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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Era of the Masoretic Codices

The third period differs from the earlier ones in a number of ways. First, the form of transmission changed. Previously, all Hebrew texts were written in scroll format; now, in addition to the continued use of scrolls for ritual reading (e.g., the Torah scroll), the codex—a manuscript in book form—was introduced. The earliest extant dated Hebrew biblical codex is from 916 CE; however, the Hebrew codex format had apparently been in use since the 8th century CE (when it was mentioned by R. Yehudai Gaon).

Second, nekudot (vowel points) and teʾamim (cantillation marks) were introduced into the text. These signs—reflecting the pronunciation and accentuation that had previously been transmitted orally—were the work of the Masoretes. Scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries have shown, especially based on manuscripts in the Cairo Geniza, that in addition to the well‐known system of vocalization and accentuation currently in use, which was developed in Tiberias, there were two other systems that were developed, but which were later abandoned. All three systems differ in the choice of signs. One was developed in Babylonia, and the other in the land of Israel, though perhaps not in Tiberias. Both of these latter systems (which place their signs on top of the letters) reflect a slightly different pronunciation than that of Tiberias. For example, the other systems have only five, and not seven, vowels; i.e., only one sound for pataḥ‐qamatz; tzere‐segol; akin to current “Sephardi” pronunciation. In addition to these three major systems, other subsystems, variants of the major systems, developed.

The introduction of the different systems of signs in different geographical areas at about the same time (apparently the 7th–8th centuries CE) seems to reflect the need felt by various experts to preserve in written form the oral tradition of pronunciation and accentuation of the biblical text before it would be lost. It is possible that the upheavals associated with the Arab conquests in this period served as a major impetus for this development.

The third difference between the third period and the previous ones was the introduction of the Masorah, an extensive system of notes intended to preserve the written text of the Bible. This Masorah was recorded in both biblical codices and in independent works. The scholars who composed these notes, and who are also responsible for the introduction of the vocalization and cantillation marks, are called Masoretes. Here, too, as in the case of the systems of vocalization, different Masorahs developed in different locations; in addition to the Tiberian Masorah, there was an independent development of Masorah in Babylonia. These Masorahs have as their goal the preservation of a sanctified text, accurate in all its details, including plene‐defective spelling (as noted above, this view developed in the second era, with roots in the Temple circles in the first era). In short, the goal of the Masorah apparatus is to preserve the one correct or authoritative biblical text.

Two stages were usually involved in producing a Masoretic codex: First a scribe would write the biblical text, and then the Masorete would add the vocalization, accentuation, and the Masorah. The Masorah on the page was of two types. The first type was the Masorah Parva or small Masorah—short notes in between the columns (usually three) of the page, which referred to specific words in the text (those words were marked by a little circle above them). The note would often just note “l” (Aramaic “leita” = there is no other; it is unique), opposite a given word. At other times, it would note the number of times a word occurs in a particular form, e.g., “b”; “d” (it occurs twice; it occurs four times). As a rule, the Masorah would take note of the exceptions in any given case, preventing a copyist from normalizing an odd form to a more common one. The second type was the Masorah Magna—longer notes on the top and/orbottom of the page, repeating select phenomena marked in the Masorah Parva, and adding the references to the verses involved. This was done by quoting a few words of the given verses, since verse and chapter numbers were not yet used. Due to space limitations, there were many more Masorah Parva notes on the page than there were Masorah Magna notes.

Two main types of masoretic lists were compiled: (a) elaborative Masorah (masorah mefaretet)—this is the type noted above, e.g., elaborating how many times a word occurs in a given form, e.g., six times with defective spelling; (b) collative (or cumulative) Masorah (masorah metzarefet)—which collates the various unusual forms or words that appear (but not plene‐defective spelling), and arranges them according to the alphabet or the order of biblical books. For example, a well‐known list organizes all cases of words in the Bible that occur once without, and once with, a vav at their beginning (for example, ʿokhlah [1 Sam. 1.9 ], veʿokhlah [Gen. 27.19 ]). As the lists of the collative Masorah are sometimes very long, they cannot be copied in full on a given page in a Bible codex, but are usually copied there only in part (in those codices that bring these types of lists). In addition, the lists of the collative Masorah were edited early‐on as a separate work, sometimes called ʿOkhlah ve‐ʿOkhlah, based upon the first example of the first list.

The sources available to the Masorete were sometimes different from those of the original scribe who wrote the consonantal text. If the Masorete found a contradiction between his source (Bible manuscript or Masorah note) and the Bible codex he was working on, he would correct the codex (sometimes adding a corresponding Masorah Parva note). At first, both the Masorah Parva and the Masorah Magna played a role in the correction of the codices, and were copied diligently. With time, however, the Masorah Magna took on a formalistic function, with the scribe filling up a set number of lines, e.g., two lines on top and three lines on the bottom, with Masorah Magna, thereby giving the codex the “masℐoretic codex format”—but without using it for correcting the biblical text. (In fact, in some manuscripts the copyist would on occasion simply cut off the list to fit the space available). Occasionally, the Masorah Magna was written in micography, using the letters of the Masorah Magna decoratively to form different shapes, both geometrical (Sepharad) and even zoomorphic (animals and other shapes; Ashkenaz). At this later stage of transmission, then, the Masorah Parva was still often used for text‐critical purposes, but the more complex Masorah Magna had, in effect, lost its original purpose, and had become decorative.

The medieval Masoretic codices may be divided into various groups based on geographical areas: (1) accurate Tiberian manuscripts (10th–11th centuries); (2) Sephardi manuscripts (13th–15th centuries); (3) Ashkenazi manuscripts (12th–15th centuries); (4) Italian manuscripts (12–15th centuries); (5) Yemenite manuscripts (15th–16th centuries). Most of these manuscripts are now held in state and university libraries around the world.

The accurate Tiberian manuscripts (manuscripts from the land of Israel and Egypt, with Tiberian Masorah) form a group whose text accurately reflects the Bible as reflected in the Tiberian Masorah. The most accurate manuscript among this group is the Aleppo Codex (= A) (ca. 930), whose Masorete was Aharon ben Asher, the last and most famous of the renowned ben Asher family of Masoretes. The other manuscripts in this group are close to this text.

The Sephardi manuscripts can be subdivided into three subgroups: those whose text is very close to A; those close to A (these were called “accurate Sephardi manuscripts” in the Middle Ages); those further away from A.

The Ashkenazi manuscripts can generally be divided into two groups: those whose text is far from A; those whose text is very far from A. (At least in the Torah, however, there are some that are close to A.)

The Italian manuscripts show somewhatsimilar characteristics to those in the Ashkenazi manuscripts.

The Yemenite manuscripts are very accurate in the Torah text, as they reflect A, because they conformed to the rulings of Maimonides, who followed A.

The Bible text in any medieval ms depended on the sources available to the scribe and to the Masorete; i.e., on the Bible manuscripts and on the Masorah. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were often minor differences between the various sources available. There is clear evidence of places where manuscripts are corrected (usually differences in plene‐defective spelling) based upon another Bible manuscript or upon a Masoretic note; we can still see in the manuscripts cases where a letter is erased and an adjacent letter is extended to fill in, or a letter is erased by crossing it out, or a letter is added above the line. This is seen most often in Ashkenazi manuscripts, where the original text represents an alternate subtradition in spelling, whereas the Masorah represents the “accurate” tradition. The extant evidence points to the second half of the 13th century as the beginning of the awareness among certain Ashkenazim that the Sephardi manuscripts are accurate and differ from their own. These adaptations continued until the era of the printed Bible, and all reflect minor variants, very rarely affecting meaning.

The Torah was always regarded with special care and attention. In addition to the Masoretic codices, Torah scrolls continued to be written for ritual use. Special halakhic regulations legislated issues, such as where different types of paragraph spaces should be inserted (parshiot petuḥot u‐setumot) and song layout (Exod. ch 15; Deut. ch 32 ). Indeed, Maimonides legislated in his Code (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:1 ) that deviations in spelling, in section division, and in song layout render a scroll unfit for ritual use.

Given the many variants that Maimonides was confronted with, he had to decide what, in fact, was the accurate Torah text; i.e., what should be the standard text that others must copy. Maimonides chose the Aleppo Codex. He wrote a Torah scroll based upon it, and he included in his Code (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 8:4 ) a list of the sections and the layout of the songs based upon it. As we now know, he chose wisely; for the Aleppo Codex is, in fact, the most accurate among the accurate manuscripts in that it reflects the Tiberian Masorah most accurately. The Yemenites followed Maimonides, first basing themselves upon his Code, and then apparently making a model based upon his Torah scroll. Therefore, their Torah scrolls by and large reflect the Aleppo Codex in the text, sections and songs (excluding some minor variants).

Others, however, followed different options. R. Jacob Tam (France; 12th century), a significant French halakhist, wrote a work that determined the sections and song layout based on French sources (he also attended there to unique letters and special tagim [tittles]). Ramah, R. Meir ha‐Levi ben Todros Abulafia (d. 1244), a major Spanish halakhist, though he mostly followed Maimonides in the layout of sections and songs, decided on a different tactic for the text. He chose to follow the well‐known halakhic rule of following the majority, and thus followed a selective majority of Sephardi manuscripts (using only ancient “accurate” ones, rather than a single manuscript). In addition, he made use of the Masorah. In the 13th century, we have evidence of Ashkenazi scholars coming to Spain (1250; 1273) to make an accurate copy based on Ramah's work, in order to serve as a model in Ashkenaz. R. Menaπem ha‐Meiri, a significant Provencal halakhist, also used the method of majority when determining the text in his Kiryat Sefer (1306), but allowed a wider selection of sources. (In addition, he attended to unique letters and special tagim.) He also allowed himself to deviate from Maimonides in various section divisions, basing himself on French/Ashkenazi sources as well as logic. Later, R. Yom Tov Lipman Muelhausen (15th century; Ashkenaz) reverted to exclusively following Maimonides concerning the sections and the layout of the songs.

Thus, we see that there were different tactics used by different decisors in determining the proper text, sections, and song layout. Some followed a single manuscript, while others decided on the basis of several manuscripts. Regional variation was significant. The net result was that there was no absolute unity during the Middle Ages concerning the details of the Torah scrolls, even though the halakhah required unity.

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