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9th-century Torah

This thousand-year-old document is one of the oldest surviving examples of a Hebrew Bible codex - a manuscript written in book form rather than a scroll - and includes information from early scholars on how to pronounce and read out the sacred text.

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9th Century Torah

An Early Codex of the Torah, Palestine or Middle East, probably ninth century. Exodus 20
BL Or. MS 4445, f. 61v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Torah?

The Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible. According to Jewish tradition, it was given to Moses by divine dictation, over 3,000 years ago, on Mount Sinai.

Among many other things, the Torah contains 613 instructions from God, including the Ten Commandments. The Torah is the cornerstone of Jewish religious life. It is also an object of great affection. The Torah Scroll, handwritten on parchment without any decoration, is the most treasured possession of any Jewish community.

The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the English Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

What is a codex?

'Codex' is a grand word for a book in the form that we know it today. In Latin 'codex', or 'caudex', once meant tree trunk. Thin wooden writing tablets were used in ancient Roman times as informal notebooks. When, during the second century, religious texts began to be written down in books rather than on rolls, the name 'codex' was transferred to them. The pages that formed the earliest books were made from the reeds of the papyrus plant. Others were on prepared animal skin called parchment.

Why is this manuscript important?

This codex is an early form of the masoretic text, compiled by Aaron Ben Asher, a 10th-century scholar from Tiberias, Palestine. The Masorah is a body of rules of pronunciation, spelling and intonation of the biblical text, intended to preserve it and transmit it correctly. Ben Asher's text is considered to be the most authoritative version of the Hebrew masoretic Bible.

What is on this page?

The exhibited page contains the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), one of the earliest codes of religious and moral precepts. According to Jewish (and also Islamic and Christian) tradition, the Commandments were carved by God on two stone tablets and given to Moses on Mount Sinai some 3000 years ago. They assert the uniqueness of God, and forbid such things as theft, adultery, murder and lying. In all, Jewish teaching as recorded in the Torah includes 613 commandments. Different Christian and Jewish traditions have different wordings and groupings for the Ten Commandments (which actually include 14 or 15 statements).

In this manuscript, the sacred text was copied in three columns in a beautiful Hebrew vocalised (with vowels) square script. The Masorah was added in the margins and between the text columns in smaller unvocalised script (without vowels).


Mount Sinai, Egypt, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments