An Easy to Read TORAH Translation

By Sol Scharfstein KTAV Publishing 2005

Sol Scharfstein has written this excellent translation for readers of all ages, in a fluent, idiomatic style. The Torah, of course, is comprised of the first five books (only 13%) of the Old Testament, which purportedly emanated from Moses’ lips, if not from his pen, as debated among Rabinical scholars. While the author has rigidly followed the Masoretic text (the official text of Jewish scholars), he has mercifully altered the sentence structure to enhance the reader’s grasp words first spoken c. 1280 B.C.E. and reduced to writing beginning then and continuing over a period of hundreds of years, mostly in Ancient Hebrew (which contained no vowels or punctuation); since Hebrew was not then the common language for Jews or others on the Sinai Peninsula, some of it was first written in Aramaic (a language not far removed from cave-dwellers scratching), and linguistic errors could not be avoided, as the author and most scholars concede. Those interested in the Old Testament can learn a great deal from Rabbi Sharfstein’s scholarly efforts here.

The first translation into Greek didn’t occur until c. 285 BCE, when Ptolemy II wanted it for his library. Scharfstein injects helpful prologues and commentary, which renders his literal translation more user-friendly and more of a history of the Jewish people than purely the most ancient of all religious scriptures, save for those of the Hindus, who claim scriptures back to 6,000 BCE. The Torah, however repetitive, reveals an attempt by Moses and other Jewish leaders to guide their people with rules about conduct, thoughts, hygiene and most other aspects of life in times when there were no Constitutions, Statutes, Ordinances, FDA’s, etc. to manage anarchic masses with their ignorant, amoral and violent predilections. The endless repetition of rules and admonitions is typical of all scriptures, as texts were read aloud to illiterates, not silently. Scharfstein’s Torah provides a compassionate glimpse into the minds, travails and dreams of the Jews, along with a marvelous story of the odyssey of these intelligent and much-abused people during the two millennia before Christ.

Torah means “teaching” and “law” and refers to the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy), which the Jews believe were “given” to Moses c. 1280 B.C.E. during his 40-day epiphany atop Mt. Sinai. The Ten Commandments are found in Ex. 19-20. Biblical scholars believe that there were many authors and/or that the books were substantially re-written by scribes over the years (ibid. fn. 1).

The Torah was not written on paper (which was generally non-existent in 1280 BCE), but, rather, on parchment (which means “skin”) made of kosher animal skins which were sewn together with sinews (strings of animal muscles), which were attached to wooden scrolls (called “Trees of Life”) at each end. According to Exodus, the Commandments were written on stone tablets. It may well be that early versions of the Torah were written on stone, wood, plant leaves (as was the Koran c. 625 AD), hardened clay and/or animal skins, or most anything else on which scratch marks or ancient ink could leave the imprints of the still primitive and embryonic languages of the day. Imagine the size of the font/writing (printing) that scribes had to make on such surfaces; then, contemplate the girth of the scrolls (of animal skins) that included even one of the five books of the Torah. Each scroll had to be enormous.

The Jews attempted to keep at least their version of the Torah on scrolls in their temple, one copy per temple. As there were twelve tribes (foreshadowing Jesus’ 12 disciples), eventually, there had to be many temples. So, however many temples then existed, so did that many copies of the Torah. Since old copies were continuously disappearing or becoming illegible and since new temples needed copies as well, the scribes never stopped making copies. Manually-made copies must always contain errors, omissions and, often, editorializing. Many of these were done in the general region of the Dead Sea, where a shepherd boy discovered the scrolls in a cave (c. 1950 AD), hence the term: the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). The DSS included tens of thousands of documents with many copies of some books of the Old Testament (OT) and only fragments or zero copies of other books. Hence, the DSS have never been released for public scrutiny; only approved scholars have seen them. No scholar has claimed that the DSS represent (1) any originals of any books of the OT and/or (2) a complete set of copies of the OT. The DSS, therefore, have not changed the body of the prior, general knowledge.

Time, of course, destroys everything material, including contemporary “books” on the highest quality paper, even when housed in ideal conditions. Early writings (on plant leaves, animal skins, primitive paper, wood, clay, etc.) had no such advantages, plus they were systematically destroyed by those of other beliefs (especially the Muslims who made it their business to destroy the texts and temples of the Jews and Hindus). As the early versions of the Torah were lost, damaged, disintegrated or were destroyed by myriad warlords, the texts were re-created innumerable times by scribes from whatever remnants (and fallible human memories) then existed. Jewish Biblical scholars agree that the scribes “made many errors” along the way, which, from time to time, they have endeavored to correct (e.g. 7th-10th Centuries).

Almost 1,000 years after Moses was “given” the Torah on Mt. Sinai, or about 285 BCE, Ptolemy II, Pharaoh of Egypt, was building a great library, and he wanted the Torah included. A group of seventy Jewish scholars (the “Seventy”) – who spoke Greek, the common local language at that time -- were called together to do it; they admitted that many errors and contradictions existed, which they attempted to correct. As most Jews were then speaking Greek, not Hebrew, Ptolemy had it translated from ancient Hebrew and Aramaic to ancient Greek. For the first time, vowels and punctuation were used, and a substantively different “book” was created. Over time, however, these copies had to be re-copied many times and more copies were needed for more temples. Every scribe, of course, made some errors (and some are concededly editorialized as well). Also, from Greek, the Torah was translated into many of the world’s other languages. Each translator, then, had to make “interpretations” of words, as some words are too old and/or unique to their own language to be understood by any translator and, thus, defy translation. For example, Greek has seven words for love, all with somewhat different meanings; English has one word for love. Translators often can do little more than inject their best guess as to the meaning. Translations often disagree. The end result, once again, was many, quite different versions of the Torah. Which was “right”? Which was the real “Word of God”?

Over the centuries, to the Torah was added “The Prophets” (the next 21 books of the Old Testament) and “The Writings” (the last 13 books of same). This composite of 39 books became known as the “TaNaK”, “T” for Torah and N and K for other Hebrew words, which means “the entire Hebrew Bible”. As these books were added over the 1,000 years preceding Christ’s birth, they went through the multiple iteration processes of the Torah. The Torah, however, had a distinct advantage (or claim to accuracy), because it was the most faithfully copied and at least some version of it was retained in a sacred cabinet in each Jewish Temple. Wherever the Jews went, they always took their version of the Torah. Most Jewish scholars concede that the 34 books of the Prophets and Writings were not as carefully preserved.

To address the troubling inconsistencies among translations, from the 7th-10th Centuries, a group of Jewish scholars worked on further corrections and revisions, to standardize the versions in the various temples. Their work was later picked-up in the King James Version (1525 A.D.) From the first writings of the NT (c. 50-200 AD) until Guttenberg invented the printing press (1425 AD), the Jewish scholars and Roman Catholic Church (“The Church” of Simon, called Peter) were the primary preservers of the OT and NT. Without the Jewish scholars and The Church, there would be no Christian Bible today.

In c. 1280 BCE, when Moses was “given” all five books of the Torah (the first five books of the OT), in Deuteronomy (the last of the five), Moses admonished his listeners to put his words “on parchment”, suggesting that he wrote none of the books (fn. 1). Then, in third person, as if written later by a scribe, it says that “Moses wrote” Deuteronomy, but even the scribe may have meant “dictated”, as even kings rarely wrote, and Moses was 120 years old by then. (Could he still see? Were his hands stable enough to write such volumes?) Some Jews believe that Moses wrote none, some or all of the Torah’s five books; most believe that he wrote only Deuteronomy. However, in Deuteronomy, Moses comments that someone should write what he is saying, and later the text is written in the third person singular, as if he were not being quoted. Authorship and accuracy become rank speculation.

A Few Torah Citations of Interest, for the reader to review, follow: Exodus 20:2-14: Ten Commandments Exodus 21:15: Whoever harms his parents shall be killed; 21:17: … insults his parents…killed.” Ex. 22:18: Whoever has sex with an animal shall be killed; 22:19:…worships another god…killed.” Ex. 22:24: No interest on loans to the poor. KJV says no “usury” – a huge variance in meaning. Ex 22:30: KJV says “give your first born sons to God”; Torah says “ox and sheep”. Ex. 23:17: “Appear before God” (confession?) three times a year (e.g. Catholic’s “confession”) Ex. 31:14: Whoever works on the Sabbath “shall be killed”. Ex 32:27: Execute all idol worshippers. Ex 34:7: God will punish 3 to 4 generations for sins of parents (a tragic guilt trip) Lev. 11: Can’t eat port, rabbits, shellfish, certain fowl, anything that crawls and no blood. Lev 18:6-26: No incest, homosexuality or sex with neighbors Lev 19: Expands and adds Commandments (e.g., don’t cut your beard or the hair on the sides of your head). Lev 20: Gets violent. Death for: cursing your parents, adultery, incest (with in-laws too), homosexuality, animal-sex and for witchcraft (however that might be defined) Lev 24:21: Capital punishment for murder Lev 24:23: Execute who takes God’s name in vain Lev 27: Tithing (one-tenth) to Adonia Lev. 5: Trial by ordeal for women suspected of adultery (Ordeal usually meant burning or the like) Nos. 25:5: Moses said kill those who worshipped the idol. (Are talismen idols?) Nos. 30:14: Husbands may void or uphold any promise to a woman (the tragic treatment of women) Deut. 5: Moses rephrases the Ten Commandments (the earlier version is the one used by most Judeo-Christians) Deut. 12: Destroy the alters of idol worshippers (a common practice among most barbarians) Deut. 11:18&20: Moses directs his people to keep his word “in their hearts” and to “write them on parchment”, conceding that he did not do so, even as to Deuteronomy. Deut. 21:18-21: Stone to death “stubborn” or “rebellious” children Deut. 32:51-51: Moses is allowed to see the Promise Land but not to enter it, because he failed God in several ways. Moses blesses Joseph as his successor and then dies (Deut 33:34) allegedly at age 120.

The Torah is read aloud in synagogues annually. In some, it is read up to three times annually, in others only once. At the end of each reading, the congregation recites, in unison, “Be strong and have courage,” meaning live according to the rules of the Torah. As with most scriptures, if the reader will ignore its violent exhortations (kill the adulterers, the idol worshippers, etc.), the Torah makes educational reading, and provides an ever-better understanding of the Jewish people, who have overcome all manner of adversity to rise to the top of their societies throughout history. We are in the author’s debt for his user-friendly translation of this 3-4,000 year-old text.

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1. Ink was apparently made from the ashes of ground stone, such as graphite.