Why is the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition important?

Updated: Feb 26

I used to have a professor (during my Ph.D. studies) who would joke about the 'lies' that we had to tell our Biblical Hebrew students in a first-year class. He was not trying to be revolutionary or anything like that, but merely drawing attention to the large number of tiny details, exceptions, and linguistic peculiarities that we often like to simplify (and perhaps rightfully so from a pedagogical perspective) for beginning students of Biblical Hebrew.

During my doctoral studies, we were required to read through the entire Hebrew Bible over the course of two years, meeting each week in class to discuss any grammatical irregularities that we discovered in our reading. As a result, we were constantly discussing unusual pointing (niqqud), morphological obscurities, rare syntactic patterns, and all sorts of other grammatical perplexities. After such discussions, to then go and teach things in a simplified way to a first-year Biblical Hebrew class did indeed feel a bit like 'lying' or at least not telling the whole truth, even if some generalizations and over-simplifications were, at the end of the day, pedagogically prudent.

In a way, many of us in the field of Biblical Hebrew philology and linguistics have been doing the same thing for many years with respect to the vocalization of the Hebrew Bible. Even though we might acknowledge that the vocalization recorded for us in the model manuscripts like the Leningrad Codex (L) or the Aleppo Codex (A) is that of the Tiberian Masoretes, we continue to treat Biblical Hebrew as if it were the Sephardi pronunciation tradition imposed on the Tiberian Hebrew vocalization points (niqqud). One need not look any further than the practice of transcribing the first word of the Bible (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית) as bərēʾšît in recent publications in the field to find evidence of this. According to the Tiberian vocalization, this word was realized as /brēšīθ/ [baʀ̟eːʃiːiθ] (note: // encloses phonemic representation and [ ] encloses phonetic realization). While most of us know that the former transcription, bərēʾšît, is merely a convention and does not actually represent pronunciation, it is worth considering why we do not opt for a more faithful representation of the Tiberian vocalization in our scholarship. In response, some might raise the following question:

Does correct pronunciation of the Tiberian Hebrew vocalization tradition really matter?

For many, issues of pronunciation are relegated to the sphere of occasional interest and curiosity, but are not actually regarded as relevant for understanding the text before us. Morphology, and especially syntax, is where all the good and meaningful stuff happens. In their view, the nuanced minutiae of how Tiberian Hebrew was pronounced may be interesting to a small subset of scholars in our field, but it is not really relevant for interpreting and understanding the text before us.

In the remainder of this blog post, I want to list five reasons why, from a negative perspective, this view is incorrect and, from a positive perspective, why knowing the correct pronunciation of the Tiberian Hebrew vocalization tradition does in fact matter:

  1. The Bible is in fact Tiberian Hebrew. This point will be expounded upon more in #2 below, but what I basically mean by this is that what we as moderns know as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible ultimately goes back to the Tiberian Hebrew vocalization signs in one way or another. Modern translations are based on the Tiberian vocalization signs and printed editions of the Hebrew Bible often follow the Leningrad Codex (L).

  2. Textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible must not be limited only to the textual tradition but must also include the vocalization/oral tradition. If one ignores the vocalization tradition through which most of us access our Hebrew Bible, one is ignoring half of the story of the textual history of the Bible. We must remember that, even though we ultimately inherited the practice of textual criticism from Classicists (in particular, those working on critical editions of Greek and Latin texts), we are not Classicists and our material is of a different nature. Unlike Greek and Latin scripts, which signify vowels, Hebrew/Aramaic script signifies primarily consonants. Our material has thus always been transmitted as more than just ink on a page. As far back as we can trace in the Second Temple period, the written consonantal text was accompanied by an oral reading tradition. Without communities faithfully reciting the biblical text, much of the tradition we associate with the text—and its interpretation!—would have been lost. Fortunately, communities did in fact regularly recite this text, maintained its oral vocalization tradition, and eventually codified their reading tradition in writing. This written codification of the reading tradition is known as the niqqud 'pointing'. But even after the vocalization signs were finally committed to writing in the early Islamic period, it was still necessary to be taught how to correctly pronounce it, since the written signs do not contain everything one needs to know in order to read Tiberian Hebrew correctly. Therefore, if we really want to be complete in our understanding of the textual history of the Hebrew Bible, we ought to give careful attention to the oral tradition by means of which it was handed down to us from late antiquity.

  3. Understanding the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition does in fact affect meaning. The smallest linguistic unit that affects meaning is known as the phoneme. One of the most obvious examples of neglect of the Tiberian tradition concerns the phonological description and/or representation of the בג״ד כפ״ת consonants. As is well known, when the בג״ד כפ״ת consonants have a dagesh, they are pronounced with a 'hard' stop pronunciation and when they are without a dagesh (i.e., rafe), they are pronounced with a 'soft' fricative pronunciation. It is exceedingly common to refer to the 'soft' spirantized/fricative realizations of these letters as 'allophones'. Nevertheless, careful attention to the Tiberian vocalization tradition reveals that they are not merely conditioned by the phonetic context and thus should be regarded as distinct phonemes (see TPTBH §I.1.25). Even though, probably by coincidence, we do not have any minimal pairs attested in the biblical corpus, it is highly likely that if certain paradigms were fully attested we would find them: e.g., רִכְבִּי [ʀ̟iχbiː] = 'my chariot' vs. רִכְבִי [ʀ̟iχviː] = 'ride! (fs)'; קִרְבִּי [q̟iʀ̟biː] = 'my midst' vs. קִרְבִי [q̟iʀ̟viː] = 'draw near! (fs)'. As another example of knowledge of the pronunciation tradition being relevant for meaning, one might cite forms such as יִרְא֤וּ [jiʀ̟ʔuː] 'they will see' as opposed to יִֽרְאוּ [jiːiʀ̟ʔuː] 'they will fear', in which the distinction in pronunciation (and thus meaning) is only indicated by the presence or absence of gaʕya. Aside from this the written consonants and vowels are identical. There are indeed other relevant aspects of the pronunciation tradition for meaning, such as the dagesh to distinguish meaning (see TPTBH §I.3.1.3), but these examples will suffice for the present section.

  4. Understanding the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition is essential for historical Hebrew linguistics. It is perhaps in this realm more than any other that ignorance of the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition has led to the most issues. I will cite just one as an example. As someone who has done a bit of work on the word בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית in Gen. 1.1, I am aware of its various representations in different vocalization traditions throughout history, from its most ancient transcribed forms as βρησιθ (Origen) and bresith (Jerome) to its vocalization in the Samaritan tradition as bå̄rå̄šət. Interestingly, there are some marginal notes in LXX manuscripts that transcribe the form as βαρησειθ (Rahlfs 57'-78). For those ignorant of the Tiberian tradition, they might think that the initial α vowel in such a transcription is evidence that the form was read with definiteness as בָּרֵאשִׁית in the tradition of the transcriber. One who is familiar with the Tiberian tradition, however, will recognize that this may just as well (and probably more likely) be a transcription of vocalic shewa, which was normally realized as [a] in the Tiberian tradition: i.e., בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית = [baʀ̟eːʃiːiθ].

  5. The Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition is something to be appreciated in its own right. Or, if my readers will permit a less academic formulation, the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition is beautiful. More so than other Hebrew vocalization traditions, the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition is marked by a number of features that seem to have been introduced to ensure that the text was pronounced correctly and that this correct pronunciation was preserved. This phenomenon is known as 'orthoepy'. Embedded in the vocalization tradition itself, then, is a desire to correctly pronounce it and preserve it. Geoffrey Khan has given examples of such orthoepic features that must go back to the Second Temple period, such as the lengthening of the initial vowel in the verbal form יִהְיֶה (TPTBH §1.I2.10). Indeed, a highly conservative character seems to have been a feature of the ancestor of Tiberian Hebrew already in late antiquity, since the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition preserves certain linguistic features and distinctions that the tradents of the tradition were unlikely to be aware of themselves that otherwise might have been levelled out by more common Second Temple period forms. My favorite example of this comes in Genesis 4.12, where we find the following: ‏כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ 'when you work the ground, it will no longer give you its strength'. In this verse, the form תֹסֵ֥ף is vocalized like a hifˁil jussive verb, even though it cannot be jussive following לֹא. In reality, it is actually preserving the old qal yiqtol form of the verb, which probably developed historically as follows: *yawsup (from the yaqtul pattern) → *yōsup → *yōsip → *yōsēp. Even though the Tiberian Masoretes might not have recognized it any longer as a qal form, they resisted the urge to make it conform to the more familiar hifˁil yiqtol form תּוֹסִיף/תֹּסִף, which would have been more readily available for them in the Second Temple period. This, among many other examples, reflects the sort of carefulness that went with transmitting the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition from late antiquity through to the medieval period.

It is a bit difficult to explain succinctly all the reasons why knowing the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition really matters. In my personal experience doing historical Hebrew linguistics and reading the Hebrew Bible, however, I have found myself saying again and again, 'If I hadn't known the details of the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition, I would have totally missed that'. I would thus encourage all my readers to really get into the Tiberian Hebrew reading tradition themselves and see just how many worlds it opens up for understanding Biblical Hebrew and its history.


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