Reading Jewish Scripture is generally a straightforward affair. One can read it exactly as it is written (with the help of vowels and cantillation marks that appear in most printed versions but not the original parchment scrolls). But at times, there is the keri (the way a word is read) and ketiv (the way it is written in the actual scroll). These differences are indicated in any standard printed Hebrew edition.

At times, it is only a slight variance, but at others, it can be a completely different word.

The Talmud explains that these differences are due to tradition that goes back to when Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai.1

Minor Differences

Sometimes the differences seem quite minor, such as a letter being replaced with another that is similar in sound or appearance, or a word having extra “silent” letters. Very often, one of the letters א ה ו י‎ is inserted or removed from a word. At other times, letters may be slightly scrambled within the word.2

But sometimes the differences are actually very significant. One example is when a word is written as לא, which means “not,” but read as לו, which means “to him.” Thus, the verse describing what happens when a man is displeased with his maid is written as “she was not (לא) designated [to him]” but must be read as “she was designated to him (לו).”3

The Talmud4 explains that we actually take both readings into account, and by combining them together the sages conclude that their union can only be affected if they are both in agreement.

Attached and Detached Words

In some instances, the ketiv is one word while the keri splits it into two. For example, in Exodus,5 when G‑d asks Moses what is in his hand, the words for “what is this” (מה זה) are written in a contracted form as מזה, which is missing both a letter and a space.

One explanation is that the missing letter hei (ה), which has the numerical value of five, hints that only five of the plagues would actually come about through the rod, which was in Moses’ hand. Alternatively, when it is written as one word, מזה, it can also be read as “from this,” i.e., “from this (rod) in your hand (you will be smitten),” alluding to the fact that Moses himself would ultimately sin with his staff, using it to strike the rock instead of speaking to it.6

Entire Words Substituted Due to Holiness or Coarseness

Of course, perhaps the most common example, and one that many don’t stop to think about, is the four-letter name of G‑d (YHVH), commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton. Out of great respect for the holiness of G‑d’s name, we do not pronounce it the way it is written; rather, it is usually pronounced as ado-nai and sometimes as elo-him.7

On the flip side, there are words that are substituted for a more refined word when the Torah is read out loud. For example, in Deuteronomy8 the word ישגלנה (which connotes intercourse) is read as יִשְׁכָּבֶ֔נָּה (“lay” which has a broader and more refined connotation).9

Which Is the Main One?

The concept of keri and ketiv is closely related to another concept discussed in the Talmud: whether the way a word is pronounced is primary (aim lemikra) or whether we also take into account how it is written (aim lemesoret).

At times, since there are no vowels and punctuations in an actual Torah scroll, there could technically have been more than one way to read a word, had there not been the specific tradition for the vowels and punctuations for that specific word.

According to aim lemesoret, we can expound and extrapolate laws from the written tradition, even if this would be at odds with how the verse is read. According to aim lemikra, we can only learn laws from the Scripture based upon how it is actually read. The Talmud identifies various halachic controversies that depend on whether one interprets according to aim lemikra or aim lemesoret.

One example would be the verse commanding us to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple three times a year. The verse reads, “Three times during the year, all your males shall appear [יראה] before the Master, the L‑rd.”10 The word יראה is traditionally read as יֵֽרָאֶה, which is translated as “appear.” However, it can technically also be read as יִרְאֶה, which means “see.” Thus, those who interpret according to aim lemesoret teach that only those who can see must make the pilgrimage, absolving those who are blind.11

Moses or Ezra?

As mentioned above, the Talmud states that these differences are based on a tradition from Moses. At face value, most understand this to mean quite simply that there is a tradition going back to Moses for each one of these keri and ketivs.12

Some commentaries13 explain that the tradition from Moses enshrines the written text and also allows for the sages to insert alternative readings when appropriate. Once these were established, Mosaic tradition considers them binding for all time.

There are, however, some commentaries who explain that at least some of the keri and ketivs can be attributed to Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, who had noted different variances that were found in the scrolls of the time, which were then reflected in the keri and ketiv in our traditions.14

Others counter that it is difficult to say that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, which included many prophets and sages with divine inspiration, did not have or could not ascertain the correct text. Rather, when it came time for the canonization of the Bible, they saw that there were some words and text that they didn’t fully understand. At the same time, realizing that there are great mysteries and secrets of the Torah hidden in the text, they left the text as is, and established the keri in order for the reader to understand the basic meaning of the text.15

All agree that there are many secrets of the Torah hidden in the keri and ketiv, and none disagree with the teachings that are learned from them. After all, as mentioned, the Men of the Great Assembly included many prophets, and the canonization of the Scripture was done through divine inspiration.

That being said, the accepted tradition is that both the keri and ketiv go all the way back to Moses on Mount Sinai,16 with many explanations, laws, teachings and mystical secrets hidden between the way the Torah is written and read.