Sometimes in the Rabbinic literature traditions are related about what happened in history, with multiple different opinions. For example, there was a historical development in the script used by Israelites, from something like Phoenician, to the script that has been used by Jews for at least a couple of thousand years now. The issue for the Rabbis is whether the script in which the Torah is now written is the same as the one in which it was originally written, even though the current script seems to have evolved through a natural process that can be seen in inscriptions from the Temple periods.

The Rabbis had varying opinions about this. One view was that the Tablets and the five books were originally written in Paleo-Hebrew, and that sacred texts only began being written in the new Jewish script after the Babylonian exile (this seems close to the view of secular historians, which would be expected since it doesn't seem so miraculous). Another view is that they were originally written in the modern Jewish script, but that it fell out of use and then, in the time of Ezra, was reinstated for the copying of the scriptures. And a third view is that they were originally written in the new script and that even though the Israelite 'common' writing changed over time, the sacred texts have always been written in the same script.

Since these can't all be true, it seems that some of the traditions at least are speculations on what might, or must, have happened historically. So the questions I want to ask here are why historical speculations were allowed into the authoritative tradition, and how literally we should accept rabbinic traditions of historical details like this (even if there is a consensus view). I'd really value any insights into it because I have little experience with rabbinic texts and learning.

  • 2
    +1 Gittin 6b is likely relevant.
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 8:00
  • Which part? Do you mean that rabbis are allowed to make statements based on their opinion, which stand as authoritative even if they're wrong? Or do you mean that you think it's possible that all these historical opinions really happened?
    – Annelise
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 3:15
  • "Even if they're wrong"? Gittin 6b says they rarely truly contradict, they generally synchronize. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 17:46
  • "Something like Phoenician"... A historian informed me that "half of the Phoenicians were Jewish", as Israelite businessmen brought numbering and writing systems that helped standardize business. Note that the names of the Greek letters, Alpha, Beta, Gamma & Delta are in fact of Aramean origin (Alpha = ox, Beta = house, Gamla = camel, Dalta = door), and generally correspond to our "Ivrit" script symbols that secular historians generally consider to post-date the Greek alphabet. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 17:55

2 Answers 2


Much more than just historical speculation is contained in the Talmud and tradition. The Rabbis talk about science, medicine, astrology, various things we'd now consider superstition, and many many odd stories.

Why were speculations like this allowed into the authoritative tradition? Well, for starters, this was just "tradition" before it became authoritative. The process in which the Talmud was accepted as authoritative took centuries, and once it was accepted, it was accepted as it was, with all the stories and speculation mixed in. In addition, when it was accepted as authoritative all those centuries ago, the historical and scientific speculation may have been viewed as correct. Finally, the important part of the phrase "authoritative tradition" is the word "tradition." This material, since it was stated by the rabbis and duly recorded, became part of the tradition, whether it dealt with religion, philosophy, or more sundry matters.

How literally we should accept rabbinic traditions of historical details like this, or other things which have since been proven incorrect? In general, if the issue under discussion has Halachic ramifications (which incidentally happens to include our spontaneously generating lice), we take it literally. To a degree. Later rabbis analyze, dissect, and if necessary, interpret it. Otherwise, we may study it, and in fact consider it to be "learning torah" when we do so, but we don't take any practical action based on it, and as such, whether we believe it literally is simply a matter of personal preference and outlook.

(Speaking of which, some Jews believe that everything the rabbis said is correct. In fact, there are those who think that all science can be learned from the Torah and Talmud. (Every few years there's another article about how some recent scientific discovery was "predicted" or "known" by the rabbis centuries ago.) Other Jews hold that the rabbis may have correct based on the knowledge of their time, but we, with modern science and archaeology, now know better.)


Annelise, This question has remained unanswered because in a way it's unanswerable. Here's why:

It is in the nature of both the Hebrew Language, and of Jewish learning, to force the student to make the connections by him/herself. This was for a number of reasons, including a) to force the student to think, b) to require a teacher and network of contemporaries at all times, c) for brevity, and d) to hint to secondary and tertiary connotations.

You don't need go past the very first Torah verse: "In the beginning, G-d created heaven & earth." Except that's may not be what it says - it may be a reasonable way to "connect the dots", but it’s a way Rashi rejects. Rashi reasons that the word "Bereishis" means "In the beginning OF ...", not just "In the beginning", for which the word BaRishonah would be more appropriate. The translator is choosing the simplest meaning by adding the simplest word: In the beginning OF [the entire process of Creation]. G-d [first] created the Heaven & the Earth. Now the translator must explain why the verse didn't use the simpler BaRishonah or BeTechilah, and why Heaven seems to be created again in verses 6-8. Did we use Bereishis because it connects to other places where the concept of Reishis is found? Because we can assume that we'll begin our book at Creation, so we can reasonably assume your mind will append "...Creation" to "beginning of..."? Perhaps the creation of Heaven in verse 6 is an elaboration of the creation of Heaven in verse 1, or perhaps one is the creation of "Heaven", while the other refers to "sky" using the borrowed term "shamayim" to describe what we actually see when we look heavenward. Rashi (also bothered by how Heaven could be created before a primary ingredient, water, is mentioned) connects the dots by translating it as "In the beginning OF G-d's creation of Heaven & Earth, the Earth began as emptiness & confusion, so G-d said, "There should be Light!"

That’s just the first word. The Rabbis discuss why it was “created” rather than “formed”, why the name Elokim was used rather than Hashem, why the redundant words “et” (which leaves the literal translation as “the the heaven & the the earth”), why the word for Heaven is a pluralized form, why the G-dly name Elokim is pluralized in the first verse of the primary text of monotheism, etc. (Imagine coming to an editor with a book with a confusing first sentence. “You want me to print this book?! I can’t even get past the first sentence! Either re-write it or throw it in the garbage.” Now imagine that book becoming the first book ever printed, and the best-selling book of all time!)

The fact that this would cause disagreements was not considered a big deal. They'll either work it out, or they'll go to a higher authority for clarification, or the next generation will work it out. It's not uncommon for a question to be asked in the Talmud, a series of unsatisfactory answers given and rejected over hundreds of years, then a satisfactory answer given perhaps 300 years after the question was asked - and it is codified into law! We then consider it part of our unbroken tradition.

"But nobody had this tradition for all that time. Isn't that by definition 'broken'?," asks Annelise. The Rabbis look at her uncomprehendingly. "Of course not! It fits the verse perfectly, it fits the pattern of established law, and it answers the question fully. If the glove is fitted, you have acquitted!"

Put into the context of your question, our students have the following difficulties:

A. The Rabbis say on “G-d shall give beauty to Japheth, and he (alternatively, it) shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen. 9:27) that in the tents of Shem, the Torah books will be written with the beautiful script of Japheth (Tal. Megillah 9b), and that this refers to “Ktav Ashurit” (lit., Assyrian script. Secondary connotation: Rich script) which may be used to write Torah scrolls (Meg. 18a).

B. Old Hebrew is very fast and easy to write, Ktav Ashurit slow and painstaking. Both may be used to write Torah scrolls. For fast transcription so that every student has a copy, Hebrew characters fit the bill better. For a beautiful community scroll, Ashurit is preferred.

C. In describing the Luchot, the Tablets of the Law, there is a clear and immediate redundancy. Exodus 32:15 says they were “written on both sides; on the one side & on the other were they written.” That violates our No Redundancy rule of the Torah. The Talmud therefore understands it as “the writing was on both sides, and the writing went through & through”. Rav Chisda then comments that this means that the center fills of the letters Samech & Mem Sofit were suspended miraculously in the Luchot (Shab. 104a). However, in Old Hebrew script, other letters (like Daleth & Ayin) have center fills, but Samech & Mem Sofit don’t. This statement of Rav Chisda would lead us to conclude that the Luchot were written in Ashurit.

D. Ezra clearly established that all Torah scrolls should henceforth be written in Ashurit (Sanhedrin 22). This connotes that previously they were written in other scripts.

The answers mentioned by Annelise are roughly the ones the Talmud proffers in San. 22a. They are theories meant to draw clean lines through most of the sources, and push the remaining sources back into line. After discussion by the Rabbis, we seem to conclude that one fits the sources most accurately & elegantly, and that is now viewed as the accurate tradition.

One helpful way to view this was advanced by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He views the Oral tradition as being handed over complete, taught over 40-day-and-40-night marathon sessions to Moshe. The Written Torah then has missing or extra letters, nuances of language, grammar and syntax, etc., to provide a “Map” of the Oral Law in case it needs to be reconstructed. Hence, we have the first judge, Othniel ben Kenaz, using pilpul to re-establish thousands of Halachot (Temurah 16a) and the measures (Yoma 80a), the prophets re-establishing the Final Letters of the Alef Bet (Shabbat 104a), or Ezra, Hillel & Rabbi Chiya restoring “forgotten” Torah (Sukkah 20a). Additionally, any major “sealing” of the Law was done by international consensus: The Mishna through Rabbi Judah the Prince, the Talmud through Ravina & Rav Ashi, even the Tosafists through Rabbi Shimshon, the Count of Coucy. These men of wealth and influence communicated with communities throughout the world, accepted their input, and after the issues were hashed out put an authoritative “seal” on a body of law that was then accepted by all Jewish communities around the world.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .