SOFERIM (Heb. סוֹפְרִים; "scribes"). Although the word soferim is identical with the biblical word translated scribes and dealt with under that heading, during the Second Temple period the word came to denote a specific class of scholars. The exact meaning and delineation of the group involved is a matter of controversy. According to Nachman Krochmal (Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman, section 11), Frankel (Mishnah pp. 3ff.), Weiss (Dor, 1 (19044), ch. 6ff.), and others, the era of the soferim of the Talmud commenced in the time of Ezra and continued until the time of Simeon the Just, who was the last of the men of the Great Synagogue. These scribes, whose names are not known and who were active during the time of the Persian rule, laid the foundations of the
: they instituted regulations in the social and religious spheres, explained to the people the Torah and its precepts distinctly and gave the sense (Neh. 8:8). They taught the halakhot and the traditions in close connection with the study of the Bible and deduced new halakhot through the interpretation of the written text. They read the Written Law, interpreted its content, and integrated into it the traditional halakhot as well as the laws that had been derived from it. As a result of the activities of the soferim the Torah ceased to be the heritage of the priests and levites alone. From among the many pupils they educated, scholars arose from all classes.
Several of these scholars considered the soferim also to be the founders and members of the Great Synagogue, and attribute to the period between Ezra the Scribe and Simeon the Just all those traditions and halakhot designated as mikra soferim ("scribal reading"), ittur soferim ("scribal embellishment," Ned. 37b),
("scribal emendation," Gen. R. 49:7; Theodor-Albeck p. 505), dikdukei soferim ("details of the scribes," Suk. 28a), and divrei soferim ("the words of the scribes," Sanh. 88b). They find support for their views in the talmudic statement, "The early scholars were called soferim because they used to count [sofer also means 'to count'] all the letters of the Torah. Thus they said that the vav in gaḥon (Lev. 11:42) marks the middle letter of the Torah" (Kid. 30a); i.e., the scribes scrutinized and were meticulous with the text of the Bible and its transmission. Similarly: "Why are they called soferim? Because they enumerated the laws according to numbers [sefurot], e.g., five may not separate terumah; five are obliged to take *ḥallah," etc. (TJ, Shek. 5:1). The passage which follows combines two meanings: that the scribes counted the letters of the Bible and taught the halakhot or mishnayot in numerical form (cf. also Ḥag. 15b, Sanh. 106b). Kaufmann in his Toledot ha-Emunah ha-Yisre'elit (vol. 4 pt. 1, 276ff. and 481ff.), however, has proved beyond question that there is no evidence in the Talmuds for an era of the soferim, and talmudic tradition does not attribute a single law to this era. The first Mishnah of Avot has no reference whatsoever to soferim or to generations of soferim. Though the Talmud does mention regulations by Ezra and by the men of the Great Synagogue, it does not attribute any decrees or halakhah to scribes between Ezra and the tannaitic era. The word sofer in both talmudic and later literature is used as a general designation for Torah scholars and copyists from various eras and of different categories. In Ben Sira (39:1–11) the honorable status of the scribe is described. In the Apocrypha and in the New Testament, scribes appear side by side with other notables (see I Macc. 7:12–13; Test. Patr. Levi 8:17; Jos. Ant. 12:142; Luke 11:42–52; etc.). The designation scribes is equivalent to sages and elders, but in several places it alludes to holders of offices in the Temple and in the courts. The meaning of the term varies similarly in talmudic literature. Thus, from the passage in Sotah (15a) where Rabban Gamaliel said to the scholars, "Scribes! permit me and I shall expound it allegorically like a jewel," scribes are identical with the scholars. In another passage, however, R. Eliezer the Great says: "Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the scholars began to be like scribes, and the scribes like *ḥazzanim," etc. (Sot. 9:15), and from this it seems that the status of the scribes was regarded as being lower than that of scholars. In Leviticus Rabbah 9:2 (and parallels) the soferim are referred to as teachers of Bible in contrast to mashnim, teachers of the Mishnah. The phrase "the words of the scribes" in the talmudic sources always refers to the statements of earlier scholars of the Oral Law, and can refer to statements from those attributed to Moses to those of the generation immediately preceding the compilation of the Mishnah (cf. e.g., Yev. 2:4 with Yev. 21a; Or. 3:9 with Kid. 38a; Tosef. Ta'an. 2:6; and Maim. Comm. Kel. 17:12). The sages emphasized the need to heed the words of the soferim: "My son! Be more heedful of the words of the soferim than of those of the Written Law[Torah]. For the words of the Torah contain positive and negative injunctions (for the transgression of which there is no death penalty) but whoever transgresses the words of the scribes incurs the penalty of death" (Er. 21b; cf. TJ, Ber. 1:5, 3b). The purpose of stringency was to prevent their doctrines being regarded as of secondary importance (cf. Tosef. Ta'an. 2:6, and parallels): "These are the words of the Torah, and the words of Torah do not need strengthening, but those are the words of the soferim and the words of the soferim require strengthening." They even went so far as to state that God showed Moses the dikdukei Torah and the dikdukei soferim and the innovations which the soferim would introduce in the future (Meg. 19b).