This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

I’ll Take a Vowel Please *

I was trained in the old-fashioned (and now unfashionable) discipline of textual scholarship, or philology. In that spirit, I have learned to focus very precisely on minute details of ancient texts in order to squeeze out from them every possible drop of meaning, interpretation or implication. I therefore derive much gratification from reading traditional writers who were able to focus their concentration on the tiny details whose clarification is so crucial to the accurate reconstruction of the historical and cultural past.

An investigation of this kind was conducted by an Italian Jewish writer in the late sixteenth century who wanted to determine the correct spelling of a single word in the Torah. There is some confusion about the precise identity of that scholar, and he might have been either Rabbi Judah Leib Saraval or Rabbi Menahem Moscatto. I will refer to him henceforth evasively as “Our Author.”

While it is customary for traditional Jews to speak proudly of the letter-for-letter precision of our sacred scrolls, we learn from this and other examples that the Jewish Torah, though it achieved an extraordinary level of textual precision, was never quite perfect; and in earlier generations, especially before the advent of printing, it was even more fluid, although the variants were confined to matters of spelling and did not usually affect the meaning.

As is well known, the normal practice in the Hebrew language, especially in biblical texts, is to write only the consonants. Notation systems for vowels were not devised until the Middle Ages and are not included in the scrolls that are read ritually in the synagogue. Nevertheless, some consonants did perform double duty as vowel indicators, including the letter vav (pronounced as a “v” consonant) that sometimes indicates an “o” or “u” vowel.

According to the traditional orthographic convention, the name of Moses’s brother Aaron is always written in the Torah without the vav that might otherwise have indicated the “o” vowel.

...Well, almost always. There is a lone exception to that rule. In an otherwise innocuous passage in Exodus 29:15, while relating the elaborate sequence of sacrifices and other rites for the ceremony of consecrating the priests to serve in the newly erected tabernacle, scripture states that “Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands upon the head of the ram.” A longstanding tradition among Jewish Torah scribes held that this particular instance of Aaron’s name should be written with a vav— making it the only such case in the entire Torah. A rule to that effect was included in the “Masorah,” the intensely detailed scholarly annotations that were compiled in order to preserve an accurate and uniform biblical text. This exception was confirmed by Rabbi Meir Hallevi Abulafia of Burgos, Spain (died in 1224) in his influential treatise on the correct writing of Torah scrolls.

Our Author relates that he had worked as a scribe in his youth (forty years prior to writing the current work), and had been instructed at the time to insert the vav in Aaron’s name. However, he discovered later that there was no consensus on this matter. In particular, the scribes in Turkey and in oriental lands were known to omit the vav.

Therefore, in his determination to come up with a definitive ruling on the matter, Our Author conducted an extensive survey of the rabbinic opinions on the question. The results were published as an appendix to the 1746 edition of Abulafia’s compendium printed in Florence. That brief investigation provides us with an intriguing glimpse into the issues and criteria that come into play in making decisions regarding the correct text of a Torah scroll.

At the start, Our Author sets out an important principle that he will be following when choosing from among competing readings: the fact that a variant reading is cited in the Talmud or Midrash will not be accepted as evidence of its genuineness if it is contradicted by the majority of biblical texts. Rabbi David Nahmias of Salonica and Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano cited an observation found in the medieval Tosafot commentary acknowledging that the accepted readings of the Bible can at times conflict with the citations by the rabbis. Indeed, Jewish commentators had long been troubled by the contradictions between the versions of biblical texts that were cited in the the Talmud (including several that formed the basis for normative rulings) and those that were listed in the Masora.

In this connection Our Author cites several interpretations that were preserved in midrashic works but which were never accepted as normative by the copyists of biblical manuscripts. As with many statements in the Talmud, he suggests that those readings may reflect the individual opinions of their authors, but they were ultimately rejected by the authoritative majority. Our Author’s downgrading of the Talmud’s authority in this area stood in opposition to vocal objections of eminent medieval authorities such as Rabbi Solomon Ibn Adret (Rashba) that the talmudic versions should be given preference, at least in matters involving the derivation of religious law.

We now know that such discrepancies can stem from the fact that there were two competing systems of Masora: the “Eastern” one that was known to the ancient sages of the Babylonian Talmud, and the Tiberian one that eventually gained acceptance by the Jewish communities throughout the world. It has been suggested that the persistent supremacy of the Tiberian Masora might owe its tenacity to its endorsement by powerful guilds of Hebrew scribes.

Our Author believed that there was yet another kind of evidence that was to be consulted in such questions: local tradition. He reported that the rabbis of Budapest—or Budon, as it was then known—invoked the established practice of their community which strongly supported the inclusion of the vav in Aaron's name. Their community's authoritative traditions were embodied in a venerable tome that served as their exemplar for the copying of all their sacred scrolls, as well as in an oral tradition that was preserved assiduously among their local scribes.

However, local traditions also varied from place to place, and Rabbi Nahmias reported that in Salonica the unanimous practice among the expert scribes was to omit the vav. Several of the other rabbis who were consulted made a point of checking the Torah scrolls that were in use by their communities.

Does the decision to accept one reading imply that the alternative version is wrong and that the delinquent Torah scrolls must be corrected or disqualified? Our Author reports that there were differing positions concerning this question as well. The authorities of Constantinople were unbending on this point and would insert the vav into any scrolls from which it was found to be missing. However, the Hungarian rabbis in spite of their preference for the Masoretic spelling, advised that scrolls that read otherwise did not have to be emended as long as there was no clear consensus regarding the correct text. A similar approach was favoured by Rabbi Elijah Arbaro of Skopje, Macedonia, and by Rabbi Benzion Ṣarfati of the Ashkenazic community in Venice. Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano was resigned to the fact that “we have no basis for determining the correct text until the advent of the teacher of righteousness.” Therefore any scroll that in other respects is known to be accurate should not be disqualified solely on the grounds that it contains one of the controversial readings.

This degree of precision in preserving the most minute of orthographic details may be appropriate to a document that is imbued with religious sanctity. But in spite of my best intentions to keep my own writings free from errors, I could never aspire to such uncompromising standards of perfection. I therefore beg my readers’ indulgance if a few misteaks should nevertheless sneak past my vigilant editorial ayes.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Chronicles and Commentaries
Chronicles and Commentaries

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, January 24, 2014, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Leiman, Sid Z. “Masorah and Halakhah: A Study in Conflict.” In Tehillah le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg, edited by Mordechai Cogan, Barry Eichler, and Jeffrey Tigay, 291–306. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997.
    • Levy, B. Barry. Fixing God’s Torah: The Accuracy of the Hebrew Bible Text in Jewish Law. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
    • Ofer, Yosef. Babylonian Masora of the Pentateuch, Its Principles and Methods. Texts and Studies of the Academy for the Hebrew Language New Series 6. Jerusalem: Academy for the Hebrew Language and Magnes Press, 2001.
    • Ta-Shma, Israel. “The Literary Oeuvre of R. Meir Halevi Abulafia.” Kiryat Sefer 45 (1970 1969): 119–126.