Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- ha’alotkha 5769/ June 6, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Tikkune Soferim -- “Scribal Emendations”


Prof. Moshe Tzipor


Department of Bible


Two passages of those that are defined in our tradition as “scribal emendations” occur in this week’s reading.   One is Moses’ words to the Lord:   “let me see no more of my wretchedness (be- ra'ati)” (Num. 11:15), and the other, Aaron’s words to Moses:  “who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away” (Num. 12:12).   According to tradition, the text of Scripture in both these verses is considered a substitute for an unbefitting expression.  All the passages called scribal emendations are characterized by a formulation designed to protect the Lord’s honor or Moses’ honor (more on this later).   Here are some famous examples:   “But My people has exchanged its glory for what can do no good” (Jer. 2:11), which is a substitution for the words, “But My people has exchanged My glory for what can do no good,” i.e., the Lord’s glory.  Likewise, “They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull” (Ps. 106:20), also a substitution for the words, “they exchanged My glory.”  Similarly Job’s friends, who “found no reply” to Job’s arguments, are said to have “condemned Job” (Job 32:3). "Job" is considered to be a substitution for “they condemned the Lord” (or as in several sources, “they condemned the Judge”).  Another passage in the Torah that is said to be a scribal emendation ( Tikkun Soferim) is the phrase, “while Abraham remained standing before the Lord” (Gen. 18:22), when according to this tradition the text ought to have read, “while the Lord remained standing before Abraham.”  This passage, however, merits a separate discussion. [1]

Lists of passages thought to be of this type appear in several sources and several variations, dating back to tannaitic midrashic sources.  These lists differ from one another both in scope and detail (i.e., in the number of passages listed, their order, and their specifics).   For example, only some of these lists contain the familiar “eighteen scribal emendations,” while other sources come up with different numbers of emendations.  The verse from our parasha which we mentioned above, “who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away,” appears in certain sources as one item in a list of eighteen, and in others as two items.

Such notes about scribal emendations appear as annotations of “minor masorah” (Masorah Ketana) in the margins of several medieval biblical manuscripts, and following them in printed editions called Mikraot Gedolot. [2]   The better-known of such sources, containing complete although not necessarily identical lists, are the printed edition of Midrash Tanhuma on Exodus 15:7 and Sefer Okhlah ve-Okhlah.” [3]

Several of the sources use the terminology, “Scripture used a substitute expression” [4] (she- kinna ha-katuv) and others combine this with the term for “scribal emendation".   Some add to each of the passages the formulation, “the text should have read,” and conclude with “except that ( ella she-) Scripture used a substitute expression” (kinna ha-katuv).

The issue of scribal emendations, along with related historical and doctrinal problems, has been dealt with extensively by Rishonim (early rabbinic authorities) and aharonim (later rabbinic authorities), as well as Jewish and gentile scholars: [5]   Does this tradition indeed mean to say that the biblical text was corrected in one or another period (as appears in some of the lists:  as emended by “Ezra and Nehemiah,” or by “the members of the Great Assembly”)?   Is this a reliable tradition?   How are we to understand the use of the phrase, “Scripture used a substitute expression (kinnah ha-katuv),” in certain (ancient) sources, and (in later sources), the phrase, “a scribal emendation” (tikkun soferim)?  How do these passages in the lists of emendations/alternative terms differ from other biblical passages that ostensibly are not much different but do not appear in these lists?  Is there ancient evidence in support of the alternative formulation?

A variety of literary, theological and historical explanations have been given.  On one hand, there are those who view this tradition as solid historical evidence that corrections were indeed made to the biblical text. On the other hand, some say that this tradition indicates that the “scribes,” i.e., those who wrote the various books of the bible, from the outset refrained from using expressions that were offensive, using euphemisms instead, and this is the “correction” that was made from the beginning.  This approach, too, is challenged from several directions.   We note especially that the word soferim (rendered here as “scribes”) is not used in the writings of the Sages with the same meaning that it carries today (= authors), rather in the sense of copyists and instructors of youngsters.   Second, certain exegetes, first and foremost Ibn Ezra, note regarding these passages:   “There is no need here for a scribal emendation.” In other words, that the passage can be interpreted in a straightforward way, reading it as it is written, with no need for the hypothesis that there was an "original" reading and this is a “scribal emendation.” [6]

Below we shall examine the two specific passages that appear in this week’s reading in the light of the view that the reading which we have of the biblical text is none other than a substitute for another, offensive reading which is not given here.

Those sources that also note the “correct” word which no longer appears in the text, remark on the phrase, “let me see no more of my wretchedness [Heb. be-ra’ati]” (Num. 11:15), that the text should have read, “let me see no more of Your wretchedness [be- ra’atkha].”  Perhaps the intention was to the wretchedness that would be caused by the Lord.  Rashi, however, writes:  “‘their wretchedness [be- ra’atam]’ is what the text should have read [meaning the wretchedness of Israel], except that Scripture used a substitute expression, and this is one of the scribal emendations in the Torah, substituting another word to clean up the language.”   Thus this is an instance of protecting the honor of Israel.

Ibn Ezra, however, takes the word be-ra’ati (=my wretchedness) literally: Moses requested,  “Let me see no more of the wretchedness in which I find myself,” and adds:  “There is no need for any scribal emendation,” meaning that there is no need to explain the verse as if it were an instance of a scribal emendation.

A tradition claiming a “scribal emendation” for the phrase, “from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away” (Num. 12:12) says that this reading is a substitute for “our mother’s womb … half our flesh…”   Rashi explains:   “It should have read ‘our mother,’ but Scripture used a substitute expression … It should have read, ‘half our flesh,’ but Scripture used a substitute expression.  Since Miriam came out of our mother’s womb, it was for us [Moses and Aaron] as if half our own flesh had been eaten away; as Scripture indicates, ‘he is our brother, our own flesh’ (Gen. 37:27).”   In Rashi's opinion, the verb “to be" (tehi, Num. 12:12) refers to Miriam.  However, it is hard to see what difficulty was inherent in this verse and how the “reconstructed” reading contributes to our understanding.


Lieberman resolves the issue with the help of another homily on this verse, taken from Sifre Zuta: [7]   “On this basis Rabbi Eliezer b. Rabbi Simeon used to say that a person should use himself, rather than others, as an example [or metaphor].”  So too we find in Yalkut Shimoni par. 741 on our parasha. But par. 742, citing Midrash Esfah, reads otherwise: "The righteous do not use themselves as an example, but others.”  In other words, if a person illustrates something reprehensible or adverse by way of metaphorical example, he should not use imagery that speaks of himself, rather he should present his words as if they were about some other unnamed person.   “On this basis Rabbi Eliezer used to say” – i.e., he deduced this from what Aaron had said, using language that put the imagery off at a distance, saying “his mother” and “his flesh” even though the intention was to “our mother” and “our flesh.” [8]   So, reasons Lieberman,  the expression “Scripture used a substitute expression” or even the phrase “scribal emendation” refers here not to a correction made by Scripture or by later scribes, but by Aaron himself, who refrained from speaking ill of himself.  This leads us to ask why these “lists” did not include other such euphemisms, such as “May G-d do thus and more to the enemies of David” (I Sam. 25:22, clearly meaning David himself); “should you gouge out those men’s eyes” (Num. 16:14, clearly a euphemism for “our”); I Sam. 20:17, and the like? [9]

Perhaps Sifre Zuta meant something else, namely that Aaron himself had said:  “from our mother’s womb … half of our flesh,” and Scripture, out of concern for Aaron’s honor, substituted less offensive words for what Aaron had said, changing them as if they were directed at some ethereal figure:  “from his mother’s womb … half of his flesh.”  Thus, when the midrash said, “on this basis,” it was referring to Scripture taking the pains to change what Aaron had said so that his words would not be deprecatory of himself.   Scripture thereby teaches us a lesson of proper behavior, showing how careful people must be of what they say so as not to use themselves in a simile that brings a bane on themselves.   However, the other instances which we mentioned – “the enemies of David,” and “those people” – were understood by the homilist as euphemisms used by the speaker himself (as opposed to Scripture correcting the speaker’s expression).   Therefore they do not belong to the category “Scripture used a substitute expression”.

Of course, Scripture can always be explained according to the plain sense, literally as written. As ibn Ezra said, “there is no need for a scribal emendation,” for Scripture never loses its literal sense.  May the Merciful One enlighten us in His Torah.


[1] Rashi on this verse; Mondschein (note 3, below), pp. 411-414.

[2] A complete list of 18 scribal emendations can be found in Jacob ben Hayyim’s edition of Mikraot Gedolot, Venice 1524-1525, at the beginning of Numbers, encircling the first word, va-yedabber, as a decoration.  As we said, there exist a variety of lists.

[3] MS. Paris, Frensdorff ed., list no. 158.

[4] For example, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Shira 6 (Horovitz-Rabin ed., pp. 134-135), and Sifre Numbers 87 (Horovitz ed., 1917, pp. 81-82).

[5] For further elaboration, see “Leidatah ve-Gilgulah shel ha- Masoret al 18 Tikkunei Soferim,” in my book, Al Mesirah u-Masoret:  Perakim be-Toldot ha- Farshanut ha-Kedumah shel ha-Mikra, Tirgumo u-Mesirato, Tel Aviv 2001, pp. 79-165.  The sources are cited there from page 94 ff.  Further on several theories, including our suggestion, are presented explaining this phenomenon from the historical point of view.  See A. Mondschein, “Rashi, Rashbam ve-Ibn Ezra Shonim Mishnatam be- SugiyatTikkun Soferim,”  Iyyunei Mikra u- Farshanut 8:  Minhot Yedidut ve-Hoqarah le-Eliezer Touitou, Ramat-Gan 2008, pp. 409-450.

[6] For example, see his remarks in his introduction to his long commentary on the Torah, and in greater elaboration at the end of Sefer Tzahot, Rodriguez ed., pp. 484-487.

[7] Sifre Zuta is found in Sifre Numbers, op. cit., p. 277 = Midrash ha-Gadol on Numbers, Rabinowitz ed., p. 194.

[8] S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, JTS: N.Y., 1962, pp. 32-33.

[9] Another example: according to the interpretation of the Sages, Pharaoh’s saying, “they may join our enemies in fighting against us and get them up out of the land” (Ex. 1:10), was a euphemism for “and we will [have to] leave the land.”