For the past 30 years, Israeli Judaic scholar Menachem Cohen has been on a mission of biblical proportions: Correcting all known textual errors in Jewish scripture to produce a truly definitive edition of the Old Testament.
Though his edits won't mean much to the average reader – they focus primarily on grammatical blemishes and an intricate set of biblical symbols – it marks the first major overhaul of the Hebrew Bible in nearly 500 years.
Poring over thousands of medieval manuscripts, the 84-year-old Cohen identified 1,500 inaccuracies in the Hebrew language texts that have been corrected in his completed 21-volume set. The final chapter is set to be published next year.
The massive project highlights how Judaism venerates each tiny biblical calligraphic notation as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the holy book.
According to Jewish law, a Torah scroll is considered void if even a single letter is incorrect or misplaced. Cohen does not call for changes in the writing of the sacred Torah scrolls used in Jewish rites, which would likely set off a firestorm of objection and criticism. Instead, he is aiming for accuracy in versions used for study by the Hebrew-reading masses.
For the people of the book, Cohen said, there was no higher calling.
"The people of Israel took upon themselves, at least in theory, one version of the Bible, down to its last letter," Cohen said, in his office at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
The last man to undertake the challenge was Jacob Ben-Hayim, who published the Mikraot Gedolot, or Great Scriptures, in Venice in 1525. His version, which unified the religion's varying texts and commentaries under a single umbrella, has remained the standard for generations, appearing to this day on bookshelves of observant Jews the world over.