“Masorah” and “Masoretic text”

A peculiarity of the way in which the Hebrew language was (and, like Arabic, still is) normally written is that it is written without most vowels. For more than a thousand years, the consonants were written, but the vowels required for pronunciation had to be supplied by the reader. This is true of the Qumran manuscripts. This "consonantal” text of the Hebrew Bible has been regarded as fixed (not to be changed) since the first century A.D. and the Jewish people have ever since attached great importance to its precise transmission.

The problem remains that the consonantal text frequently allows for different possible pronunciations and thus potentially also different meanings. Knowledge of the correct pronunciation andmeaning therefore had to be passed down from generation to generation together with the written text. Around A.D. 600, Jewish scholars, the so-called Masoretes (literally “conveyors of tradition”) finally developed a system of vowel and stress marks that also precisely fixed or established the pronunciation and thus the meaning of the Hebrew Bible text.

The Masoretes at the same time undertook textual research of the highest quality. In addition to establishing a fixed pronunciation and meaning, they also endeavored to secure the biblical text against mistakes in copying and, wherever possible, to correct existing errors. To this end, in the margin of their manuscripts they added detailed notes on writing (orthographic) variants, statistical information on the frequency of particular words, and even directions as to where they considered a reading different from the transmitted consonantal text to be necessary. This compendium of marginal notes is referred to as the Masorah Parva (“small Masorah”). Along with this lesser collection of notes, the Masoretes also compiled lists of entire passages from the biblical text distinguished, for example, by a characteristic orthographic variant, a particular sequence of words or other peculiarity. These lists, collectively referred to as the Masorah Magna (“large Masorah”), are included at the top and the foot of the pages of the Masoretic manuscripts.

The highly meticulous work of the Masoretes gave rise to the termfor the carefully copied biblical text that theymade, the “Masoretic Text.” Because of their careful work done between the 6th and 8th centuries, from that time onwards there has been a largely uniformly transmitted version of the Hebrew Bible with only minor textual variations.