What the Scrolls Reveal
THE SAMPLINGS OF THE SCRIBAL ANOMALIES occurring in the Torah scrolls of the Kaifeng Jews that have been treated in this study raise a series of questions concerning the origins of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, and offer certain clues regarding the origins, history and culture of the community for which these Torahs were written. Certain of these questions can be resolved at this point, but others call for more extensive investigation by qualified scholars.
1. In 1851 the Kaifeng Jews apparently had more Torah scrolls in their possession than the thirteen which we are repeatedly told about in the literature, Of the scrolls owned by their synagogue, we know of two that were substantially incomplete, and, together with an assortment of old and no longer used loose skins, were perhaps genizah relics. One of these two scrolls is now at the American Bible Society; the other was kept on the premises of the London Society at least until 1929. Both of these Sifrei Torah were written in hands which differ in style from the post-1642 exemplars, and neither of the two, in my opinion, was the Scroll of Moses. We do not know whether this venerable Pentateuch was kept in the ark of the synagogue at this time or, for that matter, if any of the Torahs that were obtained by the Chinese Delegates were then still stored in the synagogue itself or were being held in private homes.
Currently, one complete (or nearly complete) scroll is held by each of the following six institutions: British Library, Cambridge University Library, Bodleian Library, Jewish Theological Society, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, and Bridwell Library. Un- accounted for are: (1) the incomplete scroll that was formerly owned by the London Society; (2) the scroll that was last heard of as having been held in by the Ohel Leah Synagogue, in Hong Kong; (3) the scroll that was acquired by Msgr. Volonteri and was later sent to France; and (4) several others. In addition, an undetermined number of loose skins from the Book of Numbers that were acquired by the Chinese Delegates in 1851 are not accounted for, plus, it is conceivable, as are other detached skins some perhaps from the Volonteri scroll of which we have no record. The Genesis skins that were sold at auction by Sothebys in 1986 could have come from this latter source, from the Hong Kong scroll that was described by John Fryer as having been mutilated by a Chinese employee, from any of the other missing Kaifeng Torahs, or from a genizah located in the synagogue. And it is also possible that there is a scroll in an unidentified mosque located in Beijing. .
The exemplar known as the Scroll of Moses is among the five copies I have not been able to trace at all. I do not accept the claim made by the Chinese Delegates that it was one of the six scrolls they acquired in 1851. There are grounds for suspecting that the Dele- gates may have been duped by some of the Jews (perhaps by the brothers Chao Chin-chêng and Chao Wen-kuei) and led to believe that one of the six Torahs they were taking to Shanghai was the most cherished of all the Torahs in the Kaifeng synagogue to wit, the Scroll of Moses. Mitigating against this suspicion, however, is the fact that only after having expressed a lack of interest in buying that Torah (because, it would appear, of its poor physical condition) did the Delegates finally agree to include it among their purchases.
2. It has been claimed time and again in the literature dealing with the Chinese Jews that the scrolls that were written at Kaifeng after the disastrous flood of 1642 were copied from the Scroll of Moses. However, the evidence which has been assembled in the present study indicates that these scrolls were copied from more than a single source
3. The several scribes who wrote the surviving Kaifeng Torah scrolls treated certain textual details alike, and others differently. That there was an underlying soferic tradition which all these men held in common cannot be doubted, since we find them treating many scribal matters uniformly. Thus, all of them employed the same b'yah sh'mo pattern, and none of them wrote Large and Small Letters. At times, nevertheless, these same men approached other textual specifics in ways that differed strikingly. Some, for ex- ample, inserted the inverted letters nun at Num. 10:35-36, while others did not; and they were obviously not of one mind with regard to the question of whether Chedorlaomer should be spelled as one word or as two.
I do not mean to imply that the individual Kaifeng scribes were necessarily aware, in their handling of any given textual detail, that they were following or ignoring precedents that had long ago been set and were now being honored by soferim throughout the rest of the world. What I do mean is that the men who prepared the Kaifeng Torahs were rote copyists and inadequately trained in the Hebrew language, and that they simply transcribed whatever texts happened to be available to them though not always with complete accuracy insofar as the spellings and stylistic formats were concerned. The texts they copied, moreover, were not always of the same provenance, and while the wordings in these texts were in no way different from Torah to Torah, this was not necessarily true of the various scribal stylisms and formats these Torahs contained. Accordingly, the ancestors of the congregation which commissioned the writing of the post-1642 scrolls brought with them to China (or eventually acquired) Torah scrolls based on the scribal practices of more than one Jewish community. It is possible, therefore, that a comparison of the Kaifeng Sifrei Torah with early non-Chinese Torahs may bring to light valuable bits of information which will help answer the question of when and from where Jews first immigrated to China.
4. It has been suggested that the absence of tagin in the extant Kaifeng Torahs may point to a possible Karaite source for the models from which these Chinese exemplars were copied, the reasoning being that Karaite Torahs are always written without such embellishments. However, this suggestion loses its validity when it is realized that, with exceptions here and there, Sefardic Torahs also lack tagin. However, as Maimonides points out, while scrolls written for use in public worship services are not required to exhibit these ornamental flourishes, it is preferable that they should. Would he have made offered this opinion if all the Sefardic Torahs of his time were written without tagin?
5. The statement made by Schiller-Szinessy that the Cambridge scroll was written from dictation does not appear to be correct. It seems far more probable that all the Kaifeng scrolls (including the Cambridge exemplar which aroused the ire of Schiller-Szinessy) were copied directly and mechanically from other Pentateuchal texts. It is true, as indicated above, that the post-1642 Kaifeng Torah scrolls contain, each of them, literally hundreds of errors; but they are also rich in a variety of obscure scribal details such as the use of puncta, the b'yah sh'mo lettering, differing orthographic readings, etc. to which the attention of the sofer would scarcely have been called by a reader who was in all likelihood at least as untutored as he. My own guess is that if the amateurs who wrote the Kaifeng Sifrei Torah had done so from dictation they would have made dozens of times as many errors than they actually did.
5. Nearly all the skins in the incomplete American Bible Society scroll were obviously submerged in water for some time. A fair number of skins in the six other scrolls I have examined also exhibit water stains; but in my opinion these stains are neither widespread nor penetrative enough to indicate that the skins in which they occur had undergone prolonged immersion in the flood waters which de- stroyed the Kaifeng synagogue in 1642. These stains appear, rather, to have been caused either by leakage or because the skins had been stored in damp surroundings. Moreover, the calligraphic style of all the skins in each of the six post-1642 extant Torahs is un- questionably Chinese-Hebrew. The probability is, therefore, that none of the skins in these Torahs would have been among the salvaged exemplars which were reported in the stele of 1663 to have been incorporated in some of the scrolls that were placed in the reconstructed synagogue in 1653.
If my judgments regarding these skins are correct, it would mean that all the textual and formatic idiosyncrasies listed in this study as being present in the Bridwell, British Museum, Cambridge, Jewish Theological Seminary, Vienna, and Bodleian scrolls were produced at Kaifeng no earlier than 1642 or later than 1663. One or more of the post-1642 Torahs which are currently missing should presumably contain a number of skins salvaged from the 1642 flood; and it is almost certain that there were other such salvaged sheets among the individual skins from Numbers which the Dele- gates acquired in 1851.
In any case, the calligraphic style of all the skins in the extant six post-1642 scrolls should apparently be attributed solely to the soferim of Kaifeng, and not to earlier writers. It must be emphasized, however, that many of the textual peculiarities contained in these scrolls need not represent merely the fancies of the scribes of Kaifeng for they may, in fact, have been copied by the Kaifeng scribes from models of an as yet undetermined provenance.
This, then, is the story of the Torah scrolls of Kaifeng; and it is more than merely a tale of old manuscripts fortuitously retrieved from an exotic and dimly remembered past. It has to do, also, with the human beings who wrote these documents those wanderers who, stranded for centuries in an alien but hospitable land, found themselves slowly losing their ties to the traditions of their ancestors and becoming gradually assimilated into their surroundings. In the end, of course, it was to be the fate of the descendants of these Jewish immigrants to Kaifeng to be swallowed up in toto by their hosts.
The Sifrei Torah of the Chinese Jews make bittersweet reading for the sympathetic and perceptive eye. They are so permeated with error that the reader quickly realizes that they were written by amateurs who were incapable of even copying Hebrew with any degree of accuracy. In short, the surviving Kaifeng Torah scrolls tell us that the men who wrote them were working with a language they did not know at all well. How much less of that language would the rest of the community have known?
Yet the willingness of the obviously unskilled scribes of Kaifeng to attempt the rewriting of a dozen massive scrolls a task probably requiring from six to twelve man-months of labor per scroll and the readiness of the relatively small Jewish community, only a few years after it had suffered the ravages of war and flood, to provide the funds for a project of this magnitude (and to build a resplendent new synagogue as well) suggest that in the middle of the seventeenth century the ties of the Jews of Kaifeng to their ancient faith were still very much alive.
Nevertheless, the early Jesuit visitors to Kaifeng were persuaded that the Jewish consciousness of the members of the city's synagogue did not run very deep. I should think, on the contrary, that the intensity of the commitment of the Kaifeng Jews to Judaism was greater than these Jesuits believed it to be. While it is undoubtedly true that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most of the People of the Book who lived in Kaifeng were no longer able to read their Book, their emotional dedication to Judaism was still fairly strong.
The fact remains, however, that sentiment alone cannot guarantee the survival of a minority group. The Jesuits were unquestionably correct in reporting that the Jewish community's familiarity with the tenets and literature of its ancient faith was rather fragile. And it was this weakness, perhaps more than any other single factor, that was eventually to lead to the undoing of the isolated Jewish congregation of Kaifeng; for, obviously, no generation could hope to transmit to the next that which itself did not have a thorough awareness and appreciation of what its heritage was and what that heritage had to offer. Of the old, cut-off Jewish settlement at Kaifeng, therefore, a few dozen manuscripts and artifacts have survived; but of the vibrant Judaic life that once flourished in that city absolutely nothing.