Masora, which in a broad sense is usually defined as “tradition, transmission,” refers in a technical sense to the complete corpus of notes of a textual nature that were transmitted together with the biblical text or independently, with the aim of preserving its integrity.

The corpus of annotations which make up the Masora correspond to the three systems of Hebrew vocalization from which their names are derived: the Palestinian Masora, the Tiberian Masora, and the Babylonian Masora (Ofer 2001). The purpose of all three is the same, although they differ in their form and system of annotation. In all three systems the Masora was transmitted together with the biblical text and also in independent treatises. The difference between them lies mainly in the number of notes, which is far greater in the Tiberian Masora. There is also a fundamental difference between the Tiberian and Babylonian Masoras in their terminology, since the latter uses unique terms.

An additional Masora is attached to the text of Targum Onkelos (Klein 2000). The masoretic notes to this Targum are like the other three Masoras in form and layout, but quite different in their purpose, which is to try to establish precisely how to translate from the Hebrew original while preserving the translation choices made by the author. This fundamental difference determines the other differences of content and terminology.

The Tiberian system and its Masora eventually prevailed over the others, and it is therefore the best known and the one on which this article will concentrate.


Little is still known about the emergence of the Masora, its development, and its creators. It is generally thought to have begun around the sixth to seventh century C.E., and the work of compiling the information contained in the Masoretic notes is normally attributed to the Masoretes, most of whom were anonymous men. From the information in the Masora itself, its history can be traced in outline and divided into two distinct periods, to which a third can be added to account for its transmission and those who worked on it.

Pre-Masoretic Period.

References to names such as Dosa ben Eleazar, R. Yehuda ha-Babli, and Naqay, among others, are indications of the rabbinical world in the centuries preceding the emergence of the Masora, going back to the second century B.C.E. In this period some of the textual traditions that came to fruition in the Masora must have been formed, especially those relating to the consonantal text, though they could also have included certain traditions of reading. Rabbinical literature also echoes these traditions, referring to them, in many cases, in terminology similar to that of the Masora. Although one cannot speak in this period of a corpus of notes like that which forms the Masora nor of the existence of a group of people dedicated to this task, one can clearly detect a common impetus to maintain and preserve the biblical text unchanged.

Masoretic Period.

The development of core Masoretic activity took place between the estimated date of emergence of the Masora and the mid-tenth century. The Masoretes compiled the textual information and wrote it down, either in the form of notes in the outer and inner margins (known as Masora Parva [MP]) and in the upper and lower margins of the biblical text (known as Masora Magna [MM]), or in the form of lists included mainly in separate treatises, which make up the Masora. The Masoretes were also responsible for adding vowels and cantillation marks to the biblical text.

The few names of Masoretes indicated in some notes are from the last generations. The “Teachers of Tiberias,” the “Men of Tiberias,” and “Phinehas, Head of the Academy,” can be dated to around the first half of the ninth century. Reference is also made to members of the ben Asher family, regarded as the most prestigious Masoretes, whose activity spanned five generations, from the second half of the eighth century, with the work of Asher the Elder, down to Aaron ben Asher, the last of the dynasty, in the second half of the tenth century. Finally, there is mention of Moses ben David ben Naphtali, a contemporary of Moses ben Asher, who advocated a different system of vocalization and accentuation of the biblical text. With these two the Masoretic period is considered to have reached its conclusion.

The great Tiberian Masoretic codices known today come from this last period: the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (C), the Leningrad B19 manuscript (L), and the Aleppo Codex (A). Their Masoras and vocalization have been attributed to the ben Asher family, the first to Moses ben Asher and the other two to Aaron ben Asher.

Post-Masoretic Period.

From the end of the Masoretic period right down to our own day there have always been those who have continued to work on the Masora, though not always on the same scale and with the same degree of interest. The type of work carried out in this period differs from that of the previous era in being concerned, first, with collecting, organizing, and systematizing existing Masoretic material, and in recent centuries, with editing and studying it.

The earliest exponents include Me’ir ben Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, author of Masoret Seyag la-Torah, a work in which the Masoretic information is arranged by roots; Menahem ben Shelomoh ha-Meiri, known for his work Kiryat Sefer, the second part of which contains a collection of Masoretic information; and finally Yequtiel ben Yehudah ha-Naqdan, author of Ein ha-Qoré, which formulates grammatical rules on the use of accents in the biblical texts and collects Masoretic notes on the Pentateuch, Lamentations, and Esther.

As early as the Renaissance period there are two key figures for the preservation and continuation of the Masora who must be mentioned: Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyah and Elias Levita. The former, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has been credited with rescuing the Masora from extinction and restoring it to its original function of “the preservation of the textual tradition.” He was the author of what is known as the Second Rabbinical Bible, published by Daniel Bomberg in Venice in 1524–1525, an eclectic edition of the Hebrew biblical text and its Masoras that became the textus receptus of Judaism until the edition of Leningrad MS B19 produced by Paul Kahle in 1937. Elias Levita also lived in the same period. This highly prolific author made numerous contributions to the study of the Masora, which led him to be regarded as the father of Masoretic studies. Two of his works in particular are worth mentioning here: the Sefer Zikronot, where he sets out the laws and uses of the Masora and provides a list of Masoretic terms, and the Massoreth ha-Massoreth, his most important work, in which he presents the history of the Masora and his theory on its origin, denying the revealed nature of the vowels and crediting the Masoretes with inventing and writing them.

Apart from the work of Menahem de Lonzano and Jedidiah Solomon Rafael ben Abraham de Norzi in the second half of the sixteenth century and the early years of the seventeenth, work on the Masora declined notably until the nineteenth century, when a veritable revival took place. The first contributions in the field, begun in that century by Wolf Heidenheim, Joseph Derenbourg, Seligman Baer, William Wickes, and Solomon Frensdorff, were editions of the works of the first Masoretes. Although these works contain a large amount of information and reveal the rules their authors followed, they do not enable one to form a proper view of what Masoretic literature really is. It was Christian Ginsburg who initiated modern Masoretic studies at the end of the nineteenth century. The four volumes of his The Massorah Compiled from Manuscripts offer the largest collection of Masoretic lists and notes so far compiled and are regarded as an indispensable instrument for understanding, investigating, and using the Masora.

This upward trend continued in the twentieth century. In the first half, the outstanding figures are Henri Hyvernat, whose profound study of the language of the Masora is still the only existing work on the subject, and Paul Kahle. It was Kahle who, having recognized the value of the ben Asher tradition, decided to edit the biblical text on the basis of a single manuscript, Leningrad Codex B19, and therefore to publish only the Masora presented in this manuscript. This policy was followed in the third edition of Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica. Kahle’s friendship with Federico Pérez Castro led to the creation of the Madrid school (Fernández Tejero and Fernández Marcos 2008), with its ongoing and wide-ranging work in the field of the Masora.

Moving on to the second half of the century, Gerard Weil continued the work begun by Kahle and was responsible for editing the MP and MM for the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, although as a result of his editorial decisions what is presented is not really the Masora in the Leningrad manuscript but a version based on the set of indications of the MP in the manuscript. He was also the first to use computers to process the Hebrew biblical text and its Masoras.

The foundation of the International Organization for Masoretic Studies (IOMS) in 1972 by Harry M. Orlinsky gave a definitive boost to Masoretic studies worldwide. Since then, and continuing up to the present day, these studies have developed mainly in two geographical areas: Israel and Spain. In Israel, figures like Aron Dotan, Israel Yeivin, and Mordechai Breuer have contributed to illuminating the highly complex subject of Masoretic accents, which continues to be studied by new researchers such as Rachel Mashiah and Nurit Reich, among others. Of the numerous studies produced in that country, the most notable are those on the other Masoras (Babylonian and Palestinian), the presence and use of the Masora in medieval commentators, especially Rashi, and the editing work done on the Aleppo codex and its Masoras and on the Masoretic work of Norzi. These works have been carried out by Zvi Betzer, Lea Himmelfarb, David Lyons, Jordan S. Penkower, and Yosef Ofer, among others.

In Spain, the Masoretic activity undertaken by the Madrid school has been very wide-ranging and is characterized by methodological innovation in editing the Masoras that accompany the biblical text (Dotan 2010). In the edition of the Cairo codex, for example, the Masoras were edited exactly as they appear in the manuscript, with no attempt to systematize them, as Weil did in the edition of the MP in the Leningrad manuscript, and the simanîm (“catchwords”) were identified. Work is currently underway on an edition of the Masoras in Madrid Complutense University manuscript M1 (M1), in which only the Masoras themselves are being edited, without the biblical text they accompany. Equally innovative are the comparative studies of the Masoras in the principal biblical codices. Among the members of the Madrid school, in addition to Pérez Castro, already referred to earlier, mention should be made of Emilia Fernández Tejero, María Josefa de Ázcarraga Servert, María Teresa Ortega Monasterio, Carmen Muñoz, Fernando Díaz Esteban, and more recently Elvira Martín-Contreras and Guadalupe Seijas de los Ríos-Zarzosa.

In addition, though on a smaller scale, there is an interest in Masoretic studies in America, which should be mentioned, with John Revell in Canada, David Marcus and Daniel S. Mynatt in the United States, and Edson de Faria Francisco in Brazil. There are also a great many researchers who have addressed the world of the Masora at some point and have contributed sporadically to advancing Masoretic studies.

Masoretic Interpretation.

The first to draw attention to details of the textual tradition of the biblical text and use them in interpretation were the rabbis. Rabbinical literature frequently contains interpretations based on full or defective writing, the distinctive form and size of certain letters, the unusual spelling of a word, and so on. These interpretations are usually in two parts: a first part, indicating the textual information that is to be interpreted, normally in language similar to that of the Masora, and a second part, giving the exegetical explanation of the textual detail, derived using the traditional hermeneutical principles employed by rabbis, especially those of a textual nature (Martín-Contreras 2003). The explanations given for these details tend to be different in their aims from more common kinds of rabbinical interpretations, which seek to clarify, illuminate, or amplify the meaning of the text. In the former, the intention is rather to point out a textual feature or a numerical or other type of observation, and then to look for an explanation for that detail.

Other details of the textual tradition are also included in this literature, such as words that are read though not written in the biblical text, and conversely words that are written in the text but not read, as well as certain irregularities which affect the written form of the biblical text, such as the inverted nun, suspended letters, puncta extraordinaria, and so on. All these are included in the Masoretic sources. The exegesis that accompanies them in this literature is also incorporated into the Masora, albeit to a lesser extent, in notes which interpolate Midrashic explanations and which are usually known as Exegetical Masoras (Dotan 2010; Martín–Contreras 2006).

The Masora and the Interpretation of the Biblical Text.

The Masora is an indispensable tool for correct interpretation of the biblical text. It constitutes a historical record that accompanies the actual text and is designed to preserve it and transmit it correctly. The addition of vowels and cantilation marks to the biblical text is in itself an exegesis of that text, since the former determine a particular reading among the various possible alternatives and the latter have syntactic value. However, the stereotypes surrounding the Masora and lack of knowledge of this source have resulted in its usefulness being ignored, and occasionally even denied.

Although the need to take account of the study of the function of accents in interpretation and exegesis of the biblical text has been recognized in recent years, as reflected in several works on the subject (Revell 2000; Carasik 2001; Samuel 2005), its other “facets” for interpretation have yet to be explored.

One of the obstacles to using the Masora for interpretation is the Masora itself. Some of the features that have led it to be labelled as difficult and mysterious are the very ones that have hindered its widespread use as a source of interpretation. The way in which Masoretic notes are normally expressed makes it impossible, in most cases, to appreciate the content of the note and its possible relevance to interpretation on a first reading. It tends to be:

  • ■ concise: generally expressed using abbreviations. Many Masoretic notes consist only of a number and do not specify even the most basic information. And yet this does not necessarily mean that their object is to count words, letters, verses, etc. Some may contain information of a statistical nature, but most of them represent the briefest possible way of recording the information. They are similar to the notes that explicitly give more information. We can readily appreciate this in cases where the same information is given in different ways, formats, and forms, depending on the manuscript. For example, in Deuteronomy 15:9 the following information on the Word ורעה is found in the MP of the Leningrad and Aleppo manuscripts: “nine times.” In the MM, the nine verses where that particular word appears are listed. At first sight, the note could be classified as numerical, stating the number of times the word appears in the Bible. However, the MP and MM in manuscript M1 seem to indicate something different. Together they give us more complete information and show that the intention of the note is not just to state how many times the word appears. The numerical information given this time is the same as in the other manuscripts: “nine times.” However, the note continues: “seven of them are ‘bad’ and three ‘good.’ ” This additional information provides the clue to understanding the true intention of the note. Having identified the simanîm, given in the MM, and having carefully examined the references, we can infer that: (1) The first six are from the root רעע “to be bad” (although the note says seven, only six simanîm are given); (2) The other three are from the root רעה “to shepherd.” That is to say, the Word occurs nine times but from two different roots. This is the real meaning of the note; its purpose is not to give the number of times the Word appears in the Bible.
  • ■ elliptical: part of what is present in the notes is implicit, namely all the information that the Masoretes did not consider necessary to state explicitly because it was well known in their period. Lack of familiarity with this information and the time that has elapsed since the notes were written makes them difficult to understand. This, combined with a widespread lack of knowledge of the Masora among scholars devoted to the study of the biblical text, largely due to the need for additional specialized training, has contributed decisively to it being undervalued.


All these difficulties can be solved by supplying the information that was left implicit and by formulating a clear methodology of how to analyze Masoretic notes, enabling us to identify and study them in order to apply them subsequently to the interpretation of the biblical text.

The following five steps should be followed when analyzing a Masoretic note (see Martín–Contreras, and Seijas de los Ríos 2010): (1) Find the words with a circellus and the MP note attached to that lemma; (2) Locate the MM; (3) Identify the simanîm; (4) Confirm the note; (5) Understand the note.

These five steps are proposed when working on the Masora from a manuscript. If an edition of a Masora is used, only steps four and five are necessary. The following two steps are also required to appreciate the value of Masoretic information for interpretation: (1) Understand the note, and (2) Translate the note.As already mentioned, Masoretic notes are expressed in a very concise form, normally using abbreviations. We therefore need to understand what the Masorete is saying. The first task is to translate the note. In order to do so, until we know all the abbreviations and are familiar with them, we can use the lists of terms and corresponding abbreviations published in the most important editions and introductions. This will enable us to translate the note. But because Masoretic notes are so concise, translating them is not enough; we also need to understand them.

However, there are no steps or methodology that can be followed in order to try to understand what is not explicitly stated in the note. We have to “get into the mind of the Masorete”: in other words, to develop a Masoretic mentality so as to be able to follow the implicit logical process behind the explicit notes. In order to acquire this mentality, the following may be helpful: Some general theoretical notions of what a Masoretic note is, what it contains, and how it is formulated, before we embark on the analysis.

The most important aspect of Masoretic notes is the phenomena that they refer to. On the basis of years of analysis, we can say that the majority of Masoretic notes are concerned with spelling, vocalization, accentuation, meaning, grammatical rules, combinations of words, combinations of particles, and, less commonly, counting.

We can state explicitly the kind of information that can be found on each of these phenomena. For example, if we focus on the Masoretic notes related to spelling, we can list the following information: they may deal with (a) the plene or defective spelling of a word; or (b) orthographic peculiarities.

For each of these two groups, we can specify more detailed information. Plene or defective spelling may refer to: (a) Matres lectionis, with or without vowel letters yod and waw; (b) letters, with or without any other letter, usually those known as weak letters; (c) words, with or without one or more other words, usually in similar combinations of words.

Orthographic peculiarities may refer to: (a) exceptions to the usual form; (b) different spelling of a word; (c) substitution of letters, commonly rêš instead of dalet and sin instead of samek; (d) word division.

We can also state explicitly what terminology is used and how the information is presented in the notes. Continuing with the example of spelling, we can list it as follows:

  • ■ The most common technical terms are ḥaser, maleʾ, and katab.
  • ■ The information can be presented: (a) giving just the number of occurrences of the word; (b) giving a description of the spelling of the word; (c) giving the word together with other words that share the same phenomenon.

This prior classification of the phenomena and the notes can help us to decipher the information given in the notes, even when it is just a number. In this way, we develop a Masoretic way of thinking, which will assist our understanding. An awareness of some of the characteristic features of the Masora: (a) MP notes highlight minority or less common forms; (b) there is no one single Masora; (c) the Masora is not numerical in nature. Even though the relationship between these features and the decoding of Masoretic notes has not always been sufficiently emphasized, they are crucial when approaching the Masora for the first time.

Once we have incorporated this perspective into our way of thinking, we can begin the task of solving the logical puzzle posed by the Masoretic note. We have the objective, which is all the information contained in the note, and also the clues: all the information we have collected in the process of analyzing the note (the MP, the MM, the identification of the simanîm, other evidence). They can help us to understand the overall meaning of the note, its purpose.

A good starting point is to formulate questions and hypotheses. The fact that we have to use working hypotheses to supply the implicit information might lead one to suppose that the interpretation of the notes is a subjective matter, at the whim of the researcher. However, the next step circumscribes the range of possible interpretations and enables us to confirm the true meaning of the note.

Confirming the Note. It is necessary to confirm that the information given in the notes is true: that the number of times it is stated matches the simanîm given, that the verses contain the phenomenon recorded, and so on.

In order to do so, it is important to consult the masorot of the principal Tiberian biblical manuscripts (C, A, and L) and the major Masoretic lists and treatises (Ginsburg 1975; Frensdorff 1864/1972; Díaz-Esteban 1975; Dotan 1967; Ognibeni 1995; Weil 1971) and to check whether they contain any information similar to the note. We have to be cautious before saying that a note is not correct. The Masora may be true even if it is not confirmed by other records.

The following example illustrates how the two steps are applied. The MP of manuscript M1 on the word וַיַאַסְפו in 1 Samuel 5:11 says: “ten pašṭîn”. The MM gives ten verses: Exodus 4:29; Numbers 11:32; 1 Samuel 5:8; 5:11; 17:1; 2 Samuel 21:13; 2 Kings 23:1; 2 Chronicles 24:11; 29:15; Jeremiah 40:12. So the first hypothesis is that the note relates to the pašṭaʾ; in other words, to the ten times that the word appears with that accent. But if we check the word in each of the verses given in the MM, we can see that it does not have that accent in all of them.

It is therefore necessary to pursue other clues. The other sources contain only numerical information. The MP of A says “ten” and there is no MM. In list 1001 of Ginsburg’s Masoretic compilation the lemma and the information match our note, “ten.” Moreover, at the end of that list there is a reference to another list, number 1011, where the lemma is: “twelve times is written וַיֵאָסְפו.” This extra information could help us to understand the note. If we examine this last list in relation to our information and compare them, we can see that the two words share the same consonantal text but differ in their vocalization. The lemma has a pata under the yod in list 1001 and a ṣerê under the yod in list 1011. The question arises: what does this mean? By investigating the differences between the words included in the two lists, it is possible to conclude that the words in list 1001 are third-person plural masculine imperfect qal and those in list 1011 are third-person plural masculine imperfect nipal. They are similar in all respects except conjugation. So the purpose of the note is to distinguish the qal from the nipal form.

Practical Uses.

There are many possible ways in which the Masora may be used for interpretation of the biblical text. Among others, they include:

  • ■ Determining word roots. There are words that appear with different spellings in the text and even with one of the radical letters missing or altered, which makes it difficult to identify the root. Masoretic notes can help us to clarify what the root is. For example, in Jeremiah 19:11 we find the word להרפה; the MP to this passage in the Aleppo manuscript says: “unique written with heh,” thereby indicating that this is the only time the nipal construct infinitive of the root רפא is written with heh instead of the ʾalep of the root. Then there is the more complex case of the word הבי in Ruth 3:15. This is normally interpreted as a second-person feminine singular qal imperative of the root יהב “give.” However, the information in the Aleppo, M1, and Rabbinical Bible Masoras indicates, among other things, that this word comes from the root בוא, that it is written defective of ʾalep and that it is a feminine form but is written in the masculine form. This information obliges us to reconsider the usual interpretation of this word and to offer a new description, such as: second-person masculine singular hipil imperative of the root בוא used for the feminine (Martín-Contreras 2009).
  • ■ Distinguishing between homophonic forms. A case in point is לָחֶם in Judges 5:8, whose MP in C says: “unique.” The note indicates that in this passage the word laḥem is from the root לחם “fight,” and therefore means “war,” not “bread” (leḥem), a word which in the pausal form is also vocalized as laḥem. These two homophonic roots would otherwise be easily confused.
  • ■ Differentiating meanings. For example, the MP to Numbers 33:27 in M1 says that mittaḥat is “unique as name of place.” It thereby indicates that on this occasion it is not a preposition, as is the case the other forty-eight times mittaḥat appears in the Bible. Or Deuteronomy 19:11, where the MP in M1, commenting on the word ha-ʾel, says: “eight times [in] profane language in the Pentateuch and 1 [in] sacred language.” It thus distinguishes the eight times ha-ʾel is a common noun from the only time it is the name of the divinity.
  • ■ Shedding light on problems of translation and interpretation. There are some problematic words in the biblical text, arising either from the corruption or the obscurity of the text, and these are sometimes explained using the researchers’ own conjectures or on the basis of old versions and records. The Masora can also be used as one more piece of evidence with which to interpret the text and clarify these difficult cases. Some studies offer examples of how to incorporate the Masora into the investigation in these cases and the results achieved (Fernández Tejero 1984; Barthélemy 1992). An example is Psalm 22:17, where one of the problematic words, kāʾărî, is translated as “they pierce me,” “they have run me through,” “they kill me,” in the light of old versions and records. However, according to the Masora there is another possibility. The word appears again in the Bible, in Isaiah 38:13, where the MP in C, A, and L indicate that it is the same word there and in Psalm 22:17. It could therefore be translated “like a lion” in Psalms, as it is in Isaiah 38:13, a lion which, moreover, had already appeared in verse 14 and reappears in verse 22.

Lines of Research: Suggestions for the Future.

To take advantage of the benefits that the use of the Masora can bring to the interpretation and history of the biblical text, we need to encourage the pursuit of research in two fields: masoretic studies, on the one hand, and biblical studies and textual criticism on the other.

In the latter, the value of the Masora needs to be recognized as a prerequisite for developing a methodology to incorporate the Masora into that area of study.

In the field of masoretic studies, one of the principal objectives must be to continue making the Masora accessible, through manuals and also courses and complementary studies to facilitate the use of certain Masoretic works, as well as through the employment of new technologies to make them more widely available. It would be useful to develop a classification of known Masoretic information so as to provide a clear idea of the different subjects it addresses and thereby highlight its value for the study of grammar, the Hebrew language, and the interpretation of the biblical text.

Given that the great majority of Masoretic material remains unpublished, and our knowledge of its content and nature is therefore still incomplete, we need to continue editing this material, especially that which does not accompany the biblical text, and also the lists contained in various manuscripts and fragments of the Genizah, since this is where least work has been done.

Bearing in mind that there is no one single Masora and that information on a word can therefore appear in different forms, and also that not all the manuscripts present the same information, we need to carry out comparative studies of the Masoras in different manuscripts, as well as other studies on the various phenomena related to grammar, syntax, textual criticism, exegesis, and so on. Moreover, it would be a good idea to encourage interaction between the different fields by undertaking collaborative studies and exchanging ideas and methodologies.



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Elvira Martín-Contreras