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Hebrew Voices #187 – Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1

 
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Nehemia Gordon द्वारा प्रदान की गई सामग्री. एपिसोड, ग्राफिक्स और पॉडकास्ट विवरण सहित सभी पॉडकास्ट सामग्री Nehemia Gordon या उनके पॉडकास्ट प्लेटफ़ॉर्म पार्टनर द्वारा सीधे अपलोड और प्रदान की जाती है। यदि आपको लगता है कि कोई आपकी अनुमति के बिना आपके कॉपीराइट किए गए कार्य का उपयोग कर रहा है, तो आप यहां बताई गई प्रक्रिया का पालन कर सकते हैं https://hi.player.fm/legal
Hebrew Voices #187 - Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1

In this episode of Hebrew Voices #187, Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1, the premier linguist of Northwest Semitic languages explains how scholars get behind the printed text of the Bible to access the proto-Masoretic reading tradition.

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Hebrew Voices #187 – Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Geoffrey: Until then, for me, Biblical Hebrew was essentially what you get in a printed edition of the Hebrew Bible. But then when I was introduced to this incredible collection of the Genizah, I realized that we have to get behind the printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemia: Shalom and welcome to Hebrew Voices! I am here with Prof. Geoffrey Khan, who is the Regius professor of Hebrew at the University of Cambridge, which is part of the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He got his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. And I’m actually really honored to be with you here today, Prof. Khan. Guys, I’m here with the greatest linguist of Northwest Semitic languages of our time, and it’s a real honor. Thank you for joining me on the program.

Geoffrey: Well, thank you! Thank you for coming.

Nehemia: There are so many things I want to discuss with you. You’ve done groundbreaking work on Karaite studies, on the pronunciation of Tiberian Hebrew, on probably a whole bunch of things I don’t even know. I know one of your specialties is Modern Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic, so, there are so many things we could talk about. Of course, my interest is the Bible, so I’m going to try to discuss that sort of thing with you. You have this book in front of you; can you tell the audience about your book?

Geoffrey: Right, yes. This is a book about the pronunciation of Hebrew according to the Tiberian tradition, which came out in 2020. And this represents a product of many years of research on the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, which is one of my particular interests. I suppose it’s a bit of a long story on how I became interested in the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. I think perhaps I’ll say something about how my interest developed.

Nehemia: Please.

Geoffrey: As you said, when I did my PhD at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, a long time ago now… frankly it was 1984 that I got my PhD there, but I had the great fortune and great luck to get a post-doc job on the Cairo Genizah project here in Cambridge. So, for my PhD, I was working on the syntax of Semitic languages, working mainly on written texts, published texts in printed form. But when I got this post-doc position at the Genizah, this really introduced me to this world of Medieval Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. And this was a real turning point, I think, in my interests and my career, because I became aware of this incredible collection of primary sources of the Hebrew Bible. Until then, for me, Biblical Hebrew was essentially what you get in a printed edition of the Hebrew Bible. But then, when I was introduced to this incredible collection of the Genizah, I realized that we have to get behind the printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemia: Okay, wow. I love that!

Geoffrey: And we have to actually see what the sources are, and the Genizah was an excellent opportunity for this. And then, as I began to study the various biblical manuscripts in the Genizah, I also became aware that some of the things we read about, or what I Iearned as a student about the Biblical Hebrew language, also requires us to ask ourselves, how do we know that this is the case? Or what are the sources for any aspect of the language which we find in our basic textbooks of Biblical Hebrew?

Now, of course, one of the central things which I realized was somewhat incorrect. In these textbooks, the presentation and the description of the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, which I learned from the textbooks and all the students learn from the textbooks… and I realized that first of all, what the textbooks were telling us about the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, it wasn’t clear what the source of this was. And it wasn’t clear what its relationship was to the vowel signs which appear in printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

So, I think this experience of working in the Genizah made me realize that it was important to go back to the primary sources and really try to understand and get to the source of some of the basic dimensions of the Hebrew language.

Nehemia: Wow!

Geoffrey: And in particular the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. And then, one of the general things I learned from working in the Genizah was that there isn’t such a thing as a single Biblical Hebrew. There isn’t such a thing as a single Hebrew Bible one can say, but perhaps we can talk about that later. But certainly, Biblical Hebrew as a language is just a family of traditions. It’s a bit like, in a way, a natural spoken language in that a natural spoken language is not totally uniform, it has many different dialects. And there may be a standard language but there’s still a lot of spoken dialects and there’s a lot of imperfect versions of a standard language.

Now, this applies very much to Biblical Hebrew, and of course, in a natural language, or a living language, there are different historical layers, and the language is different. It’s pronounced differently at different times, so you have this diversity, both synchronically and diachronically, this whole…

Nehemia: Explain for our audience what synchronically and diachronically is.

Geoffrey: Yes. So, synchronically means at the same time, basically. So, in the Middle Ages… I should say the majority of Genizah manuscripts date to the so-called High Middle Ages, so let’s say 10th to 13th century roughly, or 11th to 13th century, the majority of them. So, in the Genizah one can find Bible manuscripts which reflect a diversity of pronunciations of Biblical Hebrew synchronically, i.e., in the Middle Ages.

But then if one wants to talk about the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, one has to consider diachronic issues. In other words, how it was pronounced at different periods, both earlier than the Middle Ages and after the Middle Ages.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: So, when one says, what is the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, there is not a single answer. It depends on what tradition; at what period you’re talking about. So, just before perhaps we develop that a bit more, I could just go back to this particular book, which was a product of my… which all begin essentially in my work in the Genizah, was that one of the things I discovered in the Genizah was there’s quite a lot of sources which were very important for reconstructing a particular tradition of the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew known as the Tiberian pronunciation tradition which is one of the central traditions of Biblical Hebrew pronunciation.

Now, why is it important to work on the tradition? Or why hasn’t this been described already? Or hadn’t been described at that time, some 25 years ago, whatever it was. We’re talking about… when I was working there in the late 80’s, early 90’s. So, the Hebrew Bible, although the text was fixed, or canonized, essentially, in Late Antiquity, it was transmitted in written and oral form from Late Antiquity down to the Middle Ages. And although the written form of the text was essentially fixed, its oral performance and the way it was read orally differed across different traditions and different geographical areas.

Nehemia: What do you mean by “the Bible was transmitted orally”? Tell us. And you talked about the performances. So, what does that mean?

Geoffrey: Well, it means that the Hebrew Bible was copied in terms of scribes copying manuscripts, so that one could call that a written transmission. And that had, therefore, a chain of transmission because a scribe would use a manuscript as a model, and then that manuscript would eventually be used as a model for another one. But parallel with that, in the transmission of the Hebrew Bible there was a tradition of oral reading. That is to say, a teacher would teach a pupil how to read this written text of the Hebrew Bible orally and that was called a reading tradition. And that oral reading was passed on from teacher to pupil through the generations.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: And since Late Antiquity down to the Early Islamic Period, we’re talking about the 9th century perhaps…

Nehemia: Late Antiquity. What century are we talking about?

Geoffrey: Well, let’s say, just broadly speaking, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE the Hebrew Bible had this sort of dual channel of transmission in written and oral form. Now, the point is that the written tradition was reasonably stable and fixed, but the oral traditions exhibited some degree of pluriformity. This pluriformity of oral reading traditions could be correlated with region of transmission. For example, the tradition of reading the Bible in Palestine differed from that in Babylonia, and beyond, in other regions as well, but those are two of the main splits of traditions, of oral tradition.

Nehemia: In pluriformity, you mean that there’s not one way of doing it, there’s two rival traditions, essentially, on how to read the Bible.

Geoffrey: Yeah. And there were several different traditions, and in Palestine there were several different traditions. But one particular oral tradition, that’s known as the Tiberian tradition, had a particular prestige because these various oral traditions had different degrees of prestige. So, it was the Tiberian tradition which had the greatest prestige, certainly in the Middle Ages, and it seems since Late Antiquity, and this was a tradition which had been transmitted by scholars in Tiberias associated with the so-called Palestinian Yeshiva. The Palestinian Yeshiva was the seat of authority of Judaism in Palestine since Late Antiquity.

Nehemia: By Yeshiva, you mean there was this academy of rabbis, or something to this effect?

Geoffrey: Yeah, it was an academy, but it also had responsibilities of Jewish legislation as well. But it was also a center of learning. Certainly, since the middle of the first millennium CE, or certainly the Early Islamic Period, we come to learn about various scholars known as the Masoretes, who were specifically responsible for the transmission and preservation of the transmission of the Bible. And we know that in Tiberias there was a school of Masoretes, and many of them clearly had central positions in the Palestinian Yeshiva. In fact, one of the Masoretes in Tiberias was called Pinkas Rosh Ha’Yeshiva, which means he was the head of the yeshiva. So, it seems the Masoretic school was a central component of the Palestinian Yeshiva.

Nehemia: That’s really… well, I’m going to let you continue. I have all these questions to follow up! This is very exciting!

Geoffrey: Yeah, so the point being is that, therefore, the activities and transmission activities of the Tiberian Masoretes was very much associated with the center of Jewish authority. And that almost certainly was one of the main reasons why the Tiberian tradition became regarded as the most authoritative and prestigious tradition in the early Middle Ages.

Now, one could ask oneself why was this specific tradition being transmitted in Tiberias, and why was it endowed with such authority? I mean, okay, it was the tradition which was adopted by the Palestinian Yeshiva, but why did they adopt that particular tradition? My own hypothesis… I have to say that this is a hypothesis. I mean, there is some evidence for it, was that it’s because this Tiberian tradition had roots in an authoritative oral tradition which already was authoritative in the Second Temple Period. And it’s my own hypothesis that this was associated with the Temple authorities before the destruction of the Temple.

And within Second Temple Palestine, there were a variety of oral reading traditions. But already before the destruction of the Temple some of them had become associated specifically with the Temple authorities and they were endowed with a certain amount of authority. Now, I believe the Babylonian tradition that we have at the core of the Babylonian tradition also had its roots in some kind of authoritative oral tradition in Second Temple Palestine. And essentially the Tiberian and the Babylonian traditions split off from what I call the proto-Masoretic reading tradition, which would have most likely had its roots in the Temple.

The Tiberian tradition started off as an authoritative tradition. It was a sort of heritage from the Temple, as was, it seems, the biblical text in the written form as we know it. I mean, there is some controversy among Qumran scholars about the origin of the written text as it was imprecise, but my own feeling is that we’re dealing with some kind of… it has to be a product of some kind of control, of administered control, of an authority, and obviously that authority is the Temple.

But the main issue here is, this related not only to the written text but also to the oral reading, and there was an authoritative oral reading. So, Tiberian tradition, I think, is an heir to that authoritative oral reading tradition of Second Temple Palestine transmitted by the authoritative seat of Judaism in Palestine known as the Palestinian Yeshiva.

Now, until the Early Islamic Period… so, 9th century, let’s say, this was essentially only an oral tradition. So, it was just passed down through oral memory. Now, in the Middle Ages, in the early Islamic Period, there were developments going on in the Islamic world which had a big impact on the Hebrew Bible and one of them was an increase in committing oral traditions to writing.

In the very early Islamic Period, there was still a lot of oral transmission of key Islamic texts. For example, poetry and hadith, which are the oral traditions of the prophet Mohammed. In the very early Islamic Period, these were transmitted only in oral form, and sometimes scholars would take notes, but there was no real systematic commitment to writing of the traditions.

But by the 9th century there was a more systematic commitment to writing some of these oral traditions in the Islamic world. There were a variety of factors which might have had an impact on this. One of them was the influence of the Iranian in the Abbasid Period. That is, from the 2nd Islamic century, mid-8th century CE, there was an increase of the Iranian culture of scribal practice coming from Iranian traditions which had an impact, I think, on the Islamic world. Also, another factor was a big increase in bureaucracy in the Abbasid Period. There were far more documents being produced and that was kind of a catalyst to the spread of writing.

This phenomenon has been identified by historians of England, actually, that in the Middle Ages there was a certain period where there was an increase in bureaucracy and that was a trigger to a greater increase in literacy and the practice of writing.

So, this had an impact in the Hebrew Bible in that, it was about this period when these oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible became textualized, i.e. began to be written down, represented in written form. And this was done by, as you all know when you read the Hebrew Bible, this was done by marking Hebrew vowel signs, this sort of notational system in vowel signs.

Now, the phenomenon of writing these down was essentially stimulated by the Islamic environment. Another factor which had a big impact on the Hebrew Bible was the beginning of the use of the codex to write the Hebrew Bible, which until the Islamic Period, the Hebrew Bible was written on scrolls. It continued to be written in scroll form throughout the Middle Ages down to modern times, of course, in the liturgical context. But the codex got adopted, really, it appears, from the Islamic environment on the model of the Quran, almost certainly. And this was applied to the Hebrew Bible. And this, among other things, allowed a greater freedom in terms of notation. The scroll was a sacred object which was not changed in any way, whereas the codex became more of a study Bible. And this allowed the Masoretes to write down notations, like the vowel signs. But it was the actual shift in the environment to a more writing-based culture that was one of the stimuli to the writing down of the oral tradition.

So, the issue is, when we’re talking about what is the pronunciation of Hebrew, I decided, at least, that the first thing that needs to be done is to actually describe in detail the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. Because that is the pronunciation tradition which these vowel signs, which we have today in our printed Bibles, represent.

However, what happened was that, by the mid-10th century, the school of Tiberian Masoretes dispersed. After the generation of the two last major Masoretes, Aaron Ben Asher and Moshe Ben Naphtali, the school dispersed, and it seems quite rapidly the actual oral tradition of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition began to be forgotten. In the 11th century, there were few teachers of it around in Palestine. We know that from certain remarks by a Karaite grammarian known as Abu al-Faraj Harun, but certainly it really quite rapidly fell into oblivion. Already, Ibn Janah in Spain in the Middle Ages, a prominent grammarian, said he was not able to get any access to a teacher of Tiberian pronunciation.

Nehemia: This is a Jewish grammarian, one of the most important Jewish grammarians. He said he doesn’t have access to a teacher of Tiberian pronunciation. That’s amazing.

Geoffrey: Yeah. It was probably because the Tiberian pronunciation tradition was quite an elite, and it was only really observed by elite learned people. It was taught… there were missionaries, as we learned from certain Medieval sources, that there were missionaries or teachers that traveled from Tiberias to teach various communities this tradition, but it was a learned tradition. And the majority of Jews in Palestine, for example, were pronouncing Hebrew in a very different way. It was known as the Palestinian pronunciation tradition, which I’ll talk about in a minute. But essentially, the Tiberian pronunciation tradition fell into oblivion.

So, what happened was, the vowel signs, which were created to represent the Tiberian pronunciation, became fossils. As it were, what seems to have happened was that the authority of the ancient oral Tiberian reading tradition was transferred to these vowel signs. So, in other words, the authority of the oral tradition then became fossilized in these vowel signs, and they became the authoritative vehicle as it were, of transmission of reading. But the problem was that nobody knew how to pronounce them after a while because the actual original oral tradition of Tiberian pronunciation, which they were created to represent, had become forgotten.

So, as Jewish communities began to read, they would write down their Bibles with Tiberian vowel signs, because, if you like, they became part of the authoritative text, but they were reading the Bible with a different pronunciation. And certainly, in Palestine and in most of the Jewish world in the Mediterranean and north and south, they pronounced Hebrew with what’s known as the Palestinian pronunciation tradition, and so they were imposing this on their written Bibles. In other words, they wrote the Bibles with the Tiberian signs, but they actually read it with a completely different pronunciation tradition.

Now, the Palestinian tradition was a very widely used popular tradition of pronouncing Hebrew in Palestine since the Late Antiquity. One of its features was that it had merged quite certainly in its vowel structure, this vowel system, with the vernacular languages of Palestine, which included Palestinian- Greek and Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic. And this vowel system, which one of its distinctive features is this sort of obliteration of the distinction between Patach and Kamatz on the one hand, and Segol and Tzere on the other, that all developed through the influence of Palestinian Greek and Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic.

But then that was the dominant pronunciation in Palestine, and that got transmitted with Jewish migrations even before the Middle Ages, almost certainly, but certainly during the Middle Ages, migrations of Jews to Europe, to various countries in the Mediterranean. And this is why the Jews, essentially in most of those countries in the Mediterranean, in the north and in the south, their heritage is really of this Palestinian pronunciation tradition.

Now in Ashkenaz, there were quite radical phonological changes. Certainly, after about the 14th century, there were all kinds of vowel shifts in the vernacular language of German.

Nehemia: Last week I was at the European Association of Jewish Studies, and I heard a lecture where someone was quoting Eliezer Rokeach, Eleazar of Worms, which is in northwestern Germany today. And he’s spiritualizing the vowel sounds, and he says there are Vav kolot, “six sounds”, five vowels and Sh’va. And he’s writing at the beginning of the 13th century in northwestern Europe, and for him there is no distinction between Patach and Kamatz, and there is no distinction between Tzere and Segol. So, there’s only five vowels plus Sh’va, which is amazing.

Geoffrey: Yeah. You see, that reflects the fact that essentially the Jews of Ashkenaz were heirs to this tradition of Palestinian pronunciation which probably came in through Italy and then the Rhinelands, and then moved further to the East. But there was a shift somewhere post-14th century due to the influence of sound shifts in the vernacular spoken by the Jews, a sort of Germanic language, Yiddish basically, but which is obviously Germanic, essentially, which is a bit of a complicated story. But all I can say is that all the pronunciations, if you like, from Western Jewry, West of Palestine, was essentially inherited from Palestinian tradition. Which ultimately goes back to a form of Hebrew influenced by Jewish-Palestinian and Aramaic and Palestinian Greek.

Nehemia: So, the Palestinian pronunciation, what we call Niqqud Eretz Israeli, which has five vowels, you’re saying that doesn’t go back to Second Temple times the way that Babylonian pronunciation and Tiberian pronunciation does. Or does it?

Geoffrey: Well, no. The point is, first of all, you’ve got to distinguish pronunciation from vocalization signs.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: So, what I call the popular tradition, which is, if you like, popular in the sense of the majority of people using it, it almost certainly does have quite early roots.

Nehemia: Oh.

Geoffrey: It certainly must go back to the periods of where Greek was still spoken, certainly, because it seems to have been influenced by Palestinian Greek. And so, it’s quite possible we’re talking about a kind of pronunciation which was around in the Second Temple Period.

Nehemia: Ah, okay.

Geoffrey: And it was simply that it was the popular tradition. You know, the Tiberian tradition came out of the… it was the Temple, it was the authoritative tradition of the Temple. So, we’re not dealing with different chronological layers, we’re dealing with different sort of social layers, if you like.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: But the point is that the prestigious authoritative oral Tiberian tradition lost its oral dimension, but it was fossilized in these vowel sounds we have today, and on that it was imposed by different pronunciation traditions. Now, I should say, going back to this book…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Geoffrey: One of the greatest tacks I felt some years ago was to actually reconstruct the original Tiberian pronunciation tradition, because obviously that is what is behind the vowel signs. So, I did that by various means, and one of the things that got me very interested in this particular question was the discovery of particular sorts of manuscripts. And one of them was the variety of manuscripts I found written by Karaites in the Middle Ages, which were transcriptions of the Hebrew Bible in Arabic letters, which is a very interesting phenomenon. I mean, there were Karaites, mainly in Palestine, it seems, in the 10th and 11th centuries, who were writing some of their manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in Arabic transcription.

Nehemia: Meaning, the words were Hebrew, but instead of writing a Hebrew Aleph, they wrote an Arabic Aleph.

Geoffrey: Right. So, they transcribed. But what they were transcribing, crucially, was the oral reading. They were not transliterating letter-by-letter from what they were seeing, most of the manuscripts. In the majority of the manuscripts, they were transcribing what they heard in the pronunciation tradition.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: The important thing is that most of them were really representing, essentially, the Tiberian tradition of pronunciation.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: So, that became an important source for reconstruction of some of the features of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. Other important sources were so-called Masoretic treatises, many of which had survived in the Genizah, and some of them in other sources.

Nehemia: Why do you say so-called?

Geoffrey: Sorry?

Nehemia: You said “so-called” Masoretic treatises. Are they not actually Masoretic treatises?

Geoffrey: No. I mean, I didn’t mean that in a pejorative way. These are what I call them.

Nehemia: So, they didn’t refer to themselves… In other words, whoever wrote down one of these treatises wouldn’t have said, “I have written a Masoretic treatise.” What would he have said? “I’m writing something on the Hebrew language”?

Geoffrey: Yes, good point. There are some terms, like kuntresei hamesorah was one of them.

Nehemia: Okay. And kuntres is quires, meaning like… part of a codex is a quire.

Geoffrey: Yeah. They were regarded essentially as being a kind of an expansion of the development of the Masoretic tradition of the Masoretes.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: In the 10th century, a tradition of grammar developed, Hebrew grammar, but that was a sort of innovation in Judaism which had its inspiration, to a large extent, from the Islamic world, from the Arabic traditions of grammar. But within Judaism there was a tradition, as we’ve been talking about, of so-called Masoretic activity. Which involved crucially, at some point at least in the early stages, the development of notation systems for their oral traditions. But it also involved writing notes in the margins of manuscripts which, essentially, were kind of notes which assisted in the accurate written transmission of the Hebrew Bible known as Masoretic notes.

But then a further stage, which seems to be a sort of later stage, was to develop writing of independent treatises on aspects of the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. These treatises sometimes related to the accent signs, but some of them related specifically to the pronunciation of vowel signs, and those treatises, or those parts of treatises which related to the pronunciation of vowel signs…

Nehemia: Like for example, there’s Dikdukei Ha’Ta’amim, which is attributed to Aaron ben Asher, would that be an example of a…

Geoffrey: Yeah, that’s one of the most famous Masoretic treatises, which is, as its name implies, you know, the fine points of the accents, was concerned largely with the accents, the Ta’amim. However, it does have a few sections on pronunciation of vowels, particularly the Sh’va.

Nehemia: We’re going to get to the Sh’va. I can’t wait! I’m excited about the Sh’va!

Geoffrey: Yeah! So, to cut a long story short, though these kinds of sources, which I was finding in the Genizah, Masoretic treatises and Karaite manuscripts, I think they inspired me to try to reconstruct the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. I have to say, I was very much indebted to previous scholars’ work on Masoretic treatises, largely Ilan Eldar did some very important work on the treatise known as Hidayat al-Qari. And then some of the great scholars such as Israel Yeivin, also, and Morag, they wrote quite a lot about Masoretic treatises. Nehemia Aloni. But it’s the world of those Karaite transcriptions of Hebrew which I think was a kind of a very exciting dimension to all of this.

Anyhow, I eventually, after a lot of years went by, put all this material together and I produced this book, which is open access, by the way.

Nehemia: Yeah! That’s amazing, by the way. I love that. So, you can legally download it.

Geoffrey: So, what I… this is slightly going on a tangent, but I’m very passionate now about the phenomenon of open access publishing. So, I set up this series called Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures, which is based here in Cambridge, and you can search it on Google and our series is growing quite rapidly. There’s a lot of stuff there on Hebrew Masorah and Niqqud. But the point is that it’s freely downloadable, or if you want this hard copy, it’s quite cheap and low cost.

Nehemia: Why is that so important? You said you’re passionate about it. I know, but I want the audience to hear.

Geoffrey: Well, because of dissemination. Because I came to realize that academic research, academic books and publications, academic publishers charge exorbitant prices for books. Which means that not even academics themselves can afford… they can only read it if they have access to some university, a rich university, whose library will buy it.

Nehemia: I have a colleague in Greece who’s very learned. He’s done a post-doc in Greek manuscripts, and his university can’t afford a lot of these databases.

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: And he’ll write to me and other scholars and say, “I’m trying to get hold of this article. Do you have access to it? Because I don’t.” Maybe this is even cliche to say that the person who’s going to cure cancer is working in a rice field somewhere in Asia and won’t have access to PubMed to make the breakthroughs that humanity needs. It really is a problem.

Geoffrey: But if you just focus on our own field of Hebrew and Semitic studies…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Geoffrey: What I’ve learned is that in the world there is an incredible number of people who are hungry for knowledge.

Nehemia: Absolutely.

Geoffrey: Academic research is not only for scholars in the top universities, it’s a large amount of humanity. In fact, this book, for example, we have in our series… we have metrics that show how many times it’s been downloaded. It’s been downloaded nearly 12,000 times.

Nehemia: Wow!

Geoffrey: Across the whole world.

Nehemia: That’s amazing.

Geoffrey: Across the whole global south, the Indian Ocean, South America.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: So, I feel this is our duty, really, as scholars, to disseminate our work and to feed the world knowledge.

Nehemia: So, I want to develop this issue just for a minute. Because a lot of the people who are watching this, they don’t know how academia works, and they might think, “Wow, that’s so generous of you. You’re giving up all the royalties you otherwise would make on the book.” And, in reality, you don’t get paid to write these books by the publisher. And I won’t name names but, if you published a book with one of the traditional academic publishers, they make money, but you don’t get anything.

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: On the contrary, sometimes you pay. I was just talking to somebody last week, and she said, “I wrote an article for one of these academic publishers and included two photos, and I had to pay for the photos, to get the permission to publish those photos.”

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: So, not only was she not paid, she had to pay.

Geoffrey: Yeah. Traditional publishers have to make a profit to run things. Open access publishing is still developing slowly, but you do obviously have to support it financially. And it’s supported essentially in two ways; if you have research grants you can support your publication that way, or sometimes there are departmental funds for helping out there. There is increasing development of another stream of support known as Library Support Fund, so that means that libraries who have a budget to buy books… and many libraries now are agreeing to allocate a part of their budget to actually support open access publication series, which they would have used otherwise to buy printed books. That’s how I think the future will be. But anyhow the point being, that’s just a bit on the side…

Nehemia: Well, it’s an important issue. I had an exchange last week with somebody from one of the big publishers, academic publishers, and she said, “Look, we can’t have everything for free because people will get funding for a project and they will make a really wonderful interface and website, and then the funding will end, and the project disappears.” And she said, “We’ve been here for 400 years publishing books,” you probably know who I’m talking about just from the 400 years, but I won’t say, “and we’re going to be here for another 400 or 500 years because we charge, and this is how we fund it.”

At the same time, I wrote an article, and I wanted it to be open access. And I had to pay an exorbitant amount of money after it was already published, to then… I feel like it’s one of those pidyon shvuyim from the Middle Ages, where someone was kidnapped by pirates, and you would pay to ransom them away from the pirates. I had to ransom my own article to make it available to the public.

Geoffrey: Yeah, but this is a general question about what we’re doing in our research, and I think one can regard it as simply a kind of self-fulfillment. I ask myself, “Why am I motivated to do what I’m doing?” I mean, obviously there is a personal element to it. There’s a sort of sense of self-fulfillment of a thing that’s very much the sort of thing that you want to do. It’s close to your heart. And I suppose some years ago I would just sort of assume I’m just a bit strange and not many people are interested in this kind of thing!

Nehemia: Well, apparently 12,000 people are!

Geoffrey: I’ve learned that, in fact, I was misestimating humanity, really, because I see that there is a massive interest in scholarship. And I think it shows that there are hundreds and thousands of people in the world who’ve not been able to have a university education or have not been able to study what they wanted to in university for a variety of reasons. But they want to. They want to get access to scholarship. And in a way, I feel that what we’re doing… this is a really important service to humanity to do this, to disseminate our research, important factual research. And it can only have a positive effect. Anyhow, that’s the story of my open access.

Nehemia: Well, I want to thank you for making that available because I think that’s really important. My cousin wrote a book about some obscure topic on political science. It was his dissertation, I think, that was then published. And he found it online on a website, and I said to him, “Are you upset?” He said, “No, I’m not upset. I don’t get any money when the book is sold. And if they pirate it and make it available, I want people to read my research. Ultimately, what did I write it for? Not just for myself, but to share it with other people.” And you’re doing it in a way which doesn’t involve piracy, which I absolutely love.

Geoffrey: Yeah, you can hack into websites, but that’s not a satisfactory way of operating, really. Anyhow, in this book I’ve done two things; I’ve done a detailed description of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. But also, there’s a second volume attached to it which is an edition of the sections of one of the key Masoretic treatises, called Hidayat al Qari, literally “a guide for the reader” in Arabic. It’s written in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic in Hebrew letters, which describes in detail the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels according to the Tiberian pronunciation tradition, and the Sh’va.

Nehemia: This is amazing! It’s amazing because, until you made this book available, there were, I don’t know if it’s a handful, or a couple of dozen scholars in the world… is it even a couple of dozen, who had both the interest and the ability to read those texts. And there are entire worlds of discussion that were going on trying to reconstruct how they pronounced Hebrew a thousand years ago. There was an entire project… which is an important project; it was inherited, at least, by the Academy of Hebrew Languages, in which people would arrive in Israel and they would sit them down with a recorder and record. They’d say, “Read a chapter of the Torah,” “Read a chapter of Isaiah,” “Read a chapter of the Mishnah,” and they did that for people from all over the Jewish diaspora when they would come to Israel. And they wanted to get them early on, because 10 or 20 years into being in Israel, now your pronunciation has become assimilated to Israeli pronunciation, often. And that, by the way, is available now online.

Geoffrey: Yeah. That’s another very important dimension in research, that these living traditions of Hebrew pronunciations which are, after the gathering of the Diaspora from the various parts of the Jewish world, they’ve now become quite endangered. But the point about the Tiberian tradition is, it became extinct.

Nehemia: Already in the 10th century, as I’m told.

Geoffrey: Unfortunately, there are no living traditions, and so this is why you have to go back to these Medieval sources. But luckily, we can do this now to a great extent. It also demands a certain analysis of how to analyze the pronunciation, the so-called phonology and the prosody, the way which syllables are put together. This is what I do in my book.

Nehemia: It’s interesting that you say it was extinct. So, here’s a really interesting distinction with the Babylonian pronunciation. What Morag did, for example, is he went to the Yemenite Jews and the Yemenite treatises. And he had a very good access to, at least what we believe is, the Babylonian pronunciation because it was still being used in the 20th century by Yemenite Jews. But you’re saying already in the 10th and certainly the 11th century, virtually nobody was pronouncing Tiberian Hebrew the way it was written.

Geoffrey: No, no. In the Middle Ages, certainly by the late Middle Ages, it seems to have become extinct.

Nehemia: Okay, so maybe a little later.

Geoffrey: But even the Yemenite Jews, their pronunciation does seem to go back, inherited from Babylonian pronunciation. There are slight differences here and there, but essentially that seems to be where they got the pronunciation tradition from. The point is that Hebrew pronunciation is dependent on various factors. One of them is region. I’m talking about modern pronunciation. One of them is the region, so the modern pronunciation of Hebrew gets influenced by languages and contact. For example, the Yemenite traditions… by the way, there are several different Yemenite traditions, but they have been influenced to some extent by the local Arabic pronunciation.

Another factor is a kind of network of scholars networking because region is, of course, one thing, but the point about the Yemenites is that they had close networks with the Babylonian academies in the Middle Ages. And therefore, they were almost certainly taught… I mean, some of these oral traditions of reading, they were taught in the Babylonian academies, and so this sort of relationship between teacher and pupil can actually transcend a geographical location.

An interesting example of that in the modern world is the pronunciation of the Jews of Cochin in southern India who, when I heard their pronunciation some years ago… I heard them pronouncing the Ayins and Chets like Arabic. And I thought, “How is this happening?” Because in their location in southern India, where they’ve been for many centuries, their contact language was Malayalam, which is a local Indian language, but it has no Ayins and Chets, or no pharyngeals like in Arabic there at all. But then I learned that the reason they have these Ayins and Chets is because they developed in relatively recent times the tradition of Yemenite Jews traveling to India who settled there and often, they were the teachers, and they would teach the children to pronounce Hebrew.

Nehemia: That makes a lot of sense because the Cambridge University Library has an Indian Torah scroll which this man named Buchanan brought back from India in the early 1800’s and donated it to the library. And that is, in all respects, a Yemenite Torah scroll, probably from the 15th century. And they also have traditions… maybe not the Cochin Jews, but some of the Jewish communities there, because there were different Jewish communities there, the non-Baghdadi Jews who aren’t the indigenous ones have a tradition that they came from Yemen. There are three communities there, so that’s interesting. This is amazing, fascinating stuff!

Thank you so much for joining me. This has been an amazing conversation and a real honor to be able to sit with you and discuss these things and share this with people. A lot of these things, even though people have downloaded it 12,000 times, I think for a lot of the audience this is very esoteric in having you explain it, explaining what ortholepy is, and epenthetic. I think that is really valuable. So, thank you so much.

Geoffrey: Well, thank you, Nehemia, it’s a pleasure.

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BOOKS MENTIONED
The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew, Volume 1
by Geoffrey Khan

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Hebrew Voices #187 - Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1

In this episode of Hebrew Voices #187, Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1, the premier linguist of Northwest Semitic languages explains how scholars get behind the printed text of the Bible to access the proto-Masoretic reading tradition.

I look forward to reading your comments!

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Hebrew Voices #187 – Second Temple Hebrew in the Middle Ages: Part 1

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Geoffrey: Until then, for me, Biblical Hebrew was essentially what you get in a printed edition of the Hebrew Bible. But then when I was introduced to this incredible collection of the Genizah, I realized that we have to get behind the printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemia: Shalom and welcome to Hebrew Voices! I am here with Prof. Geoffrey Khan, who is the Regius professor of Hebrew at the University of Cambridge, which is part of the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He got his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. And I’m actually really honored to be with you here today, Prof. Khan. Guys, I’m here with the greatest linguist of Northwest Semitic languages of our time, and it’s a real honor. Thank you for joining me on the program.

Geoffrey: Well, thank you! Thank you for coming.

Nehemia: There are so many things I want to discuss with you. You’ve done groundbreaking work on Karaite studies, on the pronunciation of Tiberian Hebrew, on probably a whole bunch of things I don’t even know. I know one of your specialties is Modern Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic, so, there are so many things we could talk about. Of course, my interest is the Bible, so I’m going to try to discuss that sort of thing with you. You have this book in front of you; can you tell the audience about your book?

Geoffrey: Right, yes. This is a book about the pronunciation of Hebrew according to the Tiberian tradition, which came out in 2020. And this represents a product of many years of research on the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, which is one of my particular interests. I suppose it’s a bit of a long story on how I became interested in the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. I think perhaps I’ll say something about how my interest developed.

Nehemia: Please.

Geoffrey: As you said, when I did my PhD at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, a long time ago now… frankly it was 1984 that I got my PhD there, but I had the great fortune and great luck to get a post-doc job on the Cairo Genizah project here in Cambridge. So, for my PhD, I was working on the syntax of Semitic languages, working mainly on written texts, published texts in printed form. But when I got this post-doc position at the Genizah, this really introduced me to this world of Medieval Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts. And this was a real turning point, I think, in my interests and my career, because I became aware of this incredible collection of primary sources of the Hebrew Bible. Until then, for me, Biblical Hebrew was essentially what you get in a printed edition of the Hebrew Bible. But then, when I was introduced to this incredible collection of the Genizah, I realized that we have to get behind the printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

Nehemia: Okay, wow. I love that!

Geoffrey: And we have to actually see what the sources are, and the Genizah was an excellent opportunity for this. And then, as I began to study the various biblical manuscripts in the Genizah, I also became aware that some of the things we read about, or what I Iearned as a student about the Biblical Hebrew language, also requires us to ask ourselves, how do we know that this is the case? Or what are the sources for any aspect of the language which we find in our basic textbooks of Biblical Hebrew?

Now, of course, one of the central things which I realized was somewhat incorrect. In these textbooks, the presentation and the description of the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, which I learned from the textbooks and all the students learn from the textbooks… and I realized that first of all, what the textbooks were telling us about the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, it wasn’t clear what the source of this was. And it wasn’t clear what its relationship was to the vowel signs which appear in printed texts of the Hebrew Bible.

So, I think this experience of working in the Genizah made me realize that it was important to go back to the primary sources and really try to understand and get to the source of some of the basic dimensions of the Hebrew language.

Nehemia: Wow!

Geoffrey: And in particular the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. And then, one of the general things I learned from working in the Genizah was that there isn’t such a thing as a single Biblical Hebrew. There isn’t such a thing as a single Hebrew Bible one can say, but perhaps we can talk about that later. But certainly, Biblical Hebrew as a language is just a family of traditions. It’s a bit like, in a way, a natural spoken language in that a natural spoken language is not totally uniform, it has many different dialects. And there may be a standard language but there’s still a lot of spoken dialects and there’s a lot of imperfect versions of a standard language.

Now, this applies very much to Biblical Hebrew, and of course, in a natural language, or a living language, there are different historical layers, and the language is different. It’s pronounced differently at different times, so you have this diversity, both synchronically and diachronically, this whole…

Nehemia: Explain for our audience what synchronically and diachronically is.

Geoffrey: Yes. So, synchronically means at the same time, basically. So, in the Middle Ages… I should say the majority of Genizah manuscripts date to the so-called High Middle Ages, so let’s say 10th to 13th century roughly, or 11th to 13th century, the majority of them. So, in the Genizah one can find Bible manuscripts which reflect a diversity of pronunciations of Biblical Hebrew synchronically, i.e., in the Middle Ages.

But then if one wants to talk about the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, one has to consider diachronic issues. In other words, how it was pronounced at different periods, both earlier than the Middle Ages and after the Middle Ages.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: So, when one says, what is the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, there is not a single answer. It depends on what tradition; at what period you’re talking about. So, just before perhaps we develop that a bit more, I could just go back to this particular book, which was a product of my… which all begin essentially in my work in the Genizah, was that one of the things I discovered in the Genizah was there’s quite a lot of sources which were very important for reconstructing a particular tradition of the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew known as the Tiberian pronunciation tradition which is one of the central traditions of Biblical Hebrew pronunciation.

Now, why is it important to work on the tradition? Or why hasn’t this been described already? Or hadn’t been described at that time, some 25 years ago, whatever it was. We’re talking about… when I was working there in the late 80’s, early 90’s. So, the Hebrew Bible, although the text was fixed, or canonized, essentially, in Late Antiquity, it was transmitted in written and oral form from Late Antiquity down to the Middle Ages. And although the written form of the text was essentially fixed, its oral performance and the way it was read orally differed across different traditions and different geographical areas.

Nehemia: What do you mean by “the Bible was transmitted orally”? Tell us. And you talked about the performances. So, what does that mean?

Geoffrey: Well, it means that the Hebrew Bible was copied in terms of scribes copying manuscripts, so that one could call that a written transmission. And that had, therefore, a chain of transmission because a scribe would use a manuscript as a model, and then that manuscript would eventually be used as a model for another one. But parallel with that, in the transmission of the Hebrew Bible there was a tradition of oral reading. That is to say, a teacher would teach a pupil how to read this written text of the Hebrew Bible orally and that was called a reading tradition. And that oral reading was passed on from teacher to pupil through the generations.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: And since Late Antiquity down to the Early Islamic Period, we’re talking about the 9th century perhaps…

Nehemia: Late Antiquity. What century are we talking about?

Geoffrey: Well, let’s say, just broadly speaking, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE the Hebrew Bible had this sort of dual channel of transmission in written and oral form. Now, the point is that the written tradition was reasonably stable and fixed, but the oral traditions exhibited some degree of pluriformity. This pluriformity of oral reading traditions could be correlated with region of transmission. For example, the tradition of reading the Bible in Palestine differed from that in Babylonia, and beyond, in other regions as well, but those are two of the main splits of traditions, of oral tradition.

Nehemia: In pluriformity, you mean that there’s not one way of doing it, there’s two rival traditions, essentially, on how to read the Bible.

Geoffrey: Yeah. And there were several different traditions, and in Palestine there were several different traditions. But one particular oral tradition, that’s known as the Tiberian tradition, had a particular prestige because these various oral traditions had different degrees of prestige. So, it was the Tiberian tradition which had the greatest prestige, certainly in the Middle Ages, and it seems since Late Antiquity, and this was a tradition which had been transmitted by scholars in Tiberias associated with the so-called Palestinian Yeshiva. The Palestinian Yeshiva was the seat of authority of Judaism in Palestine since Late Antiquity.

Nehemia: By Yeshiva, you mean there was this academy of rabbis, or something to this effect?

Geoffrey: Yeah, it was an academy, but it also had responsibilities of Jewish legislation as well. But it was also a center of learning. Certainly, since the middle of the first millennium CE, or certainly the Early Islamic Period, we come to learn about various scholars known as the Masoretes, who were specifically responsible for the transmission and preservation of the transmission of the Bible. And we know that in Tiberias there was a school of Masoretes, and many of them clearly had central positions in the Palestinian Yeshiva. In fact, one of the Masoretes in Tiberias was called Pinkas Rosh Ha’Yeshiva, which means he was the head of the yeshiva. So, it seems the Masoretic school was a central component of the Palestinian Yeshiva.

Nehemia: That’s really… well, I’m going to let you continue. I have all these questions to follow up! This is very exciting!

Geoffrey: Yeah, so the point being is that, therefore, the activities and transmission activities of the Tiberian Masoretes was very much associated with the center of Jewish authority. And that almost certainly was one of the main reasons why the Tiberian tradition became regarded as the most authoritative and prestigious tradition in the early Middle Ages.

Now, one could ask oneself why was this specific tradition being transmitted in Tiberias, and why was it endowed with such authority? I mean, okay, it was the tradition which was adopted by the Palestinian Yeshiva, but why did they adopt that particular tradition? My own hypothesis… I have to say that this is a hypothesis. I mean, there is some evidence for it, was that it’s because this Tiberian tradition had roots in an authoritative oral tradition which already was authoritative in the Second Temple Period. And it’s my own hypothesis that this was associated with the Temple authorities before the destruction of the Temple.

And within Second Temple Palestine, there were a variety of oral reading traditions. But already before the destruction of the Temple some of them had become associated specifically with the Temple authorities and they were endowed with a certain amount of authority. Now, I believe the Babylonian tradition that we have at the core of the Babylonian tradition also had its roots in some kind of authoritative oral tradition in Second Temple Palestine. And essentially the Tiberian and the Babylonian traditions split off from what I call the proto-Masoretic reading tradition, which would have most likely had its roots in the Temple.

The Tiberian tradition started off as an authoritative tradition. It was a sort of heritage from the Temple, as was, it seems, the biblical text in the written form as we know it. I mean, there is some controversy among Qumran scholars about the origin of the written text as it was imprecise, but my own feeling is that we’re dealing with some kind of… it has to be a product of some kind of control, of administered control, of an authority, and obviously that authority is the Temple.

But the main issue here is, this related not only to the written text but also to the oral reading, and there was an authoritative oral reading. So, Tiberian tradition, I think, is an heir to that authoritative oral reading tradition of Second Temple Palestine transmitted by the authoritative seat of Judaism in Palestine known as the Palestinian Yeshiva.

Now, until the Early Islamic Period… so, 9th century, let’s say, this was essentially only an oral tradition. So, it was just passed down through oral memory. Now, in the Middle Ages, in the early Islamic Period, there were developments going on in the Islamic world which had a big impact on the Hebrew Bible and one of them was an increase in committing oral traditions to writing.

In the very early Islamic Period, there was still a lot of oral transmission of key Islamic texts. For example, poetry and hadith, which are the oral traditions of the prophet Mohammed. In the very early Islamic Period, these were transmitted only in oral form, and sometimes scholars would take notes, but there was no real systematic commitment to writing of the traditions.

But by the 9th century there was a more systematic commitment to writing some of these oral traditions in the Islamic world. There were a variety of factors which might have had an impact on this. One of them was the influence of the Iranian in the Abbasid Period. That is, from the 2nd Islamic century, mid-8th century CE, there was an increase of the Iranian culture of scribal practice coming from Iranian traditions which had an impact, I think, on the Islamic world. Also, another factor was a big increase in bureaucracy in the Abbasid Period. There were far more documents being produced and that was kind of a catalyst to the spread of writing.

This phenomenon has been identified by historians of England, actually, that in the Middle Ages there was a certain period where there was an increase in bureaucracy and that was a trigger to a greater increase in literacy and the practice of writing.

So, this had an impact in the Hebrew Bible in that, it was about this period when these oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible became textualized, i.e. began to be written down, represented in written form. And this was done by, as you all know when you read the Hebrew Bible, this was done by marking Hebrew vowel signs, this sort of notational system in vowel signs.

Now, the phenomenon of writing these down was essentially stimulated by the Islamic environment. Another factor which had a big impact on the Hebrew Bible was the beginning of the use of the codex to write the Hebrew Bible, which until the Islamic Period, the Hebrew Bible was written on scrolls. It continued to be written in scroll form throughout the Middle Ages down to modern times, of course, in the liturgical context. But the codex got adopted, really, it appears, from the Islamic environment on the model of the Quran, almost certainly. And this was applied to the Hebrew Bible. And this, among other things, allowed a greater freedom in terms of notation. The scroll was a sacred object which was not changed in any way, whereas the codex became more of a study Bible. And this allowed the Masoretes to write down notations, like the vowel signs. But it was the actual shift in the environment to a more writing-based culture that was one of the stimuli to the writing down of the oral tradition.

So, the issue is, when we’re talking about what is the pronunciation of Hebrew, I decided, at least, that the first thing that needs to be done is to actually describe in detail the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. Because that is the pronunciation tradition which these vowel signs, which we have today in our printed Bibles, represent.

However, what happened was that, by the mid-10th century, the school of Tiberian Masoretes dispersed. After the generation of the two last major Masoretes, Aaron Ben Asher and Moshe Ben Naphtali, the school dispersed, and it seems quite rapidly the actual oral tradition of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition began to be forgotten. In the 11th century, there were few teachers of it around in Palestine. We know that from certain remarks by a Karaite grammarian known as Abu al-Faraj Harun, but certainly it really quite rapidly fell into oblivion. Already, Ibn Janah in Spain in the Middle Ages, a prominent grammarian, said he was not able to get any access to a teacher of Tiberian pronunciation.

Nehemia: This is a Jewish grammarian, one of the most important Jewish grammarians. He said he doesn’t have access to a teacher of Tiberian pronunciation. That’s amazing.

Geoffrey: Yeah. It was probably because the Tiberian pronunciation tradition was quite an elite, and it was only really observed by elite learned people. It was taught… there were missionaries, as we learned from certain Medieval sources, that there were missionaries or teachers that traveled from Tiberias to teach various communities this tradition, but it was a learned tradition. And the majority of Jews in Palestine, for example, were pronouncing Hebrew in a very different way. It was known as the Palestinian pronunciation tradition, which I’ll talk about in a minute. But essentially, the Tiberian pronunciation tradition fell into oblivion.

So, what happened was, the vowel signs, which were created to represent the Tiberian pronunciation, became fossils. As it were, what seems to have happened was that the authority of the ancient oral Tiberian reading tradition was transferred to these vowel signs. So, in other words, the authority of the oral tradition then became fossilized in these vowel signs, and they became the authoritative vehicle as it were, of transmission of reading. But the problem was that nobody knew how to pronounce them after a while because the actual original oral tradition of Tiberian pronunciation, which they were created to represent, had become forgotten.

So, as Jewish communities began to read, they would write down their Bibles with Tiberian vowel signs, because, if you like, they became part of the authoritative text, but they were reading the Bible with a different pronunciation. And certainly, in Palestine and in most of the Jewish world in the Mediterranean and north and south, they pronounced Hebrew with what’s known as the Palestinian pronunciation tradition, and so they were imposing this on their written Bibles. In other words, they wrote the Bibles with the Tiberian signs, but they actually read it with a completely different pronunciation tradition.

Now, the Palestinian tradition was a very widely used popular tradition of pronouncing Hebrew in Palestine since the Late Antiquity. One of its features was that it had merged quite certainly in its vowel structure, this vowel system, with the vernacular languages of Palestine, which included Palestinian- Greek and Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic. And this vowel system, which one of its distinctive features is this sort of obliteration of the distinction between Patach and Kamatz on the one hand, and Segol and Tzere on the other, that all developed through the influence of Palestinian Greek and Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic.

But then that was the dominant pronunciation in Palestine, and that got transmitted with Jewish migrations even before the Middle Ages, almost certainly, but certainly during the Middle Ages, migrations of Jews to Europe, to various countries in the Mediterranean. And this is why the Jews, essentially in most of those countries in the Mediterranean, in the north and in the south, their heritage is really of this Palestinian pronunciation tradition.

Now in Ashkenaz, there were quite radical phonological changes. Certainly, after about the 14th century, there were all kinds of vowel shifts in the vernacular language of German.

Nehemia: Last week I was at the European Association of Jewish Studies, and I heard a lecture where someone was quoting Eliezer Rokeach, Eleazar of Worms, which is in northwestern Germany today. And he’s spiritualizing the vowel sounds, and he says there are Vav kolot, “six sounds”, five vowels and Sh’va. And he’s writing at the beginning of the 13th century in northwestern Europe, and for him there is no distinction between Patach and Kamatz, and there is no distinction between Tzere and Segol. So, there’s only five vowels plus Sh’va, which is amazing.

Geoffrey: Yeah. You see, that reflects the fact that essentially the Jews of Ashkenaz were heirs to this tradition of Palestinian pronunciation which probably came in through Italy and then the Rhinelands, and then moved further to the East. But there was a shift somewhere post-14th century due to the influence of sound shifts in the vernacular spoken by the Jews, a sort of Germanic language, Yiddish basically, but which is obviously Germanic, essentially, which is a bit of a complicated story. But all I can say is that all the pronunciations, if you like, from Western Jewry, West of Palestine, was essentially inherited from Palestinian tradition. Which ultimately goes back to a form of Hebrew influenced by Jewish-Palestinian and Aramaic and Palestinian Greek.

Nehemia: So, the Palestinian pronunciation, what we call Niqqud Eretz Israeli, which has five vowels, you’re saying that doesn’t go back to Second Temple times the way that Babylonian pronunciation and Tiberian pronunciation does. Or does it?

Geoffrey: Well, no. The point is, first of all, you’ve got to distinguish pronunciation from vocalization signs.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: So, what I call the popular tradition, which is, if you like, popular in the sense of the majority of people using it, it almost certainly does have quite early roots.

Nehemia: Oh.

Geoffrey: It certainly must go back to the periods of where Greek was still spoken, certainly, because it seems to have been influenced by Palestinian Greek. And so, it’s quite possible we’re talking about a kind of pronunciation which was around in the Second Temple Period.

Nehemia: Ah, okay.

Geoffrey: And it was simply that it was the popular tradition. You know, the Tiberian tradition came out of the… it was the Temple, it was the authoritative tradition of the Temple. So, we’re not dealing with different chronological layers, we’re dealing with different sort of social layers, if you like.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: But the point is that the prestigious authoritative oral Tiberian tradition lost its oral dimension, but it was fossilized in these vowel sounds we have today, and on that it was imposed by different pronunciation traditions. Now, I should say, going back to this book…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Geoffrey: One of the greatest tacks I felt some years ago was to actually reconstruct the original Tiberian pronunciation tradition, because obviously that is what is behind the vowel signs. So, I did that by various means, and one of the things that got me very interested in this particular question was the discovery of particular sorts of manuscripts. And one of them was the variety of manuscripts I found written by Karaites in the Middle Ages, which were transcriptions of the Hebrew Bible in Arabic letters, which is a very interesting phenomenon. I mean, there were Karaites, mainly in Palestine, it seems, in the 10th and 11th centuries, who were writing some of their manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in Arabic transcription.

Nehemia: Meaning, the words were Hebrew, but instead of writing a Hebrew Aleph, they wrote an Arabic Aleph.

Geoffrey: Right. So, they transcribed. But what they were transcribing, crucially, was the oral reading. They were not transliterating letter-by-letter from what they were seeing, most of the manuscripts. In the majority of the manuscripts, they were transcribing what they heard in the pronunciation tradition.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: The important thing is that most of them were really representing, essentially, the Tiberian tradition of pronunciation.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: So, that became an important source for reconstruction of some of the features of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. Other important sources were so-called Masoretic treatises, many of which had survived in the Genizah, and some of them in other sources.

Nehemia: Why do you say so-called?

Geoffrey: Sorry?

Nehemia: You said “so-called” Masoretic treatises. Are they not actually Masoretic treatises?

Geoffrey: No. I mean, I didn’t mean that in a pejorative way. These are what I call them.

Nehemia: So, they didn’t refer to themselves… In other words, whoever wrote down one of these treatises wouldn’t have said, “I have written a Masoretic treatise.” What would he have said? “I’m writing something on the Hebrew language”?

Geoffrey: Yes, good point. There are some terms, like kuntresei hamesorah was one of them.

Nehemia: Okay. And kuntres is quires, meaning like… part of a codex is a quire.

Geoffrey: Yeah. They were regarded essentially as being a kind of an expansion of the development of the Masoretic tradition of the Masoretes.

Nehemia: Okay.

Geoffrey: In the 10th century, a tradition of grammar developed, Hebrew grammar, but that was a sort of innovation in Judaism which had its inspiration, to a large extent, from the Islamic world, from the Arabic traditions of grammar. But within Judaism there was a tradition, as we’ve been talking about, of so-called Masoretic activity. Which involved crucially, at some point at least in the early stages, the development of notation systems for their oral traditions. But it also involved writing notes in the margins of manuscripts which, essentially, were kind of notes which assisted in the accurate written transmission of the Hebrew Bible known as Masoretic notes.

But then a further stage, which seems to be a sort of later stage, was to develop writing of independent treatises on aspects of the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. These treatises sometimes related to the accent signs, but some of them related specifically to the pronunciation of vowel signs, and those treatises, or those parts of treatises which related to the pronunciation of vowel signs…

Nehemia: Like for example, there’s Dikdukei Ha’Ta’amim, which is attributed to Aaron ben Asher, would that be an example of a…

Geoffrey: Yeah, that’s one of the most famous Masoretic treatises, which is, as its name implies, you know, the fine points of the accents, was concerned largely with the accents, the Ta’amim. However, it does have a few sections on pronunciation of vowels, particularly the Sh’va.

Nehemia: We’re going to get to the Sh’va. I can’t wait! I’m excited about the Sh’va!

Geoffrey: Yeah! So, to cut a long story short, though these kinds of sources, which I was finding in the Genizah, Masoretic treatises and Karaite manuscripts, I think they inspired me to try to reconstruct the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. I have to say, I was very much indebted to previous scholars’ work on Masoretic treatises, largely Ilan Eldar did some very important work on the treatise known as Hidayat al-Qari. And then some of the great scholars such as Israel Yeivin, also, and Morag, they wrote quite a lot about Masoretic treatises. Nehemia Aloni. But it’s the world of those Karaite transcriptions of Hebrew which I think was a kind of a very exciting dimension to all of this.

Anyhow, I eventually, after a lot of years went by, put all this material together and I produced this book, which is open access, by the way.

Nehemia: Yeah! That’s amazing, by the way. I love that. So, you can legally download it.

Geoffrey: So, what I… this is slightly going on a tangent, but I’m very passionate now about the phenomenon of open access publishing. So, I set up this series called Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures, which is based here in Cambridge, and you can search it on Google and our series is growing quite rapidly. There’s a lot of stuff there on Hebrew Masorah and Niqqud. But the point is that it’s freely downloadable, or if you want this hard copy, it’s quite cheap and low cost.

Nehemia: Why is that so important? You said you’re passionate about it. I know, but I want the audience to hear.

Geoffrey: Well, because of dissemination. Because I came to realize that academic research, academic books and publications, academic publishers charge exorbitant prices for books. Which means that not even academics themselves can afford… they can only read it if they have access to some university, a rich university, whose library will buy it.

Nehemia: I have a colleague in Greece who’s very learned. He’s done a post-doc in Greek manuscripts, and his university can’t afford a lot of these databases.

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: And he’ll write to me and other scholars and say, “I’m trying to get hold of this article. Do you have access to it? Because I don’t.” Maybe this is even cliche to say that the person who’s going to cure cancer is working in a rice field somewhere in Asia and won’t have access to PubMed to make the breakthroughs that humanity needs. It really is a problem.

Geoffrey: But if you just focus on our own field of Hebrew and Semitic studies…

Nehemia: Yeah.

Geoffrey: What I’ve learned is that in the world there is an incredible number of people who are hungry for knowledge.

Nehemia: Absolutely.

Geoffrey: Academic research is not only for scholars in the top universities, it’s a large amount of humanity. In fact, this book, for example, we have in our series… we have metrics that show how many times it’s been downloaded. It’s been downloaded nearly 12,000 times.

Nehemia: Wow!

Geoffrey: Across the whole world.

Nehemia: That’s amazing.

Geoffrey: Across the whole global south, the Indian Ocean, South America.

Nehemia: Wow.

Geoffrey: So, I feel this is our duty, really, as scholars, to disseminate our work and to feed the world knowledge.

Nehemia: So, I want to develop this issue just for a minute. Because a lot of the people who are watching this, they don’t know how academia works, and they might think, “Wow, that’s so generous of you. You’re giving up all the royalties you otherwise would make on the book.” And, in reality, you don’t get paid to write these books by the publisher. And I won’t name names but, if you published a book with one of the traditional academic publishers, they make money, but you don’t get anything.

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: On the contrary, sometimes you pay. I was just talking to somebody last week, and she said, “I wrote an article for one of these academic publishers and included two photos, and I had to pay for the photos, to get the permission to publish those photos.”

Geoffrey: Yeah.

Nehemia: So, not only was she not paid, she had to pay.

Geoffrey: Yeah. Traditional publishers have to make a profit to run things. Open access publishing is still developing slowly, but you do obviously have to support it financially. And it’s supported essentially in two ways; if you have research grants you can support your publication that way, or sometimes there are departmental funds for helping out there. There is increasing development of another stream of support known as Library Support Fund, so that means that libraries who have a budget to buy books… and many libraries now are agreeing to allocate a part of their budget to actually support open access publication series, which they would have used otherwise to buy printed books. That’s how I think the future will be. But anyhow the point being, that’s just a bit on the side…

Nehemia: Well, it’s an important issue. I had an exchange last week with somebody from one of the big publishers, academic publishers, and she said, “Look, we can’t have everything for free because people will get funding for a project and they will make a really wonderful interface and website, and then the funding will end, and the project disappears.” And she said, “We’ve been here for 400 years publishing books,” you probably know who I’m talking about just from the 400 years, but I won’t say, “and we’re going to be here for another 400 or 500 years because we charge, and this is how we fund it.”

At the same time, I wrote an article, and I wanted it to be open access. And I had to pay an exorbitant amount of money after it was already published, to then… I feel like it’s one of those pidyon shvuyim from the Middle Ages, where someone was kidnapped by pirates, and you would pay to ransom them away from the pirates. I had to ransom my own article to make it available to the public.

Geoffrey: Yeah, but this is a general question about what we’re doing in our research, and I think one can regard it as simply a kind of self-fulfillment. I ask myself, “Why am I motivated to do what I’m doing?” I mean, obviously there is a personal element to it. There’s a sort of sense of self-fulfillment of a thing that’s very much the sort of thing that you want to do. It’s close to your heart. And I suppose some years ago I would just sort of assume I’m just a bit strange and not many people are interested in this kind of thing!

Nehemia: Well, apparently 12,000 people are!

Geoffrey: I’ve learned that, in fact, I was misestimating humanity, really, because I see that there is a massive interest in scholarship. And I think it shows that there are hundreds and thousands of people in the world who’ve not been able to have a university education or have not been able to study what they wanted to in university for a variety of reasons. But they want to. They want to get access to scholarship. And in a way, I feel that what we’re doing… this is a really important service to humanity to do this, to disseminate our research, important factual research. And it can only have a positive effect. Anyhow, that’s the story of my open access.

Nehemia: Well, I want to thank you for making that available because I think that’s really important. My cousin wrote a book about some obscure topic on political science. It was his dissertation, I think, that was then published. And he found it online on a website, and I said to him, “Are you upset?” He said, “No, I’m not upset. I don’t get any money when the book is sold. And if they pirate it and make it available, I want people to read my research. Ultimately, what did I write it for? Not just for myself, but to share it with other people.” And you’re doing it in a way which doesn’t involve piracy, which I absolutely love.

Geoffrey: Yeah, you can hack into websites, but that’s not a satisfactory way of operating, really. Anyhow, in this book I’ve done two things; I’ve done a detailed description of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition. But also, there’s a second volume attached to it which is an edition of the sections of one of the key Masoretic treatises, called Hidayat al Qari, literally “a guide for the reader” in Arabic. It’s written in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic in Hebrew letters, which describes in detail the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels according to the Tiberian pronunciation tradition, and the Sh’va.

Nehemia: This is amazing! It’s amazing because, until you made this book available, there were, I don’t know if it’s a handful, or a couple of dozen scholars in the world… is it even a couple of dozen, who had both the interest and the ability to read those texts. And there are entire worlds of discussion that were going on trying to reconstruct how they pronounced Hebrew a thousand years ago. There was an entire project… which is an important project; it was inherited, at least, by the Academy of Hebrew Languages, in which people would arrive in Israel and they would sit them down with a recorder and record. They’d say, “Read a chapter of the Torah,” “Read a chapter of Isaiah,” “Read a chapter of the Mishnah,” and they did that for people from all over the Jewish diaspora when they would come to Israel. And they wanted to get them early on, because 10 or 20 years into being in Israel, now your pronunciation has become assimilated to Israeli pronunciation, often. And that, by the way, is available now online.

Geoffrey: Yeah. That’s another very important dimension in research, that these living traditions of Hebrew pronunciations which are, after the gathering of the Diaspora from the various parts of the Jewish world, they’ve now become quite endangered. But the point about the Tiberian tradition is, it became extinct.

Nehemia: Already in the 10th century, as I’m told.

Geoffrey: Unfortunately, there are no living traditions, and so this is why you have to go back to these Medieval sources. But luckily, we can do this now to a great extent. It also demands a certain analysis of how to analyze the pronunciation, the so-called phonology and the prosody, the way which syllables are put together. This is what I do in my book.

Nehemia: It’s interesting that you say it was extinct. So, here’s a really interesting distinction with the Babylonian pronunciation. What Morag did, for example, is he went to the Yemenite Jews and the Yemenite treatises. And he had a very good access to, at least what we believe is, the Babylonian pronunciation because it was still being used in the 20th century by Yemenite Jews. But you’re saying already in the 10th and certainly the 11th century, virtually nobody was pronouncing Tiberian Hebrew the way it was written.

Geoffrey: No, no. In the Middle Ages, certainly by the late Middle Ages, it seems to have become extinct.

Nehemia: Okay, so maybe a little later.

Geoffrey: But even the Yemenite Jews, their pronunciation does seem to go back, inherited from Babylonian pronunciation. There are slight differences here and there, but essentially that seems to be where they got the pronunciation tradition from. The point is that Hebrew pronunciation is dependent on various factors. One of them is region. I’m talking about modern pronunciation. One of them is the region, so the modern pronunciation of Hebrew gets influenced by languages and contact. For example, the Yemenite traditions… by the way, there are several different Yemenite traditions, but they have been influenced to some extent by the local Arabic pronunciation.

Another factor is a kind of network of scholars networking because region is, of course, one thing, but the point about the Yemenites is that they had close networks with the Babylonian academies in the Middle Ages. And therefore, they were almost certainly taught… I mean, some of these oral traditions of reading, they were taught in the Babylonian academies, and so this sort of relationship between teacher and pupil can actually transcend a geographical location.

An interesting example of that in the modern world is the pronunciation of the Jews of Cochin in southern India who, when I heard their pronunciation some years ago… I heard them pronouncing the Ayins and Chets like Arabic. And I thought, “How is this happening?” Because in their location in southern India, where they’ve been for many centuries, their contact language was Malayalam, which is a local Indian language, but it has no Ayins and Chets, or no pharyngeals like in Arabic there at all. But then I learned that the reason they have these Ayins and Chets is because they developed in relatively recent times the tradition of Yemenite Jews traveling to India who settled there and often, they were the teachers, and they would teach the children to pronounce Hebrew.

Nehemia: That makes a lot of sense because the Cambridge University Library has an Indian Torah scroll which this man named Buchanan brought back from India in the early 1800’s and donated it to the library. And that is, in all respects, a Yemenite Torah scroll, probably from the 15th century. And they also have traditions… maybe not the Cochin Jews, but some of the Jewish communities there, because there were different Jewish communities there, the non-Baghdadi Jews who aren’t the indigenous ones have a tradition that they came from Yemen. There are three communities there, so that’s interesting. This is amazing, fascinating stuff!

Thank you so much for joining me. This has been an amazing conversation and a real honor to be able to sit with you and discuss these things and share this with people. A lot of these things, even though people have downloaded it 12,000 times, I think for a lot of the audience this is very esoteric in having you explain it, explaining what ortholepy is, and epenthetic. I think that is really valuable. So, thank you so much.

Geoffrey: Well, thank you, Nehemia, it’s a pleasure.

You have been listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon’s Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

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BOOKS MENTIONED
The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew, Volume 1
by Geoffrey Khan

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