So You Want to Read Handwritten Hebrew Manuscripts, part II.

This post is a continuation of two earlier blog entries (here and here).  Its purpose is to help facilitate the reading of handwritten Hebrew manuscripts for intermediate students of the language.  Psalm 113 serves as the subject of this comparison.

For this blog entry, I compare the Codex Leningrad text of the BHS with a beautifully illustrated vellum manuscript (Ms. Opp. 776, fol. 45 verso, Germany, 1471.).  This text currently resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  Originally this manuscript came from the collection of David Ben Abraham Oppenheimer (1664-1736).  Oppenheimer was the Chief Rabbi of Prague, and a well regarded bibliophile.  He is said to have collected 780 manuscripts and 4220 printed books in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic (For more information about Oppenheimer and his collection at Oxford visit this page).

Note about the organization of this comparison:

To make this comparison easier for the beginning student, I have manipulated the BHS text to follow the line reading of Ms. Opp. 776.  Also, when Ms. Opp. 776 deviates from the reading of the Codex Leningrad of the BHS, I demarcate this difference by typing the variations in a red font.

Psalm 113

1 הַ֥לְלוּ יָ֨הּ׀ (Sentence found in the banner above animals)

הַ֭לְלוּ עַבְדֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה הַֽ֝לְלוּ אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה׃ 2 יְהִ֤י שֵׁ֣ם יְהוָ֣ה מְבֹרָ֑ךְ מע

מֵֽ֝עַתָּ֗ה וְעַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ 3 מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁ֥מֶשׁ ועַד־מְבוֹאֹ֑ו מְ֝הֻלָּ֗ל

שֵׁ֣ם יְהוָֽה׃ 4 מבורך רָ֖ם עַל־כָּל־גּוֹיִ֥ם׀ יְהוָ֑ה עַ֖ל הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם כְּבוֹדֹֽו׃

5 מִ֭י כַּיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ הַֽמַּגְבִּיהִ֥י לָשָֽׁבֶת׃ 6 הַֽמַּשְׁפִּילִ֥י לִרְא֑וֹת

בַּשָּׁמַ֥יִם וּבָאָֽרֶץ׃ 7 מְקִֽימִ֣י מֵעָפָ֣ר דָּ֑ל מֵֽ֝אַשְׁפֹּ֗ת יָרִ֥ים

אֶבְיֽוֹן׃ 8 לְהוֹשִׁיבִ֥י עִם־נְדִיבִ֑ים עִ֝֗ם נְדִיבֵ֥י עַמֹּֽו׃

9 מֽוֹשִׁיבִ֨י׀ עֲקֶ֬רֶת הַבַּ֗יִת

אֵֽם־הַבָּנִ֥ים שְׂמֵחָ֗ה הַֽלְלוּ־יָֽהּ׃

How to begin:

When learning to read a new script (or a text from an unfamiliar hand), the student should begin by comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar.  The student should start her comparison letter by letter.  Then she should begin comparing the passages word by word.  Eventually, the writing style of the scribe will become more familiar to the student, and she will be able to read with greater speed and more confidence.

Take note of some of the following script and textual issues from this comparison:

  • Ms. Opp 776 does not use the tetragammatron (the word often rendered as Yahweh/YHVH).  Ms. Opp 776 employs the use of three points that form a pyramid instead of using the word יהוה (YHVH).  I am unfamiliar with this particular written reflex, but it is undoubtedly theologically motivated.[1] Once I finish researching this topic, I will write a post detailing my findings.
  • The aleph in Ms. Opp. 776 does not look like a “typical” squared Aramaic aleph used in modern editions. I had a difficult time finding an aleph that resembled the aleph in this manuscript.  However, in studying a series of script drawings created by Frank Moore Cross Jr., I believe I found a match.[2] Apparently the scribe responsible for our manuscript writes his alephs like those written in a semicursive script at Qumran, 6Qp8 (c.50-51).[3] See figure 1 for a script comparison.

    Figure 1.

  • The first line of Ms. Opp. 776 ends with מע. The presence of these two additional letters appears to be a mistake.  My best guess is that they arose from a scribal copying error.  Notice that the first word in line 2 also begins with the same two letters.
  • In verse 3 of the BHS, the preposition עד does not have a prefixed vav as it does in Ms. Opp. 776. The reading found in our manuscript is supported by Codex Alexandria (5th Century CE) and Codex Veronensis (6th Century CE).
  • The 3rd word (מבורך) of Ms. Opp. 776 line 3 is not in the BHS. מבורך is a pual masculine singular passive participle, which means be praised.  The verb does occur in verse 2. Interestingly, this word is also preceded by שם יהוה. This may be an example of a scribal error that arose from a scribe duplicating a part of an earlier line due to its similarities.
  • The verb “to bless” is spelled differently in the BHS than it is in Ms. Opp. 776. Our manuscript uses the full or plene spelling, which is helpful given that it is an unpointed text.  The Leningrad Codex spells the word to bless without the “reading letter.” (Ms. Opp 776 – מבורך vs. LC – מְבֹרָךְ)

[1] In 1QIsaa, col. XXXIII, the tetragammatron is replaced with four horizontally lined dots.  For a photograph of this scroll see: Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1992), 383, Plate 4.

[2] Frank Moore Cross, Jr., “The Development of the Jewish Scripts,” in The Bible and The Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright (ed. G. Ernest Wright; NY: Doubleday, 1961), 133-202.

[3]  Frank Moore Cross, Jr., “The  Development of the Jewish Scripts,” 149.

6 comments to So You Want to Read Handwritten Hebrew Manuscripts, part II.

  • Great series! Regarding the plene/defectiva issue (your last bullet), it looks as if there is one other example: the form מעתה “from now” (1st word in line two, 113:2) is plene in the MT but appears to be spelled defectiva (מעת) in the pictured manuscript. Am I right, or do I need a second cup of coffee?

    I don’t normally teach the intermediate Hebrew class here at Garrett-Evangelical, but I wonder if I might start a conversation with the instructor about introducing the elements of epigraphy in that course.


  • It looks also in the third line from the bottom that אביון is repeated. Thanks for the challenging exercise. I often meet tapestries on my journeys that I wished I could read.

  • Adam Couturier

    Brooke, thank you! The semester after I finished grad school, GCTS officially added a Hebrew epigraphy course. As for incorporating it at Garrett-Evangelical, I think that you should strongly recommend it. It is such an easy way to inductively teach text criticism. I wish I would have been introduced to this approach earlier in my graduate work.

    As for plene/defectiva issue you raise, I think you may need another cup of coffee. ;) The hand of the scribe was a little heavy on the ink, which makes it appear that way. The vav of (ועד) is really close to the aiyin, which makes it appear that there is an extra hey at the end of מעת. If you zoom in on the image, then it becomes a little more clear.

    Thanks for interacting!

  • Adam Couturier

    Hello, Bob. Glad you enjoyed this post. The calligraphy of this particular script is rather challenging, and your frustration of finding inscriptions in the wild is all too familiar to me.

    There was an additional bullet point that dropped out of this blog (although I am not sure how). That bullet point discussed this issue with the MT’s reading. However, I don’t think אביון is repeated. Compare the first radical of the first word with the first radical of עם within the same line. It appears that the word in question is עליון, which can mean high. High fits the context of the passage rather well. What do you think of my reading?

  • Yes – on magnification, it does look like the ayin in עולם. So the Highest or on high is a reasonable reading. The writer heard raising and completed the thought before realizing that the word was not Elyon but ebion. So the inscriber just ploughed ahead with the devotional art, accepting the variant, – being without white-out or a backspace key.

  • [...] Adam Couterier of משלי אדם provides a series of posts which lay it out for you, using real-world scanned examples. The latest is here. [...]

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