Sunday 14 April 2019




The Hebrew vowel-points, or nekudot, are the markings at the bottom, middle and top of the Hebrew letters of the Alphabet.

Surprisingly, the origins of the nekudot became the subject of a very emotional debate, which sometimes became quite heated. It also, perhaps very unfairly, turned into a symbolic debate which weeded out the so-called ‘non-traditionalists’ from the ‘more authentic traditionalists.’



Perhaps the earliest indication of some form of nekudot system is alluded to in the first translation of the Torah into Greek, known as the Septuagint of around 200 BCE. This is where some Hebrew words are spelt out with Greek equivalent vowel-pointing to indicate the pronunciation.


Besides vowels, space separation between words, was another development which may have occurred over time. According to Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, originally there were no space separations between words in the early books of the Torah.

In other ancient documents, there is evidence of short vertical lines indicating breaks between words. These were later replaced by dots. [1]


The Masoretes or Baalei haMesora were active between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. They were a group of scribes (many of them were Karaites) who were involved in identifying and establishing the most accurate texts, and readings thereof, for future Torah transmission.

However, it was only from around the 7th century where the nekudot system appears to have been firmly established.

From around the 9th century, the Baalei haMesora, developed official schools of Hebrew grammar and vocalization. Three main schools existed at that time: The Babylonian school, or nikud Bavli; the Jerusalem school, or nikud Eretz Yisrael; and the Tiberius school, or nikud Teveiriyani.

The Babylonian school developed six vowels, the Palestinian school developed five and the Tiberius school had seven.

In the Babylonian and Jerusalem schools, the nekudot were placed above the letters, known as superlinear vocalization. With time, the Tiberius school became more dominant and remains the system still in use today. The Tiberius school also used cantillation marks which indicate the tune the text is to be recited in.

[For more on how Hebrew used to be pronounced see The ‘JIN’, the ‘RIMMEL’, the ‘THAW’ and the ‘WOW’.]

BEN ASHER (d. 960):

A key figure in the Tiberius school was Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher, and the Torah text we follow today, as well as our general pronunciation, are largely according to his version. His Torah was later endorsed by Rambam. [See The Aleppo Codex.]

Ironically, it is quite possible that the Ben Asher family were Karaite Jews. [See A Karaite Link in the Mesora Chain?]

BEN NAFTALI (d. 940):

A conflicting family of Baalei haMesora of the same period, was the Ben Naftali family. (Yaakov?) ben Naftali also wrote his own version of the Torah which provided different nekudot and pronunciations. Rav Saadia Gaon preferred the Ben Naftali version.

There are about 875 differences between the Ben Asher and Ben Naftali schools.

R. ELIYAHU HABACHUR (1468-1549):

During the 1500’s R. Eliyahu Bachur created waves when he suggested - although borne out by the historical record - that the nekudot were not as ancient as many maintained.  Many believed, based on the Zohar which had surfaced just 200 years earlier, that the tradition of nekudot went right back to Sinai. Bachur, however, suggested that the origins of the nekudot were relatively new - dating back to the end of the Talmudic period at around the 5th century CE - and not dating back to Sinai.

Bachur put forward some strong arguments for his case. Most compelling was the fact that nekudot are not mentioned in neither the Mishna (0-200 CE) nor the Talmud (200-500 CE), nor Aggadot nor Midrashim.[2]

Additionally, Bachur writes that “most of the names of the nekudot are not Hebrew, but they Aramaic.” This was a strong support for the notion that they are relatively new cannot be regarded as being ancient.

NATRONAI (d. 858):

Eliyahu Bachur was not the first rabbi to propose this, because other scholars, such as Natronai II ben Hilai the Gaon of Sura, had made similar suggestions already in the 9th century.
Natronai replied to a question as to whether it was permitted to put vowels points in a Sefer Torah scroll.

He wrote:

“...since the law, as give to Moses on Sinai, had no points, and...having been invented by the sages, and put down as signs for the reader; and moreover since it is prohibited to us to make any additions from our own cogitations, lest we transgress the command ‘Ye shall not add’...; hence we must not put points to the Scrolls of the Law.”

MACHZOR VITRY (d. 1105):

In a similar fashion, according to Machzor Vitry - written by Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry who was a student of Rashi:

“In the [unspecified] Teshuvot ha-Geonim… the Torah that was given to Moses at Sinai did not contain nekkudot, and in fact the nekkudot were not even given at Sinai. . . therefore we do not place nekkudot in the sefer Torah.”[3]

IBN EZRA (1089-1167):

At around the same time, Ibn Ezra made a similar observation.
Referring to the dots on the shin and sin, Ibn Ezra wrote:

“ was the custom of the sages of Tiberius to put down these points...from whom we obtained the whole system of punctuation.”


Historically, these views are corroborated by the Codex Hilali:
“It is now generally acknowledged among scholars that the Codex Hilali derives its name from the fact, that it was written at Hilla, a town near the ruins of ancient Babel.

This Codex, which was completed circa A.D. 600, had not only the then newly invented vowel-points and accents, but was furnished with Massoretic glosses.

It was brought to Toledo about A.D. 1100, where the grammarian Jacob b. Eleazar used it for his works, and a portion of it was purchased by the Jewish community in Africa, about A.D. 1500.”[4]

ZOHAR (first published in 1558):

All our sources so far, indicate that the nekudot were introduced during the period of the Baalei haMesora sometime between 500 and 1000 CE.

However, at the other end of the spectrum was the Zohar which regarded the nekudot as ancient and divinely given:

The vowel points proceeded from the same Holy Spirit which indited the sacred Scriptures, and that far be the thought to say that the scribes made the points.”[5]

Because of the position of pre-eminence the Zohar held amongst many (most?) Jews, this view naturally became the dominant view.

It should be pointed out, though, that there are divergent views regarding the dating and authority of the Zohar. [See Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar.]

R. AZARIA DEI ROSSI (1512-1577):

R. Azaria dei Rossi, in his Meor Eynayim, attacks Eliyahu Bachur for his view on the dating of the origins of the nekudot as being around the 5th century.

Azaria dei Rossi fervently subscribed to the view of the Zohar which claimed that the nekudot originated at Sinai.

Azaria quoted Bachur who had confidently proclaimed: “I shall succumb to the will of any person who can disprove my argument against our rabbis.

And he equally confidently proceeded to be the one to disproved Bachur because - very simply – the Zohar had settled the debate, and the nekudot were from Sinai!

But he gives Bachur a little wiggle room because he acknowledges that:

“...the kabbalistic works to which we shall refer were not yet in print in his [Bachur’s] lifetime…
However today … the Bahir, Zohar, Tikkunim...have been published . . . and they all discuss the nekkudot by their names and their descriptions...

Thus, Bachur’s view is patently undermined since we have intimations to prove that the different kind of vowels and accents were in existence not only before the close of the Gemara, but even before the composition of the Mishnah.

And if he were with us today, he would certainly submit to our view.”[6]

Eliyahu Bachur died in 1549[7], the Zohar was first printed in Mantua in 1558 [although it had surfaced 300 years earlier – either written - or discovered[8] - by Moshe de León (1240-1305)], and the Meor Eynayim was published in 1573.

Azaria dei Rossi’s support of the Zohar and the more ‘traditionally conservative’ view that the nekudot were given at Sinai, is rather surprising since he certainly was not accepted within the traditional camp. In fact, rabbis like the Maharal and even R. Yosef Karo had wanted to ban his writings including his Meor Eynayim.  [For more, see Azaria dei Rossi.]

THE CHIDAH (1724-1806):

R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai, the Kabbalist known as the Chidah, also defends the view of the Zohar:
“In my youth I saw . . . in Mesorat ha-Masorat [by Eliyahu Bachur] that tammim and nekkudot were instituted after the close of the Talmudic era by the wise [Baalei haMesora] of Tiberius.

R. Eliyahu is incorrect and must beg forgiveness, as these [nekudot] are Halacha leMoshe miSinai.

Further, it is already known that R. Simeon ben Yohai the teacher of Rebbi Yehuda haNasi, the compiler of the Mishna, in the Tekkuni Zohar speaks wonders regarding the tammim and the nekkudot.”[9]


Dan Rabinowitz describes the tension between those who claim the nekudot were given with the Torah (and even before[10]); and those who claim the vowels - as we know them - only came into existence around the 6th century CE, as follows:

“If one assumes that G-d unquestionably gave the Torah with a single, undisputed reading, one would argue that the current nekkudot system was in place at the time the Torah was given. In other words, at the time of the reception of the Torah, we also received from G-d a codified pronunciation system, the nekkudot.

The other opinion understands that although Hebrew necessarily includes a vowel system, the actual nekkudot symbols themselves were not given by G-d along with the Torah. Indeed, this "non-traditional" view generally holds that the nekkudot symbols were instituted by the Ba’alei Mesorah sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries of the Common Era.”[11]

R. YAAKOV EMDEN (1697-1776):

Rabinowitz also points out that R. Yaakov Emden mentions the reference to the vowel-point ‘kametz’ in the Tikkunei Zohar. R. Emden uses this reference to suggest that:

“this language is a clear proof that this [Zohar] is not written by R. Simeon ben Yohai, because it is known that the Ba’alei haDikduk are very late.

They do not date to the Tannaim, nor even during the Amoraim or Gaonic periods as there is no mention of them, instead they are after the Gaonic period, in the countries of the East is where we find the first Ba’al Dikduk, R. Judah ibn Hayyuj.”

R. Emden places the origins of nekudot at a much later time than anyone else in this debate – at the end of the period of the Gaonim which was around the year 1000, and was even 500 years later than Eliyahu Bachur’s estimation!


Fascinatingly, Rabinowitz informs us about a surprising irony relating to Moses Mendelssohn, who founded the Enlightenment movement and leaned towards the Reform movement.

Mendelssohn also weighed in on the debate as to the age of the nekudot. Yet, instead of siding with those who concluded that the nekudot were introduced by the Baalei haMesora around 600 CE - as one might have expected – he followed the view of the Zohar and maintained they originated at Sinai!

In his Torah commentary known as the Biur, he mentions the view of Eliyahu Bachur – but disagrees with him and instead chooses to go with:

 “the mekubalim [Kabbalists], specifically the Bahir...[and the] Zohar...which are not only before the close of the Talmudic era, but even before the writing of the Mishna. They all mention the names of the nekkudot.”

This is interesting for two reasons; firstly because Mendelssohn the Maskil selects the Zohar over ‘historical’ sources, and secondly because he also believes the Zohar was indeed an ancient work written by R. Shimon bar Yochai, a thousand years before Moshe de León.


As Dan Rabinowitz shows, the fiery debate as to the age of the nekudot has brought some interesting opinions from some unlikely sources. It is not surprising to see that the Chidah unquestionably supported the view of the Zohar

But it is surprising that people like R. Azaria de Rossi and Moses Mendelssohn, who were regarded as more ‘academic’ than ‘traditional’ by the Renaissance and Enlightenment standards respectively - yet both defended the position of the Zohar.

On the other hand, it is interesting to see that someone like R. Yaakov Emden, a fierce defender of orthodoxy - and a ‘hunter’ of secret followers of Shabbatai Zvi whom he believed had infiltrated into, and were threatening the essence of, mainstream orthodoxy - opted to challenge the very authenticity of the Zohar itself and dated the nekudot to even more recent times than anyone else had.

And it is also interesting to see that with the surfacing of the Zohar, suddenly even the authentic voices of Gaonim like Natronai, and Rishonim like Ibn Ezra and the Machzor Vitry - and the historical records of the schools that specialised in nekudot and texts, like Ben Asher and Ben Naftali - were overwhelmingly silenced.

To bring this debate into our modern era, it would be best to conclude with the opening remarks of Rabinowitz himself:

Recent history has witnessed a rise in the polarization within the Jewish community...

...this polarization is evidenced by – if not exacerbated by – some individuals or groups who have sought to mask the relative heterogeneity of philosophical, historical or halakhic opinions firmly within Orthodox or traditional scholarship.

That is, some rabbinic authorities and authors have attempted to portray Orthodoxy as a unified and monolithic collection of viewpoints, such that any dissent is to be characterized as “out-of-the-mainstream,” if not outright heretical.

This effort to marginalize viewpoints on fundamental topics of Jewish law and philosophy – even though such viewpoints have been the opinion of many distinguished sages – quite obviously promotes polarization by effectively casting disfavored views in a pejorative light.

Orthodox Judaism itself is not homogeneous; instead it is comprised of individuals who espouse many different views and defy rigid categorization. One example of this rich diversity and lack of homogeneity within Orthodox Judaism is the controversy regarding the origins of the system of nekkudot, vowel markers.

...Orthodoxy is comprised of multiple viewpoints, and...the bearers of those views cannot necessarily be categorized by shorthand labels.”


Massoreth  HaMassoreth (Ginsburg).
Nekkudot: The Dots that Connect Us, by Dan Rabinowitz. (Hakirah Journal 2005.)

[1] This can be seen in the Mesha Stone from around 850 BCE, which some believe to have been written in Old Hebrew.
[2] See Messoreth haMessoreth.
[3]Machzor Vitri, p. 192. (Goldschmidt edition.)

[4] Messoreth haMessoreth (Ginsburg) footnote 40.
[5] Zohar on Song of Solomon, 57b, ed. Amsterdam, 1701.

[6] Me'or Enayim, R. Azariah di Rossi, Warsaw 1899 p. 413.
[7] However, see Eliyahu Bachur, where it appears that copies of the Zohar (in manuscript form) were apparently available during Bachur’s lifetime.
[8] Moshe de Léon had claimed he had discovered the 1000-year-old text written by R. Shimon bar Yochai.
[9] Shem haGedolim, Tuv Tam p. 59.
[10] According to Jewish mysticism, the world was created with the Hebrew letters, and the specific Hebrew words for all manner of creation as written and pronounced, provided the life-force for each individual entity.
[11] Nekkudot: The Dots that Connect Us, by Dan Rabinowitz. (Hakirah Journal 2005.)

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