," write Tal and Florentin.

In the preface to their book, the authors cite 6,000 differences between the Samaritan and Masoretic versions. They divide the discrepancies into two broad categories: unintentional ones, the category that most of the differences fall into, and deliberate ones, which are subdivided into linguistic editing and content editing. The main intention of linguistic editing is to "remove grammatical forms and structures that seem irregular," the authors write. As for content editing, the authors describe several different forms, including "logical arrangement of the writing" and "religious-ideological revision."

Which is more loyal to the original?

For instance, the Samaritan text adds supplementary sentences and phrases to complete narrative passages. Perhaps the best-known supplementary phrase is an elaboration of Genesis 4:8, where the Masoretic text states: "And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him." The Samaritan version adds the words "Let us walk out to the field" after the first part of the verse, to clarify the linear sequence. This version raises a familiar question: Which is more loyal to the original writing, the version with a jagged, leaping narrative, or the version where the rough part of the sequence has been smoothed?

In this case, the tidier Samaritan formulation is identical to the Septuagint translation and to the Vulgate Latin version, as well as other translated editions. Does that indicate that the Samaritan version is preferable? Or is it that the words "Let us walk out to the field" are so clearly prompted by the context that it is reasonable to assume that scribes who copied an older, more fragmentary text found cause to add them, for the sake of adding logic to the prose?

As for the "religious-ideological revision," it is useful to note that the Samaritans sanctify Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem. As they see it, the commandment to worship the God of Israel, as described in Deuteronomy, conveys no hint of Jerusalem; and whereas Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Torah, there is a reference to Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27:12: "These shall stand upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people" ).

For this reason, the Samaritan version contains interesting changes. One major revision involves the Ten Commandments; the Samaritan Tenth Commandment alludes to the building of an altar on Mount Gerizim. A comparison of the texts shows that the changes derive from additions inserted by the Samaritans, rather than omissions in the Masoretic text.

The bulk of the book is an enlightening side-by-side comparison of the Masoretic and Samaritan texts, including graphic demonstrations of the differences. The actual side-by-side comparison is not in itself an innovation, however, and previous editions that presented such a comparison are noted in the introduction. The present edition's most important innovation appears in the next part of the book, in which the authors display their expertise not only in ancient texts and the way they have been understood and edited, but also regarding the way Samaritans read a text that lacks diacritical marks. As it turns out, hundreds of cases of textual differences between the Samaritan and Masoretic texts can be identified only if one is familiar with the way Samaritans pronounce written words.

In closing, I would like to point to one other tradition - the tradition of scholarship in Israel, out of which this volume emerges. Prof. Moshe Florentin is a leading student of Prof. Avraham Tal, a recipient of the Israel Prize for Hebrew Linguistics in 2009; and Tal is a student of Prof. Ze'ev Ben-Haim, a winner of the Israel Prize for the Hebrew Language in 1964 and the author of a monumental five-volume work on the Hebrew and Aramaic languages of the Samaritans. Also worthy of praise is Tel Aviv University Press, for its significant investment in this volume.

This tome opens a window through which all readers, not just specialists in the field, can gain an understanding of biblical criticism. It does not require a knowledge of Greek, Aramaic or Latin, languages that are needed to compare the Masoretic text to translated versions. Readers will enjoy the rich intellectual experience that characterizes comparisons of ancient versions of the Bible and will also grasp that such a comparison provides a vital contribution toward understanding the Bible as a human creation. This will also encourage readers to understand the Bible's dialectics of meaning, as a sacred text. As a consequence of its sacrosanct character, endless cultural activity was undertaken to preserve the text and relay it from generation to generation, activity that in turn became a crucial component in the text's fashioning as a sacred work.

Yair Hoffman is professor emeritus of Bible at Tel Aviv University.