Innovating a Masorah

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Coming up in just a few days is the holiday of Shavuot, where Jews celebrate receiving the Torah. While our associations with this day tend toward picturing the Torah as a scroll or hewn from stone, in modern times, the Torah most of us have on hand is a printed Mikraot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible). The Mikraot Gedolot has a fascinating history of innovation that begins at the printing press of Daniel Bomberg.

Daniel Bomberg was a Flemish printer who was granted permission to set up a printing press in Venice in the beginning of the 16th century. Over the course of his career, he printed over 200 Hebrew books, most of which were geared to a Jewish audience, though Bomberg himself was a Christian. Among his most monumental works are the printing of the complete Talmud and Maimonides’ law code, Mishneh Torah. However, one of his most influential efforts was the publication of the Rabbinic Bible in 1517. To accomplish this task, Bomberg hired a man named Felix Pratensis. Pratensis was a Jew who then converted to Christianity around the time that his work on the Bible was completed. He was the first editor of a Bible to base his work off a collection of manuscripts, endeavoring to reconcile discrepancies between them to create an authoritative printed edition of the Hebrew bible. His edition of the Bible included a vocalized text along with specific notations of those instances where the text is recorded differently than the way it is to be read aloud. Pratensis included the Targum Onkelos (an Aramaic version of the Bible) as well as Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch, and other medieval commentaries on the later biblical books.

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However, his first Rabbinic Bible was not widely accepted in the Jewish community. According to some scholars, this was because the main editor was not Jewish (as he had converted to Christianity shortly before the printing was completed). Not one to give up easily, Bomberg then approached a pious Jewish scholar of Kabbalah and the Masorah to take up the mantle. And so, Yaakov ben Hayim Adonijah was commissioned to begin work on the next great Bible and was sponsored by Bomberg to collect manuscripts with the Masoretic notes from all over the world to aid in his efforts. Over the course of seven or eight years, Adonijah tirelessly worked to correct any minor errors from the first edition and streamlined the Masoretic notes to add to this new Bible. The commentary of the Ibn Ezra was added to the Pentateuch and additional Medieval commentators were added for the Prophets and Writings, such as Rashi and Gersonides, which were not part of the Pratensis edition.

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Over the next several hundred years, new editions of the Mikraot Gedolot were printed along with a wide host of other commentaries, adding other useful features, such as page enumeration. However, it was the text refined by Adonijah along with all the Masoretic notes that served as the standard text for any new publication of the Hebrew Bible until the 19th century. Ironically, comments by Elias Levita, the well-known Jewish scholar and grammarian, in his 1537 Masoret ha-Masoret,  reveal that Adonijah had converted to Christianity sometime after the printing of his Bible. While Adonijah fell into obscurity and was not named as an editor on any of Bomberg’s projects after 1527, his enduring works serve as testament to his dedication to the text.

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A final note

Readers may be curious about the texts used in today’s places of Jewish worship. The earliest modern Bible published by Jews was the Koren Tanakh, printed in Israel in 1961. Today’s version of the Koren relies on a combination of the Leningrad Codex (Cairo, 1008 CE) as well as the Masoretic scholarship of the Minhat Shai (16th century) and Wolf Heidenheim (18th century).

The Tanakh of the non-denominational Jewish Publication Society is based on the Leningrad Codex as well, specifically incorporating the work of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (the standard academic text based on the Leningrad Codex), which includes emendations from Masoretic notes. It was published in 1985, and was the text used later by the Conservative movement when they published their Etz Hayim in 2001.

The Jerusalem Crown is the Tanakh published in 2001 based on the work of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer on the Aleppo Codex. It has become the official government Bible in Israel.

Today, Reform congregations typically use The Torah, edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut (2005). The original edition from 1981 was based on the Adonijah Mikraot Gedolot, as well as the work of the Or Torah (17th century) and Minhat Shai. However, the revised edition incorporates the research of Breuer and the Aleppo Codex. David Stein, this edition’s textual editor, published an incredibly detailed report of all the revisions (available online here), displaying an unparalleled level of dedication to transparency and educating the public about the Masorah and the process of publishing a faithful text.