Ezra changed the Torah text

                                                                             Tikkunie Soferim


Tikkunei Soferim, which can be translated as “corrections by the scribes,” refers to at least eighteen changes that were made in the original wording of the Hebrew Bible wording during the second temple period, perhaps sometime between 450 and 350 BCE.[1]

Most of these changes were made to enhance the honor due to God, to avoid a problem, or to use less harsh words. Some sources suppose the changes were made by Ezra the Scribe and/or the Men of the Great Assembly.[2] We do not know exactly when Ezra lived, but he probably lived around 450 BCE.[3] We also do not know with any degree of certainty why he was called a scribe or what the function of a scribe is.

What alterations were made?

The eighteen alterations of Scripture are listed in Ochlah v-Ochlah.[4] (1) Genesis 18:22, (2) Numbers 11:15, (3 and 4) Numbers 12:12, (5) I Samuel 3:13, (6) II Samuel 16:12, (7) I Kings 12:16, (8) II Chronicles 10:16, (9) Jeremiah 2:11, (10) Ezekiel 8:17, (11) Hosea 4:7, (12) Habakkuk 1:11, (13) Zachariah 2:12, (14) Malachi 1:13, (15) Psalm 106:20, (16) Job 7:20, (17) Job 32:3, and (18) Lamentations 3:19.

The following are several examples:

  1. In Genesis 18:22, the original text stated “God was still standing before Abraham” was changed to “Abraham was still standing before God.” The former is debasingly anthropomorphic; it depicts God in a somewhat servile manner, waiting upon Abraham.
  2. The original wording in Zechariah 2:12 has God saying “whoever touches you (Israel) touches the apple of my eye,” meaning pocking a finger in God’s eye, which suggests that God has an eye and can be harmed. It was replaced to “his eye,” saying whoever touches Israel has done such a grievous harm as if he hit the nation in its eye.
  3. The context of I Kings 21:13 indicates that Naboth is being accused of cursing God, but the act is so despicable that “cursed” was replaced by “blessed.”[5]

Everyone did not agree that words were substitutes in the Torah

The idea that anyone, even a biblical figure such as Ezra would tamper with the divine Torah is so startling that not everyone agreed that it was done. Many traditional commentators such as Rashi and the Midrashim Tanchuma, Exodus Rabba, Genesis Rabba, and Minchat Shai[6] unabashedly and explicitly accepted that the divine text was changed because those who made the change felt that their respect for God required that they hide the true text and portray God in a better light than what was in the original wording of the Bible.

However, other traditional scholars such as Elijah Mizrachi, Rashba, Joseph Albo, Ibn Ezra, and Josephus in his Contra Apion 1:8 could not abide by the notion that anyone would tamper with the holy text.[7] They felt that statements saying the wording was changed should be understood to mean that the Torah wording is “as if” there was an original wording that needed to be changed to honor God. The modern ultra-Orthodox ArtScroll Chumash commentary which deletes commentaries that are contrary to the editor’s theology deleted Rashi’s statement that there are Tikkunei Soferim.[8]

More changes were made

There are also scholars who claim that the number 18 does not count all of the alterations made to the Hebrew text. There are many more than the rabbis identified and the true number may be closer to thirty.[9]

How should we understand Maimonides?

How can we understand the concept that changes were made in the Torah with the eighth principle of the fundamentals of Judaism in Maimonides list of thirteen principles that the Torah in our hands today is identical to the Torah given by Moses?[10] Didn’t Maimonides know that changes were made? Didn’t he know that not all of the texts of the Torah that we have today are identical? Didn’t he have to decide which Torah text was the most precise and selected the Aleppo Codex as the best version?

One answer was offered by my late teacher Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Ha-Yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore Maryland: “Rambam knew very well that those variations existed when he defined his Principles. The words of Ani Ma’amin and the words of Rambam, ‘the entire Torah in our possession today’ must not be taken literally, implying that all the letters of our present Torah are the exact letters given to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rather it should be understood in a general sense that the Torah we learn and live by is for all intent and purposes the same Torah that was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.”[11]

Another answer is that Maimonides wrote the thirteen principles for the general population, what he called “essential truths,” not real truths, but ideas that the general population need to know. But the truth is that Maimonides himself did not believe all of the thirteen principles, only the first few dealing with God. For example, the thirteen principles appear at the end of his work called Chelek. At the start of this essay, he states that he does not believe in resurrection. Yet at the end of Chelek, he includes resurrection as one of the principles of Judaism.


[1] Tikkunei is spelled by some as Tiqqunie. The Midrashim Sifrei Numbers 10:35 and Mikhilta Shemot 15:7 call the replaced wording kina hakhatub, “the verse was substituted.”

[2] The subject of the “Men of the Great Assembly” and the “Sanhedrin” is generally misunderstood and there are many misconceptions about the two of them, and the two are often confused. It is an important subject for both Jews and Christians to know to remove the misconceptions.

Unsubstantiated Jewish tradition supposes that the Men of the Great Assembly a group of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets composed or edited some of the books of the Hebrew Bible, but many scholars are convinced that the institution never existed. If the Men of the Great Assembly existed it was probably a kind of kitchen cabinet for Ezra or a kind of congress that Ezra formed and which ceased to exist around 300 BCE when the institution of the Sanhedrin began. Jewish tradition supposes that the institution of the Sanhedrin began during the days of Moses and famed Bible commentators such as Rashi ascribe some activities to this group during the biblical period. However, the name Sanhedrin is Greek, which together with the fact that no reliable evidence exists for the existence of the Sanhedrin before the Greek period in Israel, prompted scholars to date its origin to around 300 BCE. The Sanhedrin was a court of law, a kind of Supreme Court composed of 71 members. Scholars insist that writers of the New Testament did not know how the Sanhedrin functioned and depict it improperly in the New Testament.

Sidney B. Hoenig addresses all of these problems and more in his superb scholarly study in The Great Sanhedrin, Dropsie College, 1953. Louis Finkelstein does so as well in Ha-Perushim ve-Anshe Kenesset Ha-Gedolah, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1950. The English translation of Professor Finkelstein’s excellent book is “The Pharisees and the Men of the Great Assembly.” The Pharisees were a group that developed interpretations of the Torah that generally liberalized Torah mandates. The Hebrew name Perushim could mean “separatist.” They separated from the Tzedukim, in English Sadducees, which could mean the righteous ones, those who adhered to the ancient traditions. Many Sadducees functioned in the temple, while the Pharisees were associated with the common folk.

While the present day consensus is that the changes in the Torah were made by Ezra, some sources insist that they were done by either Nehemiah, Zechariah, Hagai, or Baruch. See the sources in Saul Lieberman’s Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1994, pages 28-37, and Menachem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, Parashat Mishpatim, Jerusalem, 1992, volume 5, book 19, pages 374-375.

[3] Ezra’s activities are described in the biblical book with his name and in the biblical book Nehemiah. He was a priest. Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8 state that he reintroduced the Torah to Jews in Jerusalem, enforced the observance of the Torah, and exhorted Jews about intermarriage with pagans.

[4] Ktav Publishing House, NY, 1972, page 113, first published in Hanover in 1864.

[5] Apparently thinking that readers would be confused to read that Naboth is being accused of blessing God, the Jewish Publication Society translation changed to wording back to “cursed.”

[6] Minchat Shai comments and explains most of the 18 Tikkunei Soferim in its commentary to Zechariah 2:12.

[7] See Kasher’s Torah Shelemah and ibn Ezra’s commentaries to Numbers 11:15, 12:12, and Job 32:3.

[8] Another example of ArtScroll censorship is the deletion of the Rashi’s grandson Rashbam’s view in the first chapter of Genesis that according to the Torah the day begins in the morning, not at sunset, for the Torah states that God performed certain acts of creation and then “there was evening and morning” and a new creation was made after the morning on the new day.

[9] See Tikkunei Soferim, An Analysis of a Masoretic Phenomenon, by Avrohom Lieberman, Hakirah, The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought, pages 227-236.

[10] Found in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin called Chelek.

[11] Quoted by Marc Shapiro in Fundamentals and Faith, Southfield, Michigan, 1991, p. 116, from Rabbi Weinberg’s lectures.