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Jewish Concepts: Masoretic Text

The Torah texts that we read today are believed by some to be the same as those given to Moses and the people of Israel by God. It is believed by scholars that the word of God and history of the Jewish people was imprinted on the minds of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Over the years as tradition was orally passed on and eventually written down, many disparities of the Torah emerged as countless scribes wrote numerous scrolls.

After being exiled from Israel, and as the Jewish Diaspora grew more widespread across the World, many Jews understood the importance of creating a single text of the Torah. This uniformity would enable the consistency of the Jewish faith outside the land of Israel. Specific scholars and scribes were chosen for this task, these men were called Masoretes. Masoretes derives its name from the word “masorah” meaning “tradition;” their ultimate goal was to uphold the traditions of the Jewish people. The Masoretes had to decipher the authentic word of God and eliminate the dissimilarities.

The Masoretes attempted to attain consistency through established rules of articulating the words and correcting spelling and reading. The Torah scroll was written, using only the consonants and no vowels or accents. Therefore, the Masoretes created a system of chanting symbols and vowel placement, so future generations would understand the proper pronunciation. The Masoretes made all spelling changes or changes to the text in the margins, because they refused to alter the original text. Finally, the Masoretes provided white spaces in between words to breakup the continuous text.

There were two schools of thought overt the rewriting of the Bible. There was the Eastern or Babylonian school and the other was a Western or Palestinian school. The Palestinian school had two branches of thought, the Ben Asher and the Ben Naphtali in Tiberias. In 930 C.E. Aaron ben Moses ben Asher produced the first complete Bible, called the Aleppo Codex, utilizing masoretic symbols and ordering. For several centuries, various Masoretes continued to influence the pronunciation and writing of the text. However, the first “official” Bible text that is still used today was the Great Rabbinic Bible, published in 1524-1525 by Daniel Bomberg (a Christian in Venice).

Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.
Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989.
Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992.