The Masoretes at Work: A Tradition Preserved

By Marc Zvi Brettler

Sidebar to: The Leningrad Codex

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.

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