A group called the “Masoretes” (often dated to the ninth century C.E.) recorded and annotated what has become the “authentic” version of the Hebrew Scriptures. Their work is recognized today by Jewish religious leaders as being authentic. This group’s name comes from Hebrew word “MESORAH” which is ultimately from the verb “MASAR”, meaning “to hand down”. The leaders and Rabbis who busied themselves with the “MASORAH” were called the “MASORETES”. The oldest copy of the Hebrew Bible still in existence today is about 1000 years old.
The Masoretes (sometimes called “Masorites”) apparently became dissatisfied with the traditional Hebrew text since it was written without vowels, or at least only with the three consonants which can be treated as vowels (Yud, Hei, Vav). These three letters became known by their Latin name “matres lectiones”, which literally means “mother of meaning”. In other words, it was very difficult to read Hebrew without vowels until these three “helper” letters became used as vowels. They are also known in Hebrew as “Am Qiria” (mother of reading). The Yud and Vav are more often vowels than consonants.
The Masoretes used small marks, usually dots and dashes, above, below or through a letter to add additional meaning, i.e. to show how the letters are to be pronounced based on a common understood meaning or tradition. If a person ran across the letters “SHIN-MEM-sofit” in a Hebrew text, there are at least three possible pronunciations: SHEM, SHAM, SAM, each with entirely different meaning.
Thus the reader has to use the context of the sentence and paragraph to determine which is the correct pronunication. The meanings of the three words are: SHEM (there), SHAM (there) and SAM (put). Thus, a vowel was needed to distinguish between the “AH” and “EH” vowel sound, and some mark was need to distinguish between the “S” and the “SH” sound. Later, some Latin languages added similar symbols, such as the accent mark or the Spanish Tilda symbol.
This group accomplished yet another useful function. In a Torah scroll, for example, most of the sentences run together, with only an occasional white space. The Masoretes added small amounts of punctuation, basically periods and the equivalent of a hyphen. Beyond the above, they added an intricate musical system for singing the text in liturgical settings.
Sometimes, the families disagreed about various issues, such as pronunciation, and other authors even discussed their differences, and the writings of those authors are still available to study. The Masoretes weren’t the only systemizers and preservers of the scriptures, two lesser-known systems include the Babylonian system and “The Land of Israel” (“Palestinian”) system.
Today, one of the most famous bibles, produced according to the Massoretic tradition is “The Leningrad Codex”. When most people think of “The Hebrew Bible”, they are thinking of copies of this Bible. A codex, a Roman invention to replace scrolls, is similar to books we have today, basically pages joined with a cover (but obviously created long before the printing press). The Leningrade Codes is housed in the National Library of Russia, and dates to about 1009 C.E.. It is the oldest extant copy of the Hebrew Bible that includes the complete text. It is still in excellent condition after a thousand years, and contains amazing examples of medieval Jewish art.
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