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A Legend Dispelled

Rabbi Moshe Isaac Blau and Rabbi Mordechai Weintraub

The 9th of Shevat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona (the Ran), author of a seminal halachic commentary on Rabbeinu Alfasi, and of chiddushim on much of the Talmud. In the early twentieth century, more than 600 years after his passing in 5136/1376, an ancient sefer Torah was discovered, purported to be the handiwork of the Ran. Scholars pointed to it as a source of important halachic information, but suspicions arose that it might be a forgery. A recent discovery supports their contention.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Several years ago, in the course of an interview with the Hebrew-language Kolmus, Professor Shlomo Zalman Havlin mentioned in passing that a sefer Torah had been found in the Israel’s National Library, purported to have been written by none other than the Ran, Rabbeinu Nissim himself. In that interview, Professor Havlin recounted the history of the sefer Torah.

“One of the rabbanim of Tiveria, Rabbi Yichye Dahan, was on a trip to Brazil where he met a person whom he described as an elderly gentleman from the Jewish exile of Spain,” began Professor Havlin. “The man related that his family had an ancient sefer Torah from about 700 years ago that had belonged to the Ran, Rabbeinu Nissim ben Rav Reuven Gerondi, one of the Rishonim upon whose rulings we rely in many areas of halachah. Rabbi Dahan acquired the sefer from this man and brought it to Tiveria. He tried to sell it but was unsuccessful.

“There is uncertainty as to what happened to the sefer Torah after that. In the book The History of Houses of Prayer in Israel, Shmuel Krauss writes that he saw it in Tiveria in 5694 [1934]. Another article about it appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz on Erev Pesach 5696 [1936], written by Rabbi Baruch Toledano, brother of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano, a rabbi in Alexandria and Tel Aviv and later Minister of Religious Affairs. But the fate of the sefer Torah after Rabbi Dahan’s death in 5723 [1963] was unknown, and Otzar HaGedolim surmised that it had been burned by the Arabs during the war.

“Another report about this sefer Torah comes from Rabbi Leib Friedman, who corresponded at length with the Chazon Ish regarding the correct form of the letter tzadi and the kotz (tip) of the letter yud in STaM (sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzos). Rabbi Friedman writes in his book Tzidkas HaTzaddik¸ which seems to have been printed shortly after the Chazon Ish’s death, either in the year 5714 or 5715 [1954 or 1955], that he traveled to Tiveria in the year 5712 and examined the sefer Torah. In his book, he printed an image of the letters that appear in that sefer. Unfortunately, he did not record the Chazon Ish’s reaction to appearance of the letter tzadi. I tried to ask Reb Leib about it when I spoke to him at the time, but I was unable to elicit a response from him about it.

“The sefer Torah was wrapped in a cloth and was accompanied by a silver plate with an inscription [see sidebar] that related that the sefer had been conditionally donated to the Kehillas Yaakov shul in Barcelona in the year 5096. The inscription states that the sefer had been personally written by ‘Nissim, the son of my master, father, and teacher, Reuven of Gerondi.’ Another inscription appears on the back of the first sheet of parchment on the actual scroll itself. The moving inscription was penned by Reb Reuven, the son of the Ran, and describes events that took place in the Jewish communities of Spain after the decrees of the year 5151, and how the sefer Torah was rescued.

“Another piece of evidence regarding the origin of the sefer Torah is found in a responsum of the Rashbatz (siman 51), who writes: ‘I heard that Rabbi Nissim Gerondi z”l, who lived in Barcelona and was the rebbi of my rebbeim, wrote a sefer Torah for himself in which the legs of the letter kuf were attached to its roof. An Vidal the scribe [“An” is a title of respect in Spain, and his name was Vidal], who was an agent of the community in Majorca, asked him about this, which probably invalidates the scroll, and the rav did not respond.’

“In fact, the Ran himself rules in his chiddushim on Maseches Shabbos (which were printed under the name of the Ritva) that a kuf may not be written in this way. In the sefer Torah in question, there are some words in which the legs of the letter kuf are attached to its roof — further support for the theory that this is the sefer Torah written by the Ran.

“Sometime around the year 1985, one of the librarians in the National Library of Israel came across an ancient sefer Torah in the library’s storage room. No one had known about its presence or how it had arrived there, but it was clear that it was the Ran’s sefer. Rabbi Dahan’s son-in-law, Mr. Sagiv, related to me that the sefer had disappeared at the conclusion of his father-in-law’s shivah.

“At first, the discovery was not announced. When I found out about it, I investigated the matter and wrote about it at length in the twelfth volume of Alei Sefer —about the scroll itself and what we can learn from it.

“This sefer Torah is extremely important. In general, due to the constant use of sifrei Torah and the way they are cared for, ancient sifrei Torah were not preserved. There are barely any sifrei Torah in the world dating back from so long ago. Furthermore, it’s usually very difficult to determine the date of ancient sifrei Torah, most of which are written in a stereotypical fashion (i.e., the letters are written in a uniform style). Clearly, many of the halachos regarding a sefer Torah can be derived from this scroll, since it was written by one of the Rishonim.”


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