With balancing triangles of words, tiny jottings in the margins and a flurry of dots and lines throughout the Hebrew text, a leaf from the Leningrad Codex may appear bewildering at first glance. These minute marks, however, are neither indecipherable nor merely decorative. Rather, they are part of a complex system developed in the late first millennium C.E. by the Masoretes, a group of scholars, to safeguard the text of the Hebrew Bible. The recent photographs of the Leningrad Codex beautifully preserve these scribal notes, allowing us to see the Masoretes at work.

The rabbis of the classical period understood Deuteronomy 31:9 to mean that Moses wrote the entire text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and they believed that their own text was identical to the one first received by Moses when he spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). To ensure that the text remained uncorrupted, laws were enacted that Torah scrolls used in synagogues must match the supposedly original Sinaitic version letter for letter. This has assured that biblical texts, especially Torah texts, are copied with great care. The notes surrounding the biblical text in the Leningrad Codex are designed to help scribes with this task.

The accompanying photograph shows one leaf (folio 40v) from the Leningrad Codex. The top half (lines 1–10) includes Exodus 15:14–18, the end of the Song of the Sea, sung, according to the Bible, by Moses and the Israelites after the defeat of Pharaoh at the Re(e)d Sea. The words of the song are arranged in a special poetic form, with some words centered in their lines and others pushed to the edges.

On the bottom half of the page (lines 11–25), Exodus 15:19–16:3 appears in typical prose form. Gaps in the lines here indicate paragraph breaks. No chapter and verse numbers appear, as these had yet to be instituted, but marks that look like colons help separate the verses, as at the end of line 10 (remember, Hebrew is read from right to left).

Two scribes would have worked on such a page. One copied the basic (consonantal) biblical text. The second scribe was responsible for all the smaller markings. These are of three types: dots and lines placed above and below consonant letters to indicate vowel sounds, marks that indicate how words should be accented and chanted during synagogue services, and various marginal notes. Shorter (often abbreviated) marginal notes run down the edges of the page; these are called the “little masorah” (or the Masorah parva). The “big masorah” (or Masorah magna), which often clarifies notes in the little masorah, appears above and below the biblical text.

The most frequent note in the little masorah is the Hebrew letter lamed (l) with a dot above it, which is an abbreviation for an Aramaic word meaning “there are none”—meaning that this exact form of the word is its only appearance in the biblical text (a hapax legomenon). One such unique word, wmzjay, meaning “will seize them,” appears in line 2. The word also has a dot above it, which keys it to the relevant marginal note. (The word and note are highlighted in red.)

Another frequent notation consists of a Hebrew numeral that indicates how often a word is spelled a particular way in the Bible. For example, the first word of the fourth line, djpw, “and dread,” has a circle above it, which is keyed to the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beth (b) (also the sign for two), written in the right margin (in purple). The note thus tells us that this spelling (with these exact vowels) occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible. The note continues, “Dominion and dread are his,” indicating that the only other place in the entire Hebrew Bible this word appears is Job 25:2, which is quoted. Before chapter and verse numbers were invented, cross-references were indicated by quoting the beginning of the relevant verse. This reflected the fact that some scribes memorized almost the entire Bible.

Many of the marginal notes clarify ambiguous spellings. The Hebrew spelling system is fairly irregular, especially in its use of certain consonants (such as waw [w] and yod [y]) to indicate the vowel to go with the preceding letter. Scholars refer to these consonants as vowel letters or matres lectionis (mothers of reading). For example, the word “is walking,” holech, may be spelled either as ûlwh or as ûlh; the same word is simply spelled differently, with the vowel letter and without. The vowel letter waw (w) may be used to indicate that the word should be pronounced holech, “is walking,” rather than, for example, halach, “he walked,” which would never be spelled with the vowel letter. The first spelling, with the vowel letter, is called “full,” while the latter is called “defective.” (Defective is a technical term and does not mean that something is wrong with the word.) The marginal note accompanying the last word in line three, htmya, “fear,” indicates (in abbreviated form) that “there are no other cases of this word in the Bible and it is spelled fully” (in yellow).

The success of the masoretic system is illustrated by the last word in line nine: µh(y)l[, “upon them” (in green). The accompanying note indicates that “this word appears 13 times in its defective (shorter) form.” A careful look at the Leningrad Codex shows that the copyist originally wrote the word incorrectly, in the longer, full form. Only later did someone—perhaps the person who inserted the masoretic notes—erase the extra vowel letter (yod [y]) so that the word agrees with the marginal note. (In the super high-tech photography used for the new edition of the Leningrad Codex, deleted letters often appear too clear, sometimes obscuring the effect of the erasures!)

The big masorah (in the top and bottom margins) often expands on a note in the little masorah. For example, the note at the top of the page clarifies a note keyed to the term ûydy, meaning “your hands,” in line eight (in blue). The little masorah notes that the term appears only 11 times in its fuller spelling, ûydy, as opposed to the more common ûdy. This note is particularly helpful to literal translators because the two spellings might be translated differently (“your hands” versus “your hand”) and should be pronounced differently. The big masorah cites the 11 instances of the fuller spelling, “your [masculine singular] hands,” and notes that this list does not include Psalms, where the fuller spelling is relatively common.

The notes written in the form of triangles and inverted V’s in the big masorah at the top of the page contain similar comments on how words on this page are written elsewhere in the Bible. Rabbi Milton Weinberg, secretary-treasurer of the International Organization of Masoretic Studies, suggests that these designs are more than mere ornamentation. Just as there is a tradition in synagogues today, when the Song of the Sea is read, to re-enact the event by standing up, so there was once a tradition of dramatizing the event graphically. The words on the top half of this page, for example, are staggered like stones in a wall, to represent the wall (of water) that rose around the Israelites as they crossed the Re(e)d Sea (Exodus 14:29). This same design carries into the center of the big masorah, where waves of the Re(e)d Sea, and the triangles, Weinfeld speculates, may even represent the Israelites themselves, crossing the water.

The vast knowledge embodied in the masoretic notes not only helps to preserve the text but allows interpreters to detect significant patterns in phrases used throughout the Bible. Today, some of the work of these erudite scholars can only be replicated and checked with sophisticated computer concordance programs.