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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Masoretic Notes and Treatises

The Tiberian Masoretic tradition included the writing of notes in the margins of the Bible codices. The purpose of these was to ensure the accurate transmission of the text. The notes belong to various categories. Some of these have been mentioned already in the preceding discussion. The majority relate to the orthography of the consonantal text, with special attention to the use of vowel letters. The orthographical notes are statistical in form; thus Amos 9: 9 yippol (shall fall); Masoretic note: ‘[this word occurs] seven times spelled plene’ (i.e. fully). One of the most common notes states simply that the form, at least in the orthography in which it occurs, is unique in the Bible (‘there is no [other form]’). Sometimes the note includes information on closely related forms to avoid confusion; thus 1 Chronicles 8: 6 'ehud; Masoretic note: ‘Unique, elsewhere in the Bible 'ehud (with he not ḥet) is used.’ The notes also give statistical information about the combinations of words, vocalization, accents, and forms that are unusual from the point of view of syntax or spelling. These types of notes are all written in the side margins of the text in abbreviated form (known as the Masorah Parva). At the top and bottom of the page further notes are given (known as the Masorah Magna) that elaborate on the abbreviated notes by giving the references by key words to the verses that are included in the statistics.

In medieval Palestine the reading of the Pentateuch in the liturgy was completed in a three-year cycle. For this purpose the Pentateuch was divided into 154 (according to some traditions 167) weekly portions known as sedarim. The beginning of these sedarim are marked in the early Tiberian manuscripts from Palestine. In Babylonia the reading of the Pentateuch was completed in a year by dividing it into 54 portions. There is evidence that the custom of the one-year cycle of reading also had Palestinian roots. This would support the view expressed above that the Babylonian reading tradition is closely related to the Tiberian and Palestinian ones. In the later Middle Ages the Babylonian practice of a one-year cycle of reading became the standard one in Judaism.

The Masoretic notes contain general statistical information concerning the number of verses, words, and letters in the whole Bible and also the middle word and the middle letter of books, the Pentateuch, and the Bible as a whole. These were added at the end of the texts concerned, together with other lists, in what is known as the Masorah Finalis. The purpose of this was to prevent the additions or omissions of words or even letters in the standard text.

Other items that were incorporated into the Masoretic notes include indications where the qere differs from the ketiv, the so-called sevirin (cases where a different text might be erroneously supposed—see above), differences between ‘the Easterners’ (Babylonians) and the ‘Westerners’ (Tiberians), and differences between various streams in the Tiberian Masoretic tradition. There are also references to ‘corrections of the scribes’ (tiqqune soferim) and ‘omissions of the scribes’ (‘iṭṭur soferim), which were incorporated into the Masorah from earlier Talmudic traditions. The references to differences between qere and ketiv and the gathering of statistical information concerning the biblical text are also mentioned in Talmudic literature. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) the soferim, the forebears of the Masoretes, acquired their name from the fact that they counted (Hebrew spr) all the letters of the Pentateuch. Indeed, as is shown by the translation of the word in Ezek. 20: 37 by the Greek Septuagint as ‘number’, the term masoret was probably originally understood in the sense of ‘counting’. This connection with the Talmudic interpretation of the term soferim may be more than coincidental, in that masoret may have been intended originally to refer to the activity of the soferim. Most of the elements of the Masoretic notes, in fact, can be traced back to traditions that predate the Masoretic period. The language of the Masoretic notes is also indicative of their date. The majority are in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, which was the vernacular of Jews in the Byzantine and early Arab period. A few isolated terms in the notes are in Hebrew. Some of these may be of Mishnaic origin; others appear to belong to a late layer of tradition datable to the ninth or early tenth century. At this later period the Masoretes used Hebrew also in independent treatises.

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The Masoretic notes complemented the other components of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition yet they had a certain independence of transmission, in that the notes in a manuscript did not always correspond to the text, vocalization, and accents that were copied in the same manuscript. The notes were incorporated into a printed edition in full for the first time in the sixteenth-century Second Rabbinic Bible edited by Jacob ben Hayyim.

In the late Masoretic period (ninth–tenth centuries CE) independent Masoretic treatises were written. These systematized the information dispersed in the marginal notes and also expanded on them. One of these, Diqduqe haṭe‘amim ‘The fine rules of the accents’, is attributed to Aharon ben Asher. Most, however, are anonymous. Sometimes they are attached to the end of Bible manuscripts and other times are written separately. One of the longest is Okhlah we-Okhlah, which is a series of lists of various contents, including pairs of words differing from each other in one detail. By the beginning of the eleventh century, Masoretic treatises were written in Arabic, for example Kitab al-Khulaf, ‘The book of differences [between Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali]’ by Misha'el ben ‘Uzzi’el and a treatise on the shewa. Some of these later treatise were not written by Masoretes themselves, for example Hidāyat al-Qāri ‘The guide for the reader’, which was a work by the eleventh-century Karaite 'Abu al-Faraj Harun.

One of the ways in which the Masoretic activity was expanded in this period was in the development of grammatical analysis, the rudiments of which are found in some Masoretic texts that are appended to Bible manuscripts and in works containing grammatical notes on the biblical text. After the end of the Masoretic period Hebrew grammatical thought was developed further as a separate discipline.

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