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The Other Torah

A new English translation of the Samaritan Torah offers scholars a different version of the sacred text

Chavie Lieber
May 14, 2013
A Samaritan high priest raises a Torah scroll during Sukkot celebrations on Mount Gerizim on Oct. 11, 2011.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
A Samaritan high priest raises a Torah scroll during Sukkot celebrations on Mount Gerizim on Oct. 11, 2011.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

While Jews study a number of religious books—from the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch—the text that provides the religion’s very foundation is the Torah. And the version of the Torah most commonly studied by Jews is known as the Masoretic text, the most authoritative Hebrew version of the Torah.

But it is not the only one.

A small, ancient sect known as the Samaritans rely on the Torah, and the Torah alone, as their sole religious text—and the Samaritans use a somewhat different version. Two weeks ago, the first English translation of this Hebrew text was published by Samaritan historian and scholar Binyamin Tsedaka: The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah. There are some 6,000 instances where this version of the Torah differs from the Masoretic text; the question for scholars is which version is more complete, or more accurate.


As an ancient Semitic people, the Samaritans abide by a literal version of Torah law. Eschewing Jewish practices that are rabbinic in origins, they believe only in the Five Books of Moses and observe only holidays found in the Pentateuch, such as Passover and Sukkot, as opposed to Jewish holidays like Purim or Hanukkah whose origins are found elsewhere in Jewish scriptures.

Their rituals mirror an ancient world that few religions still keep today. On Passover, for example, their high priest sacrifices a sheep in a community-wide ritual, where its blood is dabbed on foreheads and later eaten together with matzo and bitter herbs. On Shabbat, Samaritans abstain from cooking and kindling fires and pray barefoot in white, identical garments. And, echoing a routine taken straight from the text of Leviticus, Samaritan women move to their own private homes during menstruation for seven days of isolation.

Much of what the Samaritans practice has some resemblance to Jewish traditions, except their beliefs surrounding the holiness of Mount Gerizim, the mountaintop they believe they were commanded by God to conquer. Tsedaka, 68, grew up in Nablus, which is in the shadow of Mount Gerizim, but after the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s, two-thirds of the Samaritan population relocated. Their community is now split between Kiryat Luza in the West Bank and the Israeli city of Holon.

Tsedaka, who lives in Kiryat Luza, has dedicated much of his life to the Samaritan community. As a historian, author, educator, and elder of his group, Tsedaka considers himself a guardian of his ancient tradition, as he is one of fewer than 800 Samaritans left. He has authored more than 75 pamphlets on Samaritan scholarship, but he calls his new translation of his Torah, which took him seven years to compile, his biggest achievement.

“Samaritans have such beautiful traditions that when you will collect and read materials about them, you will fall in love,” Tsedaka said. “For the first time ever, English Bible researchers will be able to include my people into their explorations of the Torah.”

The 6,000 differences between the two Torahs that Tsedaka highlights in bold in his book can be split into two categories: 3,000 of the differences are orthographical, meaning there are spelling differences or additional words placed in the text, while the other 3,000 are more significant in changing the Torah’s narrative.

Some of the orthographical changes help make the story read more smoothly. For example, in Genesis 4:8, when Cain talks to Abel, the Masoretic version reads, “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him,” whereas the Samaritan Torah contains additional words: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ ”

The Samaritan Torah also offers a slightly different version of some stories. It includes parts of dialogues that are not found in the Masoretic text: For example, in Exodus chapters 7 through 11, the Samaritan Torah contains whole conversations between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh that the Masoretic text does not.

The other differences that are significant in narrative sometimes change the story, and sometimes “fix” small sentences that appear incoherent.

In Exodus 12:40, for example, the Masoretic text reads: “The length of the time the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years,” a sentence that has created massive chronological problems for Jewish historians, since there is no way to make the genealogies last that long. In the Samaritan version, however, the text reads: “The length of time the Israelites lived in Canaan and in Egypt was 430 years.”

Earlier in Exodus, in 4:25, the Samaritan Torah offers an alternative narrative to the slightly problematic story about Moses’ son not being circumcised when an angel of God “sought to kill him.” The thought that Moses did not circumcise his son, as the Masoretic text states, seems inconceivable to many Jewish commentators, Tsedaka noted. The Samaritan text, however, reads that it was Moses’ wife, Tziporah, who had to “circumcise her blocked heart” by cutting off her belief in the idol-worshiping ways of Midyan, her homeland. A mention of an “internal circumcision” is later found in Deuteronomy 10:16 in both versions, which reads, “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer.”

Perhaps the most variant of texts within the two Torahs is the differences in the Ten Commandments.

“The Commandments are all in the form of ‘do’ and ‘don’t do,’ ” Tsedaka asserted. “The Masoretic version includes the intro of ‘I am your God that took you out of Egypt,’ as a commandment, when we see it as an introduction. Our Ten Commandments start later, and we have our last commandment to establish Mount Gerizim.”

While an “extra” commandment to establish an altar on Mount Gerizim might seem random in the Masoretic text, the part that follows the Ten Commandants in the Masoretic version talks about the forbidden action of building stairs to an altar. Some scholars believe that the Masoretic text would not be discussing steps to an altar without talking about an altar first, and so some believe there might be a part of the text that is missing in the Masoretic version.


Until the 1950s, Bible scholars turned to the Jewish Masoretic text as the definitive version of the Torah, virtually ignoring the Samaritan text. However, in the winter of 1947, a group of archeological specialists searching through 11 caves in Qumran happened upon the Dead Sea Scrolls. After rigorous study of the scrolls, researchers have come to believe there were several versions of the Torah being studied throughout Jewish history, according to Eugene Ulrich, a theology professor at University of Notre Dame.

The scrolls they found in Qumran matched the Samaritan text more closely than the Masoretic text, leading some researchers to believe the Samaritan text held validity in the minds of Jews during the Second Temple period and that both texts were once studied together.

“Finding the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that there were two versions, if not more, of the Torah circulating within Judaism, but they were all dealt with with equal validity and respect,” said Ulrich, who served as one of the chief editors on the Dead Sea Scrolls International Publication Project. “The Samaritan Torah and Masoretic Torah used to be studied side by side. The Masoretic text wasn’t always the authoritative version. They were both seen as important during the Second Temple time period.”

Ulrich said after the destruction of the Second Temple, the people split into three groups, each with their own text: The rabbis took the Masoretic text for their own, the Samaritans took theirs, and the early Christians used much of a different version called the Septuagint—a Masoretic version translated into Greek in the 2nd century BCE—in what later become the Christian Bible.

While most differences between the two Torahs are only slight and may not even be apparent to an untrained eye, according to Ulrich, the Samaritan Torah provides a more coherent reading because the story flows better in its text. “There are whole passages of stories missing from the Masoretic version,” he said. “A lot of the stories in Exodus and Deuteronomy are missing parts of the conversation, leaving the reader alone to do much assumption as the story goes on. In the Samaritan Torah, however, these gaps are filled, providing a smoother encounter of what actually happened.”

James Charlesworth, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton University’s Department of Biblical studies, said the Samaritan Torah is his preferred version for some readings of the Bible. “As the stories and histories go, the Samaritan Pentateuch appears to be more favorable because the voice of the text reads more clear[ly],” he said. “In my judgment, the Masoretic version has some corrupt parts of it, and the Samaritan Torah is the best reading we have. There are sentences scholars are left to either reinterpret or simply ignore because they seem they don’t belong.”

Charlesworth believes Jews and Christians have not shown the Samaritan text the proper respect it deserves: Thousands of years ago, Samaritans and Jews had a shared interest in both scriptures, but the Samaritan Torah later became shunned. Charlesworth said this English translation would finally provide the academic world insight into the origins of the development of scripture.

The Samaritans claim their Torah is older and more authentic: “It’s more logical that a group of people who’ve lived in one place for thousands of years have kept their Torah preserved,” Tsedaka asserted, “as compared to a people who have moved all over the world.”

But some Bible critics side with the Masoretic version, citing it as older and, indeed, more authentic. Referring to a principal of textual criticism called lectio difficilior potior, which states that a harder reading of a text is preferred to an easier reading, Yeshiva University’s Aaron Koller said some scholars believe the Samaritan Torah’s text, which presents fewer interpretive problems, proves that it had been tampered with. “Some scholars believe someone took an original version of the Torah and simplified it to the Samaritan version,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe a difficult reading of a text is original, because why would someone change a text to make it unclear? Rather, when a text is simplified, it’s easier to believe that the text was altered in order to make it simpler.”

Koller noted that the consensus view held by most Bible scholars is that the Masoretic version of the Torah is the older, original version. The structural changes of the Samaritan Torah give reason to believe it’s been changed, he said, but that should not stop people from studying it. Both should be studied, he said, to understand the history of interpretations of the Torah—a book that continues to unfold with meaning as time goes on.

“Outside of the Samaritan community, most believe the Samaritan Torah was an editorial revision of the Masoretic text,” Koller said. “But they are a group that consider themselves heirs to biblical Israel, just like the Jews. It’s important just to learn the remarkable tradition they’ve preserved for 2,500 years.”


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Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.

Chavie Lieber has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post, Business Insider, the Times of Israel, and more. Follow her on twitter @chavielieber.