RAMAT GAN, Israel — For the past 30 years, Israeli Judaic scholar Menachem Cohen has been on a mission of biblical proportions: Correcting all known textual errors in Jewish scripture to produce a truly definitive edition of the Old Testament.
His edits, focusing primarily on grammatical blemishes and an intricate set of biblical symbols, mark the first major overhaul of the Hebrew Bible in nearly 500 years.
Poring over thousands of medieval manuscripts, the 84-year-old Cohen identified 1,500 inaccuracies in the Hebrew language texts that have been corrected in his completed 21-volume set. The final chapter is set to be published next year.
The massive project highlights how Judaism venerates each tiny biblical calligraphic notation as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version. “The people of Israel took upon themselves, at least in theory, one version of the Bible, down to its last letter,” Cohen said, in his office at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
The last man to undertake the challenge was Jacob Ben-Hayim, who published the Mikraot Gedolot, or Great Scriptures, in Venice in 1525. His version, which unified the religion’s varying texts and commentaries under a single umbrella, has remained the standard for generations, appearing to this day on bookshelves of observant Jews the world over.
Since Ben-Hayim had to rely on inferior manuscripts and commentaries, numerous inaccuracies crept in and were magnified in subsequent editions.
Most of the errors Cohen found were in the final two thirds of the Hebrew Bible and not in the Torah scrolls.
To achieve his goal, Cohen relied primarily on the Aleppo Codex, the 1,000-year-old parchment text considered to be the most accurate copy of the Bible. For centuries it was guarded in a grotto in the great synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, out of reach of most scholars like Ben-Hayim.
Cohen also included the most comprehensive commentaries available, most notably that of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi.
“It was amazing to me that for 500 years, people didn’t sense the errors,” said Cohen, who wears a knitted skullcap and a gray goatee. “They just assumed that everything was fine, but in practice everything was not fine.”
Rafael Zer, the project’s editorial coordinator, called Cohen’s work “quasi-scientific” because it presents a final product and does not provide the reader a way of seeing how it was reached. He credits Cohen for bringing an exact biblical text to the general public but said it “comes at the expense of absolute accuracy and an absolute scientific edition.” — AP