Commentary Navigational Aid

Types: Commentary, Navigation Aid

Masorah to the Torah:

Title

Although not entirely certain, it is generally assumed that the Hebrew word "Masorah" should be translated as "tradition," indicating the traditional text and manner of reading for the Bible.

Author

The study of Masorah has been pursued for as long as the Biblical text has existed, and it would not be correct to speak of particular "authors."

However, the selection of Masoretic notes attached to the Mikra'ot Gedolot was compiled by Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyahu, a Spanish Jew who fled to Venice via Tunisia and was employed by the printer Daniel Bomberg. For the purposes of his research, Jacob ben Hayyim travelled in search of accurate manuscripts, and had to use his critical discretion in dealing with conflicting readings.

Shortly after the completion of his work, Jacob ben Hayyim converted to Christianity.

Dates

Ibn Adoniyahu's edition of the Masorah first appeared in the second Venice edition ofd the Mikra'ot Gedolot, published in 1524-25.

Place

Toledo, Spain

Description

Because of its belief that the Bible constitutes the literal word of God and the foundation of the divine law, Judaism has taken special care to maintain the accuracy of every word and letter. This task was made more difficult by the fact that in ancient times Hebrew had no written system for indicating vowels or punctuation. In ancient times, the chief part of a child's elementary education was devoted to the memorization of the correct reading and chanting of the Bible, without which it could not be transmitted accurately over the generations.

Masorah, the science of preserving an accurate Biblical text, focuses on two main areas:

  1. The fixing of the correct written text:

    Like all written traditions, the Bible absorbed variant readings in different manuscripts, as we can observe from ancient versions such as the Septuagint and Qumran scrolls. More specific to the Hebrew Bible are the instances where the traditional manner of reading differs from the written text. As well, there are certain letters that are supposed to be written in special graphic forms; e.g., with dots over them, bent over etc. All this had to be carefully remembered.

  2. The correct oral rendering of the text:

    As noted above, most vowels could not be written, and therefore had to be meticulously memorized. This was true as well of the traditional way of chanting Biblical sections, which was precisely defined in the tradition, and which often determined the proper syntax of a difficult passage.

In ancient times these traditions were studied and transmitted as part of the oral traditions. Early in the middle ages, perhaps following models established by Muslims in connection with the Qur'an, Jewish scholars began to establish written notations in order to preserve the accuracy of the text, an endeavour that was closely tied to the emergence of systematic Hebrew grammar. Different schools of Masoretic studies arose, including the Babylonian, Palestinian and Tiberian. It was the latter system that eventually achieved universal acceptance among the Jewish communities of the world, though even within the Tiberian school there were a number of different approaches.

In their determination to maintain an exact text of the sacred scriptures, the Masoretes compiled exhaustive concordance-like lists of all the occurrences of each word, grammatical form or spelling peculiarities throughout the Bible, different formats for paragraph breaks, etc,.

The masoretic notes accompanying the Biblical texts appear in several different formats:

  1. Marginal notes are placed either in the outer margins or in the narrow spaces between columns.
  2. Summary notes at the ends of books.
As another way of assuring the accuracy of the text, the Masoretes also counted each letter, word and verse in the Bible, and in its separate books and of subsections. Summary comments are appended to the ends of each unit listing the total numbers of letters, words and verses, as well as identifying which letter, word and verse stands at the exact middle of the section.

Masoretic discourse developed its own technical vocabulary, most of it in Aramaic. It also makes extensive use of mnemonics designed to facilitate the memorization of the long lists.


Return to the Mikra\'ot Gedolot PageReturn to the Mikra'ot Gedolot Page


Return to the Talmud Page Image MapReturn to the Talmud Page Image Map