AL TIKREI (Heb. אַל תִּקְרֵי; "Do not read"), term used to denote a change in the masoretic reading of Scripture in order to give a meaning to a phrase, other than the literal one. The object of its application was not to abrogate the accepted reading or deny its literal meaning, since there is a rule that "a verse never loses its ordinary meaning." The intention of the scholars was to reveal additional meanings supporting their interpretation of the halakhah or the aggadah. The sages used various methods in applying the al tikrei:
(1) Changes in Punctuation
Biblical text is unvocalized. Hence the traditional reading can be altered by changing the punctuation, and in this way the word is given a new meaning. For example: (a) The reading in Exodus 32:16 of "ḥarut" ("graven") upon the tablets is changed to "ḥerut" ("freedom"); this enables the rabbis to derive the ethical lesson that true spiritual freedom can be attained only by fulfilling the commandments, i.e., "freedom is in the tablets." (b) The moral that "a man does not commit a transgression unless the spirit of folly enters him" is derived from turning the letter sin of tisteh ("go aside"; Num. 5:12) into a shin, making the reading "tishteh" ("shall commit folly"; Sot. 3a).
(2) Transposition of Letters
Such transposition is not unknown in the text of the Bible, e.g., kesev and keves ("sheep"), simlah and salmah ("garment"). The rabbis however extended this principle to add a new meaning to a verse. For example, by transposing the letters' of kirbam ("their inner thought") to kivram ("their grave") in Psalms 49:12, they concluded that there is no resurrection for the wicked since "their home is their grave" (MK 9b).
(3) Change of Letters
Some of the al tikrei involve change in the letters, particularly homorganic ones such as alef and ayin, ḥet and he. Thus, by reading "al" for "el" in Numbers 11:2, the verse is made to read "and Moses prayed against the Lord" upon which R. Eleazar bases the statement that man spoke presumptuously to God. In this case the transposition is justified in that "in the school of R. Eliezer b. Jacob they read alef as ayin and ayin as alef" (Ber. 32a). An example that involves both transposition of letters and change of vowels is the reading of hadrat ("majesty") as ḥerdat ("reverence") in Psalms 29:2. The lesson derived is that one should not stand up to pray except in a reverent frame of mind (cf. Ber. 30b).
I. Heinemann, Darkhei ha-Aggadah (19542), 127–9; Z.H. Chajes, Mevo ha-Talmud (1845), 52–53; A. Rosenzweig, Die Al-tikre-Deutungen (1911); enlarged offprint of the article in Festschrift… Lewy (1911), 204–53.