The Masoretic Text

The traditional--sometimes imperfect--Jewish version of the Torah text.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The traditionally correct text of the Hebrew Bible was established by a group of scholars, the Masoretes, whose activity extended from the sixth to the tenth centuries CE. The Masoretes examined the many biblical manuscripts, noting divergences and seeking to determine which text is the more accurate.

 

They noted where a traditional reading (keri) differs from the traditional written text (ktiv),for example, where the written text contains a coarse or vulgar expression. Such expressions were left in the text but the euphemisms required by the tradition are noted for the benefit of the reader in the synagogue.

The Masoretes also noted where the tradition requires certain letters to be larger than the others and certain letters smaller than the others. They provided notes in which they conjecture that some words should have been written differently, for example, where the text has the singular form while the context seems to require the plural, but such conjectures were left in the margins and the text itself remained unchanged.

torah scribeA further activity of the Masoretes was to count the number of verses in each section of the Pentateuch. A list of these is now given at the end of each section. The current text of the Bible was established by the Masorete ben Asher in Tiberias in 930 CE and this is known as the the Masoretic Text (abbreviated in scholarly works as MT).

Questions of Accuracy

A major problem in biblical studies revolves around the accuracy and reliability of the Masoretic Text. It is known that from early Rabbinic times the greatest care was taken by copyists, especially when copying the Pentateuch text, the Sefer Torah. There are detailed rules as to how the Sefer Torah is to be copied, with the result that there are no divergences in the text between one Sefer Torah and another in any part of the Jewish world.

But, as the ancient versions--the Septuagint, the Targum, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Latin version, the Vulgate, and the texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls--show, errors may have crept into the text before the Masoretic Text had been established or, rather, the ancient versions may be based on traditions different from that finally recorded in the Masoretic Text.

Here and there even in the Talmud some biblical texts quoted differ in their wording from the current version.

Biblical Criticism

Modern biblical scholarship, consequently, while treating the Masoretic Text with the respect it deserves, is not averse to suggesting emendations to the text based either on the ancient versions or on plausible conjectures.

The problem for Orthodoxy presented by biblical criticism applies only to what is known as the Higher Criticism, that is, the critical examination of how the Pentateuch came to be. The Lower Criticism, the critical examination of the text in the light of emendations and the ancient versions, is much less of a problem since there is no actual dogma which states that the Masoretic Text is entirely inerrant as the very word of God.

Nevertheless, no Jewish community, Orthodox or Reform, has ever thought of emending the actual text of the Sefer Torah used in the synagogue, an attempt that would be considered to be sacrilegious by all Jews.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.