What is Masorah?

And why am I so eager to spend the time of my life learning to master it?

We are all seekers of meaning in our lives. Whether we find meaning is a different question. I consider myself fortunate to have discovered deep and profound meaning in the word; in the small, perfect Hebrew letters of the Book of Books.

Since I was a child haltingly learning to read the Torah in Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah, I have been drawn to the letters of the Aleph-Bet. I worked hard to learn Hebrew so that I could speak them into words and sentences, and then finally sing them out in the ancient song.

Even as a kid, I noticed the unusual letters the most: The odd men out. The larger or smaller letters. The letters with a line of dots hanging over them like pearls on a necklace or like suspended raindrops.

Why? What made these letters different from all the other letters?

About a decade and a half later, I finally found the hidden path in the forest of Jewish wisdom that would help me answer that question. A Rabbi once spoke about the word “Shalom” in a Shabbat lecture I attended. He explained that the word means “Peace” from the root Sh.L.M or “Shalem”, literally ‘wholeness’, or ‘completion’. He explained that normally the word is written perfectly, yet in one single location in the Torah the word is written intentionally flawed, imperfect, and incomplete, in order to teach us something. I won’t go into it all now; it’s the topic of another post[see The Broken Vav of Peace]. But suffice it to say I was hooked.

He told me that the study of these letters is called Masorah.

I began an independent study with this Rabbi, whose name begins with Aleph Bet, and who loves the topic so much that he told me if he had things his way would be teaching Masorah 24/7. With some apprehension and shyness, I later approached Rabbi Aleph-Bet and asked if he would consider teaching me.

We have met once a week ever since, and with his patience, generosity, and steady guidance I slowly grasped the vast ocean of knowledge that is Masorah drop by drop…word by word.

I learned that the Masorah refers to the system of notes and signs used to preserve the text of the Hebrew Bible, and the way it was written, from change.

The scholars who developed and transmitted these notes and signs are called “Masoretes”, and worked in the period of c.500-950 CE. The Masoretes were also the ones responsible for writing down the vowel signs and accent signs found in the Biblical texts. Their goal was to ‘freeze’ the text of the Torah as it had been received since, according to Jewish tradition, not even a single word or letter can be added or subtracted from the Hebrew Bible. If this were to happen, if even a single extra letter or word crept in to the text, the entire scroll would be unkosher (unfit for ritual use).

In the first five books of the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) alone, there are 304,805 letters that make up 79,976 words. Is it really possible to ensure that errors wouldn’t creep in with a handwritten text of this length and complexity over the course of millennia? In all honesty, shouldn’t the text that we have today be substantially different from the text of 2,500 years ago due to compounded human error of scribes over time?

You might think we would end up with a badly corrupted text which has no bearing on the parent text which Moshe is said to have received from Har Sinai, but in fact, the opposite is true. Our text has been passed down to the letter. That’s Masorah for you. But don’t take my word for it – go and compare the modern version of the book of Isaiah to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Masorah makes up a quality assurance system for the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible). It is network of notes that has ensured the transmission of our texts–error free–from ancient times to the present.

But what really interests me is those strange letters that I noticed as a child. The Rabbi explained that these strange letters are called “Otiot Meshunot”. In Hebrew, Otiot means ‘letters’ and Meshunot means ‘strange’, ‘incomprehensible’, or ‘different’. Usually translated as “Unusual Letters”, I would translate the phrase “Otiot Meshunot” as “Extraordinary”, “Atypical”, “Distinct” or even “Rare Letters” in the scroll.

It’s these letters that I truly want to study, for each carries within it a story, a lesson, a piece of hidden wisdom. Something is out of place or changed up for a reason. Countless scribes have faithfully copied these idiosyncrasies for millennia for us to learn from them here and now, in the year 2016.

I’m still a novice at this and part of the reason I’m starting this blog is because I want you to be able to learn along with me.

So if you choose, come away with me on my adventure to discover the oldest manuscripts and Torah scrolls in the world. Let’s look closely at these ancient letters and learn from their timeless wisdom. Let’s travel to Israel, Yemen, Italy, Spain, Germany, England and across the US in search of them.

Let’s learn Masorah.