By November 23, 2015 Read More →

Alan D. Crown, “The Abisha Scroll—3,000 Years Old?” Bible Review 7, 5 (1991).

Nablus (Shechem)Does the Samaritan community in Nablus have a Torah Scroll written by Aaron’s great-grandson?

A small group of Samaritans—they now number fewer than 300—continues to live in ancient Shechem (modern Nablus on the West Bank) at the foot of their holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim. They claim to have the oldest Torah (the Pentateuch, or five books of Moses) in existence. It was written, they say, by Abisha,a the great-grandson of Aaron (1 Chronicles 6:50 [6:35 in Hebrew]), 13 years after the Israelite conquest of Canaan—more than 3,000 years ago!

And they can prove it. An almost unforgeable cryptogram embedded in the ancient text—known as the Abisha scroll—validates their claim.

The Samaritans have lived at Shechem/Nablus for at least 2,300 years. (Also, today, another 300 Samaritans live in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.) According to the latest scholarship, they separated from the Jews sometime between the fourth century B.C.E.b and the third century C.E. The schism seems to have had two complex phases—first, a political separation in the period of Ezra; second, a religious separation that began, in the late fourth century B.C.E., with the Samaritan construction on Mt. Gerizim of a rival sanctuary, or temple (the site of which has recently been verified by archaeologists), and culminated in the third century C.E. when the Samaritan legendary hero Baba Rabba had the Samaritan oral law taught and codified and, apparently, canonized the deviant Samaritan version of the Torah.

From that time on, the rabbis changed their minds about the religious identity of the Samaritans: They no longer regarded them as a Jewish sect and refused to afford them status as Jews or as true proselytes to Judaism. For their part, the Samaritans have maintained that the Jews were corrupters of the Torah, and, until the late 19th century, they maintained an implacable animosity toward Judaism.

The Samaritans themselves reject the name “Samaritans” or “Samarians.” These English terms are translations of the Semitic Shomronim, the plural of Shomron (the biblical name for the area we call Samaria). Shomronim would be people from Samaria. Instead, the Samaritans consider their name to be “Shamerim,” from shomrim, the plural of shomer (guardian or watchman). According to their etymology, they are “guardians of the Law.” This etymology, incidentally, was already known to the eminent church father Jerome in the fourth century C.E.1

The Samaritan Pentateuch—the Samaritans regard only the first five books of Moses as canonical—differs in some important respects from the Masoretic text, which is the Hebrew textus receptus according to Jewish tradition.
Perhaps the most significant difference is in those passages in Deuteronomy where the Masoretic text speaks of “the place that the Lord your God will choose” for his holy mountain, referring to Jerusalem. In the parallel passages in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the text says “the place that the Lord your God has chosen,” referring to the Samaritan’s holy mountain, Mt. Gerizim, where the blessings were pronounced in Joshua 8:33–34 upon the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land, as earlier prescribed by Moses in Deuteronomy 11:29.

The argument that the Samaritan version of these passages is the older version has considerable force. In Deuteronomy 11, Moses addresses the people on the eve of their entry into the Promised Land:

“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse; blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path which I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are about to invade and occupy, you shall pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal” (Deuteronomy 11:26–29).

In the next chapter, Moses specifies some of these laws:

“You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree….

“Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there” (Deuteronomy 12:2, 4–5).
As the Masoretic text reads, the reference is to Jerusalem, which, however, will not be captured by the Israelites for another 200 years, in the reign of King David.

Just before this passage in Deuteronomy 12, Moses refers to the mountain of the blessing, Mt. Gerizim, and immediately upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites do in fact pronounce the blessings facing Mt. Gerizim (Joshua 8:33–34). Mt. Gerizim was obviously a holy mountain for the Israelites long before Jerusalem.

In any event, Mt. Gerizim remained—and remains to this day—the holy mountain of the Samaritans, and there they built their temple in the late fourth century B.C.E. The temple was destroyed by the Judean king John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C.E. when he was strengthening his hold on Samaria. How complete the destruction was is uncertain. The Samaritan chronicles imply that Hyrcanus repented of his animosity and restored some of their religious privileges. The Samaritans may have rebuilt an altar on the site of their destroyed temple; in any case, they continued to worship there until Hadrian’s day (second century C.E.). Hadrian appears to have leveled their temenos (sacred enclosure) and then to have built over it, leaving no clear traces of its existence.

As noted above, the Samaritans regard themselves as the true “guardians of the Law.” They maintain that the Masoretic text is a falsification and that the Jewish scribes have deliberately altered many readings to give priority to Jerusalem over the Samaritan sacred mountain and the site of their former temple on Mt. Gerizim.

Moreover, according to the Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim was named in the tenth commandment—that is, it is in the large addendum culled from various parts of the Pentateuch that the Samaritans attach to the commandments. The Decalogues in both Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21 are followed in their Pentateuch by the following verses indicating the site both of the sacred altar to be built when the Israelites enter the land and of the temple which is to replace it:

“It shall be that when the Lord your God brings you to the land of the Canaanites which you are to inherit, you shall erect an altar of stones, and plaster them and write upon these stones all the words of this Torah which I command you this day. You shall erect them on Mt. Gerizim and build there an altar to the Lord your God. It shall be a stone altar upon which iron has not been lifted. Of unhewn stone you shall build the altar of the Lord your God and you shall offer up burnt offerings to the Lord your God. You shall slaughter whole offerings and eat and rejoice there before the Lord your God. That mountain is on the other side of the Jordan towards the west in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah, near Gilgal, adjacent to Elon Moreh which is before Shechem.”2

To prove their point, the Samaritans remind the skeptical that they have in their possession the oldest Torah scroll in the world, the one on which all the later copies of the Samaritan Pentateuch are based. This, of course, is the Abisha scroll. The Abisha scroll is not only extraordinarily important to modern Samaritan self-esteem, it is a principal support for their claim to being the true B’nai Israel (children of Israel), the so-called lost tribes who disappeared after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E. and deported many of its citizens, replacing them with immigrants from foreign lands.c For the Samaritans, they, not the Jews, are the real guardians of the holy Torah.

Like the Jews, the Samaritans use scrolls in the synagogue for the readings during the Sabbath and festival services and a codex (or book) for study and individual liturgical use. The Samaritans also use a scroll, rather than a codex, during the Samaritan Hag (festival)—the pilgrimage up the holy mountain. The Samaritan high priest carries the Torah scroll in his hands and exhibits it at stopping points along the ancient route. It is hardly surprising to learn that the Samaritans have a number of ancient Torah scrolls. But, still, one written by Abisha does seem a bit extreme, although the Dead Sea Scrolls, more than 2,000 years old, suggest that it is not impossible for an ancient scroll to survive for thousands of years under the right conditions.

According to their own chronicles, the Samaritans have three old scrolls, each used on different festive occasions. By any standard these would be of considerable interest to scholars. All three scrolls were shown to King Edward VIIth when, as Prince of Wales, he visited Nablus in 1860.3 According to a cryptogram in one of them, it was written about 1441 C.E., in the time of the Samaritan high priest Pinhas the sixth.4 This scroll is used on the Day of Atonement and during Sukkoth; it is often fobbed off on visitors as the Abisha scroll.

The second scroll, the date of which I cannot trace, is used for reading the Sabbath portions.

Of all the three ancient scrolls owned by the Samaritans, however, the Abisha scroll is clearly the most sacrosanct. According to the Tolidah, the Samaritan priestly genealogy, the Abisha scroll was used on Yom Atseret, that is, the Sabbath during Sukkoth. It is shown to visitors, even scholars, only on the rarest of occasions. I have written three books and 39 articles about the Samaritans and have visited them at Nablus numerous times, but I have never been shown the Abisha scroll—despite humbly imploring them to allow me to see it. Like other visitors, I was shown the Pinhas scroll and told it was the Abisha scroll. (See the photograph of me with the priest, above, allegedly being shown the Abisha scroll.)

Since the existence of the Abisha scroll became known to Western scholars, it has been an object of curiosity to travelers. The first traveler known to have seen it was the bishop of Armagh, Robert Huntington, who saw it in 1690. It was seen again in 1861, this time by the Reverend John Mills during his long residence with the Samaritans. Even after spending three months with them, he was at first fobbed off with other scrolls; the day before he left, however, he was allowed to see the Abisha scroll, and he wrote a brief description of it.5 Also in 1861, but three months later, three travelers had the good fortune to be in the Samaritan synagogue when the Abisha scroll was transferred to a new metal case. They were able to view the entire manuscript laid out at full length on the synagogue floor, and they supplied notes on their experience to the German consul.6

As the fame of the scroll spread, a visit to Nablus to see it became an accepted part of the itinerary of 19th-century travelers to the Holy Land. Usually, they were shown one of the other old scrolls in the synagogue.

The first known photographs of the Abisha scroll were taken sometime before 1918 by John Whiting, the American vice-consul in Jerusalem, who was asked by an American millionaire, E. K. Warren, to photograph the scroll on his behalf. Warren had purchased several manuscripts from the Samaritans at a time when they were desperately in need, so they wished to oblige him. Thus, they gave Whiting permission to photograph the scroll, though they were to complain later that they were never properly paid for having given their permission.7 In any event, several sets of photographs were taken and offered for sale; one complete copy found its way to the Mugar Library at Boston University. Paul Kahle, the German biblical scholar, was able to acquire a partial copy of the scroll from an unknown source, but spent many years trying to get better photos.8

In 1926, under the British Mandate for Palestine, attempts were made to set up a register of all manuscripts in Palestine that were deemed to be of national interest. A complete set of photographs of the Abisha scroll was sent to Sir Frederic Kenyon at the British Museum. A copy of this set was eventually made available to Edward Robertson, the librarian of the John Rylands Library in Manchester, but the current whereabouts of both these sets of photographs is unknown. At some earlier period, the Palestine Exploration Fund had sought to obtain a photographic copy of the scroll but had been supplied with photographs of a different Torah.9

Our current edition of the scroll was published by the Spanish scholar, Father Federico Perez Castro, who was able to have a complete set of photographs taken in the 1950s. After lengthy negotiations by both Castro and the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, Castro photographed the scroll. After a fairly thorough examination of the text, he decided to publish only the older part of the scroll, that is, from Numbers 35 to the end of Deuteronomy. Though he recognized that even this part was conflated from several even older fragments, it became apparent that the first part of the scroll, from Genesis to Numbers 35, had only a few small segments that were old. The rest was very recent and not worth publishing in full. The older parts were published in his book, Sefer Abisa.10

The cryptogram in the Abisha scroll that allows us to identify Abisha as the scribe who wrote it is embedded in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapters 6:10–13:19. Unlike the Jews, the Samaritans allow extraneous markings to be inserted into their Torah scrolls. Especially common are acrosticon-cryptograms known as tashqil (pronounced tesh-UL). A tashqil conveys details about the scribe, when he wrote his scroll, for which synagogue it was written and, sometimes, how many scrolls or codices he has previously written.

If written in the authentic way adopted by the Samaritans, the cryptogram, or tashqil is difficult, perhaps impossible, to forge in toto. A whole work would have to be written to create the forgery.

This is how it is done: With two rules, usually about a centimeter (.39 inch) apart, a bed or column for the cryptogram is created on the parchment. It is always vertical down the center of the page. In the Abisha scroll the cryptogram follows the normal tradition: Thus, the first two words of the cryptogram, which are to be read vertically from top to bottom, are picked out of the words Årah (Deuteronomy 6:10), t[fn (Deuteronomy 6:11), ûayxwh (Deuteronomy 6:12), wta (Deuteronomy 6:13), tabw (Deuteronomy 6:18), ûybya (Deuteronomy 6:19), ûlavy (Deuteronomy 6:20), h[rpl (Deuteronomy 6:21), which fall beneath each other in the center of the written column. The first two words read: [yba yna; ani Abisha (I [am] Abisha). In the Samaritan script they appear as shown below. (For the sake of clarity, the letters that actually form the cryptogram have been enlarged; normally they are written in the same size as the text. The end of each word in the cryptogram is marked with a short horizontal stroke, shown here after the words ani [I] and Abisha.)

Some of the words of the tashqil in the Abisha scroll are the subject of dispute. Parts of some words are difficult to read. Some words have been re-inked. On at least one column, the ruled tashqil bed has disappeared in the various restorations to which the scroll has been subjected, so that it is not clear which letters are to be read as part of the cryptogram. But the basic message is clear.

The version of the tashqil in the Abisha scroll that is most favored by scholars is quoted by the Samaritan chronicler, Abu’l Fath, who wrote in the latter half of the 14th century. According to Abu’l Fath, the scroll had been missing but was rediscovered in the priesthood of his master, Pinhas ben Joseph, who encouraged him to write his chronicle. As Abu’l Fath observed the cryptogram in the tashqil bed, it reads as follows:

“I am Abisha, the son of Pinhas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Priest, on them be the favor of the Lord and his glory—I wrote this holy book in the door of the tent of meeting on Mount Gerizim in the thirteenth year of the dominion of the Children of Israel over the land of Canaan to its boundaries round about. I praise the Lord.”11

Contemporary scholars who have examined the scroll, particularly Yitzchak Ben Zvi12 and Father Castro, see some variations that may convey some information about the milieu in which the cryptogram was written, but they do not dispute the basic thrust of the tashqil cryptogram.

On the face of it—if we accept the fact that a cryptogram like this cannot be forged—this scroll is approximately 3,300 years old, making it the oldest Torah scroll in the world!

But, alas, there are problems.

If this were truly a scroll written by the hand of Abisha, we would expect to find some references to it in the old Samaritan chronicles. Perhaps we would also find at least some allusion to it in the accounts of the pilgrims and travelers who passed through Shechem/Nablus in the course of the centuries. But there is none.

Some of the early church fathers—Jerome, Origen, Eusebius and Cyril of Alexandria—refer to an ancient Hebrew Pentateuch that existed among the Samaritans, implying the existence of a Samaritan version older than anything owned by the Jews. However, they do not even hint that it may have been written by someone referred to in the Bible. After the fifth century, we hear no more about an old Samaritan text, despite the fact that numerous pilgrims and historians—Jewish and Muslim—passed through Nablus and wrote accounts of their visits to the Samaritans. Even the Samaritan chronicles are silent on this score.

The Samaritan Book of Joshua13 differs considerably from the edition in our Bibles. It is much longer, with 50 chapters, compared with our 24; it contains considerable traditional Samaritan material not found in our edition. In view of the fact that this work clearly has some antiquity—it was composed not later than the 11th century C.E.—and drew on older Greek and Samaritan sources of first-millennium C.E. provenance, we would expect the Abisha scroll to be referred to if it were known at the time this book was composed. But it is not mentioned. For example, in chapter 23, the high priest Eleazar, grandfather of Abisha, hands Joshua a copy of the Torah and tells him that this is to be his guide to the Promised Land. Then in chapter 38 we are told that the Levites made copies of the Torah. It is significant that no mention is made of any Torah scroll written by Abisha. Still another chapter deals with the priority of the Samaritan version over the Jewish version and again there is no mention of the Abisha scroll.14

The existence of scrolls among the Samaritans is first hinted at in the Samaritan chronicles (late 14th century), in a discussion of the heretical sectarian activities of one Sakta, who, with his followers, appeared to hold the scroll handle as an object of veneration. According to the Samaritan chronicler, Abu’l Fath, Sakta and his followers are to be regarded among the groups of heretics and sectaries who sprang into being in the era following the rule of Baba Rabba, that is, sometime in the late third or fourth century C.E. The account of Sakta leads us to suspect that a controversy was brewing among the Samaritans about the value of writing the sacred Scriptures in the codex form. This indicates that the scroll had been the common form for their sacred Scriptures. However, there is neither mention nor even hint of the existence of the Abisha scroll in support of the superiority of the scroll form over the codex.

This, of course, is an argument from silence. It does not prove that the Abisha scroll was not in existence earlier.
The first mention of the Abisha scroll does indicate a somewhat earlier date. The reference is in the margin of a copy of an early Samaritan chronicle known as Tolidah (the Genealogy), composed or written in 1149. In the autograph manuscript itself, there is no reference to the Abisha scroll. But in a copy of this chronicle made in 1346, a marginal gloss notes that the Abisha scroll is housed in the old Stone Synagogue at Elon Moreh (on the lower slopes of Mt. Gerizim). The Samaritans started their ceremonial festival processions for Passover and the other pilgrim festivals from this synagogue and walked up the hill carrying a Pentateuch scroll. (Nowadays they start from a synagogue near the top of the mountain.) This marginal note also tells us of a tragedy that befell the Abisha scroll. On a particular festival (perhaps the second day of Sukkoth/Pentecost), an earthquake occurred while a priest was holding the scroll on the mountain. The priest was apparently affected by the quake and was struck by some sort of illness. An emendation to the text of the Tolidah says that “God sent a fiery snake which reared up beneath his legs [that is, the legs of the priest holding the scroll] and tore out a piece of his flesh.” The scroll case fell open and the scroll itself was picked up by the wind and torn. It seems that only the end of the Book of Numbers and the Book of Deuteronomy were saved. The statement as to what was saved is very carefully worded but is nevertheless ambiguous, so we cannot be sure what was saved and what was lost. A supergloss—an additional note—says that the end of the book was lost.15

Remember that in the latter half of the 14th century Abu’l Fath wrote that the Abisha scroll had been missing but was rediscovered. This would seem to indicate that the Abisha scroll had been carefully restored after its mishap during the earthquake and was once again brought into use for the sacred offices, though it may not have been risked again on the climb up the mountain.

Since Abu’l Fath’s day there have been numerous references to the Abisha scroll. They indicate that the scroll was seldom unrolled and that it was in a dilapidated state. From a letter dated 1715, we learn that the scroll was kept in the house of the high priest and taken out only on the great festivals. The letter also comments on its torn state. A certain Salih ibn Ibrahim, writing in 1849, notes that part of Deuteronomy 21:15 was duplicated and that he was given permission to erase the error with a knife. He also adds that he was given permission to repair the scroll. Incidentally, although Father Castro in his edition of the scroll does not comment on the erasure referred to in the letter of Salih ibn Ibrahim, we can see traces of this erasure in Castro’s published text, so we can be certain that the photographs published in Castro’s edition16 are in fact of the Abisha scroll.

The first detailed description of the scroll is by John Mills, the secretary of the Anglo-Biblical Institute, who went to stay with the Samaritans for three months in 1861 so that he could bring back a report about them for his members. Mills’ description gives the impression that, despite patches and tears, the Abisha scroll was more or less intact.

Subsequent descriptions make it clear that Mills was wrong. The scroll is not merely torn and patched but is a crazy quilt from a series of sources. For example, if you look at Castro’s plate XII (see photo, above), you can see that the column is formed of two parts, the top of which was once the lower part of a column; the way the writing is spread in the center of the column (i.e., the bottom of the top part) is actually characteristic of the bottoms of columns of text. Samaritan scholar Moses Gaster, who saw the scroll early in this century, noted that some parts of the scroll were illegible; that in other parts, letters had been rewritten; and that “the scroll consists mainly of a mass of patches held together by a backing. Altogether it is in such a dilapidated condition that only the utmost care in handling it will preserve it.”17

Another observer indicated that the dilapidation was so bad and the patching so extreme that it even interfered with the tashqil.18 However, the scribes have tried at times to restore what they knew to be the tashqil and have interfered with it as little as possible. Though it is still difficult to read and though there are some discrepancies between what we see today and what Abu’l Fath wrote, we cannot claim that there has been deliberate forgery.19
Castro detected six different hands at work in the oldest parts of the scroll, including that of the restoring scribes. This in itself does not indicate that the scroll as it presently exists was written over a long period of time. Samaritan scribes sometimes worked in shifts so that several scribes would work on the same text. However, that is not the case here. The hands are widely different, reflecting a chronological range of 800 years. The most recent hands are on patches at the tops and bottoms of columns where the scroll had been badly worn. The oldest, Castro’s hand A, is confined to the end of Numbers and Deuteronomy. This was apparently the part saved after the mishap during the earthquake.20

Our knowledge of Samaritan paleography (the study of the shape and stance of the letters as these change over time) is now so advanced that we can confidently date at least parts of the scroll in this way. From Castro’s photographs, we can see very clearly that hand A, in which the cryptogram was written, is a Nablus hand of the first half of the 12th century C.E. (and therefore cannot be the hand of the great- grandson of Aaron, the priest of the Exodus).21

That does not mean that other hands in the scroll may not be even earlier. For the scroll is not a unit, but a series of fragments and parts put together to make a complete Torah scroll. It could be that the restorer (who reinserted the section rescued from the earthquake into a whole scroll) cannibalized even older material than that rescued to reconstruct the scroll. Unfortunately, as indicated, Castro did not publish the photographs of the first part of the scroll from Genesis to the middle of Numbers because the majority of it was recent, but he recognized that among the recent additions were older pieces. Some of these might have predated the initial reconstruction and could have been reused during subsequent refurbishment. We have no means of knowing this, so we can speak only of the end of the scroll.

Moreover, even in the part we can examine, we can see traces of two other cryptograms in column 66 and columns 72–73, adding strength to the argument that different scrolls have been cannibalized to recreate this one.
If both the argument from silence (the absence of references to the Abisha scroll before the 14th century) and the argument from paleography refute the claim that the Abisha scroll actually comes from the hand of Aaron’s great-grandson, there is additional evidence in the language of the cryptogram itself. The words “on them be the favor of the Lord” indicate that the cryptogram was written in the Islamic world, for that particular phrasing was borrowed by the Samaritans from Islam.22 Thus it could not have been written earlier than the seventh century.

While we can thus dismiss out of hand the claim that Abisha, great-grandson of Aaron inscribed the tashqil, we are left with a mystery as to just who and what is described in the cryptogram. Perhaps it was another Abisha, with the same name and forebears, who lived 2,000 years later. Castro takes this position and argues for an unknown Abisha in the 11th century, suggesting that all that has happened is that 1,000 years has been dropped out of the dating in the cryptogram of the scroll, as sometimes happens in Samaritan dating systems, and that there was no intent to deceive. However, we know of no such Abisha in the 11th century, and the careful wording of the remainder of the cryptogram is against such an accidental dropping of a number.

Another scholar argues that the 13th year refers to a hiatus in the high priesthood in the 13th century C.E., when the priesthood of Shechem (modern Nablus) was assumed by Ithamar ben Amram of Damascus, the 13th year referring to the 13th year after this event.23 Still another scholar argues that the Abisha scroll is connected with the Stone Synagogue from which it was carried on the day of the earthquake.24 This Stone Synagogue was the pride and joy of the Samaritans, for it was built by their high priest Aqbun in the third or fourth century C.E. and served as a substitute for the temple, destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 B.C.E. Although it was confiscated by Zeno in the fifth century (after the revolt of 484), it was returned to them by the early Fatimid caliphs in the 11th century and rebuilt by the Samaritan patron, Ab Gillujah of Tyre. It then remained in Samaritan hands until lost to the Muslims in the 14th century.

Another possibility is that the 13th year refers to a return to the Promised Land from Damascus in the middle of the 12th century, a date that more or less coincides with our paleographic evidence. In 1137 some 500 Samaritan men, women and children, perhaps half the Samaritan population of Shechem, were abducted by one Bazwadj, the general of the Damascene army. They were ransomed by a very wealthy Samaritan, Ab Gillujah of Acre, and returned home. This homecoming by such a substantial part of the population may well have been likened to the entry to the Promised Land and a sign of God’s redemption and grace. 25 According to the Samaritan chronicles, this same Ab Gillujah rebuilt the Stone Synagogue and equipped it with trumpets for announcing the festive days and for summoning the faithful, as had been the case in the old Samaritan temple. We must assume that the restored Stone Synagogue was provided with a scroll or scrolls for worship.

It was in this period that a literary revival took place and numerous scrolls were written for newly refurbished Samaritan synagogues.26 The chronicles tell us, too, that Ab Gillujah financed other building works, including an aqueduct for the community in Awerta. The era of prosperity after their return from captivity might well have given the impression that the days of Divine Displeasure were over and the Days of Divine Favor were at hand, as suggested in the famous cryptogram. lf we assume that 13 years after the return from Damascus was the period when the synagogue was rebuilt and furnished with a scroll, we arrive at a date of around 1150 for the new scroll for the Stone Synagogue. lf my judgment is correct, this jibes well with the paleographic evidence as the date for the writing of the Abisha scroll.

Unfortunately, we know of no Abisha in the 12th century. It may be, of course, that there was one, unknown to us from any other source.27 Perhaps the scribe, whoever he was, wanted to remain anonymous by adopting the name of a famous antecedent, writing as he was in an environment that might again turn hostile. The cryptogram might well have been phrased to remind the people that they had been restored to their homes 13 years earlier and that, for the first time since the Byzantine era, they were in possession of their great Stone Synagogue and former temple substitute, on the slopes of Mt. Gerizim, and that fortune appeared to be smiling upon the community after very hard times indeed.28

Whatever the truth, the Abisha scroll is indeed old—or at least parts of it are—and must rank as one of the oldest Torah scrolls in the world.

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