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