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.