The New International Encyclopædia/Masora

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MASO'RA, MASSORAH, MASSORETH (Heb. tradition, from māsar, to hand over). A particular collection of critical notes on the text of the Old Testament, its divisions, accents, vowels, grammatical forms, letters, etc. According to the early mode of Semitic writing, only the consonants were indicated; hence in the course of time there inevitably arose a vast number of variants in the Old Testament text, or rather different ways of reading and interpreting the same letters by dividing them into different words with different vowels and accents. Some measures for the more accurate preservation of the documents became indispensable, and the desideratum was supplied by the Masora, which, by fixing an immutable reading upon each verse, word, and letter, put an end to the confusion and left the individual fancy free to take its own views for homiletical purposes only. The origin of the Masora is shrouded in mystery, though tradition carries it back to the days of Ezra. The first certain traces of it are found in certain Halachistic works treating of the synagogue rolls of the Pentateuch, and the mode of writing them, and it is reasonable to suppose that practical necessities called forth by the institution of readings from the Pentateuch and Prophets as a regular feature of religious services led to accurate determination of the text of each verse, the number of letters, and the pronunciation of each word, including the proper intonation. A late Talmudic treatise, Massecbeth Sopherim, treats of these matters. Some of the earliest works on the subject have survived in their titles only, such as The Book of the Crowns, The Book of the Sounds, etc. There can hardly be a doubt that the Masora, like the Halacha and Haggada, was the work, not of one age or century, but of many ages and centuries, as, indeed, we find in ancient authorities mention of different systems of accentuation used in Tiberias, Babylon (Assyria), and Palestine. In the period of Hadrian we learn of two scholars, Nakkai and Hammum, who are said to have counted the number of verses in the books of the Old Testament, but the systematic work of the Masoretes belongs to a much later period. The vowel system at present employed, which is their work, cannot be traced further back than the seventh century, and appears to be based on the example furnished by Syrian grammarians; but before this was perfected at Tiberias in Palestine, another system, chiefly superlinear in character and much more complicated, was evolved and adopted in Babylonia. These two systems are distinguished as the Tiberian and the Babylonian respectively. It was in Tiberias that the Masora was first committed to writing, between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. Monographs, memorial verses, finally glosses on the margins of the text, seem to have been the earliest forms of the written Masora, which gradually expanded into one of the most elaborate and minute systems, laid down in the ‘Great Masora,’ made up of longer notes placed upon the upper and lower margins (about the eleventh century). Besides this there was compiled the ‘Small Masora,’ notes placed between the columns of the texts. A further distinction is made between Masora textualis and finalis, the former containing all the marginal notes; the latter, larger annotations, which, for want of space, had to be placed at the end of the paragraph. Of independent Masoretic works, the most important is the one known as Ochlah wcoehlah. The final arrangement of the Masora, which was first printed in Bomberg's Rabbinical Bible (Venice, 1524-25), is due to Jacob ben Chayim ben Adonijah, and to Felix Pratensis. The language of the Masora is Aramaic, and besides the difileulty of this idiom, the obscure abbreviations, contractions, symbolical signs, etc., with which the work abounds, render its study exceedingly difficult. An explanation of the Masora is found in Elias Levita's Masoreth Hammesoreth (trans. into German by Semler, Halle, 1772), and Buxtorf's Tiberias (Basel, 1620). Consult also: Ginsburg, The Massorah (London, 1880-85); id., Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (London, 1899); Harris, “Rise and Development of the Massorah,” in the Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. i. (1888); König, Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Leipzig, 1893).