Friday, August 19, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Masoretic introduction

Last week I mentioned the Masoretic text, which you probably think you know about.
But in case you never heard of it, here’s what happened. Between 600 and 800 CE, soon after Talmud was put into writing, a bunch of Jewish scholars realized that written versions of Tannakh were floating around that spelled things wrong. They had two definitions of “wrong.” One was that the vowelling and use of dagesh (google it) didn’t fit Hebrew grammar. The other was that the spelling didn’t match the oral reading in synagogue, which is  related to Jewish law.  These are the things the Masoretic scholars stuck notes on, notes which persist in Jewish Bibles.
Right away this desciption reveals several  things about the state of the Hebrew language at the time.
One is that the written text was a transcription of a spoken language. I believe I said something like this before, and if I didn’t say it on this thread, I said it on the Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew thread. This has consequences that will be important several postings from now.
Another is that the Hebrew system of vowelling had developed and was being used in manuscripts propagated to the Jewish public.
Another is that there was a Jewish public who read Tannakh privately as well as in synagogue; the Masoretic scholars wanted to make sure they were getting accurate copies.
A fourth implication is that Hebrew did not assign vowel marks randomly but in response to grammatical rules. For example, there are four Hebrew vowel marks that are pronounced “a”. Each plays a role in grammar, especially when it comes to conjugating verbs. The Masoretic scholars noted every occurrence of the wrong form of “a” or its replacement by another vowel when the replacement violated grammatical rules.
Probably most importantly, when it comes to Torah, the oral reading in the synagogue always prevailed over the written version. This becomes most obvious and most important in a passage in Deuteronomy 22 where the text (with no vowels) had naar but the pronunciation shows that the meaning was naarah. It has to do with tokens of virginity, and that requires naarah which means a nonage girl, because there are no tokens of virginity in a nonage boy.
Understand that the oral synagogue readings on Shabbat use a scroll without vowels. But those who read it out loud to the congregation, know the text well enough to get the pronunciation correct because the writing in the scroll is only a representation of the Torah they have been studying since they were five years old and which was transcribed from a language that was once spoken in the street.
Finally, notice that the Masoretic scholars took a written copy of Tannakh and marked it up. They were not just correcting the pronunciation of somebody reciting Tannakh to them. They were annotating a written version in which they found deviations from the meaning of the words and from the grammar, and a tendency to deviate from the context of Jewish law and culture. And that begs a question about Septuagint.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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