After a thousand years, this Torah makes its Washington debut

The Museum of the Bible has dubbed its Torah manuscript “The Washington Pentateuch.” Photo by Samantha Cooper

Nearly 1,000 years ago, just where, scholars aren’t sure, a group of scribes copied the five books of the Torah onto parchment and bound it.

Last week it was shown to the public at its new home: the Museum of the Bible in Washington. Leather bound with black metal hinges, it is one of the world’s oldest and most intact copies of the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses.

Those involved with the manuscript have dubbed it “The Washington Pentateuch,” the old Greek portmanteau for “Five Books.”

The manuscript, scholars say, can influence how the Torah is read and

David Stern, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard, said that’s because the manuscript is one of the most intact copies written by the medieval-era Masoretes.

In the era before the printing press, errors could creep in to manuscripts and multiply as they were copied. The Masoretes, groups of scholar-scribes in the Middle East, worked to ensure that the pronunciation of the words in the Torah remained consistent. Torah scrolls lack vowels, and in their manuscripts, like the one at the Bible Museum, the Masoretes tried to ensure that every Jewish community pronounced the Torah in the same way, Stern said.

In the margins, the Washington Pentateuch contains elaborate notes on
pronunciation, vowels, grammatical structure and proper tropes to use
for chanting.

“This [manuscript] comes from an iconic era in Jewish history. There are
precious few manuscripts from this era,” said Herschel Hepler, associate curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the museum.

Other manuscripts from the same period — 700 to 1,000 years ago — like the St. Petersburg Codex and the Aleppo Codex, have formed the basis for most translations of the Torah, Hepler said. An extremely detailed and intact text, like the one on display here, will inform future translations of the Torah.

The commentary, or micrography, which lists the rules that must be followed, is written in tiny, precise handwriting above and below the texts. The words often form triangles, arrows or others shapes.

“These Masoretic codices, like the Washington Pentateuch, are the first
Hebrew Bibles that actually have the vowel points and the cantillation marks in them,” said Stern. “These marks were meant to preserve the correct pronunciation and chanting of the Hebrew Bible.”

Those same rules about vowels and tropes are still largely used today.

The manuscript was purchased in 2017 by the Green Collection, headed by billionaire Steve Green of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain.

Scholars came to study the manuscript and repair it for display.

Today, the Torah is part of a two-room exhibit on the first floor of the museum. The first room tells the history of the Masoretes. The Pentateuch is in the second room.

A spotlight shines on the manuscript, illuminating the pages. Right now, it is open to “Mi Chamocha” or “Song of the Sea,” which the Israelites sang when they crossed the Red Sea in the book of Exodus.

On the walls are images and copies of other manuscripts, and discussions of their influence.

The exhibit will be on display until March, at which point it will be taken down and moved to a permanent exhibit in the museum.

Aside from the notations and elaborate marginalia, what makes books like the Washington Pentateuch so valuable, is that it is “one of the first actual Jewish books, as opposed to a scroll,” Stern said.

He added that if this text is like others from the Masoretic period, it was likely produced by a group of people who worked over the course of a year to complete it.
What little is known is that the last few pages of the book have been dated back to 1141. And it is believed to have been given as a gift to an archbishop in Crimea in 1835.

After that it made its way into the hands of private collectors, most recently Israeli financier David Sofer, who sold it to the Greens.

Stern said whoever was in possession of the book, “seemed to have really treasured” it. In the 14th century, somebody restored its leather binding.

Other books from the time period no longer exist either because they were destroyed or fell apart through use. Stern surmises that the Washington Pentateuch wasn’t intended for everyday use.

“These are very valuable books,” he said. “You didn’t give this to your kid to study for his bar mitzvah. You didn’t look at it over dinner.”

People treasured the copies they had. And the book not only survived through this kind of care, but also because, “they knew how to make books [back then],” he said.
Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer, said it was important for the public to have access to the manuscript.

“The alternative would have been some private collector buying it and
stashing it away and not allowing other people to look at it,” Stern said.

“These are books that really should be available to the public and to scholars.
They’re really important books and this is where all these books should
end up.”

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Twitter: @SamScoopCooper

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