You are sitting in services on a Shabbat morning. The ark is opened. You and your family rise, and as the Torah is marched around the room, you each kiss the Torah. Then your child asks, “Dad, Mom, where does the Torah come from?”
You say, in your kind and all-knowing voice, “Well, God gave it to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Moses wrote it all down and then he passed it onto the Jewish people. Generation after generation kept passing it down until today.”
Not bad – I say. Then you go home and wonder about it. Is the “original” Torah somewhere? You should know that all “original” copies of the individual biblical writings have eluded archaeologists and scholars for generations. The original Books of the Torah were probably written on papyrus made from plant material and are nowhere to be found.
Most of the writings were done in a script that resembles the ‘font’ of modern day Torah scrolls. It was probably Old Hebrew or Phoenician script which was also used by the Canaanites. After the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, the Aramaic script influenced the Hebrew language and produced the square script as we know it today.
We are also aware that the oldest known parchment scrolls of the Torah date from about 900 CE, which is probably more than 1300 years later than the likely time of its composition. It is not too speculative to say that probably much happened to the text in terms of its oral and written forms.
The “version” we use at TEPV and in most synagogues today is the Masoretic version. The Masoretes were scholars who, over the centuries, attempted to preserve the “best text”. One of these versions was produced in Tiberias, Israel around the tenth century CE, and from that scroll were made copies that exist today.
If your child was on the ball, he/she may also have asked, “How does the Cantor know how to sing the words?” You may have responded, “The Cantor and the other Torah readers have been trained to chant the holy words, just like you will one day when you prepare for your Bar/Bat Mitzvah.” Good answer. But, what about you? Do you remember the Torah reading skills that you learned in preparation for your Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Or maybe you never had the opportunity to learn the ‘secret code’ of Torah readers. As your Cantor, I am happy to invite you to join our “not so secret society”. We would love for you to become a TEPV Torah reader. If you are interested in brushing up or learning from scratch, please be in touch with me and I will be happy set up private or group lessons for and your friends to become members of this “not so secret society”