[b-hebrew] Using an unpointed text

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Fri Aug 24 16:27:29 EDT 2007

Dear Yigal:

To go back to an article that Uri Hurvitz introduced to this
discussion, http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=675 ,  the
question is how best to teach Biblical Hebrew for understanding? Is it
always by using the Masoretic points? I question that aspect.

On 8/24/07, Yigal Levin <leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il> wrote:
> Dear James et al.
> The post below emphasizes why insisting on teaching the text without the
> Masoretic points is so problematic. Any native speaker of a language grows
> up learning his language's grammar "naturally" - it is only the non-native
> speaker who must actually "learn" the rules. Compare the way in which an
> American high-schooler "knows" English, with the way in which a European
> teenager learns it - the European will know much more English grammar; the
> American will just speak it, usually correctly.
> Speakers of Hebrew in the Iron Age and in the Second Temple Period did not
> need the nikkud - the nuances of their language came "naturally". And while
> it is true that by the time of the Masoretes nobody had been a "native"
> speaker of Biblical Hebrew for a thousand years (well, let's not argue about
> the dates), there was an unbroken tradition of how to read the text and what
> it meant. Now "unbroken" does not mean that the Masoretes pronounced every
> word exactly as Isaiah would have, and of course there are mistakes and
> corruptions in the Masoretic tradition, but it does mean that they had a
> whole lot of knowledge, which our just throwing out the window would be
> foolish.
> In a way, the Masoretes represent the transition from those who could read
> the Bible as "natives" (not in the sense that they spoke Hebrew on the
> street, but that they did learn the text and its pronunciation as children),
> and those who needed aids to guide their learning. The Masoretes provided
> those aids. I'm sure that they can be improved upon - but assuming that we
> know better and throwing them out seems nonsensical.
> Yigal Levin
First of all, I know of no one who claims that the points should be
thrown out. Yet there is evidence that the pronunciation that the
Masoretes preserved was not that of Hebrew, rather that of Aramaic
from about their time applied to Hebrew writing with a few variants as
preserved by tradition. However, because the original Hebrew
pronunciation has not been preserved, and when discussing the text,
some pronunciation needs to be applied, a pronunciation scheme at
least based on the Masoretic points is the most widely understood and
probably should be used.

One of the disadvantages of using the points for teaching is that it
causes students to think formally rather than functionally, and
Biblical Hebrew, as it was used in Tanakh, was a functional language.
Let's look at two verses as examples:

Proverbs 13:1 בן חכם מוסר אב
Proverbs 15:20 בן חכם ישׂמח־אב

Looking at the verses above, one would think that the first two words
are the same, but they aren't. In the top example, the only word that
fits the context that can fulfill the function of a verb is BN, making
the translation "A wise person has insight into (understands) a
father's correction..." In the lower example, the verbal function is
easily recognized also by its form, making the translation "A wise son
makes his father happy..." Looking formally at both examples, one
would expect that both start with "A wise son..." which, in the upper
example, leads to a nonsense sentence, but by thinking functionally,
it is easy to see how they are different.

When looking at the different binyanim in Biblical Hebrew, they had
functional differences that were more important than their formal
ones, in fact, often there are no formal differences to detect. Now
the Masoretes, bless them, made formal distinctions, so that when a
hiphil 3rd p. s. imperfective verb lacks an internal yod (so the verb
looks identical to a qal or piel), the Masoretes indicated with a
hireq that it was hiphil. What this causes is that students will tend
to think formally, which weakens their insight into the language. Even
lexicographers can be led astray by formal thinking, only compounding
the difficulty in understanding Biblical Hebrew thought patterns.

Because of the nature of our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, namely from
reading, teaching the language ought to emphasize reading. I agree
that the Masoretic points, at least the vowel points, need to be
taught. Further, the vowel patterns for regular verbs, nouns,
adjectives, etc. need to be taught. But beyond that, would it not be
better to teach students to read unpointed texts from the beginning,
than to shackle them to points? And shouldn't the functional aspect of
the language be taught so that the reader, even when the formal
distinctions are absent, can still recognize the different binyanim by
their functions?

Karl W. Randolph.

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