The Catastrophe of Vowels

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The Hebrew Bible was originally written in a phonetic alphabet that had no vowels. As Aramaic and Greek rapidly begin to replace Hebrew as the lingua franca of the Jews in the centuries just before and after the common era, vowels (Heb. – nikkudim, dots) were introduced by a family or school of linguistic experts called Masoretes (from masora – those who hand down or pass along) working in Palestine, mostly Tiberias, along the Sea of Galilee from the 3rd century through the sixth.

The Masoretes worked from different texts to arrive at a composite, definitive version called the Masoretic Torah. Working with variora editions, the Masoretes had to make thousands of decisions regarding the pronunciations of words in the Scriptures and choose one, collapsing the multiple potential meanings into one actuality, one sense. In some cases this meant choosing among slightly different shades of meanings or tenses, but in others it meant radically reducing the free play of associations and interacting alternatives that a set of consonants might signify. They also added diacritical marks indicating intonation and made decisions about where to cut words in order to further reduce ambiguity and preserve agreed-upon meanings. (See discussion in Musaph-Andriesse, R.C. From Torah to Kabbalah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

The Masoretes preserved the sense of difficulty in this task and some of the ambiguity by often annotating the text with distinctions between what was written (kettiv = Aramaic for “written”) from how it should be pronounced (qere – Aramic for ‘read’). They also extensively annotated the Tanach with marginalia indicating unresolved difficulties and discussing some of the bases for final decisions. Working in competing schools in Babylonia and Palestine between 200-1005 ce, they even completed conflicting versions. In the end, the school of Ben Asher offered the standard text. Even though the Masoretes registered difficulties and conflicts, the very activity of eliminating the free play of interpretation by producing vowels and vocalizations was restrictive. For example, in Isaiah 44:24, the prophet speaks in the voice of the Creator, comparing the work of human creativity with Divine Creation:

The mere craftsman in iron works with his tools. He works the iron over charcoal and fashions it by hammering… The mere craftsman in wood measures with a line/and marks out a shape with a stylus. These craftsmen aren’t merely workers, they are idol-makers. They give their work “human form, The beauty of a man/To dwell in a shrine/…he makes a god of his own carving/he bows down and worships it” (Is. 44:12-17).

By comparison,

“It is I, the Lord, who made everything/Who alone stretched out the heavens/And unaided I spread out the earth”

The Hebrew for what often gets translated into English as “by Myself” here is  = ‘m’itti’. The Masoretes note that what is written (ketiv) in the text includes a yod between the “mi ” and the ‘itti‘, which would literally say “Who [mi] with me [eettee]?” phrasing a rhetorical question. But, the Masoretes insist, the text should be vocalized (qere) as “m’itti” – as if the yod were missing – which means “from me (alone).” Slight differences in shades of meaning are produced by these two pronunciations. One is heretical, potentially, by even invoking the possibilty that God had a partner. The Masoretes resolve the problem by dropping the first yod, when reciting the verse. At first glance the change seems inconsequential: mi itti = “Who was with me?” is a rhetorical question whose answer is “Of course no one”; m’itti = “From me [alone]” is emphatic, though a bit awkward.

What if we imagined ourselves in the position of a modern scholar posing the following question about this passage from Isaiah: Is God being ironic? Is this really a rhetorical question, or does it open up other possibilities, calling for expansion or amplification? If so, then our reader is faced with the heretical idea that God was assisted by others in His act of Creation, a Gnostic notion the Sages resisted in the early centuries of the common era, and exactly the sense that Isaiah is trying to negate by comparing God’s solitary act of creation with the making of idols. The Masoretic choice of inflection, spacing and vowelling here attempts to control this intrusion of the Gnostic idea of God’s angelic assistants, since the project of the Masoretes worked in the face of declining Hebrew literacy in Palestine and Babylonia, declining coherence in Jewish thinking, increasing dispersion of Jewish people, and increasing threats from Gnosticism and then Christianity, Islam, and Orientalism both physical and theological.

But the Masora editing pays a severe price.

If we return to the letters of the word/phrase we see another powerful interpretation is possible, using the Talmudic practice of expansion and divine, irresolute punning: “m’itti”  might also mean “From (mem – ) alphabet (aleph-taf) mine (yod)”! This renders the verse:

“It is I, the Lord, who made everything

Who alone stretched out the Heavens

And from my Aleph-Taf spread out the earth.”

Does this passage contain Isaiah’s enticing hint of the creative power implicit in the aleph-tav, the word which stands for the Hebrew alphabet itself? Other clues in the passage suggest that Isaiah, the consummate poet and master of metaphor, is playing with a conceit of the alphabet, for in the next line, he continues with God’s self-declaration,

“It is I that frustrated the letters (ha-oht’ot = he aleph tav vav tav) of the liars [those who make up false tales]” (badim = bet resh yod-mem).[Usually translated “the tokens of the imposters” meaning “the signs or portents of the false mages and necromancers,”  but it might as well be ‘novelists’

The image of God ‘flattening out’ or ‘spreading out’ echoes another word that means to spread out, peh-resh-shin, perush means  spread out in the sense of “unfolding or opening a scroll (in front of someone)” In fact, Isaiah uses it in this sense just a few chapters earlier. King Hezekiah received a letter from Rabshakeh, the Assyrian general who was threatening to destroy Hezekiah’s kingdom. Hezekiah brought the letter to the temple “and spread it out before the Lord and prayed” (Isaiah 37:14).

If vocalized “parash” is means to “amplify and define a separate meaning, to interpret distinctly or differently.” It also puns on sky, since the same letters mean “the limiting plane” as in “a ceiling” or the vault of the sky; since Isaiah here applies it, in God’s voice, to the earth just after forging his image of the sky, it is clear Isaiah means to draw a parallel between earth and sky.

By using the energized combination of letters – the punning repetition of the aleph-tav and the image of G-d spreading out the heavens and earth – in a system of multiplied alternatives, Isaiah pursues the metaphor of creation. The prophet unfolds before us a literal image of God “spreading out the Heavens and flattening out the Earth by Himself.” But hidden in this image is another one: In this image, God uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (My aleph-tav) to unroll (perush) the twinned scrolls of the sky and the earth, like the Torah itself, in order to frustrate the alternative scripts (ha-o’tot) of ‘those who make up false stories [badim]” about Creation.

But this wonderful alternative conceit is lost if Isaiah’s poetry is collapsed into a strict Masoretic choice to read one decisive version.

Poetry written in more developed and efficient alphabets, alphabets capable of indicating with clarity a single intention, written Hebrew unavoidably multiplies alternatives. In the poet’s hand, what we would consider a liability in day-to-day communication becomes a special power, since it invites multiple alternatives that may supplement each other rather than compete. The collapse of this enriching multiplication in unvowelled Hebrew into a single choice of vowelled Hebrew – Hebrew with dots by the Masoretes — was potentially catastrophic for the vital and sanctified project of reading the more primitive Hebrew.

The catastrophe is averted in Jewish tradition because of the religious significance attached to precise copying of every letter in the scrolls of the Torah. This religious tradition is founded on the belief that Moses received both the written and an oral Torah at Sinai. As a result, even in synagogues today, the text of the Torah is read aloud during services from parchment scrolls written in unvowelled Hebrew letters, while the congregation follows along in a book (including extensive commentary – the Chumash or Five Books of Moses) that includes the vowelled Hebrew text.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the vital and uncertain sea of language into which reading ancient Hebrew plunges us and the search for fixed meaning and certainty in later languages is stark. There is something poetic and prayerful intrinsic in Hebrew that we lose when we erect clarity – disambiguation – as a goal of all texts. The Torah reminds us that every letter is literary. Such letterature is a form of liturgy.

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