The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the 24 books of Tanakh in Rabbinic Judaism. The Masoretic Text defines the Jewish canon and its precise letter-text, with its vocalization and accentuation known as the Masorah. It was primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era.
The oldest extant manuscripts date from around the 9th century. The Aleppo Codex dates from the 10th century.
The ancient Hebrew word mesorah broadly refers to the whole chain of Jewish tradition, which is claimed to be unchanged and infallible. Referring to the Masoretic Text, mesorah specifically means the diacritic markings of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures and the concise marginal notes in manuscripts of the Tanakh which note textual details, usually about the precise spelling of words.
Modern scholars seeking to understand the history of the Old Testament use a range of sources other than the Masoretic Text. These include early Greek and Syriac translations, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls and quotations from rabbinic manuscripts. Most of these are older than the oldest surviving Masoretic text and occasionally present notable differentiations. Which of the three commonly known versions is closest to the theoretical Urtext is disputed. The text of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Peshitta reads somewhat in-between the Masoretic Text and the old Greek. Although the consonants of the Masoretic Text differ little from some Qumran texts of the early 2nd century, it has many differences of both great and lesser significance when compared to the manuscripts of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures that was in popular use by Jews in Egypt and the Holy Land. A recent finding of a short Leviticus fragment, recovered from the ancient En-Gedi Scroll, carbon-dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE, is completely identical with the Masoretic Text.
The Masoretic Text was used as the basis for translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles such as the King James Version and American Standard Version and for some versions of Catholic Bibles, replacing the Vulgate translation, although the Vulgate had itself already been revised in light of the Masoretic text in the 1500s.
Origin and transmissionThe Talmud and Karaite manuscripts state that a standard copy of the Hebrew Bible was kept in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem for the benefit of copyists; there were paid correctors of Biblical books among the officers of the Temple. This copy is mentioned in the Letter of Aristeas, in the statements of Philo, and in Josephus.
A Talmudic story, perhaps referring to an earlier time, relates that three Torah scrolls were found in the Temple court but were at variance with each other. The differences were then resolved by majority decision among the three.
Second Temple periodThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, dating from, shows that in this period there was not the scrupulous uniformity of text that was so stressed in later centuries. According to Menachem Cohen, the Dead Sea scrolls decided these issues 'by showing that there was indeed a Hebrew text-type on which the Septuagint-translation was based and which differed substantially from the received MT'. The scrolls show numerous small variations in orthography, both as against the later Masoretic text, and between each other. It is also evident from the notings of corrections and of variant alternatives that scribes felt free to choose according to their personal taste and discretion between different readings.
However, despite these variations, most of the Qumran fragments can be classified as being closer to the Masoretic text than to any other text group that has survived. According to Lawrence Schiffman, 60% can be classed as being of proto-Masoretic type, and a further 20% Qumran style with a basis in proto-Masoretic texts, compared to 5% proto-Samaritan type, 5% Septuagintal type, and 10% non-aligned. Joseph Fitzmyer noted the following regarding the findings at Qumran Cave 4 in particular: "Such ancient recensional forms of Old Testament books bear witness to an unsuspected textual diversity that once existed; these texts merit far greater study and attention than they have been accorded till now. Thus, the differences in the Septuagint are no longer considered the result of a poor or tendentious attempt to translate the Hebrew into the Greek; rather they testify to a different pre-Christian form of the Hebrew text". On the other hand, some of the fragments conforming most accurately to the Masoretic text were found in Cave 4.
Rabbinic periodAn emphasis on minute details of words and spellings, already used among the Pharisees as basis for argumentation, reached its height with the example of Rabbi Akiva. The idea of a perfect text sanctified in its consonantal base quickly spread throughout the Jewish communities via supportive statements in Halakha, Aggadah, and Jewish thought; and with it increasingly forceful strictures that a deviation in even a single letter would make a Torah scroll invalid. Very few manuscripts are said to have survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This both drastically reduced the number of variants in circulation, and gave a new urgency that the text must be preserved. New Greek translations were also made. Unlike the Septuagint, large-scale deviations in sense between the Greek of Aquila of Sinope and Theodotion and what we now know as the Masoretic text are minimal. Detailed variations between different Hebrew texts in use still clearly existed though, as witnessed by differences between the present-day Masoretic text and versions mentioned in the Gemara, and often even halachic midrashim based on spelling versions which do not exist in the current Masoretic text.
The Age of the MasoretesThe current received text finally achieved predominance through the reputation of the Masoretes, schools of scribes and Torah scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries, based primarily in the cities of Tiberias, Jerusalem, and in Babylonia under the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates. According to Menachem Cohen these schools developed such prestige for the accuracy and error-control of their copying techniques that their texts established an authority beyond all others. Differences remained, sometimes bolstered by systematic local differences in pronunciation and cantillation. Every locality, following the tradition of its school, had a standard codex embodying its readings. In Babylonia the school of Sura differed from that of Nehardea; and similar differences existed in the schools of the Land of Israel as against that at Tiberias, which in later times increasingly became the chief seat of learning. In this period living tradition ceased, and the Masoretes in preparing their codices usually followed the one school or the other, examining, however, standard codices of other schools and noting their differences.
Ben Asher and Ben NaphtaliIn the first half of the 10th century Aaron ben Moses ben Asher and Ben Naphtali were the leading Masoretes in Tiberias. Their names have come to symbolise the variations among Masoretes, but the differences between ben Asher and ben Naphtali should not be exaggerated. There are hardly any differences between them regarding the consonants, though they differ more on vocalization and accents. Also, there were other authorities such as Rabbi Pinchas and Moshe Moheh, and ben Asher and ben Naphtali often agree against these others. Further, it is possible that all variations found among manuscripts eventually came to be regarded as disagreements between these figureheads. Ben Asher wrote a standard codex embodying his opinions. Probably ben Naphtali did too, but it has not survived.
It has been suggested that there never was an actual "ben Naphtali"; rather, the name was chosen to designate any tradition different from ben Asher's.
Ben Asher was the last of a distinguished family of Masoretes extending back to the latter half of the 8th century. Despite the rivalry of ben Naphtali and the opposition of Saadia Gaon, the most eminent representative of the Babylonian school of criticism, ben Asher's codex became recognized as the standard text of the Bible. See Aleppo Codex, Codex Cairensis.
Most of the secular scholars conclude that Aaron ben Asher was a Karaite, though there is evidence against this view.
The Middle AgesThe two rival authorities, ben Asher and ben Naphtali, practically brought the Masorah to a close. Very few additions were made by the later Masoretes, styled in the 13th and 14th centuries Naḳdanim, who revised the works of the copyists, added the vowels and accents and frequently the Masorah.
Considerable influence in the development and spread of Masoretic literature was exercised during the eleventh, twelfth, and 13th centuries by the Franco-German school of Tosafists. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, his brother Machir ben Judah, Joseph ben Samuel Bonfils of Limoges, Rabbeinu Tam, Menahem ben Perez of Joigny, Perez ben Elijah of Corbeil, Marne, Judah ben Isaac Messer Leon, Meïr Spira, and Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg made Masoretic compilations, or additions to the subject, which are all more or less frequently referred to in the marginal glosses of Biblical codices and in the works of Hebrew grammarians.
MasorahBy long tradition, a ritual Sefer Torah could contain only the Hebrew consonantal text – nothing added, nothing taken away. The Masoretic codices however, provide extensive additional material, called masorah, to show correct pronunciation and cantillation, protect against scribal errors, and annotate possible variants. The manuscripts thus include vowel points, pronunciation marks and stress accents in the text, short annotations in the side margins, and longer more extensive notes in the upper and lower margins and collected at the end of each book.
These notes were added because the Masoretes recognized the possibility of human error in copying the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes were not working with the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible and corruptions had already crept into the versions they copied.
EtymologyThe Hebrew word masorah is taken from the Book of Ezekiel 20:37 and means originally "legcuffs". The fixation of the text was considered to be in the nature of legcuffs upon its exposition. When, in the course of time, the Masorah had become a traditional discipline, the term became connected with the verb "to hand down" and acquired the general meaning of "tradition."
Language and formThe language of the Masoretic notes is primarily Aramaic but partly Hebrew. The Masoretic annotations are found in various forms: in separate works, e.g., the Oklah we-Oklah; in the form of notes written in the margins and at the end of codices. In rare cases, the notes are written between the lines. The first word of each Biblical book is also as a rule surrounded by notes. The latter are called the Initial Masorah; the notes on the side margins or between the columns are called the Small or Inner Masorah ; and those on the lower and upper margins, the Large or Outer Masorah. The name "Large Masorah" is applied sometimes to the lexically arranged notes at the end of the printed Bible, usually called the Final Masorah,, or the Masoretic Concordance.
The Small Masorah consists of brief notes with reference to marginal readings, to statistics showing the number of times a particular form is found in Scripture, to full and defective spelling, and to abnormally written letters. The Large Masorah is more copious in its notes. The Final Masorah comprises all the longer rubrics for which space could not be found in the margin of the text, and is arranged alphabetically in the form of a concordance. The quantity of notes the marginal Masorah contains is conditioned by the amount of vacant space on each page. In the manuscripts it varies also with the rate at which the copyist was paid and the fanciful shape he gave to his gloss.
In most manuscripts, there are some discrepancies between the text and the masorah, suggesting that they were copied from different sources or that one of them has copying errors. The lack of such discrepancies in the Aleppo Codex is one of the reasons for its importance; the scribe who copied the notes, presumably Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, probably wrote them originally.
Numerical MasorahIn classical antiquity, copyists were paid for their work according to the number of s. As the prose books of the Bible were hardly ever written in stichs, the copyists, in order to estimate the amount of work, had to count the letters. For the Masoretic Text, such statistical information more importantly also ensured accuracy in the transmission of the text with the production of subsequent copies that were done by hand.
Hence the Masoretes contributed the Numerical Masorah. These notes are traditionally categorized into two main groups, the marginal Masorah and the final Masorah. The category of marginal Masorah is further divided into the Masorah parva in the outer side margins and the Masorah magna, traditionally located at the top and bottom margins of the text.
The Masorah parva is a set of statistics in the outer side margins of the text. Beyond simply counting the letters, the Masorah parva consists of word-use statistics, similar documentation for expressions or certain phraseology, observations on full or defective writing, references to the Kethiv-Qere readings and more. These observations are also the result of a passionate zeal to safeguard the accurate transmission of the sacred text.
Even though often cited as very exact, the Masoretic "frequency notes" in the margin of Codex Leningradiensis contain several errors.
The Masorah magna, in measure, is an expanded Masorah parva. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia includes an apparatus referring the reader to the large Masorah, which is printed separately.
The final Masorah is located at the end of biblical books or after certain sections of the text, such as at the end of the Torah. It contains information and statistics regarding the number of words in a book or section, etc. Thus, Book of Leviticus 8:23 is the middle verse in the Pentateuch. The collation of manuscripts and the noting of their differences furnished material for the Text-Critical Masorah. The close relation which existed in earlier times between the teacher of tradition and the Masorete, both frequently being united in one person, accounts for the Exegetical Masorah. Finally, the invention and introduction of a graphic system of vocalization and accentuation gave rise to the Grammatical Masorah.
The most important of the Masoretic notes are those that detail the Qere and Ketiv that are located in the Masorah parva in the outside margins of BHS. Given that the Masoretes would not alter the sacred consonantal text, the Kethiv-Qere notes were a way of "correcting" or commenting on the text for any number of reasons deemed important by the copyist.
Fixing of the textThe earliest labors of the Masoretes included standardizing division of the text into books, sections, paragraphs, verses, and clauses ; the fixing of the orthography, pronunciation, and cantillation; the introduction or final adoption of the square characters with the five final letters; some textual changes to guard against blasphemy and the like ; the enumeration of letters, words, verses, etc., and the substitution of some words for others in public reading.
Since no additions were allowed to be made to the official text of the Bible, the early Masoretes adopted other expedients: e.g., they marked the various divisions by spacing, and gave indications of halakic and haggadic teachings by full or defective spelling, abnormal forms of letters, dots, and other signs. Marginal notes were permitted only in private copies, and the first mention of such notes is found in the case of R. Meïr.
Scribal emendations – ''Tikkune Soferim''Early rabbinic sources, from around 200 CE, mention several passages of Scripture in which the conclusion is inevitable that the ancient reading must have differed from that of the present text. The explanation of this phenomenon is given in the expression "Scripture has used euphemistic language", i.e. to avoid anthropomorphism and anthropopathism.
Rabbi Simon ben Pazzi calls these readings "emendations of the Scribes", assuming that the Scribes actually made the changes. This view was adopted by the later Midrash and by the majority of Masoretes. In Masoretic works these changes are ascribed to Ezra; to Ezra and Nehemiah; to Ezra and the Soferim; or to Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah, Haggai, and Baruch. All these ascriptions mean one and the same thing: that the changes were assumed to have been made by the Men of the Great Synagogue.
The term tikkun Soferim has been understood by different scholars in various ways. Some regard it as a correction of Biblical language authorized by the Soferim for homiletical purposes. Others take it to mean a mental change made by the original writers or redactors of Scripture; i.e. the latter shrank from putting in writing a thought which some of the readers might expect them to express.
The assumed emendations are of four general types:
- Removal of unseemly expressions used in reference to God; e.g., the substitution of for in certain passages.
- Safeguarding of the Tetragrammaton; e.g. substitution of "Elohim" or "Adonai" for "YHWH" in some passages.
- Removal of application of the names of pagan gods, e.g. the change of the name "Ishbaal" to "Ish-bosheth."
- Safeguarding the unity of divine worship at Jerusalem.
Mikra and ittur
Suspended letters and dotted wordsThere are four words having one of their letters suspended above the line. One of them, מנשה, is due to an alteration of the original משה out of reverence for Moses; rather than say that Moses' grandson became an idolatrous priest, a suspended letter nun was inserted to turn Mosheh into Menasheh. The origin of the other three is doubtful. According to some, they are due to mistaken majuscular letters; according to others, they are later insertions of originally omitted weak consonants.
In fifteen passages within the Bible, some words are stigmatized; i.e., dots appear above the letters. The significance of the dots is disputed. Some hold them to be marks of erasure; others believe them to indicate that in some collated manuscripts the stigmatized words were missing, hence that the reading is doubtful; still others contend that they are merely a mnemonic device to indicate homiletic explanations which the ancients had connected with those words; finally, some maintain that the dots were designed to guard against the omission by copyists of text-elements which, at first glance or after comparison with parallel passages, seemed to be superfluous. Instead of dots some manuscripts exhibit strokes, vertical or else horizontal. The first two explanations are unacceptable for the reason that such faulty readings would belong to Qere and Ketiv, which, in case of doubt, the majority of manuscripts would decide. The last two theories have equal probability.
Inverted lettersIn nine passages of the Masoretic Text are found signs usually called inverted nuns, because they resemble the Hebrew letter nun written in some inverted fashion. The exact shape varies between different manuscripts and printed editions. In many manuscripts, a reversed nun is found referred to as a nun hafucha by the masoretes. In some earlier printed editions, they are shown as the standard nun upside down or rotated, because the printer did not want to bother to design a character to be used only nine times. The recent scholarly editions of the Masoretic Text show the reversed nun as described by the masoretes. In some manuscripts, however, other symbols are occasionally found instead. These are sometimes referred to in rabbinical literature as simaniyot.
The primary set of inverted nuns is found surrounding the text of Numbers 10:35–36. The Mishna notes that this text is 85 letters long and dotted. This demarcation of this text leads to the later use of the inverted nun markings. Saul Lieberman demonstrated that similar markings can be found in ancient Greek texts where they are also used to denote 'short texts'. During the Medieval period, the inverted nuns were actually inserted into the text of the early Rabbinic Bibles published by Bomberg in the early 16th century. The talmud records that the markings surrounding were thought to denote that this 85 letter text was not in its proper place.
Bar Kappara considered the Torah known to us as composed of seven volumes in the Gemara "The seven pillars with which Wisdom built her house are the seven Books of Moses". Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy as we know them but Numbers was really three separate volumes followed by and the third text from there to the end of Numbers.
The 85 letter text is also said to be denoted because it is the model for the least number of letters which constitute a 'text' which one would be required to save from fire due to its holiness.
History of the MasorahThe history of the Masorah may be divided into three periods: creative period, from its beginning to the introduction of vowel-signs; reproductive period, from the introduction of vowel-signs to the printing of the Masorah ; critical period, from 1525 to the present time.
The materials for the history of the first period are scattered remarks in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, in the post-Talmudical treatises Masseket Sefer Torah and Masseket Soferim, and in a Masoretic chain of tradition found in ben Asher's Diḳduḳe ha-Ṭe'amim, § 69 and elsewhere.
Critical study, having collated a vast number of manuscripts, systematized his material and arranged the Masorah in the second Bomberg edition of the Bible. Besides introducing the Masorah into the margin, he compiled at the close of his Bible a concordance of the Masoretic glosses for which he could not find room in a marginal form, and added an elaborate introduction – the first treatise on the Masorah ever produced. Due to its wide distribution, and in spite of its many errors, this work is frequently considered as the textus receptus of the Masorah. It was also used for the English translation of the Old Testament for the King James Version.
Next to Ibn Adoniyah, the critical study of the Masorah has been most advanced by Elia Levita, who published his famous "Massoret ha-Massoret" in 1538. The Tiberias of the elder Johannes Buxtorf made Levita's researches more accessible to a Christian audience. The eighth introduction to Walton's Polyglot Bible is largely a reworking of the Tiberias. Levita compiled likewise a vast Masoretic concordance, Sefer ha-Zikronot, which still lies in the National Library at Paris unpublished. The study is indebted also to R. Meïr b. Todros ha-Levi, who, as early as the 13th century, wrote his Sefer Massoret Seyag la-Torah ; to Menahem Lonzano, who composed a treatise on the Masorah of the Pentateuch entitled "Or Torah"; and in particular to Jedidiah Norzi, whose "Minḥat Shai" contains valuable Masoretic notes based on a careful study of manuscripts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have shed new light on the history of the Masoretic Text. Many texts found there, especially those from Masada, are quite similar to the Masoretic Text, suggesting that an ancestor of the Masoretic Text was indeed extant as early as the 2nd century BCE. However, other texts, including many of those from Qumran, differ substantially, indicating that the Masoretic Text was but one of a diverse set of Biblical writings. Among the rejected books by both the Judaic and Catholic canons was found the Book of Enoch, the Community Rule, and War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness.
In a recent finding, a scroll fragment was found to be identical to the Masoretic Text. The approximately 1,700-year-old En-Gedi Scroll was found in 1970 but had not had its contents reconstructed until 2016. Researchers were able to recover 35 complete and partial lines of text from the Book of Leviticus and the text they deciphered is completely identical with the consonantal framework of the Masoretic Text. The En-Gedi scroll is the first biblical scroll to have been discovered in the holy ark of an ancient synagogue, where it would have been stored for prayers, and not in desert caves like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some important editionsThere have been very many published editions of the Masoretic Text, some of the most important being:
- Daniel Bomberg, ed. Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah, 1524–1525, Venice
- Everard van der Hooght, 1705, Amsterdam and Utrecht
- Benjamin Kennicott, 1776, Oxford
- Wolf Heidenheim, 1818, Frankfurt-am-Main
- Max Letteris, 1852; 2nd edition, 1866
- Seligman Baer and Franz Delitzsch, 1869–1895
- Christian David Ginsburg, 1894; 2nd edition, 1908–1926
- Biblia Hebraica, first two editions, 1906, 1912
- Biblia Hebraica
- Umberto Cassuto, 1953
- Norman Snaith, 1958
- Hebrew University Bible Project, 1965–
- The Koren Bible by Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 1962
- Aron Dotan, based on the Leningrad Codex but correcting obvious errors, 1976
- Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
- Mordechai Breuer
- The Jerusalem Crown, 2001
- Biblia Hebraica Quinta