What Ordinary Bibles Looked Like in Medieval Egypt

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, a group of scribes in and around the city of Tiberias—known as the Masoretes—worked to standardize the text of the Hebrew Bible, devising a system of diacritics (or “vocalizations”) and cantillation marks to convey the proper pronunciation and melody. By the early Middle Ages, their system won out over those of their competitors in the central part of the land of Israel and in Babylonia. The Masoretes produced complete manuscripts of the Bible not only with all necessary markings, but also with extensive marginal notes for scribes and scholars. While the Cairo Genizah has yielded fragments of these masoretic Bibles, it also contains numerous fragments of what scholars call “common Bibles,” used by ordinary Jews. Ben Outhwaite describes one such fragment:

[The common Bibles] are overwhelmingly Tiberian, since Babylonian and Palestinian-vocalized texts are far fewer, and the Tiberian text was the principal form of the Bible used by the congregations of Cairo. . . . While some were written by practiced hands using reliable texts to copy from, others have no such signs of quality, and indeed probably did not have such pretensions. They will have been used for different purposes: for practicing a reading, for learning the Hebrew language, for personal study or devotion, or just to serve as a lap Bible in the synagogue. To this end, some will have only vowel signs, some both vocalization and cantillation, or others just a partial use of reading signs. . . .

T-S AS 44.35 is a good example of a common Bible. . . . It’s a small bifolium, made of paper, and contains Lamentations 2:13–18 and 3:51–4:2. It probably came from a pamphlet-type book known as a daftar. Perhaps it contained all five m’gillot [the scrolls of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, read on various occasions in the synagogue] or all of the K’tuvim [the sacred writings that make up the third part of the Hebrew Bible], or just Lamentations. It may be connected with the liturgical reading of Lamentations on the fast day of the Ninth of Av.

It is unpretentious and . . . lacking in all kinds of ways: no dot to distinguish the letter shin and sin, no cantillation, . . . and certainly no masoretic marginalia of any kind. In all likelihood, however, the writer of this book had no intention of producing a model text. It’s not an ignorant attempt at a Bible, and may potentially be ingenious in its approach to common problems.

Its particular interest lies in where it diverges from the standard Tiberian masoretic text, where it can reveal aspects of the writer’s pronunciation of the text. There is much divergence: the use of Tiberian vowel signs is idiosyncratic even by common-Bible standards. A quick glance reveals the kubbuts sign, [three diagonal dots that correspond to the vowel u], written backward. . . . A closer look shows that although it diverges greatly from the standard system of vocalization, it seems to be following an internal logic of its own. It is likely that this manuscript was not copied from a standard text of the Bible, and may perhaps be the result of writing-down by dictation or memory alone.

Read more at Taylor-Schechter Genizah

More about: Cairo Geniza, Hebrew alphabet, Hebrew Bible, Masoretes

While Israel Is Distracted on Two Fronts, Iran Is on the Verge of Building Nuclear Weapons

Iran recently announced its plans to install over 1,000 new advanced centrifuges at its Fordow nuclear facility. Once they are up and running, the Institute for Science and International Security assesses, Fordow will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for three nuclear bombs in a mere ten days. The U.S. has remained indifferent. Jacob Nagel writes:

For more than two decades, Iran has continued its efforts to enhance its nuclear-weapons capability—mainly by enriching uranium—causing Israel and the world to concentrate on the fissile material. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed that Iran has a huge stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent, as well as more enriched to 20 percent, and the IAEA board of governors adopted the E3 (France, Germany, UK) proposed resolution to censure Iran for the violations and lack of cooperation with the agency. The Biden administration tried to block it, but joined the resolution when it understood its efforts to block it had failed.

To clarify, enrichment of uranium above 20 percent is unnecessary for most civilian purposes, and transforming 20-percent-enriched uranium to the 90-percent-enriched product necessary for producing weapons is a relatively small step. Washington’s reluctance even to express concern about this development appears to stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge the failures of President Obama’s nuclear policy. Worse, writes Nagel, it is turning a blind eye to efforts at weaponization. But Israel has no such luxury:

Israel must adopt a totally new approach, concentrating mainly on two main efforts: [halting] Iran’s weaponization actions and weakening the regime hoping it will lead to its replacement. Israel should continue the fight against Iran’s enrichment facilities (especially against the new deep underground facility being built near Natanz) and uranium stockpiles, but it should not be the only goal, and for sure not the priority.

The biggest danger threatening Israel’s existence remains the nuclear program. It would be better to confront this threat with Washington, but Israel also must be fully prepared to do it alone.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy