By Naama Baumgarten - Sharon
The Team

Dear Friends,

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In previous newsletters we have discussed various ancient interpretations of the Bible. One important aspect of these interpretations, which I would like to explore with you this week, is the vocalization of the text, which is essential to its basic understanding.
In the Latin alphabet, we can easily divide the letters into two groups: vowels and consonants. The existence of vowels assists us in reading any text written in this alphabet, and leaves little room for error (excluding irregular of foreign vocalizations), when vocalizing the text.

However, the Hebrew alphabet is fundamentally different from other languages, in this respect: while there are some letters that often function as vowels in certain contexts (א, ה, ו, י), for the most part, the text is completely consonantal. Due to this fact, many words which are written identically but vocalized differently can theoretically be confused, thus changing the meaning of the entire text.
In our times, when reading the Bible, we do not face such a problem, because the letters are accompanied by נִיקוּד – nikud – punctuation dots. These dots, written above, bellow and within the letters, indicate vocalization and pronunciation. While the pronunciation tradition of the Bible is ancient, the actual practice of writing the nikud alongside the text is from a much later period. This practice enabled the Jewish people, many of whom no longer spoke Hebrew as their first language, to preserve the proper reading tradition of the Bible.

Biblical Text with Nikud, scanned from Biblia Hebraica, courtesy of Israeli Wikipedia

Four different systems of nikud were invented at different times in late antiquity. However, one system, the Tiberian nikud, prevailed and is used to this day. This system was invented circa the 8th century CE, and the first manuscripts that we have representing this system are from the 10th century CE. The most famous among these is Keter Aram Tzova, a manuscript found in the Syrian city of Halab, which is partially preserved to this day, and which was apparently reviewed by Maimonides himself when visiting the city.  In this system, 10 different graphic symbols indicate the different vocalizations. We will not go into details about this system at this point, but you are welcome to learn more about it in our biblical Hebrew courses. I will simply bring a few examples of the way the nikud is written:
אַ – pronounced ah
אִ – pronounced ee
אֶ – pronounced eh
אוּ – pronounced oo

Realizing that this system was not used until late antiquity, or the early Middle Ages, we can also understand that the ancient exegetes, during the Second Temple period and the era after the destruction of the Temple, in fact used a text with no vocalization. Usually, they were well aware of the reading tradition of the text and vocalized just as it is vocalized today. However, at times, they vocalized it differently, whether by mistake or intentionally, and this creates interesting interpretations of the text. I will now bring a few examples of such interpretations.

The Tower of Babel

In Genesis 11, we hear of how the inhabitants of the world, who all spoke one language, decided to build a tower reaching the sky. In v. 4, we hear that:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ שֵׁם  פֶּן-נָפוּץ עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ
And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the earth’.
The word שֵׁם, shem, “name”, was vocalized differently by the Palestinian Aramaic translations of the Torah (“Targum”), who read here שָׁם – sham – “there”. Upon reading this word differently, the entire meaning of the verse changed: “and let us make there, lest we be…”. What was it that they were going to make “there”? The verse is now incomprehensible! The Targums solved this problem by introducing an exegetical-Midrashic addition, something they did quite often. They explained what it was that they wanted to place “there” – at the top of the tower – “and let us make for ourselves an idol at its top, and place a sword in his hand”. According to the Targums, this pre-historic generation sinned with idolatry, defying God and planning to fight against him. In light of this, the punishment they received – the confusion of languages and being dispersed upon the face of the earth – is even more understandable.

Wolves in the evening or wolves of the desert?
In two occurrences in the Minor Prophets, in Zephaniah 3:3 and in Habakkuk 1:8, we find the collocation זְאֵב עֶרֶב – ze’ev erev – meaning “a wolf in the evening”. In both these cases, the Septuagint (ancient Greek) translator read the word עֶרֶב, erev, differently, as עֲרַב – arav – meaning the geographical area of Arabia. This is why many English versions translate in these verses “wolves of the desert”.

Have a great week!

By Naama Baumgarten - Sharon
The Team

Weekly Biblical Hebrew Words

Transcription: Migdal
Literal Meaning: Tower
More about Migdal: Migdal is also the name of a village in the Galilee, the home town of Mary Magdalene.


Transcription: Eretz
Literal Meaning: Land, country, earth

Transcription: Ze’ev
Literal Meaning: Wolf
More about Ze’ev: Ze’ev is also used as a name, both in the Bible (Judges 8:3) and in modern times.

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