Bible – origin of chapters and verses

Torah_scribe (1)There was a time when Biblical chapters and verses did not exist. There was no way of accurately pinpointing a verse except by indicating whether it was from Bereishis or Shemos, or perhaps mentioning that it was at the beginning or end of a weekly Sidra. To locate pesukim in olden times, you had to have a basic knowledge of the entire Tanach. Even though Hashem gave us the Torah divided into parshiyos (identifiable by gaps at the beginning or middle of lines) and pesukim, no one ever ascribed numbers to them, and the Sedarim later used in the three year Krias HaTorah cycle and the fifty-four weekly sidros used in our time were identified by name and never by number. Furthermore, no one ever created a chapter system based on the seven aliyos of the weekly parshiyos.

A Church Invention
Credit for dividing the Tanach into convenient chapter and verse generally goes to Cardinal Stephen Langton of France and England, who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is thought to have created the chapters and verses in about 1205, which are used until this day. This was not too difficult a job since 617 out of his 779 chapters coincide with the parshiyos that existed since Sinai, while of the 162 chapters that he invented, many are illogical, while some border on the heretical.

Initially, even Langton never tampered with the Bible itself. The innovative chapters and every fi fth verse were noted in the margins. The fi rst person to break up the Hebrew text was the non-Jewish Biblical scholar, Arias Montanus in his 1571 Antwerp Bible. The Bible was broken into chapters and each verse was numbered and started anew in the margin, effectively destroying the ancient system of parshiyos. Lending an even greater air of authenticity to the new system was the invention of gematriyos for the invasive chapters and their addition to the traditional gematriyos of verses and parshiyos found at the end of each Biblical sefer. For example, at the end of Bereishis, we nowadays fi nd the following:

“The number of verses in Sefer Bereishis is 1,534 and the hint to this is [the gematriya of the verse], Ach laShemIts parshiyos are 12 and the hint to this is, Zeh shmi le’olam… Its chapters are 50 and the hint to this is, Hashem Choneinu, lecha kivinu (Yeshayahu 33:2)….”

Langton was also probably responsible for dividing the Tanach into the books commonly found in modern Tanachs. These replace the twenty-four seforim of the Tanach mentioned by Chazal with thirty-nine books. Where do the extra fi fteen books come from? Based on the division of the Septuagint, he divided the Nevi’im Ketanim, which Chazal count as one into twelve separate books (thus creating eleven new books), and he divided the books of Shmuel, Melochim, Divrei Hayomim, and Nechemiah into two books respectively, thus creating four new books, Shmuel II, Melochim II, Divrei Hayomim II, and Ezra.

Making it Jewish
How did the Christian chapters and verses reach the Jews? The first Jew to utilize this system in a manuscript was probably Rav Shlomo ben Yishmael who did so in about 1330, explaining that that this was a great bonus during the theological disputations of the times.

“These are the chapters, known as kapitels, invented by the non-Jews for the twenty-four books, and the names of the twenty-four books in their tongue, which we copied from them so that a person should be able to give them a quick reply to their questions that they ask us every day regarding our belief and the holy Torah, when they cite proofs from Torah verses, the Nevi’im, or other seforim, and say to us – see and read in that book regarding that verse of that chapter, and we do not know what the chapters are in order to provide a swift answer. Therefore, I copied them.”

Another early Jew who used the system was the grammarian Avrohom di Balmus, who utilized it in his 1523 work, Mikneh Avrohom. A year later, Rav Yitzchak bar Noson used the chapter and verse notations in his Hebrew Concordance, Meir Nesiv, which is based on the Christian Concordances of the thirteenth century, and in its introduction he explains why it utilizes the non-Jewish chapters and verses: “Every day I used to be in contact with Christianscholars… and they demanded that I answer them. Among their books, I found a book called the Bible Concordance… and with that book, there was not one argument I could not refute. Therefore, I loved it to the extent that I brought it to my beis medrash and decided to copy it… into our language… And in order that to emulate it and make it easy to find any verse required in two languages, I wrote all the twenty- four according to the numbers of the Christians so that it need not be an effort to find what we want there.”

The chapter and verse system became almost irreversibly entrenched after the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, published his famous Mikra’os Gedolos of 1518. Its editor, Chacham Yaakov ben Chaim of Tunisia explained in his introduction that he was forced to utilize Rav Yitzchak bar Noson’s Concordance to write his textual notes where he compares verses to one another, since without its clear chapter and verse system, it would be impossible for readers to know which verses he was referring to; there is a possibility that Ben Chaim himself was unaware of the system’s Christian roots.

With the widespread dissemination of the popular Mikra’os Gedolos throughout the Jewish world, the chapter and verse system spread like wildfire and few people except the historically minded were aware of its Christian origins. Based on the new system’s 150 chapters in Tehillim, a new saying developed among those who complained about people saying them without kavonoh, “Do not look at the kankan (Kuf Nun – 150), but at what is contained in it.” This was not surprising, as at much the same time, Daniel Bomberg’s press was standardizing the pagination of the Talmud with his Shas printed in 1519/20, which meant that a daf Gemara could now be cited by page and not, as beforehand, by citing the chapter in which the daf was found.

An Unheeded Protest
Christian chapterization of the Bible is of three kinds. First, an effort is made to keep chapters between thirty and fifty verses; in Sefer Iyov, long speeches and discussions are often cut in half to achieve this goal. Chapters are often cut short at the wrong places out of ignorance. Parshas Va’Eira, Parshas Balak, and Parshas Matos, for example, begin at verse 2, due to chopping off verse 1 and making it part of the previous parsha. Parshas Bechukosai begins at verse three for the same reason. Chapter divisions sometimes reflect Christian beliefs. For example, the first chapter of Bereishis ends at the end of the sixth day, leaving Vayechulu for chapter two, in order to deflate the significance of Shabbos as the end of the week. This is a reflection of the Christian shifting of the Sabbath day to Sunday and in contradiction to the Mishnah, (Taanis 4:1) which tells us that when the anshei ma’amad (Jews present during the sacrificial avodah in the Bais Hamikdosh) read ma’aseh Bereishis, Vayechulu was included as well.

The greatest antagonist to this state of affairs was Rav Pesach Finfer, a dayan and poseik in Vilna, who, after writing a few newspaper articles about the matter from 1903, published a full-fledged sefer, Mesores HaTorah V’Hanevi’im in 1906. He gained some measure of support. Rav Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz of Yerushalayim (the Aderes) wrote in a haskoma that, “It is very surprising that the Torah giants in preceding generations have not been aroused… Regarding the notation of chapters… it would certainly be a great mitzvah to alter it and make numbers in places where they truly belong.”

Rav Finfer has his own theory of how the Christian chapters and verses arose. “In earlier times,” he writes, “their priests wanted to snare people and convert them, and they decreed that Jews should come and hear the priests’ sermons. To help the priests find verses they needed, they made a Concordance where it was necessary to indicate the chapters and verses, and thus, they divided the Tanach into chapters” (page 46).

As to why the Jews never made a similar system based on the traditional parshiyos and verses, he explains, “The baalei Mesorah, and rabbis expert in aggadah and halachah, were experts in Tanach and if someone mentioned a word or two, and even more so an unusual word, they knew and identified the verse and its place with no need to seek for it at all” (page 47).

Rav Finfer condemns the chapter and verse system and insists that it should be abandoned. “We have been disgraced. Strangers have entered our sanctuary and desecrated the Torah. The blind (Ivrim) have become teachers of the Hebrews (Ivrim)… Whoever says something wise, even among the nations, is called a wise person (Megilla 16), for there is wisdom in the nations. But these kapitels are a labor and not a wisdom, filled with error and confusion, in contradiction of the style, words, and subject, and against the division made by Moshe and Ezra according to the tradition of the baalei hamesorah. And according to halachah in the Gemara, it is forbidden to interrupt [during Kri’as HaTorah] at the end of a kapitel when it is near an open or closed parsha…

On many occasions, I have quarreled with the public readers in small shuls who transgress the halachah by beginning and finishing one or two verses near a parsha…

Rav Finfer explains that he does not condemn the dapim of Shas created by the Christian Daniel Bomberg because they are so widely referenced that it is impossible to change them, do not contradict any mesorah of Chazal, and preserving the uniformity of the daf is a useful memory aid.

The chapter and verse system is so entrenched that short of inventing a new system and reprinting the whole Shas and thousands of seforim of the past few centuries, there is little one can to uproot it altogether. Nonetheless, many modern Tanachs are printed according to the parshiyos of old and relegate the Christian chapter and verse notation to the margins.

(Sources: Weingarten, Shmuel Hakohen. Chalukas HaTorah Li’perokim. Sinai 42, 5718)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.