Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Biblical Hebrew (Class 1)

This class is amazing. It totally blows my mind. It also scares the hell out of me. It's probably the hardest class I will ever take in my entire life. Anyway, it's given by Dr. Richard Steiner. It will take me way too long to scan all the sheets he gives out, so if you particularly want them, please email me (and then I'll see that it's worth my while.) Same deal- these are my notes. Any and all mistakes are mine.

Also, I am so lucky to be here. Hurrah for Revel!


Origin of the Nikud

What does it mean to say we received the nikud from the men of Tiberias? Dr. Steiner cited the sources that agree with modern scholars (so this is a selective source-sheet he has provided us with.)

Shir HaShirim Rabbah (Vilna) Parsha Alef, D"H, A (11) Tori: Aron Doton (in Israel) cites this as a proof of the recording of the Oral-Written tradition. Distinguishes between the Oral tradition (how you read the Tanakh, as our Torah scrolls have no nekudos) and the actual symbols for the vowels that we call nekudos. Aron Doton says Masoretes record the nikud during the 6th or 7th century.

Anyway, Shir HaShirim Rabbah states that:

R' Aba bar Kahana: Nekudos refer to the katuv -letters
R' Acha: Refers to the words
Davar Acheir: Refers to the lines cut into the parchment (of the Torah scroll)

The thing to note here is that every possiblity is mentioned here except for the one the simplest child would offer, namely that nekudos refer to the symbols we use for the vowel signs we make. So this is an argument from silence- the fact that nobody mentions nekudos here is because it didn't exist (per Doton) at the time of the Amoraim. Once again, we are saying that the signs to record the vowels are only invented after the time of the Amoraim.

Radbaz: The nekudos and the taamim are like the rest of the Torah She'baal Peh (which shows they are not part of the Torah She'bksav.) The reasons you can't put nekudos into the Torah is because that's not the way it was given at Sinai.

Machzor Vitri: Machzor of person believed to be a talmid of Rashi. There is a teshuva in the Machzor regarding whether it is assur to put nekudos in the Torah. The answer is lo nitein nikud b'sinai. We had an oral reading tradition. (Dr. Steiner notes that Jerome, the Church Father, mentions that there are Jews who chant/ sing entire books of the Bible by heart.)

Karyan: Someone qualified to read in the synogague in the time of Chazal.

The second passage/ excerpt from the Machzor Vitri is from Pirkei Avos. It tells you of the transmission of the Torah (maybe this is R' Simcha Vitri, maybe others, etc.) A lot of ink has been spilled about one of the sentences here. This is the basic mention of different systems of vocalization by the Geonim (all turned up in the Cairo Genizah.) There are three different systems of vocalization.

1) Tiberian vocalization- standard
2) Babylonian vocalization- sometimes called nikud elyon because signs are above the letters- especially Targumic manuscripts. Also reflects different dialect of Hebrew; there is a slightly different pronounciation.
3) Palestinian vocalization- nikud Eretz Yisrael- effectively 5 vowel qualities (even though sometimes you see 6 or 7)

How do we know that there were different methods of vocalization?

So there is a very long answer to this question, but here's a short answer. In the Tiberian system, if you count the number of symbols assigned as nekudos, you come up with 7. You see people talk about the shivah melachim (seven kings) - each melech corresponds to a different vowel quality. But in the Babylonian vocalization, you only find six different signs, so you already know there's a different dialect of Hebrew (and that they sound different.) Because if you only have six nekudot vs. seven there's some kind of vocalization that is different. Incidentally, presumably the Babylonian vocalization is that of Chazal, and many derashot become clearer if you know the Babylonian pronounciation of the Hebrew.

Then in Israel there are two sorts of vocalization: Tiberian and Palestinian systems of vocalization. The relationship between these two is somewhat of a mystery. How in this little country do you have two different pronounciations of Hebrew, one resembling the Sephardi pronounciation and the other the Ashkenaz pronounciation? (It's kind of the same question people ask re: Ashkenaz and Sephard regarding which is older/ the original). To hear Dr. Steiner's view, catch him in Jerusalem on December 22 at a colloquium celebrating the 90th birthday of Prof. Joshua Blau (Israel's leading Semitist.)


Look inside the Machzor Vitri again. Ever since Nechemiah Alon wrote on t his subject, all say "nikud shelanu" (which is what it says in the Machzor Vitri) is some kind used in Medieval France. The use of vocalization in France was different, they argue. So the theory is that it's Simcha Vitri talking. But then I (as in, Dr. Steiner) realized that this Teshuva was repeated (came up in two different places in Machzor Vitri) and it sounded to me like something the Geonim would say, a teshuva of the Geonim. That would mean this is the Babylonian nikud. So I asked Dr. Sid Leiman and he looked at me and said that Shadal and everyone said it was from the Geonim. So that was a sobering experience. He couldn't believe what the people in my field say about this. So if you want to know about things, talk to Dr. Leiman.

In the new edition of the Machzor Vitri, the words 'Teshuvas Ha'Geonim' which had been appended to the end of Siman Kuf-Yud-Tes are now just before our siman here, Siman Kuf-Chaf, so that seems to support the point.


We're going to study Tiberian vocalization, which already in the 10th century, everyone who writes grammars knows we base nikud on 'sham' and not Bavel. What's 'sham?' Tiberian system.

So by the time of R' Saadya Gaon it was agreed that the Tiberian Masorete tradition was the standard.

And not only was the Babylonian tradition alive then but most Jews were in Bavel, Iran, Central Asia and a small portion were in Taiman. It definitely sounds that despite the Babylonian tradition being the larger one, the Tiberian tradition was agreed on/ the standard.


(As a side point, we get into a discussion of being a karyon vs an akdan. Apparently in the haftorah for Sukos there is this line- "nistom geari" which either means 'you shall flee' or 'you shall be stopped up from the earthquake' depending on how it is read. There is a very substantive difference between the two traditions- this is one of the famous things.)

Anyway, no matter what people say about who invented the nekudos, everyone agrees those rules are NOT from Sinai. In fact, these rules of grammar were introduced by R' Saadyah Gaon into his grammar. (Dr. Steiner here tells a story about an avrech from Lakewood in his shul who told him everyone in Lakewood is dying to know about Hebrew grammar and so he would be welcomed with open arms- so this 1000 year-old battle about whether or not Hebrew grammar is even important is dying. Dr. Steiner was happy he would be protected in Lakewood.)

These grammatical rules are empirical rules- not handed down by anyone, but rather, discovered after people started looking for patterns. You have R' Saadyah Gaon, R' Ibn-Janach, R' Yehuda Chayug. Many discoveries made by the end of the 10th century for the most part. They find patterns, but we always try to improve upon what has been found. It's all crystallized in Sephardic tradition. Apparently we have a program at YU called HaKeter where you can create any research query and test the patterns of rules to see if they hold up.


1. Teamim- Trop/ Ha'teama= The stress (the position of the accent/ that's how we know where the accent is in Hebrew) Masoretes who wrote the signs= our stresses. That's why it is important to learn their conventions.

Many people who teach Bar Mitzvah boys are not aware you can't always rely on the teamim because some of them are not placed on the right syllable. Others/ some of them are placed elsewhere. Yesiv is always to the right (not put on stressed syllable- same thing with telisha gedola)- same issue by post-positive ones (telisha ketana, zarka, segol).

Pashta is not as dangerous because they (Anshei Kneses/ Masoretes) decided to double the pashta when the stress was melil (on next-to-last full vowel). Because in a milra (last vowel) word the pashta will be there anyway.

How come some Tanakhs have other doubled teamim? Because the printer decided to make a Koren Tanakh where he doubles all the post-positive ones.

Story from Dr. Yitzi Berger-

R' Breuer was teaching the Gush (Breuer Tanakh is far superior) and while in shiur, asked if anyone had a Tanakh. One student said, "Lo, aval yesh li zeh," and held up his Koren Tanakh. Rabbi Breuer thought this was hilarious and laughed.

(So apparently Hebrew grammar folks are not a fan of the Koren Tanakh.)

In Aramaic, melil means above and milra means below. (You see in Daniel there is a kingdom ara min which means below.) All Masoretic terms are in Galilean Aramaic.

Look at the Aleppo Codex text (that he had handed out to us.) See how it says luz- only place it occurs. Why are all the terms in Aramaic? That's why we assume it is in the 6th or 7th century that the nikud was written down.


The necessary condition for correcting leining is if you change the meaning of the word. So what if you put the stress on the wrong syllable? Will that change the meaning of the word?

Let's talk examples. There's a concept in linguistics of a minimal pair. That's like ba'ah and ba'ah.

Dr. Steiner was once in his car with his radio tuned to some Jewish station and he heard this Lubavitcher Rebbe explain 'Kumi, Ori,' from Yeshaya in Yiddish as "Stand up, my light." He almost crashed the car. That's because what that really means is "Arise, shine!" So there the stress position can change the meaning of the word (the stress on ori.)

We have Masoretic notes to that effect. The types of Masoretic notes on this Aleppo Codex page- in the margins but also on top and bottom. Check out the note to Genesis 19:31 there from the Leningrad text. Look at how they try to explain. They say:

Boi, shichvi- feminine singular interpretations when you lengthen/ stress the Beis
Boi- masculine when you lengthen the aleph

This is expressed very strangely. What does he mean, lengthen the Beis, lengthen the Aleph? He doesn't mean those letters; he means the vowels/ nikud under those letters. So why doesn't he say that? Because he doesn't have the terms to explain what this is. That's why he calls them zachar or nekeivah- he just doesn't have other words or terms yet.

R' Yosef Kimchi in his grammar (he's Radak's father) talks about 'lengthening.' When he talks about lengthening the alef or eis he means lengthening the vowels - not the actual beis/ alef- that's a different thing; you would do that by a dagesh chazak.

So we see from here that the signs/ nekudos didn't exist then. Yet another hint to when they were written down. You see here they are using very different terminology (talking about lengthening) than Spanish grammarians, etc.


Then we get to Rashi- the famous Dikduk Rashi, as you call them. Rashi repeats this all throughout Tanakh regarding ba'ah and ba'ah (so the stress is important)- so many places where position differs only re: melil and milra. Phonemic stress.

SECTION 2- Degeishim.

The Anshei Mesorah used certain signs (dot in letter) for two apparently different reasons (from our perspective, anyway). Two different kinds of dagesh.

1. Dagesh Chazak: Quantitative
2. Dagesh Kal: Qualitative

Dagesh Chazak is a lengthening consonant. It's like if you are at someone's house and say: "Dinner was a-mmmazing." You lengthened the 'm.' (Languages other than English do this not for expressive purposes but to change the meaning. Phonemic length.)

Look at Leviticus 7:30 and 6:14. Look at the word 'tivienah' in both those places.

In 6:14 it means you shall bring it. In 7:30 it means they shall bring (his own hands= they shall bring.)


There is something called a rafeh. This is the opposite of a dagesh. The absence of a dagesh is called a rafeh. Look at Aleppo Codex for examples- see the dash over the tav there? That's a rafeh.

Why did we need a rafeh (something to show there's no dagesh?)

Well, it depends on how important Tanakh was to you. Tanakh was very important to Anshei HaMesorah. They were worried that if they just relied on the absence of a sign, people will think they accidentally left out a dot. So they built this rafeh into the system so no one will think they left out a dot.

It is humanly impossible to write the Tanakh perfectly correctly without mistakes- even the Aleppo Codex, which is the best text, doesn't have everything right. So they did the best they could humanly do.

Check out this comment: Chakiman rafin, artalin degeishin- regarding 'arom' in two different places in the Book of Job. Job 5:12 vs. 22:6.

In 5:12- ב מֵפֵר, מַחְשְׁבוֹת עֲרוּמִים; וְלֹא-תַעֲשֶׂנָה יְדֵיהֶם, תֻּשִׁיָּה. 12 He frustrateth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands can perform nothing substantial.

In 22:6- כִּי-תַחְבֹּל אַחֶיךָ חִנָּם; וּבִגְדֵי עֲרוּמִּים תַּפְשִׁיט. 6 For thou hast taken pledges of thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing.

When 'arom' means clever, there is no dagesh.
When it means 'naked,' it does have a dagesh to lengthen the mem.


You must memorize and understand everything on the sheets, especially Section 5 (closed unstressed syllables etc) because you won't understand all the other rules, otherwise. (Me: And then you will fail at life.)


The Shipper said...

My dikduk rebbe in the HTC prefers the Koren for chumash, since it is based on an the Leningrad manuscript, which had the complete text of tanach. But Rabbi Breur, who based his version on the Aram Tzova, had to reconstruct a lot of the chumash since much of it was missing.

I therefore follow the Koren when I lein, even when it conflicts with the Breuer tanach.

I'd be interested in Dr. Steiner's opinion on this matter.

Tzvi Feifel said...

Dikduk rebbi at HTC? You're not talking about Rabbi Isenberg, are you?? :P

BitterBetter said...

Ah, Biblical Hebrew with Dr. Steiner...good times. This class was, in fact, one of the most difficult classes I've taken (for sure when I took it a few years ago it was the hardest yet, but then I got involved in psychological testing...oy)- but it was absolutely one of the most rewarding, as well! It completely transformed the way I learn Tanakh and understand the words of tefillah, not to mention how careful I am now with dikduk now when I daven or am a ba'al korei! (Just recently, I was the sheliah tzibbur for kabbalat shabbat with Dr. Steiner in attendance (yikes!) and I was extra careful with my sheva-na's, etc...I hope I made him proud ;o)

I am very happy for you, Chana, that you are taking this class. I think it is so important that everyone should take it, but I think you'll particularly enjoy it - it sounds like you already are.

Good luck and enjoy!

The Talmid said...

So apparently Hebrew grammar folks are not a fan of the Koren Tanakh.

Rav Chaim Ilson (A talmid of the Rav) focused on Mosad Harav Kook Tanach because it's based on Keser Aram Tzovah

Talmidim of Rav Ahron Soloveichik for the most part use Koren.

So what will Rav Aharon Lichtenstein use, since he's a talmid of both of them? Which Tanach did Rav Hutner use?

MDJ said...

Two small points. Tiny really. It's Dotan, not Doton, and Nechemiah Aloni, not Alon.

MDJ said...

OK, I'll add something a bit more substantive. It's not grammar folks who don't like Koren. As far as I know there are no solecisms in it. It is people who are concerned with having an accurate text. R. Breuer's reliance on teh Keter, and his methodology for reconstructing the missing parts, is far superior, in most informed opinions, to that of Koren, which, although, it seems, is mainly based on Heidenheim and Leningrad, does not have a well accepted method for determining the text.

In fact, I recall in 1985, before R. Breuer's text was easily available (although some of it was in the volumes of Da'at Mikra already published), MJ Bernstein advised those of us in his Intor to Biblical Exegesis class not to use Koren, but rather the Tzahal tanach, which in those days was not a koren but a copy of Dotan's tanach, which was indeed directly based on Leningrad.

Shipper, you might take note of this fact. Even if you don't to use R. Breuer, you are probably better off getting a copy of Dotan's tanach to learn from. It is still available. Look for it on Amazon.

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