B"H, Thursday, 2 Elul, 5757
September 2, 1997
Dr. Dror Bar-Natan
Dear Dr. Bar-Natan,
As per your request I am sending you my opinion regarding the following two questions that I was asked to relate to:
A. The existence of several exemplary versions of the Tanach [Holy Scriptures] which differ textually from the Koren bible, and demonstrating their variations in the book of Genesis.
B. My opinion regarding the scientific criteria upon which Professor Havlin's brief dated 16 Cheshvan 5757 (October 30, 1996) regarding the choice of the names of Great Men of Israel for the purpose of locating them in the text of the Book of Genesis using RWR's (Rips, Witztum and Rosenberg) skip method [Equidistant Letter Sequence, ELS].
I will answer the questions in the order in which they were asked:
1. All the aforementioned exemplary texts are well-known prestigious editions, having been composed within of the transmission circle of the Masoretic text [the traditional edition of the Bible text]. Most of those texts are available to us directly while several (the 'Hilleli' and 'Jerusalem' texts) have been lost, and we have learned of their variations only through the indirect testimony of the Masoretic notes.
2. The expression "transmission circle of the Masoretic text" attempts to define those manuscripts demonstrating an unmistakable similarity to the likeness of the version arising from the thousands of Masoretic comments, which were formed to preserve the semblance of a specific version selected as an authorized text, the one known as the "Masoretic Text". Even within the "transmission circle (Maagal Hamesira) of the Masoretic text" there were variations between well-known exemplary texts, and the order of magnitude of those variations is represented in this table.
3. Nonetheless, it should be stressed that manuscripts, such as those in the table, which unmistakably belong to the transmission circle of the Masoretic Text, were a small minority among the Biblical manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The great majority of the manuscripts were composed in transmission circles that were relatively distant from the accurate version of the letters of the Masoretic Text (see my article: 'What is the Masoretic text and what is the extent of its influence on the transmission process in the Middle Ages?', Biblical Studies and Commentaries (Iyuney Mikrah Ufarshanut) Volume B, Bar-Ilan University). The variations, which number many hundreds and sometimes even thousands in the Torah [Pentateuch] alone, are for the most part, variations in orthography, and partly other variations. Strange and surprising as it may sound, it was within this framework that centers of Torah study which made an indelible mark on the life and culture of the Jewish people acted and created, starting from the period of Chazal [our Sages of blessed memory] (such as the evidence of Babylonian scribes' lack of proficiency with regards to the "full" and "defective" spelling variations - see Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, page 30, side A), and through to the centers of Torah study such as France and Germany (see for example, Rabbeinu Tam's comments with regard to the laws on writing Torah scrolls, Machzor Vitri, Horowitz edition, pps. 654 - 673, which testify to a textual reality which is far placed from the 'precise lettering of the Masoretic Text'). These factors may be verified by examining the Ashkenazic manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. These manuscripts are not represented in the above table.
B. Regarding the second topic about which I was asked to express my opinion:
Professor Havlin's Brief referring to the choice of the appellations of the Great Men of Israel for locating them [in ELSs] in the Koren publication of the Book of Genesis, seems to me to be lacking any scientific basis for the following reasons:
1. The principles by which Prof. Havlin chose the names and appellations (Brief, "Discretionary considerations" section, pps. 3 - 5) seem absolutely arbitrary, and in each and every section alternative selection criteria could have been chosen, which would have been at least as good, if not better, than the proposed principles.
2. The selection itself is inconsistent, even in light of the aforementioned principles themselves, and is full of contradictions.
Due to lack of time I will present just several examples:
1. The very fact of creating a choice situation between various names and appellations which had formed and developed sometimes over hundreds of years in various places seems to me dubious and prone to arbitrary decisions. The most stable principle is, in the nature of things, a person's birth name, whose validity would be hard to argue with, although one should note that sometimes a person's original name was forgotten by following generations due to the predominant usage of one of the many appellations in the written literature (Responsa, New Torah Thoughts ["Chidushei Torah"], commentaries, etc.). All the other principles revolve around the appellations, which resulted from more recent developments, some during the person's lifetime, and some following his death. These appellations were created, for the most part, within the framework of the written literature; most of them being full acronyms (such as RMB"M [Rambam]) or partial ones (such as R"Y KARO [Rabbi Yosef Caro]) or names of their literary works (such as BYT YOSF [Beit Yosef]). In the course of time, many of these extended beyond the literary framework and became spoken names or appellations, which sometimes even replaced the person's original name.
In light of this reality, any decision regarding a choice of one appellation or another for usage with the skip [ELS, equidistant letter sequence] method, and the rejection of other appellations, is necessarily arbitrary and therefore debatable. Thus, for example, Havlin's decision to choose only the spoken appellations, has no scientific validity, aside from the chooser's personal desire, and is not preferable to any other choice, which would also be arbitrary, for example: Choosing any appellation which appears in written literature, or rejecting all appellations and sticking only to the person's original name, or choosing the most common appellation from the written literature, or any other of a wide gamut of possibilities.
Another example of an arbitrary principle in Havlin's brief: Not using the same appellation for two different scholars (such as MHRSH"A [Maharsha], which was the appellation of several scholars - see page 3, B); Only one scholar, the most famous one, or one of the earlier ones was entitled, according to Havlin, to that appellation for purpose of location in the Book of Genesis (in the present case: only Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidlish, who was more famous than others known by the same appellation). The principle is not clear: Why can two different scholars not be entitled to the same appellation, with which they were actually referred to by their peers and/or by following generations? After all, Havlin does not apply the same principle with regards to the scholars' original names, and the crossing of names with birth dates can be carried out even when four or five scholars are known by the same name! Is there an essential difference between the two types?
Another example: The principle of "customary Hebrew" (page 5, E). Havlin decides to reject some appellations, among them some very famous ones (i.e. The Beit Yosef) according to what seems to him contrary to "customary Hebrew". Two questions arise here: (A) Was an authoritative investigation undertaken regarding "customary Hebrew" in this topic? Serious linguists would question Havlin's decision in this matter (since the rules of language summarize a linguistic reality rather than judge it, and without a doubt, in the rabbinical literature the adding of the definite article to appellations such as "The Beit Yosef" became a legitimate one in the Hebrew language by virtue of being commonplace for hundreds of years). (B) Can we summarily ignore a reality within which a specific appellation became the most prevalent one for that person (such as, in the present case, 'The Beit Yosef' or HB"I, [The B"I] are more widespread than any of Rabbi Yosef Caro's other names or appellations), or at least one of the widespread appellations. Again: the determination is an arbitrary one, and anyone who would decide differently not only wouldn't be less justified, but his/her decision might even seem more apt.
2. As earlier stated, one of the noticeable things in Havlin's brief - is lack of consistency in applying his own principles. Here are some examples:
(A) The "spoken appellation" principle (p. 3, A): it is not applied in every case. Many appellations from both published lists never went beyond being written appellations (such as HMHRIM"T; HMHRM"Z; A"CH HE"R; and many others. Undoubtedly, were a typical Yeshiva student to be asked about them, he would not know who was being referred to).
(B) The "customary Hebrew" principle (p. 4, C): Not only is this principle questionable in itself, as said earlier, but it is not applied consistently and the material is full of contradictions. In what way does 'HR"I EMDIN" (definite article H added to a word combination), which entered the list, differ from "The Beit Yosef" (also with the definite article), which did not enter the list? Moreover: should the "customary Hebrew" principle, according to Havlin's perception, not reject, even more strongly, the very appending of the definite article [H] to any given name or personal appellation, since that which is definite needs no definite article? And if so, why doesn't Havlin reject the majority of the appellations by which scholars were called which included a leading "H" (the definite article) (i.e. HRMB"M [The Rambam], HMHR"M [The Maharam], etc.? The fact that Havlin accepts all these appellations as legitimate stands in absolute contradiction to his rejection of appellations of the first type.
3. The "single use of an appellation" principle (p. 3, B): We have previously seen that it is difficult to reconcile the rejection of appellations by which scholars were known, [only because another more famous person had the same appellation], with the unrestricted usage of given names irrespective of the person's fame. Also, the fact that Havlin adds another criterion for this matter, beyond that of the person's fame, namely that "earlier" scholars take precedence over "later" scholars, might create internal contradictions during the determination process: What should one do in case the "later" scholar is more famous than the "earlier"? For example, if we were to ask a typical Yeshiva student who was the "Maharam", his immediate answer would undoubtedly be "the Maharam from Lublin", whose scholarly work is found in the traditional printings of the Talmud and is familiar to all those who study them. Amazingly enough, this scholar is not mentioned in either of the two lists despite his great fame (I did not check the length of his entry in the Encyclopedia of Great Man of Israel, but the very fact that he is missing from the list is a comment on how effective a method this was for constructing the list), and on the other hand, the list includes the Maharam Rotenberg, who although a "Rishon" [early scholar], and one of the great scholars of Germany in the Middle Ages, is perhaps less available to students' awareness.
4. The Choice Between Close Variants of a Scholar's Appellation (p. 5, F): This principle is no less troubling than its predecessor: Why reject one appellation while accepting another, if both were used by scholars? And why doesn't Havlin apply this principle also with regards to given names or combinations of appellations and names, such as rejecting 'YOSF KRO' [without an "aleph" between the "kuf" and "resh"] in favor of 'YOSF KARO' [with an "aleph"], or rejecting MHR"I KRO [again, without an "aleph"] in favor of MHR"I KARO [with an "aleph"]. (By the way: I did not find the spelling "KRO" [without an "aleph"] even once in the Responsa Project, and it is not clear to me wherefrom Havlin took this name).
I could add and expound further upon the problematic issues raised by Havlin's selection principles with regards to this specific subject, but again, due to the lack of time I will let these comments suffice.
Prof. Menachem Cohen
Department of Bible.