| Magazine Feature |

A Legend Dispelled

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


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.

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.”

What Can Be Derived from the Sefer

Rabbi Havlin went on to explain what halachos can be derived from this rare sefer Torah.

  • An examination of the sefer Torah revealed that it possessed a significant hiddur in that its circumference is equal to its height. The Gemara in Bava Basra (14a) states that these are the ideal proportions for a sefer Torah, but that Rav Huna wrote seventy sifrei Torah and managed to achieve this hiddur with only one of them.
  • Rabbi Havlin and Rav Aryeh Leib Friedman measured the sefer Torah independently and determined that the height of the majority of its sheets of parchment is forty-eight centimeters. Since the Gemara (Bava Basra, ibid.) states that the ideal height of a sefer Torah is six tefachim, this serves as a proof that a tefach is equal to eight centimeters, in accordance with the opinion of Rav Avrohom Chaim Naeh.
  • The shape of some of the letters is also significant. Naturally, the sefer is written in the Sephardic style. The letter tzadi is written with a reversed yud, in accordance with the minhag of Sephardim and the minhag of the Arizal, as it is practiced today. The script that is known today as “Beis Yosef script” is in accordance with the Beis Yosef’s rulings, but it is really an Ashkenazic script.

The last point Rabbi Havlin was alluding to relates to a controversy that erupted with renewed intensity about seventy years ago, over the proper form of the letter tzadi. According to the minhag of both Sephardim and Chassidim, the right side of the letter is written as a reversed yud. The Chazon Ish maintained, however, that this version of the letter is pasul and the tzadi should be written with a regular yud.

As we mentioned, Rabbi Leib Friedman wrote a number of letters to the Chazon Ish at the time in support of the “reversed yud” position, and the Chazon Ish, uncharacteristically, wrote numerous replies. Eventually, Rabbi Friedman published the correspondence in his book Tzidkas HaTzaddik. One of the proofs he advanced was from this ancient sefer Torah, which was still located in Tiveria at the time, which, he said, had the letter tzadi written with a reversed yud. Thus, the handiwork of one of the Rishonim attested to the validity of that form of the tzadi.

As Rabbi Havlin mentioned, he publicized the discovery of the ancient sefer Torah in the year 1985, at which time the sefer Torah was already located in the National Library in Jerusalem. In his article at the time, he summed up the various proofs that the sefer Torah had been written by the Ran. First of all, the aforementioned silver plate, which was affixed to the mantel of the sefer Torah, bore the inscription “I, Nissim the son of Reuven … wrote this sefer.” Secondly, on the back of the first sheet of parchment in the sefer appears a colophon [an inscription at the end of a book or manuscript; from Greek kolophṓn, finishing stroke] containing a kinnah [see sidebar], along with a description of how the sefer was saved from the fires, in which the Ran’s son attests to the fact that the sefer Torah was written by his father. The inscription is signed by “Reuven the son of Rabbeinu Nissim, the son of Rabbeinu Reuven, ztzk”l.”

In an article published in 1986 (HaMaayan, vol. 26, issue 4, Tammuz 5746), Rabbi Dovid Metzger discussed the exact length of an amah in light of the size of the parchment used in this ancient Torah scroll. The following year, however, Rabbi Kalman Kahane, ztz”l (a rav who was close to the Chazon Ish) contested Rabbi Metzger’s conclusions (in an article published in HaMaayan vol. 27, issue 3, 5747). Rabbi Kahane wrote that even if the sefer Torah had been authored by the Ran, there was still room to dispute Rabbi Metzger’s findings, but he also challenged the attribution of the scroll to the Ran based on several issues. But he did not challenge the authenticity of the silver plate and the colophon, both of which state clearly that the Ran himself wrote the sefer Torah.

The Challenges to the Scroll’s Authenticity

Some of the challenges to the claim that the scroll was produced by the Ran are as follows:

The words “u’Malki Tzedek,” which appear in Bereishis 14:18, are traditionally written as two separate words on the same line. In this Torah scroll, they appear on two separate lines, raising the suspicion that this sefer cannot be the handiwork of the Ran since it deviates from tradition. Both Rabbi Havlin and Rabbi Kalman Kahane made this argument.

In addition, many letters in the sefer are not written in accordance with the Ran’s opinion, as expressed in his chiddushim on Maseches Shabbos (104). For instance, the Ran writes that the letter shin must come to a point at the bottom, and in this sefer Torah, the letter appears with a wide base. The Ran also writes that the leg of a kuf must be separated from its top, but in this sefer Torah, the letter kuf appears with its leg touching its roof. As we mentioned, however, the Tashbetz does write that the Ran himself wrote a sefer Torah in which the letter kuf was not written in accordance with his own opinion, so this argument cannot be used as proof that the Ran did not write it.

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of Hebrew University, the sefer Torah was placed on display at an exhibit at the National Library. The sefer was displayed together with the accompanying silver plate, but by that point, experiments had proven that it was the product of a much later time period than the sefer Torah itself. This too, is not conclusive proof that the inscription is untrue, because it could be a copy of the original. But Professor Shlomo Zucker of the National Library maintains that there is no evidence that the current inscription was copied from a different, original plate. It is entirely possible that the inscription itself was composed at the time that the plate was made, in which case the silver plate gives no indication as to the origin of the Sefer Torah.

It is very likely that the Chazon Ish also maintained that the sefer could not be traced back to the Ran. In his book, Rabbi Leib Friedman did not report the Chazon Ish’s response on the issue of the tzadi, even though he did record the rest of the Chazon Ish’s replies on this matter. Those who are familiar with the subject speculate that the Chazon Ish might have told him verbally that the sefer Torah was forged and could not be used as the basis of a proof.

This would fit with the Chazon Ish’s steadfast position that ancient manuscripts cannot be used to determine the halachah, since it is impossible to determine their reliability or why they were buried in the locations where they were discovered. As to why Rabbi Friedman did not publicize the Chazon Ish’s response, he might have felt that his readers would object to the fact that the Chazon Ish had considered the sefer Torah forged without specific proof.

Since Rabbi Havlin’s original interview with Kolmus, we began a search for new information on the subject, in the hope that some sort of new evidence might have come to light. We uncovered a dramatic development that has effected a marked turnaround in the discussion regarding this sefer Torah. In recent years, much new information has been revealed, with which the debate over the origins of this sefer Torah might finally be settled once and for all.

It is important to note, however, that despite the challenges that emerged to the sefer Torah’s authenticity, most researchers held firm to their position that the sefer Torah was the authentic handiwork of the Ran. They argued that none of the arguments against the sefer Torah outweighed the evidence of the colophon on the back of the sefer Torah itself, which was inscribed in the handwriting of the son of the Ran.

The Manuscript’s Discovery

Rabbi Aharon Eisenbach of Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem pointed us toward an authentic manuscript in the handwriting of Rabbeinu Reuven, the son of the Ran — the same son who purportedly wrote the colophon.

Reb Reuven’s handwriting was discovered in the Moscow manuscript (Ginzberg collection 470) of the Chiddushei HaRan on Bava Metzia. At the end of the manuscript is a page containing the words: “This book was written by the son of Rabbeinu Nissim, z”l.” Another inscription states, even more explicitly: “It is the writing of Rav Reuven Nissim, z”l.” In other words, this volume of the Ran’s chiddushim was either written or copied by his son, Rabbeinu Reuven!

Either this manuscript had been previously unknown or no one had paid attention to its author, but either way, the scholars who examined the Ran’s sefer Torah apparently did not examine this manuscript. But a simple examination of the handwriting on the manuscript, even by a layman, yields the definitive conclusion that the handwriting does not match the colophon on the sefer Torah. The two inscriptions could not have been produced the same person, and the inevitable conclusion is that regardless of the contents of the colophon, which claims to have been authored by the Ran’s son, it is nothing but a forgery!

Before publicizing our findings, we decided to turn to the professional researchers who had been dealing with the issue of the sefer Torah so that they could conduct the appropriate tests and reach a clear conclusion regarding the sefer Torah’s origin. Some of them had been ardent supporters of the position that the sefer Torah had indeed been written by the Ran, despite the challenges to that position.

The researchers did indeed accept the possibility that the colophon on the sefer Torah had been forged, as well as acknowledging the likelihood that the silver plate was also a forgery and not indicative of the sefer’s true age. Professor Shlomo Zucker suggested confirming the age of the scroll via the mechanism of carbon-14 dating.

This test is one of the most exact means of determining the age of archaeological or geological findings from an organic source. It is based on measuring the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 found in the artifact in question. Scientifically, living organisms contain carbon-14 in the same percentage as that found in the atmosphere, from which they absorb it.

Once an organism dies, however, it stops absorbing carbon-14 almost immediately. At that moment, the carbon-14 within the organism’s body begins to break up and be converted into other substances. The half-life of the isotope is about 5,750 years, meaning that an organism whose carbon-14 level is found to be half that of the atmosphere is assumed to be 5,750 years old. The age of any artifact that is discovered can be determined by measuring its carbon-14 content relative to the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere.

Although carbon-14 dating could be used to determine the age of the parchment, it would not offer conclusive proof as to when the sefer was written, since it might have been written on old parchment. In order to determine the age of the ink — particularly the ink used in the colophon — the composition of the ink must be identified in a laboratory test. Scientists are already aware of the different compositions of the inks used in various time periods, and by determining the composition of the ink on the Torah scroll, they can determine during which time period it was written.

The results of these tests are not yet known. This type of testing is known to take a long time, and we will have to wait until the results arrive. In the meantime, however, the scientists are leaning toward the conclusion that the sefer Torah is not, in fact, the work of the Ran. The authenticity of the colophon — the primary basis for assuming that it is the Ran’s sefer Torah — has been called into question. The scientists have come to concur with the Chazon Ish’s unwillingness to accept the sefer Torah as proof, due to his concern that it might be forged.


The inscription on the first sheet of parchment in the sefer Torah reads as follows. (Abbreviations were deciphered by the National Library.)

“Lament, oh holy Torah and its glory, and don the black clothes [of mourning], for those who interpret your words clearly have fallen into the fire. For three months, a consuming fire has spread throughout the holy community of Bnei Yisrael in the bitter Spanish exile, from Rosh Chodesh Tammuz in the year 1323 after the Churban — an affliction and a reproach, Hashem’s wrath being spilled — and [our community] has been overturned as in the destruction of Sodom and Amorah.

“Woe to us about the holy communities, for in the royal cities of Castile, Toledo, Seville, Majorca, Cordoba, Valencia, Barcelona, Aragon, Grenada, and the sixty cities that are near them, and in the villages, a plague of the sword, murder, and destruction has come upon us, looting and pillaging, and people have been sold to the Ishmaelites as slaves and maidservants. About 140,000 souls who were unable to protect themselves from their cruel tormentors came to the point of abandoning their pure religion.

“Since the time of the war of the brothers Don Henrique and Don Pedro, we have come to bitterness, and the evil and curse that is not written in the Torah [an allusion to Devarim 28:61 – Ed.] and midrashim has spread. The cruel, harsh priests in their houses of prayer, the wild masses, and the hands of Eisav that crave bloodshed have fulfilled their evil intents. It is only because Hashem helped us that several leaders of states and officials aided us and some of our brethren to hide in towers, where they greeted us with food and drink.

“My brother, the chacham Don Chisdai, may Hashem protect him, saved our families with the help of our friend, a government minister. And I saved all of the sifrei Torah, including this sefer of my father, my master, ztz”l. May it be a good remembrance for them.

“Until today, our hearts are filled with fear and trepidation and our lives hang in the balance, because there is no guarantee of what will befall us. Nothing is left from our possessions, only our bodies remain. May it be His will that the mercy of our Father in Heaven should be upon us, that He should treat us with grace and have mercy upon the victims among us, that He should return our exile and lead us with justice, to a new year, a year of prosperity and success, and may the remaining camp of Israel survive.

“I am the one who laments the brokenness of my people, on the 28th of Elul in the year 5151 to the creation of the world, Reuven the son of Rabbeinu Nissim the son of Rabbeinu Reuven Gerondi, ztz”l. I shall remember these in the land of the decree, a time of trouble in Grenada, and may this Torah be a witness, Amen forever, Selah.”


The plate that we currently possess was fashioned in a much later period than the sefer Torah itself, as can be proven from the style of the letters. It is therefore impossible to prove anything from the handwriting on the silver plate, which is probably the writing of the craftsman who engraved it.

The words that appear in the inscription are as follows:

“I wrote this scroll of the holy Torah for myself and for my merit.

“Nissim the son of my master, my father, my teacher, Reuven Gerondi. I donated it conditionally to the Kehillas Yaakov shul in the holy community of Barcelona on Thursday in the month of Sivan in the year 5096 from Creation.

“May Hashem protect him, may Hashem cause him to be great, may Hashem bless him, may Hashem take him up and out of the land of Spain [These words are an expansion of a lengthy abbreviation in the text. The Tzidkas HaTzaddik suggests that the abbreviation may stand for: “May Nissim Reuven leave Spain first”] to go to Eretz Yisrael. I will elevate Jerusalem over my greatest joy. Amen.”


(Originally featured in Kolmus, Issue 16)

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