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The Other Torah

A new English translation of the Samaritan Torah offers scholars a different version of the sacred text

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A Samaritan high priest raises a Torah scroll during Sukkot celebrations on Mount Gerizim on Oct. 11, 2011. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
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While Jews study a number of religious books—from the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch—the text that provides the religion’s very foundation is the Torah. And the version of the Torah most commonly studied by Jews is known as the Masoretic text, the most authoritative Hebrew version of the Torah.

But it is not the only one.

A small, ancient sect known as the Samaritans rely on the Torah, and the Torah alone, as their sole religious text—and the Samaritans use a somewhat different version. Two weeks ago, the first English translation of this Hebrew text was published by Samaritan historian and scholar Binyamin Tsedaka: The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah. There are some 6,000 instances where this version of the Torah differs from the Masoretic text; the question for scholars is which version is more complete, or more accurate.


As an ancient Semitic people, the Samaritans abide by a literal version of Torah law. Eschewing Jewish practices that are rabbinic in origins, they believe only in the Five Books of Moses and observe only holidays found in the Pentateuch, such as Passover and Sukkot, as opposed to Jewish holidays like Purim or Hanukkah whose origins are found elsewhere in Jewish scriptures.

Their rituals mirror an ancient world that few religions still keep today. On Passover, for example, their high priest sacrifices a sheep in a community-wide ritual, where its blood is dabbed on foreheads and later eaten together with matzo and bitter herbs. On Shabbat, Samaritans abstain from cooking and kindling fires and pray barefoot in white, identical garments. And, echoing a routine taken straight from the text of Leviticus, Samaritan women move to their own private homes during menstruation for seven days of isolation.

Much of what the Samaritans practice has some resemblance to Jewish traditions, except their beliefs surrounding the holiness of Mount Gerizim, the mountaintop they believe they were commanded by God to conquer. Tsedaka, 68, grew up in Nablus, which is in the shadow of Mount Gerizim, but after the eruption of the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s, two-thirds of the Samaritan population relocated. Their community is now split between Kiryat Luza in the West Bank and the Israeli city of Holon.

Binyamin Tsedaka with his translation. (Courtesy Binyamin Tsedaka/The Israelite Samaritan Information Center)

Tsedaka, who lives in Kiryat Luza, has dedicated much of his life to the Samaritan community. As a historian, author, educator, and elder of his group, Tsedaka considers himself a guardian of his ancient tradition, as he is one of fewer than 800 Samaritans left. He has authored more than 75 pamphlets on Samaritan scholarship, but he calls his new translation of his Torah, which took him seven years to compile, his biggest achievement.

“Samaritans have such beautiful traditions that when you will collect and read materials about them, you will fall in love,” Tsedaka said. “For the first time ever, English Bible researchers will be able to include my people into their explorations of the Torah.”

The 6,000 differences between the two Torahs that Tsedaka highlights in bold in his book can be split into two categories: 3,000 of the differences are orthographical, meaning there are spelling differences or additional words placed in the text, while the other 3,000 are more significant in changing the Torah’s narrative.

Some of the orthographical changes help make the story read more smoothly. For example, in Genesis 4:8, when Cain talks to Abel, the Masoretic version reads, “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him,” whereas the Samaritan Torah contains additional words: “Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ ”

The Samaritan Torah also offers a slightly different version of some stories. It includes parts of dialogues that are not found in the Masoretic text: For example, in Exodus chapters 7 through 11, the Samaritan Torah contains whole conversations between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh that the Masoretic text does not.

The other differences that are significant in narrative sometimes change the story, and sometimes “fix” small sentences that appear incoherent.

In Exodus 12:40, for example, the Masoretic text reads: “The length of the time the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years,” a sentence that has created massive chronological problems for Jewish historians, since there is no way to make the genealogies last that long. In the Samaritan version, however, the text reads: “The length of time the Israelites lived in Canaan and in Egypt was 430 years.”

Earlier in Exodus, in 4:25, the Samaritan Torah offers an alternative narrative to the slightly problematic story about Moses’ son not being circumcised when an angel of God “sought to kill him.” The thought that Moses did not circumcise his son, as the Masoretic text states, seems inconceivable to many Jewish commentators, Tsedaka noted. The Samaritan text, however, reads that it was Moses’ wife, Tziporah, who had to “circumcise her blocked heart” by cutting off her belief in the idol-worshiping ways of Midyan, her homeland. A mention of an “internal circumcision” is later found in Deuteronomy 10:16 in both versions, which reads, “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer.”

Perhaps the most variant of texts within the two Torahs is the differences in the Ten Commandments.

“The Commandments are all in the form of ‘do’ and ‘don’t do,’ ” Tsedaka asserted. “The Masoretic version includes the intro of ‘I am your God that took you out of Egypt,’ as a commandment, when we see it as an introduction. Our Ten Commandments start later, and we have our last commandment to establish Mount Gerizim.”

While an “extra” commandment to establish an altar on Mount Gerizim might seem random in the Masoretic text, the part that follows the Ten Commandants in the Masoretic version talks about the forbidden action of building stairs to an altar. Some scholars believe that the Masoretic text would not be discussing steps to an altar without talking about an altar first, and so some believe there might be a part of the text that is missing in the Masoretic version.


Until the 1950s, Bible scholars turned to the Jewish Masoretic text as the definitive version of the Torah, virtually ignoring the Samaritan text. However, in the winter of 1947, a group of archeological specialists searching through 11 caves in Qumran happened upon the Dead Sea Scrolls. After rigorous study of the scrolls, researchers have come to believe there were several versions of the Torah being studied throughout Jewish history, according to Eugene Ulrich, a theology professor at University of Notre Dame.

The scrolls they found in Qumran matched the Samaritan text more closely than the Masoretic text, leading some researchers to believe the Samaritan text held validity in the minds of Jews during the Second Temple period and that both texts were once studied together.

“Finding the Dead Sea Scrolls proved that there were two versions, if not more, of the Torah circulating within Judaism, but they were all dealt with with equal validity and respect,” said Ulrich, who served as one of the chief editors on the Dead Sea Scrolls International Publication Project. “The Samaritan Torah and Masoretic Torah used to be studied side by side. The Masoretic text wasn’t always the authoritative version. They were both seen as important during the Second Temple time period.”

Ulrich said after the destruction of the Second Temple, the people split into three groups, each with their own text: The rabbis took the Masoretic text for their own, the Samaritans took theirs, and the early Christians used much of a different version called the Septuagint—a Masoretic version translated into Greek in the 2nd century BCE—in what later become the Christian Bible.

While most differences between the two Torahs are only slight and may not even be apparent to an untrained eye, according to Ulrich, the Samaritan Torah provides a more coherent reading because the story flows better in its text. “There are whole passages of stories missing from the Masoretic version,” he said. “A lot of the stories in Exodus and Deuteronomy are missing parts of the conversation, leaving the reader alone to do much assumption as the story goes on. In the Samaritan Torah, however, these gaps are filled, providing a smoother encounter of what actually happened.”

James Charlesworth, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton University’s Department of Biblical studies, said the Samaritan Torah is his preferred version for some readings of the Bible. “As the stories and histories go, the Samaritan Pentateuch appears to be more favorable because the voice of the text reads more clear[ly],” he said. “In my judgment, the Masoretic version has some corrupt parts of it, and the Samaritan Torah is the best reading we have. There are sentences scholars are left to either reinterpret or simply ignore because they seem they don’t belong.”

Charlesworth believes Jews and Christians have not shown the Samaritan text the proper respect it deserves: Thousands of years ago, Samaritans and Jews had a shared interest in both scriptures, but the Samaritan Torah later became shunned. Charlesworth said this English translation would finally provide the academic world insight into the origins of the development of scripture.

The Samaritans claim their Torah is older and more authentic: “It’s more logical that a group of people who’ve lived in one place for thousands of years have kept their Torah preserved,” Tsedaka asserted, “as compared to a people who have moved all over the world.”

But some Bible critics side with the Masoretic version, citing it as older and, indeed, more authentic. Referring to a principal of textual criticism called lectio difficilior potior, which states that a harder reading of a text is preferred to an easier reading, Yeshiva University’s Aaron Koller said some scholars believe the Samaritan Torah’s text, which presents fewer interpretive problems, proves that it had been tampered with. “Some scholars believe someone took an original version of the Torah and simplified it to the Samaritan version,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe a difficult reading of a text is original, because why would someone change a text to make it unclear? Rather, when a text is simplified, it’s easier to believe that the text was altered in order to make it simpler.”

Koller noted that the consensus view held by most Bible scholars is that the Masoretic version of the Torah is the older, original version. The structural changes of the Samaritan Torah give reason to believe it’s been changed, he said, but that should not stop people from studying it. Both should be studied, he said, to understand the history of interpretations of the Torah—a book that continues to unfold with meaning as time goes on.

“Outside of the Samaritan community, most believe the Samaritan Torah was an editorial revision of the Masoretic text,” Koller said. “But they are a group that consider themselves heirs to biblical Israel, just like the Jews. It’s important just to learn the remarkable tradition they’ve preserved for 2,500 years.”


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jeff says:


vm86 says:

great article. i took biblical criticism at UPenn and we used the Samaritan Hebrew text for lower criticism. it was difficult to read because the nekudot are on top of the words and the aleph bet is slightly different.

A nitpick, but an important one: James Charlesworth is at the Princeton Theological Seminary, not Princeton University. The two institutions, although both located in Princeton, New Jersey, are separate from each other.

This quote makes no sense to me: “It’s hard to believe a difficult reading of a
text is original, because why would someone change a text to make it
unclear? Rather, when a text is simplified, it’s easier to believe that
the text was altered in order to make it simpler.” Given the point being made, shouldn’t the quote read,
“It’s hard to believe a difficult reading of a
text is NOT original, because why would someone change a text to make it

    rightcoaster says:

    I think a lot of New Testament scholars rely on this concept since there are things in the NT, especially the gospels, that are embarrassing. Probably holdovers left as Christianity evolved theologically, and the evolving stories had to be made to fit the theology at the price of historical accuracy. Maybe the extent of the difficulty depends on the evolved context?

Elon says:

The Samaritans claim their Torah is older and more authentic: “It’s more logical that a group of people who’ve lived in one place for thousands of years have kept their Torah preserved,” Tsedaka asserted, “as compared to a people who have moved all over the world.”

This doesn’t make sense to me, considering the major differences were already present back in Second Temple times, when both peoples were on their land. Wouldn’t surprise me if them manuscripts never lined up, and there is no “earliest, correct” copy. Good project, though.

    genelevit says:

    Doesn’t make sense to me also but for a different reason. It is unlikely that Jews living in different places could make same changes or omit the same words. When sofer copied Torah he used the local “predecessor”. Therefore Torah from Iran must be different from Torah from Prague but this is not the case. Thus we must to conclude that differences between Jewish and Samaritan Torahs happened when Jews still lived in the Holy Land.

Zahava Markovic says:

Such an interesting article! So thought provoking!

melklein says:

The Masoretic text works much better in preserving the status and authority of the Rabbinic class. The foundation source document needs mystery so that the wizards are necessary to understanding it. Particularly when the consequence of violation of its rules is 40 lashes or exile or stoning or eternal damnation, the people are desperate to figure out its mysteries, decipher the code. The rabbis are thus essential to avoiding those consequences. That the Torah, which has been handed down for hundreds of generations, cannot be easily interpreted by guys on street corners ensures full and perpetual employment for rabbis.

For an interesting parallel discussion, substitute “Tax Code” for “Torah,” “Federal prison” for “40 lashes” and “Tax Lawyers” for “Rabbis.”

    That is changing quite quickly!

      Aryeb Barkai says:

      It is my understanding that the Samaritan Torah has SIX books as the Book of Joshua ia also included.

    Granted that the Torah cannot be easily interpreted by the average Joe and Jane, yet when the foolish Rabbinic rules of departing from the plain meaning are cast aside, interpretation becomes immensely easier than most believe it could be

You could look at it two ways. One the Masoretic version is the older more pure version because it doesnt seemed to be as edited as the Samaritian version. Like it was mentioned in the article, it makes more sense that the Samaritan version was edited to be clearer. You edit to make it clearer not to be make less clear.

Two, the Masoretic version is the younger version or not pure version because through time it has been corrupted. The Samaritan version isf the older version and has been kept in tact through the ages as the Samaritans have stayed in the middle east all these years.

As a practical matter it really doesnt matter. I am sure jews today dont live and practice the same way they did during King David’s time

It wasn’t archeological specialists who found the “Dead Sea Scrolls, but beduin boys, who, while searching for their straying goats, first found them.

After the Israel Northern Kingdom was defeated by the Assyrians with the ten tribes sent into exile, the Assyrians imported new people into the area who intermarried with remaining Israelites and became known as the Samaritans

    melklein says:

    Well, that’s one version of the story. Another is that they borrowed from each other. Like the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal have the same news but from different perspectives. The reporters read each others’ early edition and there is quite a bit of, um, parallelism. Oh, and the different political points of view definitely add to the different perspectives.

    I know we were brought up to believe we were the first and only chosen people, archaeology be damned. Jewish Exceptionalism is OK for community building, but it’s just another term for ethnocentrism. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, right?

      I dare you to *prove* (not just ramble out of “self doubting”) that other peoples or nations were chosen by any deity at any time. Ranting like a libtard is always too easy.

        melklein says:

        We have a book. They have a book. There is a wonderful allegory: The children get together after the father’s funeral. The youngest daughter says, as he was lying in the hospital Daddy told me I was always his favorite. Her sister says, can’t be, he told me I was his favorite. The brother says you’re both lying, he long ago told me I’m his favorite. They all sat and wept at what a wonderful, brilliant father they’d had.

        It’s OK for us to believe we’re God’s favorite. Just as long as we don’t exploit that belief to justify outrageous behavior or belittle the beliefs of others. God created us all, Libtards and Orthotards, even Christiantards and Muslimtards, and told us to argue about how best to perfect God’s world. Elu vaelu divrei Elohim Chaim.

        Yes, chas vesholom, I really did say that.

          Zvi Zimri says:

          The maxim “Elu vaelu divrei Elohim Chaim” was used by original “Libtards”, namely the Talmudic rabbis who ratified the exegetical system where the straightforward meaning is disrespected.

          But in real life — and our religion is an integral part of them — we need to make choices, and you cannot hold both ends against the middle. Where there’s a contradiction, obviously only one side is subscribing to Divrai Elohim Hayim, or perhaps neither side is, and the true meaning needs to be found somewhere other than their arguments.

          You have no proved what I have dared you to.

        Natan79 says:

        Libtard disqualifies you and marks as you as demented.

          Zvi Zimri says:

          Laughable! Your statement effectively argues that one’s claims cannot be taken seriously just because they use the occasional foul word. Apparently you are some prude who cannot adapt to life in the real world.

Well-Good Shabbas and you sold me on obtaining this New English version. I am an American Kohen and unaffiliated for obvious reasons. I take note that in your ref of this Samaritan Torah-that the years back is 2500-It seems to me that we always lesson the years on this stuff. It is year 5773 now, and it seems to me that both Torahs have spoken of Samaritan’s not to mention just Jewish history books for closer to 6,000 years than Rabbis desire it mentioned, and that Rabbis are not even mentioned in Torah. Thus a aspect of Torah written by the ones we know were their. Referencing only 5 Books of Moses seems a great deal more righteous to me especially if it is in English.

    Just be careful of the Samaritan “entrapments”: (a) Mr. Sedaka foolishly relied on a JPS version for the MT (Jewish Torah) which mistranslates the phrase “Hamaqom Ahser Yivhar” as “the place He will choose” instead of “the place He chooses”, i.e. future tense instead of a form of present tense. (b) Mr. Sedaka ignores the fact that the ‘Ten Commandments’ as the name goes is English is a mistranslation of the Hebrew original “`Aseret haDevarim/Dibrot” which should really be rendered “the Ten Matters”; thus the problem he points out with the first “commandment” in the Jewish Torah amounts to nothing more than a Samaritan eyewash.

      melklein says:


      All of your comments include ad hominem insults and circular proof. I don’t think this discussion is a search for the truth. Rather, it is a free wheeling conversation about differing points of view. One of the problems in a misunderstanding of the Greek term “Orthodox,” which came to Judaism from other cultures – before Reform emerged in the 18th Century, we were all simply called “Jews.”

      Orthodox is frequently misunderstood to mean “the original way” or “the authentic way.” The Greek term actually means “the ancient way.” The difference is that the “ancient” contains no inference of superiority.

      I know that many of us Jews (apparently including you) maintain that there is only one authentic way. Many others of us (including me, a former long time yeshiva student) believe that God has other, humanistic priorities. I can’t believe that God cares more about the length of one’s tzitzis than about the safety of women who want to pray wearing tzitzis on their talitot (taleisim).

      A skeptic like me asked Shamai to teach him the Torah while he balanced on one foot – Shamai threw him out. When he asked Hillel, Hillel said, sure, love your neighbor as yourself, the rest is commentary; spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out.

      There have always been tensions within Judaism over rigidity and flexibility.

        Zvi Zimri says:

        Melklein, what I have told you was probably way above your head, so you could not grasp my cautionary comment. You are too set in your Rabbinic mental habits to be able to appreciate it. Thus it is not astounding that you have changed the subject to something you feel much more easy talking about, or rather talking down to your interlocutor.

lyndon says:

didn’t Jesus validated and authenticated the masoretic text which was mainstream scripts by saying ” all that are written about me in the psalms and the prophets will be fulfilled”?

M J Stewart says:

That was the breaking point for me: comparing and coming to the same conclusion after reading different books from different regions. The most important thing to do is follow history of the people and not the country. Second most important thing to do is follow the Word of GOD according to GOD’s prophecy and projection for man. Third combine Religion and Science in your research you will understand how we go through strife in life. Leave the critics writings alone; then, evaluate to see if there is some truth; reason, critics are out to make money and not concerned about the facts.

like my grand dad use to said he was grand rabbi in oran algeria but french like im an in each of us is a synagogue when was a war in algeria they kills french with knives open the women was crues but we need to said the french arlmy and OAS also have kills french in some place the extreme droite like today in army in france they kills jewish in france holland austria is not news believe on you believe also on god when you dont trust yourself is no longer love to give is not god

Mr. Sedaka foolishly relied on a JPS version for the MT (Jewish Torah) which mistranslates the phrase “Hamaqom Ahser Yivhar” as “the place He will choose” instead of “the place He chooses”, i.e. future tense instead of a form of present tense.

Mr. Sedaka ignores the fact that the ‘Ten Commandments’ as the name goes is English is a mistranslation of the Hebrew original “`Aseret haDevarim/Dibrot” which should really be rendered “the Ten Matters”; thus the problem he points out with the first “commandment” in the Jewish Torah amounts to nothing more than a Samaritan eyewash.

The article makes a highly inaccurate statement bordering on falsehood in arguing “The scrolls they found in Qumran matched the Samaritan text more closely than the Masoretic text”. Actually, more than half of the Torah texts found among the DSS match the Jewish Masoretic version more closely.

Joseph Curry says:

just read your Bible, and you’ll learn why the LORD rejected the tents of Joseph!

Psalm 78: 67-68

“67He also rejected the tent of Joseph,
And did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,

68But chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion which He loved.”
everyone knows the land of Ephraim changed to Samaria after the Assyrians conquered them for transgressing the LORD’s commandment

Thanks for this enlightening article. I always wondered what became of Samaritans historically. Of course there is Jesus scandalous encounter with the woman who argues the significance of Mt. Gerizim rather than the temple in Jerusalem. He tells her, the real issue is where is YHWH in your heart and life.

BTW, I want to apologize as one who believes in the authority of Jesus. Christianity is not the point of Jesus of Nazereth or any of his true disciples. The point is that YHWH is God and His message is for all people, Jew first and then all the nations.

Recently, noted British scholar and author NT Wright writes about Saul of Tarsus (AKA Apostle Paul) that just may be a turning point in Biblical scholarship. His view of YHWH found in the Christian and Jewish Bible have much more in common that many think. He asserts that Jesus is a prophet to the corrupt Roman led Jewish government and teachers. He predicts the disaster of 70 CE, a singular sign of prophecy at work. Jesus mentions Jonah regarding the future of national Israel as a sign that the temple system is under judgment. He foresaw the dangers awaiting his message (death as with other prophets) and prays for courage through tears of agony. Despite this he trusts the voice of YHWH as would a beloved son. This is symbolic of Abraham and Isaac as Jesus is led to the slaughter for his nations sake. God will save many by the faith of one as he has before.

Jesus was not obscure and despite dying his reputation sure has legs to stand on! He was a known prophet, teacher and authority figure. He was considered on par with Elijah in terms of power thus his death could not be ignored and his influence undying.

Jesus compares his coming death with the snake held up by Moses. Those who acknowledge the cure will receive it! The Satan’s deception is to get us to ignore the power of God to save and rather focus on religion, tradition and human power. Jesus message was simply believe me as God’s messenger, the smallest litmus test of faith. God could have sent a warrior, king and nation builder, but what if that was part of Jesus prophetic message? Why would a Holy G_D allow so much deception from some so clearly good?

After Jesus, has anything radically different come from Israel? His message boils down to the Shema, consistent with the Shema (Mark 12:30). His message is repent, obey the Torah with your whole heart and do good even toward enemies. His warning was that if Israel doesn’t turn back to God and away from Pagan Rome the Jewish temple will be destroyed and in three days a new temple will rise (i.e sanctified human temples for the Spirit of God).

SO ignoring Jesus as a prophet of YHWH is pretty shocking to say the least. He would affirm doubt as he did with many of his followers and say, “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if they are, then even if you do not believe me, at least believe the deeds, that you may know and see clearly that the Father is in me, and that I am in the Father.” Written in John 10:37

Paul on the other hand seems appointed to evangelizing Gentiles and gee wiz it worked! All a Jew or anyone else has to do is acknowledge YHWH in Jesus. You may or may not see him as divine, messiah or anything else but His message is transformative. Many others with and without coercion have declared him to be more than a prophet but the message (the Gospel) precedes any other discussion. What G_D fearing Rabbi would shun the true message of Jesus and his followers. Pointing toward the gospel message is not becoming Christian, its actually affirming the word of YHWH and its power to save lives.

is it possible to get the neww samaritan book (the israelite samaritan version of the Torah) thanks sue

Zeke says:

I would just like to point out that the translators name is Benyamim Tsedaka. Benyamim is the Samaritan version of the name Binyamin, and that is how it is pronounced in the Samaritan Bible and Samaritan names.


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The Other Torah

A new English translation of the Samaritan Torah offers scholars a different version of the sacred text