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 (
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,
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 [
The success of the masoretic system is illustrated by the last word in line nine:
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
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.