Soferim (Talmud)

Soferim (Talmud)
Rabbinic Literature

Talmudic literature

Jerusalem TalmudBabylonian Talmud
Minor tractates

Halakhic Midrash

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (Exodus)
Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon (Exodus)
Sifra (Leviticus)
Sifre (Numbers & Deuteronomy)
Sifre Zutta (Numbers)
Mekhilta le-Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael

Aggadic Midrash

—— Tannaitic ——
Seder Olam Rabbah
Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph
Baraita of the Forty-nine Rules
Baraita on the Thirty-two Rules
Baraita on Tabernacle Construction
—— 400–600 ——
Genesis RabbahEichah Rabbah
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
Esther RabbahMidrash Iyyov
Leviticus RabbahSeder Olam Zutta
Midrash TanhumaMegillat Antiochus
—— 650–900 ——
Avot of Rabbi Natan
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer
Tanna Devei Eliyahu
Alphabet of Ben-Sira
Kohelet RabbahCanticles Rabbah
Devarim Rabbah • Devarim Zutta
Pesikta RabbatiMidrash Shmuel
Midrash ProverbsRuth Rabbah
Baraita of SamuelTargum sheni
—— 900–1000 ——
Ruth Zuta • Eichah Zuta
Midrash TehillimMidrash Hashkem
Exodus RabbahCanticles Zutta
—— 1000–1200 ——
Midrash TadsheSefer haYashar
—— Later ——
Yalkut ShimoniYalkut Makiri
Midrash JonahEin Yaakov
Midrash HaGadolNumbers Rabbah
Smaller midrashim

Rabbinic Targum

—— Torah ——
Targum Onkelos
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan
Fragment Targum • Targum Neofiti

—— Nevi'im ——
Targum Jonathan

—— Ketuvim ——
Targum Tehillim • Targum Mishlei
Targum Iyyov
Targum to the Five Megillot
Targum Sheni to Esther
Targum to Chronicles

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Soferim (Hebrew: מסכת סופרים) is a Talmudic treatise dealing especially with the rules relating to the preparation of the holy books, as well as with the regulations for the reading of the Law. It belongs to the so-called "smaller tractates," a term applied to about 15 works in rabbinical literature, each containing all the important material bearing on a single subject. While they are mishnaic in form and are called "treatises," the topics discussed in them are arranged more systematically; for they are eminently practical in purpose, being, in a certain sense, the first manuals in which the data scattered through prolix sources have been collected in a brief and comprehensive form.


Position Among the "Smaller Treatises"

Ancient authorities mention especially seven such treatises, which are doubtless the earliest ones; and among these the tractate containing the rules on the writing of the "books" occupies a particularly prominent place on account of the importance of its contents. The name as well as the form of the smaller treatises indicates that they originated in the period of oral tradition which was dominated by the Talmud and the Midrash, so that these treatises are doubtless of great antiquity, some of them having been compiled in their main outlines before even the final redaction of the Talmud in the 6th century. This theory holds good with regard to the treatise Sefer Torah also, to which the treatise Soferim bears an especially close relation.

Contents of the Work

Soferim consists of 21 chapters, containing 225 paragraphs ("halakot") in all. The contents may be summarized as follows:

Ch. i.-ix.

  • Ch. i.: On parchment and other writing-material; language, and translation of the Jewish Scriptures; the Septuagint; persons who are qualified to prepare books; leaves and pages; open and closed paragraphs.
  • Ch. ii.: Spaces between letters, words, lines, pages, and books; space-lines; number of columns to the leaf, and lines to the column; width and height of the scrolls; rollers; sewing; mending; final letters.
  • Ch. iii.: Writing several books on a single scroll; verse-marks in the scroll of the Law; superscriptions; palimpsests; procedure in regard to incorrectly written scrolls; rolling and unrolling; manner of rolling and reading; respectful handling of the scroll of the Law; careful use of food as a gift of God.
  • Ch. iv.: The names of God and the interdiction against erasing them; Masoretic enumeration of such names; the sinfulness of profanely using any of them.
  • Ch. v.: Sacrosanct writing of the names of God; scribal errors in such and in the lines of the sacred scroll; the Divine Name on vessels and utensils; preservation of scrolls and other writings which have become useless; use of loaned writings.
  • Ch. vi.: Points and the in the Torah; textual variations in the ancient scrolls used in the Temple at Jerusalem; Masoretic textual and orthographical variants.
  • Ch. vii. Masoretic combination of the "ḳere" and "ketib."
  • Ch. viii.: Textual variants in Ps. xviii. and II Sam. xxii., and in Isa. xxxvi.-xxxix. and II Kings xviii.-xx. Ch. ix.: Capital letters in the Torah; written words for which others must be substituted in reading; passages which are neither read nor translated.

Ch. x.-xxi.

  • Ch. x.: General regulations for reading; number of readers; number of persons requisite for public religious functions; "ḳaddish" and "bareku."
  • Ch. xi.: Order of reading and of the translations to be read; errors in reading the Torah.
  • Ch. xii.: Method of reading the curses, the songs, and the Decalogue; lesson at the New Moon of Ḥanukkah; mode of writing the songs in Ex. xv., Judges v., and Deut. xxxii., as well as the order of reading the last-named.
  • Ch. xiii.: Method of writing the Hagiographa in general and the scroll of Esther in particular; benedictions in connection with the Mafṭir and the reading of the Torah.
  • Ch. xiv.: Benediction on reading the Hagiographa in general and the scroll of Esther in particular; liturgical observances prefatory to the reading; persons authorized to read and to officiate as ḥazzanim; individuals qualified to read the scroll of Esther; reading the other smaller scrolls; sanctity of the scroll of the Law; phylacteries and mezuzot.
  • Ch. xv. Sanctity of other religious writings; diversity of the rabbinical sciences; occupations to be taught to children.
  • Ch. xvi.: Value of the study of the Torah; the aggadah; manifold interpretations; scholarship of the ancient teachers; sections of the Pentateuch; chapters of the Psalms; the Trisagion.
  • Ch. xvii.: General regulations on the sections prescribed for the festivals; assistants at the sacrifice and their prayers; lessons and psalms for New Moon.
  • Ch. xviii.: Daily and festival psalms; order of prayer for the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem; observances for the Day of Atonement.
  • Ch. xix.: Further regulations regarding the psalms for festivals; formulas of prayer for the festivals; eulogy on announcing the new moon; benedictions for weddings and funerals.
  • Ch. xx.: Eulogy on first beholding the new moon; lighting the Ḥanukkah lamp; benedictions and lesson for Ḥanukkah; the Trisagion at festivals; "Hallel."
  • Ch. xxi.: Nisan, the month of rejoicing; the Feast of Purim and its observances; the benedictions of the Torah and the Megillah at Purim; Haggadah of the Jewish Patriarchs (Müller, Masseket Soferim, etc., pp. 37 et seq.).

According to Zunz (G. V. 2d ed., p. 100), "the little work is now badly disarranged, as is shown by the confusion of the two principal themes [i.e., the preparation of the scrolls, and the ritual of lessons and prayers], and the position and character of the haggadah," a statement which he defends as follows: "Rules for writing and for the Masorah are found in i. 1-6, 9-14; ii.; iii. 1-9, 10a, 11, 12, 13 (in part), 14-16; iv.-viii.; ix. 1-7; xii. 8b, 9-12; xiii. 1-4, 6a, 7; xv. 1-5; xvii. 1; synagogal ritual in ix. 8-11; x.; xi.; xii. 1-7, 8a; xiii. 5, 8-14; xiv.; xv. 12, end; xvii. 2-11; xviii.-xx.; xxi. 1-8; haggadah in i. 7-8; iii. 10b, 13 (in part); xiii. 6b, 10; xvi. 1-11, 12a; xxi. 9" (ib. notes a, b). Zunz likewise shows the relationship existing between this work and later aggadot.

This lack of system, however, is not the result of careless copying or other negligence, but is due to the nature of the treatise's redaction; for it is a composite of at least three works, and the systematic order of the earlier part has evidently been disarranged by interpolations. In its present form the treatise is intended more for the readers and ḥazzanim than for the scribes: it is in great part confined to ritual precepts, although it must be borne in mind that the same person doubtless combined the functions of scribe and reader.


Soferim may be divided into three main divisions: i.-v., vi. -ix., and x.-xxi., the last of which is subdivided into two sections, x.-xv. and xvi. 2-xxi. The treatise derives its name from its first main division (ch. i.-v.), which treats of writing scrolls of the Law, thus conforming to the ancient custom of naming a work according to its initial contents (comp. Blau, Zur Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift, pp. 31 et seq., Strasburg, 1894).

First part

This first part is the earliest component of the work, and is extant also as an independent "smaller treatise," entitled Masseket Sefer Torah (edited by Kirchheim); in this form it is a systematic work, but as incorporated in Soferim, although its division into chapters and paragraphs has been retained, its order has been disarranged by interpolations. A comparison of the two texts shows in an instructive way how ancient Jewish works developed in the course of time. The small treatise Sefarim, edited by Schönblum, is not earlier, as he assumes, but is later, than the Masseket Sefer Torah, from which it is an extract. The name "Sefarim" (= "books") is merely the plural of "sefer," designating the Torah as "the book" par excellence.

Second part

Chapters vi. to ix. constitute a separate part, containing Masoretic rules for writing, the first four paragraphs of ch. vi. and some passages of ch. ix. being of early date. This portion was undoubtedly added by Masorites of Tiberias; and the main portion of the modern Masorah, which also contains the passages in question, likewise originated in the same school. The first two parts of Soferim are acknowledged to be Judean, and were intended for the scribes; the last three halakot are a kind of appendix relating to the reading of certain words and passages.

Third part

The third division is chiefly devoted to rules concerning the order of the lessons, together with liturgical regulations. It is not a uniform composition, although the first section (ch. x.-xv.) is concerned almost entirely with the sequence of the lessons, while the remaining part (ch. xvi.-xxi.) contains liturgical regulations. The contents of xvi. 1 apparently form the conclusion of the portion of the work which precedes it. The third part of Soferim is likewise Judean in origin, as is shown by its sources; nor is this view contradicted by the phrases "our teacher in Palestine" (מערב, x. 8) and "the men of Palestine and Babylonia" (x., end; xiii. 10), since either a Palestinian or a Babylonian might have used such expressions, although these passages may be interpolations.

The second section of the last portion (xvi. 2-xxi.) was added latest of all. It contains passages from the Babylonian Talmud, mentioning the "teachers of the land of Israel" (no longer מערב, as in xxi. 1) in xvii. 4, and speaking of the Nazarenes (נוצרים = Christians) in xvii. 6, while a passage from Pirḳe R. Eli'ezer (xvii., end) is cited on the authority of R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus (ib. xix. 22). These peculiarities indicate that its date is relatively recent, even though these last passages are in the main also Judean in origin, as is shown by the use of the name "Nazarene."

Rabbinical Eras

The customs of Jerusalem are also mentioned (xviii. 5, xxi. 6) in a way which indicates an acquaintance with them and points to an author who may have been from Tiberias, but was not from Jerusalem. The names of the school, teachers, and countries also confirm this view. Hai Gaon knew nothing of the liturgical observance mentioned in xix. 11 (Müller, l.c. p. 277, note 67); and the controversy regarding the mode of reading (xxi. 7) is taken from Yer. Ta'an. iv. 3, end, and Meg. iv. 2, not from Babli, where (Meg. 22a) Rab and Samuel discuss the same question. A long passage is furthermore cited from Yerushalmi; and such an intimate knowledge of this Talmud and so decided a preference for it can be ascribed only to a Palestinian Jew.

It is likewise characteristic of a Palestinian origin that the Babylonian amora R. Joseph is designated as "Rabbi," and not as "Rab" (xiii. 7); and the assumption that there are weekly sections which do not contain twenty-one verses (xi. 4) applies only to the triennial cycle of the Palestinians. The hypothesis that Soferim is based on Palestinian sources (comp. xiii. 3-4 with Yer. Meg. 74b, below) agrees with the ancient tradition (Naḥmanides and others) that all the small treatises are Palestinian in origin (Orient, 1851, p. 218); and modern scholars, with the exception of I.H. Weiss, also accept this view (J.L. Rapoport, in Kerem Ḥemed, vi. 247; Zunz, G. V. 2d ed., p. 322; Steinschneider, Jüdische Literatur, pp. 369 et seq., and Henry Malter's Hebrew translation, Sifrut Yisrael, p. 44, Warsaw, 1897; Kirchheim, preface to his edition of Masseket Soferim; Brüll's Jahrb. i. 4). There were scholars in Palestine even after the final redaction of Yerushalmi (Zunz, l.c. p. 322, note a), and the Bible was still the chief subject of study.

Date of Composition

The evidence of all these facts makes it very probable that this treatise was finally redacted about the middle of the 8th century, an assumption which is supported by the statement of R. Asher (c. 1300, in the Hilkot Sefer Torah) that Soferim was composed at a late date. At that period written prayer-books were doubtless in existence and were probably produced by the scribes, who combined the offices of communal ḥazzan and reader. It was but natural, therefore, that in treatises intended for the scribes all the regulations should be collected which concerned books, the Masorah, and the liturgy. It is practically certain that few copies of the Talmud were made at that time, and those without special rules; consequently no allusions to them are found in Soferim.

The fact that no sources are given for a number of the regulations in the first part points to an early date of composition (comp. i. 3, 13; ii. 4, 6, 8; iii. 4, 6-9a, 10-12a; iv. 4, 5, 8, 9; v. 1, 2; in i. 7, also, Müller cites no authority; comp., however, Shab. 115a and Meg. 18a, and see Blau, l.c. pp. 70 et seq.). Similarly, in the third part (x.-xxi.), which is later, no sources are assigned for a number of halakot (xv. 3 may, however, be based on Yer. Shab. 15c, 25); so that care must be taken not to assign the compilation of this longest portion to too recent a date. Both the form and the content of those passages in which authorities are not mentioned point to a Judean origin; they may have been derived from the lost portions of Yerushalmi and various midrashic works, which, indeed, they may be regarded as in part replacing. Only certain interpolations, as well as the haggadic passage at the end of the treatise (or, in several manuscripts, at its beginning), may have been added much later. The division of the last part into sections ("peraḳim") seems to have been intended to secure a uniform size for the several sections; for xvi. 1 belongs to the end of xv., and xix. 1 to the end of xviii., their separation being due to external reasons.

Peculiarities of the Treatise

As the substance of the treatise has been incorporated in later works on orthography, the Masorah, and the liturgy, only a few points peculiar to it need be mentioned here. In i. 13 occurs the maxim "He who can not read is not allowed to write." Custodians seem to be mentioned in ii. 12 (based on Yer. Meg. i. 9; comp. the Vitry Maḥzor, p. 689, note). The first notice in Jewish literature of the codex in contradistinction to the scroll occurs in iii. 6 (comp. the Vitry Maḥzor, p. 691), a passage which is to be translated as follows: "Only in a codex [may the Torah, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa be combined]; in a scroll the Torah and the Prophets must be kept separate"; while the following section describes a scroll of the Law as being divided into verses (doubtless by means of blank spaces), or as having the initial portion of its verses pointed. Among the ancients the beginning ("resh pasuḳ") of a verse rather than the end ("sof pasuḳ") was emphasized, since the former was important mnemonically. There were scribes, therefore, who marked the initial of the verse, although there is no trace of such points in the present Masorah and system of accentuation.

The earliest passage referring to "dyed leather" (parchment) is iii. 13, although it is possible, in view of ii. 10, that originally בעורות צבאים stood in place of בעורות צבועים. Even if that be true, however, this is still the first reference to colored parchment for synagogal scrolls; for nothing else could be implied by these words in the received reading. The skin of game was a favorite writing-material; so that while it was forbidden to use half leather and half parchment, half leather and half skin of game were allowable (ii. 10). It was forbidden, moreover, to cut the edges of books (v. 14). A scribal term which does not occur elsewhere is found in v. 1, 2 (מעכב, variant reading מחטב). There were generally seventy-two lines to the column in a scroll of the Law (xii. 1). The passage xiii. 1 refers to the stichic writing of the Psalms; Book of Job, and Proverbs; and the remark "A good scribe will note" shows that the passage was written at a time when this detail was no longer generally observed (comp. Müller, ad loc., and the Vitry Maḥzor, p. 704).

Soferim is the first work to distinguish between the three grades of inspiration in the Bible (xviii. 3, end), namely, that of Torah (the Law), of Kabala (tradition of the holy prophets), and of Hagiographa (words of holiness).

Halakhic Authority

Because Soferim is not part of the Babylonian Talmud or Palestinian Talmud, later generations of Jews have not always accepted its rulings (in whole or in part) as authoritative. There are a few points of halakha which rabbis have decided straight from Soferim, since they are not mentioned in the Talmud. For example, many Rishonim and the Vilna Gaon rule that a berakha must be recited before the reading of the megilloth Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes; this berakha is mentioned in Soferim, though not in the Talmud. Similarly, Rabbi S. S. Boyarski ruled that a berakha must be recited before reading the other books of Kethuvim; this berakha, too (different in text from the one for the megilloth) is mentioned only in Soferim, and not in the Talmud. However, these rulings have not been accepted by all groups of Jews.

Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography

  • Vitry Maḥzor, ed. Hurwitz, pp. 686-717, Berlin. 1889-93;
  • Wilna (Romin) edition of the Talmud (Soferim as an appendix to Ab. Zarah with variants and commentaries);
  • Brüll's Jahrb. i. 1 et seq.;
  • Joël, Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte zu Anfang des Zweiten Christlichen Jahrhunderts: I. Der Talmud und die Griechische Sprache, part i., pp. 1 et seq., Breslau, 1880 (on the Greek translation in Soferim, i. 8);
  • Kirchheim, Karme Shomeron, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1851;
  • Müller, Masseket Soferim, der Talmudische Traktat der Schreiber: eine Einleitung in das Studium der Althebräischen Graphik, der Masora, und der Altjüdischen Liturgie, Vienna, 1878;
  • Schönblum, Sheloshah Sefarim Niftaḥim, Lemberg, 1877;
  • Weiss, Dor, ii. 244 et seq., iv. 20, 34b;
  • Zunz, G. V. pp. 95, 100 et seq., 322, note b.

External links

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

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