When the Biblical text received its final form in the schools of Palestine during the first and second centuries, and the Masorah began its task of preserving this text, it consisted exclusively of letters to which were added no signs either to indicate the vowels or to mark the larger and smaller divisions. The method of reading this text, which consisted almost entirely of consonants, and in which only the chapters ("parashiyyot") were marked, and these merely by spaces, was entrusted to oral tradition, which was preserved as accurately as the written text itself by those who transmitted the Masorah—the scholars proper, the teachers, and the readers. At an early period the principle was established, "Yesh em la-miḳrah" (= "the reading has a firm foundation, a sure tradition"); but by the side of this was developed also another principle, "Yesh em la-masoret" (= "the transmission of the written text has a firm foundation"). On the basis of this latter maxim, exegesis in its interpretation and application of the Biblical text permitted itself to adopt a vocalization which diverged from the traditional reading (Bacher, "Die Aelteste Terminologie," p. 120).

Original Dotted Letters.

In some few passages, however, the written text contained points over individual letters, words, or parts of words. These points, which occur in ten places in the Pentateuch, in four in the Prophets, and one in the Hagiographa (see Ben Asher, "Diḳduḳeha-Ṭe'amim," ed. Baer and Strack, p. 48), have only a critical or exegetical value (see Blau, "Massoretische Untersuchungen," pp. 6 et seq.), and even in the tannaitic period there was a rule for the interpretation of such words as had them (Bacher, "Ag.Tan." ii. 431). These points were regarded as an integral part of the consonantal text; later their name ("neḳuddah"; plural, "neḳuddot"; see Cant. i. 11) was applied to the newly invented vowel-points, and from it was derived the word "niḳḳud" (= "punctuation"), a "nomen actionis" from the verb "niḳḳed" (= "to punctuate"). The word "neḳuddah" was used also to denote those parts of point-like individual letters that resembled dots (see the passages cited by Levy, "Neuhebr. Wörterb." iii. 434b, with which is to be compared Blau, l.c. p. 164; comp. also Eccl. R. vii. 1, where a baraita on the names of the tribes of Israel written on the breastplate of the high priest states that no point ["neḳuddah aḥat"] may be omitted there, perhaps meaning by this the hook of the "yod"; comp. further Men. 29a; Matt. v. 18). No trace of any other points or characters added to the consonantal text of the Bible is found in all the traditional literature, nor is there any allusion to punctuation even in the treatise Soferim, which dates at the earliest from the sixth century, and forms a compilation of the rules for the Biblical text. In this tractate only one sort of punctuation is mentioned (Soferim iii. 6 [ed. Joel Müller, German part, p. 48]): "A copy of the Torah in which the verses are separated by points ["niḳḳed"] may not be used for reading in the synagogue."

Beginnings of Punctuation.

Such points were found at the beginning of verses in the Samaritan Pentateuch. Their use to separate verses represents the initial stage of the punctuation which later developed into a stereotyped body of signs denoting vowels and accents although nothing is known regarding the date of the completion of this system or when its first elements were introduced to facilitate the reading and study of the Bible. The oldest extant manuscripts of the Scriptures, Rating from the ninth and tenth centuries, are punctuated; and the two great Biblical scholars of the tenth century, Saadia Gaon and the Masorite Aaron ben Asher, regarded vowel-pointing as a long-established component of the tradition. It is safe to assume, therefore, that by the beginning of the ninth century, or the middle of the eighth, punctuation already existed as a whole; and there is even historical justification for the view which regards the middle of the eighth century as the "terminus ad quem" for this innovation. Thus Karaism, which arose shortly after this period, pre-supposes the existence of punctuation; otherwise the followers of Anan could scarcely have obeyed the commandment of their teacher to search the Scriptures. There is no ground, however, for the assumption that vowel-pointing was evolved by the Karaites; for it is incredible that rabbinic Judaism should have accepted such an innovation from a hostile sect, and have developed it within a short time into an essential part of the tradition. The assertion that the Karaites Mocha and his son Moses, both of whom lived in the eighth century, invented punctuation, as is believed by Pinsker and Graetz, is clearly nugatory (see Harkavy's note in the Hebrew translation of Graetz's "Hist." iii. 195). It may be regarded as practically certain that punctuation originated in the sixth and seventh centuries, and that about the middle of the eighth vowel-points were incorporated into the text of the Bible as a most important aid to its study and as henceforth indispensable.

In the texts employed in public worship (the copies of the Pentateuch and the scroll of Esther), from which the lessons were publicly read in the synagogue, this innovation found no place. The opposition of the heads of Babylonian Judaism to it is shown by a responsum of a gaon which is preserved in the Maḥzor Vitry (ed. Hurwitz, § 120; comp. "Kerem Ḥemed," iii. 200), in answer to the question whether it is forbidden to punctuate the scroll of the Law. The reply runs as follows:

"We have not heard that the book of the Law was pointed when it was given to Moses. The punctuation was not given on Sinai, but the sages ["ha-ḥakamim"] introduced it as a sign [i.e., as an external aid for the reading of the Bible]. We should transgress the prohibition against adding anything to the Torah (Deut. xiii. 1) if we should add the punctuation to the Biblical text; and although the division of verses and the cantillation according to the meaning have been transmitted from Sinai to this day, this tradition is, nevertheless, an oral one, not given by means of marks of punctuation ["simane neḳidah"]."

According to Grätz ("Gesch." v. 555), who, however, arbitrarily prefixes the gaon's name, the author of the responsum was Naṭronai ben Hilai, who lived in the middle of the ninth century.

Represent Tradition.

At all events, this responsum expresses the view that prevailed in the geonic school regarding punctuation; namely, the pronunciation and the accentuation of the text were transmitted together with it as objects of oral instruction, while the visible signs of this pronunciation and accentuation were introduced by the sages. Thus the Geonim recognized, the appropriateness of punctuation in those copies of the Bible which were not employed in public worship, and at the same time they traced its origin to those who transmitted tradition. On the other hand, it is, unfortunately, not clear what "sages" are meant in the responsum, whether Tannaim, Amoraim, or even those of later date. The same view of the importance and origin of vowel-pointing is expressed by Judah ha-Levi ("Cuzari," iii. 31; comp. Bacher, "Die Bibelexegese der Jüdischen Religionsphilosophen," p. 110). Ben Asher's (l.c.) rimed prose eulogy of punctuation (§ 9) does not disclose his view of its origin. He speaks, it is true, of the "countless points," as if they were inseparably connected with the letters in the traditional text; but it is impossible to read either in this paragraph or in that on the accents (§ 16) the view which was expressed two centuries later by Judah Hadassi, one of the leaders of the Karaite school, who declared ("Eshkol ha-Kofer," ch. clxxiii.) that God had not given the Torah without vowel-points and accents. It is well known that this is the theory which was opposed in the sixteenth century by Elijah Levita, when he expressed in his "Massoret ha-Massoret" his conviction that the old view of thelate origin of punctuation was the only one which was justifiable.

The Source.

The problem as to the source of punctuation has been ably treated by Graetz in his studies on the origin of the vowel-points in Hebrew ("Monatsschrift," 1891, pp. 348-367, 395-405), on the accent-marks in Hebrew (ib. 1882, pp. 389-409), and on the use and significance of the dagesh (ib. 1887, pp. 425-451, 473-497). Especially instructive is his theory that in the old Masoretic expressions "above" and "below" ("mi-le'el and "mi-lera'"), which served to distinguish similar forms from each other, there is a relic of the period in which this differentiation was effected by pointing, since in the case of that form of the word which contained the strong or long vowel the point was placed above, and in that which contained the weak or short vowel it appeared below. These points were not vowel-points, but nevertheless indicated the vocalic pronunciation of the text, and thus prepared the way for a systematic vocalization. The attempt to prove that accentual points had similar forerunners has been made by Büchler in his dissertation "Zur Entstehung und Entwickelung der Hebräischen Accente" (Vienna, 1891); but unfortunately not even the smallest fragment of a manuscript has been preserved from the period in which it is claimed that such an antecedent system of points was used in copies of the Hebrew Bible, although there are Syriac manuscripts prior to the sixth century that contain an analogous system of points and one which was the forerunner of systematic Syriac punctuation. It is safe to assume that both these preliminary points and the fully developed Syriac system of punctuation influenced the Jewish Masorites; and particularly is it very probable that the introduction of vocalization among the Nestorians of eastern Syria immediately affected the Jewish scholars of Babylonia. It was doubtless in Babylonia, too, that vowel-points were first introduced and systematized. An important point of evidence for the Babylonian origin of Jewish punctuation is found in the use of the same vowel-point ("ḳameẓ") for the two vowels which were pronounced in Palestine as "ā" and "ŏ" and for which, consequently, had the system of vocalization originated in Palestine, two different points would have been employed. In Babylonia, on the other hand, the former of these two vowels was pronounced as an open "o" (å), so that qualitatively it approximated "ŏ" A single point was chosen for both vowels, especially as the quantity of vowels was disregarded in the punctuation.

Various Systems.

The system of punctuation which may be regarded as the oldest one known is the so-called Babylonian. This system after having fallen into disuse was forgotten until the middle of the nineteenth century, when knowledge of it was revived from old manuscripts of the Bible as well as from more modern ones which were brought from southern Arabia to Europe; for it was employed by the Jews of Yemen until very recent times although it has been now superseded by the regular system. The Babylonian system of punctuation, which is termed also Assyrian or Eastern, exists in three very divergent forms, which, however, agree in their main vowel-signs, having as their special characteristic that the vowel-points are written above the letters (whence the system is called the supralinear). Opposed to the Babylonian punctuation is the Tiberian, which receives its name from Tiberias, the seat of the Palestinian Masorites. Owing to the powerful influence of these scholars, it completely superseded the Babylonian system, so that it became authoritative not only for manuscripts of the Bible, but also for all investigations of Hebrew phonology and morphology, Hebrew grammar being entirely based upon and developed from Tiberian punctuation.

The brief account of the systems of punctuation to be given in this article disregards the marks of accentuation, since this subject has been treated under Accents in Hebrew. To the bibliography of that article may, however, now be added Praetorius, "Ueber die Herkunft der Hebräischen Accente" (Vienna, 1901), and Kahle, "Zur Geschichte der Hebräischen Accente" (in "Z. D. M. G." lv. 167-194). See also Vocalization.

The Babylonian System of Punctuation:
  • (1) The simple form, adopted in a large number of manuscripts from Yemen preserved in the British Museum. These manuscripts date from the twelfth to the seventeenth century and contain texts from the Bible and the Targums (see list in Merx, "Chrestomathia Targumica," p. xv., Berlin, 1888). Margoliouth gives ("Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch." xv. 165 et seq.) a survey of the vowel-points of the oldest two of these manuscripts (Or. 1467, 2363). The points indicating the six vowels are as follows: ḳameẓ, ; pataḥ, ; ḥolem, ; shureḳ, ; ẓere, ; ḥireḳ, ; while the vocal "shewa mobile" (ḥaṭef) is denoted by a horizontal line, . The six vowel-points of the Babylonian system fall into three groups of two points each. These are apparently derived from the three vowel-letters found in the Biblical text (א, ו, י); for the signs of the first group are abbreviations of the א; in the second the ו is given entire, either as a single vertical stroke, or as two dots one above the other; while the third group uses for the "i" a single dot representing the י and for the ẓere two dots one over the other. (For other explanations of these points see Praetorius, "Ueber das Babylonische Punktationssystem des Hebräischen," in "Z. D. M. G." liii. 181-196; Margoliouth, l.c.; and Friedländer, in "Monatsschrift," 1894, p. 315.) The two manuscripts cited above also have a sign for the rafe over the letters , as in ; but a point for the dagesh within the letters is found only in the Hebrew text, and not in the Targum.
  • (2) The complex form, found in the famous codex of the Prophets dating from 916 and preserved in the Library of St. Petersburg, as well as in certain fragments in the same collection. The vowel-points are the same as in the simple system, except that when the " waw" is written plene, shureḳ is represented by a point within it, e.g., , not . Combinations of these points with the stroke of the ḥaṭef, however, form new points to indicate the position of the vowels within the word and the consequent modifications of pronunciation, thus giving rise to the following vowel-signs: , ḳameẓ beforea dagesh forte (as in , Isa. liv. 1): V10p271002.jpg, pataḥ before a dagesh forte (as in , Hab. i. 8): V10p271004.jpg, shureḳ before a dagesh forte (as in , ib. i. 6); V10p271006.jpg, ẓere (the segol of the Tiberian system) before a dagesh forte (as in , Isa. xlix. 8): V10p271008.jpg, ḥireḳ before a dagesh forte (as in Hab. iii. 1); and also V10p271010.jpg, for ḳameẓ (, Mal. i. 14), shureḳ (, Hos. vii. 4), ẓere (, Hab. ii. 1), and ḥireḳ (, ib. iii. 2) in a closed syllable. For pataḥ in a closed syllable (as in , Hab. ii. 9) the vowel-point is not V10p271016.jpg, but V10p271017.jpg, this being perhaps imitated from the similar Syriac point zeḳafa, although the last-named corresponds to the ḳameẓ. No combinations are formed from the ḥolem (V10p271018.jpg). Of the combinations used in closed syllables three (V10p271019.jpg), serve to designate semivowels with gutturals, and thus correspond to the V10p271020.jpg, and V10p271021.jpg of the Tiberian punctuation.
  • (3) A third form of Babylonian punctuation is found in some fragments that contain texts of the Bible written in shorthand (see Neubauer in "J. Q. R." vii. 361; Friedländer, ib. 564 et seq.; idem, in "Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch." 1896, pp. 86 et seq.; Kahle, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Hebräischen Punktation," in Stade's "Zeitschrift," xxi. 273 et seq.) as well as in some Hebrew poems published by Levias in the "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." xv. 157 et seq. The vowel-points of this system have the following forms: ḳameẓ, ; pataḥ, ; ḥolem, ; shureḳ, ; ẓere, ; and ḥireḳ, . To these may be added as a seventh vowel-point the , which corresponds to the Tiberian segol and is also used for the vocal shewa. This noteworthy form of Babylonian punctuation agrees with the Tiberian in the seventh vowel and in the point for the pataḥ, while it harmonizes with both the principal types of the Babylonian system in that the points are above the letters. The vowel-points themselves, however, are absolutely different from those of the first two forms, whose sign for the ḥolem denotes ḥireḳ in the third system, while their shureḳ sign is used to represent ḳameẓ, and their ẓere, shureḳ (for further details see Friedländer and (Kahle, l.c.). The existence of this third form of supralinear punctuation is especially interesting as showing that repeated efforts were made to fix in writing the vowel pronunciation of the text of the Bible. Of these three systems only the first survived for any length of time, and, as already noted, it was employed as late as the seventeenth century not only in manuscripts of the Bible and the Targum, but also in writing poetry (see "Berliner Festschrift," pp. 18, 30). It was most fortunate and important for the (development of a grammatical knowledge of Hebrew that the Babylonian system of punctuation, already existing in divergent forms, was susperseded by the Tiberian, which attained undisputed supremacy.
The Tiberian System:

This contains seven vowel-points, the segol being added to the Babylonian system. Its inventors, proceeding partly on the basis of a divergent pronunciation of the vowels, confined the different cases in which there had been applied in the Babylonian system the pataḥ, the ẓere, or the ḥireḳ to a single vowel, which was a shading of the pataḥ to "ä" or "ě," inventing for this the vowel-point . This, like the others, excepting the ḥolem, was written under the letter, not above it. ẓere and ḥireḳ had the same points () as in the supralinear punctuation, while the signs for ḳameẓ and pataḥ () were apparently only abbreviations of the Babylonian signs. Ḥolem was written with a single point instead of with two as in the Babylonian system, while in case shureḳ was written plene with "waw," it was designated, as in the complicated Babylonian system, by a point within the "waw," or, if the "waw" was lacking, by a point between two others which were arranged obliquely (). To indicate the semi-vowel (vocal shewa), and at the same time to designate that a consonant was vowelless (silent shewa), two points one above the other were employed (), with which the segol or shewa of the third system of supralinear punctuation () may be compared. To give the exact pronunciation of the shewa with gutturals, one of the three vowel-points for ḳameẓ, pataḥ, and segol was employed in combination, thus giving rise to the signs . The Tiberian system adds to these vowel-points the signs for dagesh () and rafe (), which are of much importance in the rules for vocalization. This system, as has been noted above, although developed by the Masoretic school of Tiberias, is Babylonian in origin, and it may be assumed that it became localized at Tiberias by Babylonian Masorites who settled there (see Bacher, "Die Anfänge der Hebräischen Grammatik," pp. 15, 19; Steinschneider, "Vorlesungen über die Kunde Hebräischer Handschriften," p. 12).

Names of Vowels.

The names of the seven vowels or of their points as given in the Tiberian system are first found complete in Saadia (commentary on the "Sefer Yeẓirah," ed. Amsterdam, p. 42), and are as follows: "ḳameẓ," "pataḥ," "ḥolem," "segol," "ḥireḳ," "ẓere," and "shureḳ." With the exception of "segol," the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew "eshkol" (cluster of grapes, so called because of the shape of the vowel-point ), these words are properly to be read as substantives of the segolate class: "ḳemeẓ," "petaḥ" "ḥelem," "ḥereḳ," "ẓeri," and "shereḳ," With the older grammarians the names of the vowels still have their original form; but later the tendency to introduce the sound of each vowel into its name led to the linguistic monstrosities which are still current, and in which the first syllable of the name of the vowel is pronounced with the vowel sound it designates. The names of the vowels, again, with the exception of the segol, refer to the sounds themselves, and not to the signs, being older than the latter and traceable to the instruction which teachers gave their pupils at a very early period to impress upon them the correct pronunciation. Thus, to distinguish between the two "a" vowels, one shading into "o," and the other preserving the pure "a" sound, pupils were instructed to "round the mouth" (hence "ḳemeẓ"), and to "open the mouth" (hence "petaḥ"; or in Aramaic, according to a Masoretic note, "miftaḥ puma"; see further Bacher, l.c. pp. 15-17). At a very early period the ḥolem was called also the "fulness of the mouth"("melo fum"), and the shureḳ the "rounding of the mouth" ("ḳibbuẓ fum," from which "ḳubbuẓ," the later name for "u," was derived). It was not until the fifteenth century that the term "melo fum" was introduced as a name for the shureḳ (see Nestle and Bacher in "Z. D. M. G." lviii.). The seven vowels of the Tiberian system were called "the seven kings" by Ben Asher (l.c. p. 34), as determining the forms of speech; and this designation was retained even by the grammarians, the shewa, which Ben Asher regarded as an eighth vowel, being added.

After Hebrew grammar had been placed on a scientific basis by Judah Ḥayyuj and his school, the theory of the vowels and their number was essentially modifled. A knowledge of Latin grammar led Joseph Ḳimḥi (see his "Sefer Zikkaron," ed. Bacher, p. 17) to distinguish long and short vowels in Hebrew and thus to introduce the factor of quantity into the theory of the vowels. He thus postulated ten vowels, dividing ḳameẓ into two, a short (designated as the short vowel of ḥolem and a long one (with pataḥ as its short vowel). He likewise divided the ḥireḳ into two vowels (Ī, Ĭ), and shureḳ into two (ū, ŭ), while he regarded segol as a short vowel (ĕ) and ẓere as long (ē). This innovation, which its author's sons, Moses and David Ḳimḥi, introduced into their grammars, gradually attained supremacy in the presentation of the teaching of the Tiberian school. Since the punctuation was not altered, however, there was a continual discrepancy between the old system of "the seven kings," which regarded merely the quality, of the vowels, and the new system of five long vowels and five short, this incongruity leading to confusion even in grammatical literature.

Masoretic Punctuation.

Punctuation, the most important product of the activity of the Masorites of the early geonic period, itself became an object of their studies; so that the determination of vocalization and its variations formed the basis of a controversy between Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali, who may be termed the last Masorites in the strict sense of the word. When the reading of the Biblical text with the help of points to indicate vowels and accents had once been fixed in writing, it became all-important to add these points accurately and correctly to the consonantal manuscripts of the Bible. Punctuation thus became a learned profession, even though the "punctuators" ("naḳdanim"), who flourished especially in Germany, France, and England, are not mentioned by this title before the twelfth century. In the establishment of their rules, on which some of them wrote special treatises, the best known being the "Sefer ha-Niḳḳud" of "Moses ha-Naḳdan, the naḳdanim made frequent use of the writings of the grammarians (see Steinschneider, l.c. p. 15; Zunz, "Z. G." pp. 107 et seq.; and Naḳdanim). Hebrew grammatical science is based upon the Masoretic punctuation and its rules. The "niḳḳud" (a term first found in Ben Asher; Bacher, l.c. p. 26) brought together the most important material for a knowledge of the Hebrew language; and it may even be said that in the Masoretic punctuation, and the phonology and morphology which it established, the whole of Hebrew grammar was implied. The first Hebrew grammarian known, Saadia, wrote a work on "niḳḳud," although this is known only from a citation (in Rashi on Ps. xlv. 10), and Judah Ḥayyuj also wrote a "Kitab al-Tanḳiṭ," or "Book of Punctuation," containing rules for vowels and accents, and devoting itself particularly to the segolate nouns. More closely related to the real teachings of the Masorites is the "Introduction for the Reader of the Bible," written by another grammarian of the Spanish golden age, Judah ibn Balaam. The theory of vowels and accents, however, is treated by the older Hebrew grammarians only in passing, or even receives no special notice at all, since they considered this subject as the special property of Masorah; nor was it until centuries later that this portion of Hebrew grammar became an integral part of the science under the name of "niḳḳud."


Punctuation, originally confined to the text of the Bible, was used also for other works of Jewish literature in so far as they were written with Hebrew letters. It was therefore employed not only in Hebrew and Aramaic books, especially the liturgical and poetical works as well as copies of the Mishnah and the Targum, but also in compositions in other languages. Thus it is that the Judæo-German books of modern times are made more clear by pointing, although the vowels are usually designated by the vowel-letters. In like manner recent Judæo-Persian books, which are almost exclusively popular in character, are, nearly without exception, punctuated, and this is also true of a great portion of Judæo-Persian manuscripts. On the punctuation of Arabic texts among the Jews of Yemen see "Berliner-Festschrift," pp. 12-16.

The oldest statement regarding the supremacy of Tiberian punctuation over Babylonian is found in a manuscript of the Pentateuch (Codex De Rossi No. 12), which states that the Targum in this codex (or in its original) was copied from one brought from Babylonia, which was "punctuated above with the niḳḳud of the land of Asshur," this being changed by the copyist to the Tiberian system (Zunz, "Z. G." p. 110; Luzzatto, in "Halikot Ḳedem," 1847, p. 24), while a similar transcription forms the basis of the Sabbionetta edition of the Targum Onḳelos of 1557 (see Berliner," Targum Onḳelos," ii. 137 et seq.). A noteworthy passage is found in the Maḥzor Vitry (introduction to Abot, ed. Hurwitz, p. 462): "The Tiberian punctuation is not like ours, and neither is it like that of the land of Israel." This statement is unintelligible, unless it be assumed that its author was a Babylonian scholar, who designated the Babylonian vowel-pointing as "ours" ("niḳḳud she-lanu"), while "punctuation of Palestine," which differed from that of Tiberias, may denote the third form of supralinear punctuation (see Friedländer in "Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch." 1891, pp. 86-98; comp. Kahle, l.c. xxi. 275). These forgotten statements first became known to Jewish science in the fifth decade of the nineteenth century, and at the same time, after centuries of oblivion, specimens of this method of vowel-pointing were brought to light, being first published in the Hebrewjournal "Ẓiyyon" (1841, i. 152). The first thorough account of this system of punctuation was given in 1869 in Pinsker's Hebrew "Introduction to the Babylonian-Hebrew Systems of Vowel-Pointing," where its complicated form is described on the basis of the codex of the Prophets dating from 916. Since the eighth decade of the nineteenth century a large number of manuscripts brought from southern Arabia to Europe have furnished abundant data regarding the simple variety of the supralinear punctuation. See Vocalization.

  • In addition to the works cited in the body of this article see the bibliography of Vocalization.
T. W. B.