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It is commonly said in secular sources that the shapes of the trope and nekudos we use today were invented by the Masoretes (7th to 11th Century CE), but I cannot find any source in our mesorah to this effect.

Is it based solely on the archaeological premise that we do not see them documented historically until then, or are they affirmed by a halachic source to have been invented at that time?

Could it not be an older tradition transmitted and documented by the Masoretes?

The most obvious ramification here is these systems' presence in the Zohar Hakadosh (eg Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 69 pg 107a) traditionally attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (d. 2nd Century CE). Either these systems were in existence at that time, are present in the Zohar as a product of ruach hakodesh, or represent later additions to the text.

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Are you looking for later sources that say they were invented by the Masoretes, or for early sources predating the Masoretes which use them? If the latter this is potentially an unanswerable question (as posed). – Double AA Dec 4 '12 at 19:23
Ideally, I am looking for an assertion by the Masoretes themselves that the symbols are their invention. Otherwise, a source stating as much would work, the older the better. Obviously if there was evidence for the symbols outside the Zohar this would not be a question. As it is, it's already proven by the Zohar to the vast majority of Jews, but there are those who dispute... – yoel Dec 4 '12 at 19:31
Hakirah published an article a while back about the origin of the nekudos. It's kind of an overview of the main sources on the topic. Link. – jake Dec 4 '12 at 21:08
@jake great link - I invite you or anybody else to summarize the article's points as an answer, as it seems to me as close as we're going to get. If nobody else wants to do it, I expect I will... – yoel Dec 4 '12 at 21:33
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I linked in the comments to the question to an article by Dan Rabinowitz published by Hakirah journal regarding Jewish sources pertaining to the origin of the nekudos. [Note that although the taamim of the Tanach are not mentioned throughout the article, it seems implicit in most of the sources (and in the main source, actually explicit) that the same applies to the taamim.] The gist of it is as follows:

The earliest sources to be found are those that address why our Torah scrolls lack the vowel symbols. The split begins here.

  • Machzor Vitri (11th Century) cites an anonymous "t'shuvas hagaon" who writes that the original Torah scrolls did not have vowels for the nekudos did not exist at the time. Even when they were later invented, we keep our official Torah scrolls emulating the originals.
  • Radbaz (16th Century) believes that the nekudos were received as part of the oral tradition at Sinai, but were not included in the main text to allow for mystical and esoteric readings of the text that often rely on attributing different vowels to various words.

The first source to directly address the history of the nekudos after the above citations was R' Eliyahu HaBachur in Mesoras HaMasores (16th Century). He demonstrated that nekudos in the Hebrew language did not exist until after the close of the Talmudic era. Certainly not "Sinaitic". (It is worth noting that HaBachur explicitly claims that he finds no contradictions between this view and any statements of Chazal or the Zohar.)

After that, it becomes a matter of who agrees with HaBachur and who (often vehemently) disagrees. The Zohar here becomes a central issue, being that it clearly employs the use of the nekudos. If one agrees with HaBachur, they must admit that parts of the Zohar are at the very least post-Talmudic. Indeed, the sources that agree are found in anti-Zoharic works (by which I mean sources arguing the late dating of the Zohar). On the other hand, those disagreeing with HaBachur use the Zohar as their main argument, taking as a given that it was composed in the Tannaitic era.

Those who agreed with R' Eliyahu HaBachur as to the late origins of the nekudos:

  • R' Yaakov Emden (Mitpachas Sefarim)
  • R' Samuel David Luzzatto (Vikuach al Chochmas HaKabbala)

Those who disagreed and maintained that the nekudos were received at Sinai (i.e. existed at the time of Matan Torah):

  • R' Azariah de Rossi (Meor Einayim)
  • Chida (Shem HaG'dolim)
  • R' Moses Mendelssohn (Introduction to the Biur)
  • R' Moses Kunitz (Ben Yochai)
  • R' Shlomo Schick (Torah Sh'leimah)
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1) One can still argue for later additions to the main text of the Zohar in these matters. 2) Do we have any evidence at all from before the Masoretes of the nikkud as we know it except for the Zohar? What else is everyone basing their arguments on? – Double AA Dec 5 '12 at 1:16
@DoubleAA, 1) This is exactly what R' Yaakov Emden's argument is. Don't really know the full argument of Shadal, though. 2) It seems that the main argument is from the Zohar. I don't think there are any other early sources that mention nekkudos (although some insist on a vague reference in the gemara). De Rossi does mention other kabbalistic works, though: Bahir, Tikkunim, Mareket Elokut, but they seem to have the same dating problem that the Zohar has. – jake Dec 5 '12 at 1:43
Are we dealing here with names/shapes of Nekudos or sounds? – Shmuel Brin Feb 1 '13 at 19:50
@ShmuelBrin, See notes 4 and 5 in the paper linked to above. – jake Feb 14 '13 at 22:02
Does anyone address which of Tiberian, Palestinian or Babylonian systems is/are the "Sinaitic" one(s) and why there are multiple systems at all? – Double AA Mar 31 '15 at 14:33

Rashi on Berachot 62A says that people used to use hand signs to indicate the proper vocalization of the words as the Torah was read. I have heard from several different people, but not seen in writing, that the nekudot and taamim that are printed today are attempts to pictographically represent these hand gestures. This would explain why earlier texts such as the Zohar could refer to the symbols before they were formalized in writing, and why many sources discussing the subject don't see it as a contradiction. This is stated in Wikipedia as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantillation#Tiberian_system

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related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15383/759 – Double AA Dec 7 '12 at 20:12
A hand system for trope I buy, but a hand system for vowels? That would be incredibly complicated to use practically. Besides, how did we end up with so many different symbols? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_vocalization en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_niqqud – Double AA Dec 7 '12 at 20:18
Your wikidpedia page says nothing about the vowels though. – Double AA Dec 7 '12 at 20:40
@DoubleAA The section titled 'History' starts with "Three systems of Hebrew punctuation (including vowels and cantillation symbols) have been used: the Babylonian, the Palestinian and the Tiberian, only the last of which is used today." It then goes on to explain that the symbols we have today come from the Masoretes based upon the Tiberian hand gestures. – Baruch Dec 10 '12 at 15:39
It is right that there are three systems of vowels as well, but that post is only discussing the history of the trop (because it's in the article called "Cantillation") not the history of vowels. – Double AA Dec 10 '12 at 16:19

No time to format this, well, but these might be helpful:

a) Jerome did not have it, in his time: http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/02/age-of-trup-part-xxiii.html http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/02/age-of-trup-part-xxiv.html

b) that a gemara says that children had to spend five years learning pisuk taamim; and that R' Chanina ben Tradyon taught how to pronounce the Divine Name, because there was not an alternative of writing down the nikkud http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/02/age-of-trup-part-xxii.html

c) disagreement with nikkud as we have it, from Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonasan: http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/02/age-of-trup-part-xx.html

d) Yoav's teacher, and timcheh et zecher Amalek: http://parsha.blogspot.com/2008/01/age-of-trup-part-xviii.html

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These are all quite a stretch, especially when we have a primary source in the Zohar Hakadosh against which they must be subjected. It seems as though they start with the presupposition that there is no evidence, and then seek to shape the sources to fit that presupposition. – yoel Dec 5 '12 at 8:28
Shadal also has evidence about the lateness of the orthography of trup. When you add these to the multiple other difficulties in the dating of the Zohar (not just that it refers to shape of trup and nikkud, but e.g. a derasha on a Ladino word and references to Tannaim who did not live at the same time as one another), then that there is a "primary source" in the Zohar is not so convincing. – josh waxman Dec 5 '12 at 12:09
I guess it really comes down to the extent to which one trusts in our sages' ability to transmit and recognize an authentic mesorah. It seems to me that the arguments against are minor, while the acceptance from geniuses of Torah from all parts of the Jewish world is fairly major. Do you have a hypothesis for the latter other than some of the smartest men who ever lived missing out on things that some today find so glaringly obvious? – yoel Dec 5 '12 at 15:49
@yoel What about the rest of the smartest men who ever lived noticing it as well (or are R Yaakov Emden, the Machzor Vitri and the Gaon (!) he quotes, Rav Kappach and many other Rabbis not smart?)? What about knowing that the smartest men of the previous generations didn't know certain metzius facts that we know now and vice versa (or did they all know the entirety of Metzius)? Don't make it so black and white; Judaism is full of machlokot. – Double AA Dec 5 '12 at 17:34
Also I don't know what's minor about every single source we have found so far on this page from before the Zohar's publication in Spain has claimed that the trop did not exist way back when, not to mention the proof from the deafening silence from the smartest men in the world at the time the mishna and gemara were written. Tanaaim and Amoraim's choice of what content to include in the canonical texts of the Oral Law are nothing to scoff at. – Double AA Dec 5 '12 at 18:27

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