What’s the Masorah for?

By :  David Marcus Professor Emeritus of Bible and Masorah Posted On Feb 16, 2018 / 5778 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

The Masorah of the Former Prophets in the Leningrad Codex (Vol. 1: Joshua) by David Marcus (Gorgias Press, 2017)

The Masorah reflects the combined efforts of thousands of scribes known as Masoretes, working over hundreds of years, to establish a uniform and fixed version of the Hebrew Bible in the 6th-10th centuries CE. In order to ensure that the text they established would be transmitted correctly, the Masoretes counted every word, made copious lists, and wrote thousands of notes on the margins of the manuscripts.

I have transcribed, translated, and annotated some ten thousand of these notes in my multi-volume work, the first volume of which has just recently been published. This work represents the first time that these Masorah notes are being presented to the English-speaking public.

Many people ask why contemporary readers of the Bible would want to study the Masoretic notes. I think these are the most significant three benefits:

  • Because the Masoretic notes list the exact number of occurrences of forms and phrases, checking out these other occurrences gets one familiarity with other parts of the Bible. So, looking at the Masoretic notes helps deepen our knowledge of the Bible.
  • Many Masoretic notes touch upon details of Hebrew grammar whether it be phonology (the writing of words with or without a vav or yod); morphology (how a noun or verb is formed); or syntax (how nouns or verbs act in a sentence), so perusing the Masoretic notes helps reinforce our understanding of Hebrew grammar.
  • Finally, the raison d’être of the Masoretes was preserving a text held to be so sacred that, even when it was thought to be incorrect, it was not changed. Our engagement with the Masorah, with its appreciation for the smallest details in the text, can inspire us to connect in a profoundly spiritual way with that sacred text.