Parashat Vayeishev - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Parashat Vayeishev

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

MS 1.3 – Germany, 14th century

This week, we are looking at an excerpt from manuscript 1.3 – an illuminated Pentateuch, Haftarot, and Megillot with Mesorah. Below is an image of the beginning of Parashat Vayeishev, this week's Torah portion.

manuscript image

The manuscript is characterized by several artistic and technical traits beyond the core text – the decorative initials, the flora and fauna illustrations, the grotesques, and the Masorah which appear in the top, bottom, and intercolumnar margins. 

In a stroke of convenience, the decorative initial for Vayeishev has all of these!

manuscript image

A decorative bird accompanies the beginning of Parashat Vayeishev

manuscript image

The titular word of the Parasha and surrounding floral design, presented in red and green ink

manuscript image

A grotesque peaks out from behind the initial. His features are exaggerated and comical.

he small, unpointed script above, below, and in between the columns is the scribal notes and guidelines known as Masorah.  The intercolumnar notes are known as the Masorah Parve, while the notes at the top and bottom are the Masorah Magna. Some of the words in the main body of text have above them a small circle, which indicates a note in the Masorah Parve applies to that word. Common abbreviations include the following:

ל –indicates an element that appears only once in the given book. This may be a single word, a spelling of a word, or a phrase.

ב – indicates an element that appears twice

ג – indicate an element that appears thrice

חס –indicates a word is written in k’tav haser – without the mater lectionis

מל – indicates a word is written in k’tav mal’e – with the mater lectionis

נקוד – this indicates the word has dots appearing above it. This occurs in Parashat Vayeishev in verse 37:12, in which the word את appears with dots above the letter in the Torah scroll itself.

פרש – indicates the beginning of a new Parasha

There are many other notations, with varied meanings from confirmations of unusual “trop” (cantillation) markings to cross reference rare phrases. It is through these detailed notes that the scribes transmitted a careful description of the technical contents of the manuscript. Thanks to this exacting approach, scribes sought to ensure that their work, the work of their colleagues, and the work of later generations, adhered exactly to the text they were copying. It is by this method that scribal errors and variations in Jewish scriptural transmission were kept to a minimum.

You can see this text in full, as well as other examples of the Masoretic text in our manuscript collection at the following links:


Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitizing Specialist