Scribal Secrets

Extraordinary Texts in the Torah and Their Implications

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
James S. Diamond
Robert Goldenberg, Gary A. Rendsburg
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , April
     206 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


James S. Diamond’s Scribal Secrets: Extraordinary Texts in the Torah and Their Implications, on the scribal oddities of the Torah scroll in Jewish tradition, is a difficult book to review. The author, a rabbi and scholar of Jewish texts, died in a car accident before completing the manuscript; Robert Goldenberg and Gary A. Rendsburg completed the book from his notes and partially finished draft. It is unfair, then, to criticize this book for any omitted key facts, missing bibliography, or arguments lacking proper nuance. Diamond deserves the benefit of the doubt that he would have remedied these issues. The only fair critique would be if the author’s method or assumptions were fundamentally misguided from the start.

Thankfully, that is no issue here. In fact, Diamond’s overall approach turns an obscure area of Jewish scholarship into a fascinating exploration of major questions of revelation and history. For all the data to which he was unable to apply that method, the book still contains a great deal of information not readily accessible elsewhere.

Diamond’s book focuses on the scribal practices used in Torah scrolls, a specific kind of biblical manuscript for ritual chanting in the synagogue, still written by hand to this day. These practices are not variants in the actual text of the Torah, but in the way its letters and words are written. These practices include enlarged letters such as the ‘ayin and the dalet in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), dots over various words in the Torah with no immediately obvious meaning, and the inverted nunim surrounding Numbers 10:35–36. (These are not all the scribal oddities in the Torah; Diamond’s notes indicate that he planned to add much more material here.) These scribal practices, Diamond argues, provide an excellent case study for much broader questions of Jewish thought. Diamond characterizes this as the tension between history and midrash, which he returns to throughout the text.

Diamond opens his book with a review of the story of how the Torah came to be written. Here he summarizes research by David Carr, Karel van der Toorn, and other Hebrew Bible scholars on scribal practices in ancient Israel and the writing of the Bible. He then turns to the baalei ha-masorah, the Masoretes, early medieval scribes who added vowels and documented many features of the biblical text. In each of these eras—First Temple, Second Temple, and early medieval—there is a severe lack of direct physical evidence, with the exception of the Qumran material. While this chapter is not particularly novel, it serves as necessary context for the rest of the book. It explains the practices and attitudes of different generations of Torah scribes. One missing point, however, is that given the lack of direct manuscript evidence before the 10th century, it is not possible to know exactly when and where each of these scribal oddities made its way into the manuscript traditions.

Essentially, Diamond argues, the debate between history and midrash rests on different ways of finding meaning within ancient texts. When asked why the Torah contains several words with dots over them, the historian turns to origins and causes. The historian points to late antique Greek scribal conventions in which the dots represent words the scribe suspected may be incorrect additions, perhaps based on other manuscripts he had seen. The scribe wanted to mark the word’s dubiousness, but also held strong enough reservations about his opinion that he did not actually omit the word. For the midrashist, however, the meanings of these scribal oddities are sought not in their historical origins, but in their significance for the literary reading of the text and the theological message of the Torah for Judaism. When the midrashist is asked why the Torah begins with an enlarged letter bet in b’reishit (“in the beginning”), she points to the dual meaning of bet as both letter and bayit (“house”), suggesting that God created the world as home for humanity. In sum, when asked “Why is this scribal feature here?” the historian looks for origins and causes, while the midrashist looks for communicative function and symbolic potential.

Diamond’s methodological strength lies in holding both as valid. For each scribal oddity, he reviews explanations offered by both camps. Sometimes, the midrashic view seems to explain the material best—though this does not rule out historical origins lost to our knowledge. Other times, particularly regarding some of the mysterious dots, he concludes that the midrashic explanations proffered by ancient and medieval rabbinic texts seem rather strained, ex post facto justifications. Diamond does a great service to his reader by incorporating many of these midrashic explanations, scattered throughout classical rabbinic midrashic, Talmudic tractates, and medieval commentators whose works have yet to be translated into English.

In the final and third section of the book, Diamond turns to this larger issue of history and midrash, and correlates it with the exegetical distinction between peshat (plain/contextual sense) and derash (midrashic/homiletic sense). I especially appreciated Diamond’s ability to relate the rather technical discussion of scribal oddities to much larger themes of Jewish life, history, and cultural memory. Sadly, this analogy did not receive the full treatment Diamond undoubtedly planned to give it.

Diamond’s findings invite further discussion. There is another book to be written here, a parallel work on the scribal oddities of the Esther scroll and other megillot. The data he gathers also intersects well with the current interest in materiality and book history in both Jewish studies and biblical studies.

Diamond has performed a major service for anyone curious about the physical and scribal features of the Torah scroll. Much of the material he discusses is hidden from view. Some of it was found in the Cairo Genizah, a treasure trove of discarded medieval documents in a synagogue in Old Cairo; the word genizah literally comes from the root “to hide.” Some of it is hidden away in technical scholarly literature on Masoretes and textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Finally, some of it is hidden away in obscure and untranslated halakic literature for Torah scribes still consulted today. Diamond synthesizes this material in a way both interesting and relatively accessible for the general reader.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a doctoral student at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
February 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James S. Diamond (d. 2013) had a distinguished career in two fields: as a Hillel rabbi on various elite U.S. campuses, and as a teacher of Hebrew literature and comparative literature at those same universities. His most recent position was at Princeton University (retired 2004).

Robert Goldenberg is Professor Emeritus of History and Jewish Studies at Stony Brook University. 

Gary A. Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History at Rutgers University.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.