The Masoretes were Jewish Torah scholars and scribes who lived in the 5th-10th centuries in Tiberias. They are regarded as the guardians of the Word of God. The term 'masoretes' comes from the Hebrew word,'masorah', meaning “tradition.” This group of scholars worked earnestly to correct the errors that had crept into the Hebrew Scriptures during the Babylonian captivity, endeavoring to prevent such errors from reoccurring in the future. Their method of safeguarding began with dividing the scriptures into chapters and verses. This work became known as the Masoretic Text (the complete Hebrew Bible: The Tenakh = Old Testament). The Masoretes were renowned copyists, who created the vowel system that preserved the Hebrew pronunciation, stress accents, and cantillation marks for singing. Their outstanding contribution to the preservation of the scriptures should be applauded by Christians and Jews alike.
The Masoretic Vowel System
Hebrew is a consonantal language, meaning there are no vowels. This makes it difficult for non-native speakers to read. According to tradition, the letters must be a hair’s difference apart…NO letters touching. The letters could not be moved to “squeeze in” vowels. The Masoretes devised a system of diacritical marks that indicate the vowel sounds of the letters. An ingenious system of dots and dashes placed over, under, around, and through the letters made them pronounceable, while remaining unmoved.
Why Are the Hebrew Letters So Important?
- The letters of the Hebrew Aleph-Beis (alphabet) are regarded as sacred Hebrew Aleph-Beis, the Sacred Alpha
- The Hebrew language is referred to as Lashon HaKodesh = The Holy Tongue
- Jewish tradition claims the Aleph-Beis predates Creation
- God spoke the world into existence with Hebrew words comprised of Hebrew letters
- Aleph-Beis is regarded as the building blocks of Creation (the protoplasm of the universe)
- ...and Yeshua upholds all things through the word of His power…” Heb 1:3
The Perfection of the Hebrew Letters
Unlike English letters, Hebrew letters have numeric value (Aleph, Beit, Gimel = 1, 2, 3). The letters, numeric equivalents, and forms are all divinely ordained. According to tradition, every letter in scripture must be perfect because God and His Word are perfect. Therefore, there is no room for error, omission, or distortion. To assure complete accuracy, copying had to be done in direct sunlight by scribes with the best eyes. Even today, 'Torah soferim' (“copiers, scribes”) must comply with more than 4,000 regulations for copying the sacred scriptures.
Remarkably, copying scrolls for the diminutive 'mezuzah' and 'tefillin' require nearly as many laws as the complete Torah. The 'Mezuzah' is a small kosher scroll placed in a decorative case and mounted on the doorpost of observant Jews. 'Tefillin' are small leather pouches worn on the forehead and arm of observant Jewish males. The Tefillin also contain sacred scrolls. Every letter of mezuzah and tefillin, like Torah, must be precise. This ancient tradition is rooted in the beautiful 'Shema Prayer' (Deut 6:4-9).
Masoretes: Master Copyists / Master Counters
The Masoretes were master counters as well as master copyists. These skills were critical in preserving the integrity of the original, divinely-inspired text through the centuries. A space of nine consonants was required between sections with three lines between every book. Scribes counted the number of words, letters, and verses in each book and calculated the middle word and middle letter on every page. The improved counting system of the later scribes reduced the number of scribal errors. According to the Talmud, the final book of Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, must terminate with a full line of text as a tribute to Moses, the revered law-giver of Israel.
Joshua’s Eulogy to Moses
“Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deut 34:10-12
Meticulous Reverence of the Copyists
The scribes adhered to strict regulations that governed every aspect of their sacred task, which included bathing in a 'mikveh' immersion pool before commencing work. Scribes pronounced or sang every word aloud before copying it. No letter or word could be written from memory, not even a 'Yod' = Y, the smallest Hebrew letter that is the size of a comma. Yeshua mentioned the 'Yod' and 'Tittle', the decorative horn or crown on Hebrew letters, in the following verse:
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter [Yod] or stroke [tittle] shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Matt 5:18
The Yod symbolized the omnipresence of God in Jewish thought. It is the first letter in the name Ya’acov = Jacob, Yisrael = Israel, and Yeshua = Jesus. Careless omission of a Yod warranted the destruction of the entire scroll. Scribes wiped their pens before writing the holy name, Elohim (God), to prevent contamination. In order to avoid blotting, the name Elohim could not be written with a pen that had recently been dipped in ink. The scribe’s pen was a feather quill from a ritually clean bird, a goose or a turkey.
The scribe washed his entire body before writing the unutterable name, YHWH (Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey), known as the tetragrammaton, Greek, meaning four letters: 'tetras' (four) and 'gramma' (letter). Pronunciation is uncertain because the name was not vocalized out of respect for the Divine. Scribes were forbidden to speak to anyone while copying, including a king. If a copy did not agree with the original text, the entire manuscript was ceremonially burned or buried. The same strict standard is observed by Torah scribes today.
Scribal Errors Included*
- Accidental repetition of a word
- Transposition of a letter
- Erroneous substitution of a similar sounding word
- Combination of two separate words into one word
- Division of a single word into two words
- Writing a letter once when it should have been written twice
- Writing a letter twice when it should have been written once
*One minuscule error warranted destruction of the entire scroll!
There is much more to learn about the fascinating work of the Masoretes. Be sure to read next month’s newsletter for additional information that is sure to increase your appreciation of the Holy Bible.