Strange things can happen when an ancient text meets modern technology. In our previous column we studied Genesis 2:4–9; unfortunately, somewhere in the computerized production process a handful of vowels became transformed into other vowels. But even high-tech glitches can have their silver linings. In reprinting the passage below with the correct vowels, we can learn about other markings that are used as aids in reading the Hebrew Bible. These marks indicate the accented syllable; they are a part of the Hebrew text that has come down to us through the centuries.
In our first lessona I noted that the Hebrew brew alphabet consists only of signs for consonants, and I sketched the history of that alphabet. Similarly, in our second lesson,b we explained that the vowel notation system in its final form was the work of scribes in the tenth century C.E. whom we call Masoretes. These scribes added the accent marks, and more. Our text does not include the marginal notes that appear in the full Masoretic Text (MT). In the MT, notes appear on the margins of page—sides, tops and bottoms—and at the end of books. The notes explain peculiarities in the consonantal text and preserve the MT from scribal emendations. The purpose of Masoretic work was to assure accurate copying and the correct pronunciation of the sacred text. Still today, the MT is the standard text of the Hebrew Bible and the one read from scrolls—without vowel marks—each week in synagogues.
We cannot recover the complete history of the Hebrew Bible, particularly its early stages. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has given us a window on the state of the text that underlies the MT. We know that various texts were in use before the end of the first century C.E., but the MT was well-represented and it has come down to us remarkably well preserved. This is a testimony to the extraordinary skill and care of the generations of scribes who transmitted it.
The accent signs have a double function: First, they assure the proper pronunciation of the biblical text by indicating the accented syllables of words. In liturgical settings, when the text is chanted or sung, the signs also serve as cantillation notes, that is, as indicators of the proper chant to use. For our purposes, the first function is primary.
The accent signs also provide a good guide to syntax, that is, they indicate the interrelationship of words in the text. The signs are classified as joining (conjunctives) or dividing (disjunctives). Conjunctives indicate that certain words are to be read together as a group; disjunctives divide words into separate phrases or clauses. There are thirteen main disjunctive (with five lesser disjunctives) and nine conjunctive accents, each with its own name:
Now look back at our passage from Genesis 2 and see how many of the accent marks you can recognize (hint: the first word has a munach). For reading purposes, the two most important signs to keep in mind are the atnach (under µaÉr]B;hiB]be-hib-bar-am in verse 4), which marks the main division within a verse, and the silluk (under µyIm;v;wÒve-sha-ma-yim in verse 4), which indicates the end of a verse. The atnach signals a pause after be-hib-bar-am, noted in an English translation by a comma: “These are the generations of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day when the Lord God made heaven and earth.”
We will conclude with two final points about verse 4. The perpendicular stroke under the second bet in be-hib-bar-am is not an accent mark; it is called a metheg and signals that the following shewa is vocalized, not silent. Also, the thick colon after ve-sha-ma-yim visually separates verse 4 from the following verse. It is the standard verse divider in printed Hebrew Bibles.
For further details on the accent marks see Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah, by Israel Yeivin, translated and edited by E. J. Revell (Scholars Press, 1980).
Strange things can happen when an ancient text meets modern technology. In our previous column we studied Genesis 2:4–9; unfortunately, somewhere in the computerized production process a handful of vowels became transformed into other vowels. But even high-tech glitches can have their silver linings. In reprinting the passage below with the correct vowels, we can learn about other markings that are used as aids in reading the Hebrew Bible. These marks indicate the accented syllable; they are a part of the Hebrew text that has come down to us through the centuries. µa;r]B;hiB] År,a;h;wÒ µyIm—’V;h’ t/dl]/t hL,a°e 4 .µyIm;v;wÒ […]
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