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Why No Vowels in the Torah?

Why No Vowels in the Torah?

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Question:

When I was a kid, I went to Hebrew school and learned the Hebrew letters and the vowels. But when it came time for my bar mitzvah and I started learning to read the Torah, I noticed that there aren’t actually any vowels in the Torah, and I had to memorize the pronunciation of every word. Why is that? Is it just to make it super-hard to become a Jewish adult?

Reply:

The truth is that while there are no vowels actually written in the Torah, it is not accurate to say that the Torah has no vowels. Although the vowels, or nekudot, were never actually marked in the Torah itself, the nekudot are of divine origin just as the letters are. The nekudot were given by G‑d to Moses on Mount Sinai and were passed down orally from leader to leader as part of the Oral Torah, until they reached Ezra the Scribe, who revealed and taught them to the Jewish nation. Up until that point, Hebrew was never written down with vowels.1

As with many early Semitic alphabets, one who is fluent in Hebrew can, for the most part, read it without vowels, which is why even nowadays the overwhelming majority of Hebrew literature is written without vowels.

On a simple level, the reason for this is because, unlike English, most Hebrew words are comprised of triconsonantal roots. Words with the same consonants are usually related, and differ only in how they’re inflected for tense and so forth.

At the same time, there are also many words in the Torah whose meanings can change based on the vowels. And it is for this reason that an oral tradition was needed to tell us exactly how the words are to be pronounced.

One classic example is the prohibition of eating milk and meat together, which is derived from the verse לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ—universally translated as “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”2 Now, the Hebrew word for “milk,” חֲלֵב (chaleiv) or חָלָב (chalav), has the exact same letters as the Hebrew word for “fat,” חֵלֶב (cheilev), the only difference being the vowels. So without the Oral Torah, we might mistakenly believe that we are prohibited to eat meat with fat.3

This, of course, leads us back to our original question: If there are ambiguous words, why leave the vowels to the Oral Torah? Why not have them written in the Torah itself?

The Power of Ambiguity

The rabbis explain that it is precisely because of this possible ambiguity that the vowels aren’t written into the actual text. The ambiguity allows us to derive multiple layers of meaning from the same written text.4 For example, by contrasting the way in which a word is actually vocalized (called in the Talmud mikra) with other possible ways of pronouncing the same word (called masoret), the rabbis derive many laws of the Torah. For G‑d’s wisdom (a.k.a. His Torah) is infinite, and upon rearranging the vowels, new dimensions are revealed.5

It is no wonder then that the letters are compared to the body and the nekudot to the soul.6 Like the body, the letters are tangible and physical. But the nekudot,while hidden, are what give them life.

For more on the nekudot, see:

Souls for Letters

Soul of the Letters: The Vowels of the Hebrew Alphabet

Footnotes
1.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Sefer ha-Pardes, Shaar ha-Nekudot 1.
3.
Another example the Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) gives is that when Joab, King David’s general, returned from having killed all the males of the evil nation of Amalek, King David responded, “The Torah commands us to destroy the entire nation of Amalek. Why did you kill only the men?” To which Joab replied that the Torah explicitly states: “Timcheh et zachar (זָכָר) Amalek—you shall destroy the males (zachar) of Amalek.”

King David replied, “You have read the word with the wrong vowels (nekudot). It is not זָכָר, zachar, but זֵכֶר, zeicher, which means the ‘remembrance’ [of every member of Amalek].”
4.
Ramban, introduction to his commentary on the Torah; Rabbeinu Bechayei, Deuteronomy 7:2.
5.
See Rabbi Dovid Ben Zimra - Radbaz, responsa 3:1068 (643)
6.
Zohar Chadash, Shir Hashirim 90a. See also Sefer ha-Pardes, Shaar ha-Nekudot 6.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Leibel Montreal, QC November 26, 2015

G-d's name The Talmud relates that at one time, The pronunciation of G-d's name was known and passed down to worthy students. Because of its holiness and the power in reciting it, some had used it for impure purposes and its transmission was discontinued. Reply

Anonymous November 26, 2015

Removing the vowels and refusing to pronounce God's name. It seems the Rabbis forgot to pass down orally the pronunciation of God's name. So now no one knows exactly how his name was pronounced in Hebrew or Greek, because translators of the sacred texts are not inspired and decided to follow Jewish fables, by keeping the vowels out of the Divine Name. This irritates me. If God did not want his personal name to be uttered he would not have given it to Moses. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 22, 2015

Beauty in Simplicity – Is this comment p’shat, sod, both or neither? The more complexity a creation needs to have, the less powerful it is. Think of the power of language spoken by Gd. In ten divine utterances, a few simple Hebrew words, Hashem created the cosmos! What could be more concise and/or powerful?
Think of the power of the pen and all the letters and books written, a fountain of everflowing wisdom. The pen is amazingly powerful - more powerful than the sword - but far less powerful than Hashem’s 10 utterances.
With newer technology, think of the power that a mere off and on switch brings, simplicity such that virtually anyone can use it. Even my cat can turn off my CPAP when I am trying to sleep! Reply

Leibel Montreal, QC November 21, 2015

To Anonymous, Brooklyn NY There are four layers of Torah: p'shat- the simple meaning
Remez- allusions
D'rush- Homilies
Sod- secret. I.e. Kabbala
When the author writes about the divine origin of vowels, and when he posits that the meaning of חלב is milk, that is P'shat, the simple, direct meaning and the one practiced Halachically, that is, in day to day life.
When the author speaks of "the beauty of ambiguity," he refers to the lessons and anecdotes learned from different readings of the text. E.g. The Torah says that, "Abraham called (vayikra) in the name of G-d there." The sages point out that an alternative reading if the word is "vayakri- and he made others call," teaching us that we ought to influence others to call in His name.
This that the author says that laws were derived from variant pronounciations, he refers to details within an already established P'shat (simple meaning) such as the number of a Sukka's walls.
I hope this helps! Reply

Thomas Karp New Haven, Ct. October 19, 2015

I suspect it's because of Kol Nidre.

Being against all vows had to start somewhere!

Hashem willing, sometime before the end of days you will fill in the - in G-d.

Until then, be well!

(smile). Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA October 18, 2015

Re: Anne May Warrensburg Early adult hominids probably spoke differently because of comparative anatomical differences to modern humans. I did not mean to suggest anything about babies.
In science, words of consonants are a part of lingual study of early hominids, especially Neanderthals. Science found that those with Jewish ancestry usually have the greatest remnant of Neanderthal DNA.
IMO the Neanderthals are almost certainly the Canaanites. Judah took a Canaanite wife salvaging Canaan’s name in Torah: both a major difficulty and a great kindness and selflessness, something definitively Jewish. This compassion is of Judah, the one who in righteousness saved his brother Joseph from certain death.
It may surprise you; I am a young-earther, as for one; radioactive scientific dating procedures are flawed. They don’t include real world corrosion flux as how to do that is yet unknown to science. Therefore, I deny the dates scientists give. This is how I get away with combining science, and Bible history. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, ny October 17, 2015

illogical reasoning No disrespect intended, but I was very disappointed by the article.

Your first paragraph under the heading "the Power of Ambiguity" is actually completely inconsistent with the point made two paragraphs earlier. The first claim, that there is specific, divine origin of the nekudos, rebuts the ambiguity claim that allows transposition of the vowels for alternative meanings.

As the original, correct nekudos are known (and divine), any juggling of the words are additional (and secondary) to the original meaning, regardless of whether the words have nekudos or not. I will not even deal with the actual ambiguity which this explanation brings, noted by an earlier commenter, that maybe fat as well as milk is meant to be prohibited, too

I will simply point out that if the nekudos are just as divine as the letters are, which you state early in the article, then the nekudos are being trivialized and made less important or divine than the letters only to allow later juggling of the consonants Reply

Anne May Warrensburg October 17, 2015

Babies don't just speak the letter m or d. They come out as mama and Dada. It seems silly to me that anyone could speak without using vowels, unless they are Klingons. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA October 15, 2015

Re: Rafael – Editing of Scribes Does Not Influence G-d’s Language Unlike other languages, G-d’s Hebrew does not change, even if it is lost for a time in the hands of men. Creation is subjective to G-d’s Hebrew, while English is more likely to be a subject of men. If English gets lost, we can always make another different language. When we study Hebrew, there is victory in getting closer and closer to the perfect original, first made known in the past. To my knowledge, English has no perfect original.
Let me illustrate the difference:
If I say, “English, what comes to mind first?” – I’ll bet very few will say anything religious.
But, if I say “Hebrew, what comes to mind first?” - I would bet words come to mind like Jew, God, Religion, and perhaps Holocaust. Reply

Rafael October 15, 2015

To think that the Hebrew lanquage , pronunciation , meanings have not changed In 4000 years is a hard pill to swallow . Any oral tradition is tainted by the Sages and new creative meanings of Oral passages are instituted to remain valid within an era .
When the Torah was finally written , it had already been redefined many many times by Sages Divinely authorized to redirect the tribes . Afterwards the Judean Talmud was overtaken by the Babylonian Talmud to reveal the meaning of the cryptic passages in the Torah .
My point is... What ever those Bronze Age people were thinking ,attempting to conceptualize and write in a time when literature was at its infancy would not be how we understand and document events today. Reply

Pete WA October 14, 2015

friction consonants are produced by friction, vowels are not. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA October 12, 2015

The Evolution of Hebrew: A Different Theory According to science, many, many, generations ago, our ancestors could only speak in consonants. The existence of speech without vowels makes me suspicious that possibly paleo-Hebrew was originally spoken without vowels – the way Torah is written. Reply

Grammarian Wisconsin October 12, 2015

triconsonantal roots? I don't think most words in Hebrew have triconsonantal roots. I think it's most *verbs*. Reply

Jorge Qro. Mexico October 12, 2015

This is modern Hebrew, but it is Hebrew, anyway. עמק זה של דמעות
Many Internet program translators render this phrase as: This valley of tears. I can not see any dots, or vowels in the phrase. What a mystery, isn't it? Reply

Jude Agyeman E. Prince Ghana October 12, 2015

awesome...God of Israel is awesome Reply

al rosenberg (l rsnbrg) Pahrump NV October 12, 2015

If taken from the Oral If the oral is not subject to interpretation and the switch to written is only shorthand for the oral, then there should be no case for meaning derived from alternate vowels. Reply

Sam Litvin ENCINITAS October 12, 2015

lost in translation what if it actually meant fat all this time!??? Reply

Maria Barcelona, Spain October 10, 2015

Absolutely wonderful Trying to understand hebrew as an adult -- well my grammatical correctness is pretty short of perfect, lol!!

i just love the beauty of the history of all this;

Sometimes i wonder if the unwritten vowels were not written down as a security barrier -- not between the cohen or the levites, per se, but as some other demarcation ... as the kabbala was not traditionally given to those who were under 40 years of age or unmarried.

Thanks for answering so many pressing questions. I wouldn't have dared to ask all by myself!! Reply

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