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SBL e-journal

Geoffrey Khan





How Was the Hebrew of the Bible Originally Pronounced?





APA e-journal

Geoffrey Khan





How Was the Hebrew of the Bible Originally Pronounced?








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How Was the Hebrew of the Bible Originally Pronounced?

Three traditions of pronouncing the Hebrew Bible existed in the first millennium C.E.: Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian, each with its own written vocalization system. From the later Middle Ages on, however, biblical manuscripts have been written almost exclusively with the vowels and cantillation marks of the Tiberian system while paradoxically, the Tiberian pronunciation itself fell into oblivion.


How Was the Hebrew of the Bible Originally Pronounced?

The Aleppo Codex on display in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Wikimedia

When we think of the Bible, we think of the Masoretic Text (MT)—the standard Hebrew text written with vowels above and below the lines, yet this is only one version of the Bible, created in the late first millennium C.E. to incorporate into the written text the oral traditions of reading. The other traditions, known mostly from the Cairo Geniza, use different symbols to express the vowels, but append them to more or less the same consonantal text as MT.

(Proto-)MT—One of a Variety of Text Types

In an earlier period, the consonantal text of the Bible was somewhat unstable. The Greek LXX (Septuagint) translation, for instance, reflects a different Hebrew Vorlage (original) for many books; in some cases, they are very different, such as the ending of Exodus or the books of Jeremiah and Esther. Similarly, the Samaritan Pentateuch also preserves a different text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrated that the Samaritan Pentateuch and the LXX cannot be viewed simply as corruptions of a pristine Hebrew original reflected in the consonantal text of MT. Instead, we must speak of an extensive pluriformity of biblical text types in ancient times.[1] The repositories in Qumran had, side by side, texts similar to the various versions mentioned above plus a host of others that didn’t survive into modern times in any form. They also contain many scrolls that reflect a text that is very close to that of the MT and can be regarded as forerunners of the MT. The texts in Qumran that are part of the Masoretic tradition have been dubbed by Emanuel Tov “MT-like,” meaning that they are very similar to the MT.

In contrast, outside of Qumran, virtually all the texts from late antiquity that have come to light belong to what scholars dub the Proto-Masoretic text, meaning that they are identical to our Masoretic Text in their consonantal form.[2] A good example of such a text is the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll, which was “unrolled” virtually several years ago, and which turned out to be identical to the consonantal MT.[3]

This uniformity shows that great efforts were made in some circles, possibly the Temple authorities, to preserve a stable text. After the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., the Proto-MT was the only written text tradition that continued to be transmitted in Jewish communities. This text tradition, however, was read according to a number of different orally transmitted reading traditions.

Three Reading Traditions

By the medieval period, we know of three main oral reading traditions: Babylonian,[4] Palestinian,[5] and Tiberian. Numerous medieval biblical manuscripts have survived representing these oral reading traditions with different vocalization sign systems.

The biblical manuscripts with Babylonian and Palestinian vocalization signs, most of which have been preserved in the Cairo Genizah, exhibit considerable internal diversity, such that they are better described as a family or a type than as a specific or standardized version.

Manuscript with Babylonian Vocalization
Manuscript with Palestinian Vocalization

The Tiberian oral reading tradition was more uniform and prestigious. The vocalization sign system created to represent it, known as the Tiberian vocalization, eventually became dominant, and texts with Tiberian vocalization and cantillation marks are what we refer to when we speak of the Masoretic Text. Paradoxically, after the Tiberian vocalization became dominant, the original Tiberian oral reading tradition, which the vocalization sign system was originally created to represent, fell into oblivion until its rediscovery in recent decades.

The Tiberian Tradition

The Tiberian tradition, both the written consonantal text and the oral reading tradition, had its roots in the Second Temple period. A century or so after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, Tiberias became a major center for Jewish scholarship.[6] In the early Islamic period, a body of scholars associated with the Yeshiva in Tiberias, known as the Tiberian Masoretes, devoted themselves to the careful preservation of both the written and also the oral biblical tradition of reading the text. Although the tradition underwent some change during its transmission in the 1st millennium C.E., it preserved down to the Middle Ages a number of archaic elements.

An Ancient Tradition: An Example

One example that demonstrates the conservative nature of the phonology of the Tiberian reading is the pronunciation of the pe in the word אַפַּדְנ֔וֹ “his palace” (Dan 11:45). According to medieval sources, this was pronounced as an emphatic unaspirated stop. In all other places in the reading tradition, the letter pe with dagesh was pronounced as an aspirated stop (i.e., a stop followed by a short flow of air before the onset of the voicing for the ensuing vowel, as in the English word pin).

The hard pronunciation of the pe is also mentioned by Jerome, who states that it is the only “Latin” p in the entire Bible (p in Latin was regularly pronounced as an unaspirated stop—the sound of English p after sibilants in words such spin).[7] The word originates as a loan from Old Persian. The unaspirated pronunciation of the pe, which is uncharacteristic of Hebrew, evidently preserves a feature that existed in the pronunciation of the Persian source language.[8]

The fact that this feature, which conflicted with normal Hebrew pronunciation, should have been preserved from the original period of composition right down to the period of the Masoretes centuries later, who would not have known Old Persian, demonstrates the Tiberian tradition’s great conservatism.

The Standardization of the Masorah

In the early Middle ages, the oral Tiberian reading tradition underwent a process of textualization, whereby it was recorded in written notation in the form of a system of vocalization signs, known as the Tiberian vocalization system. In the tenth century, after the death of the two Masoretic masters, Aharon ben Asher and Moshe ben Naftali, the yeshiva moved from Tiberias to Jerusalem, and the oral Tiberian reading tradition of the Masoretes came to an end.[9]

At this point, the textualized version of this oral reading tradition became canonized and ossified. This process involved cessation of the transmission of the oral reading tradition and the transfer of its authority to the written vocalization sign, which subsequently came to be read by Jewish communities with different traditions of pronunciation.

This loss of the Tiberian oral reading tradition and the transfer of its authority to the written Tiberian vocalization system constituted a second major punctuation in the development and transmission of the Hebrew Bible, a thousand years after the destruction of the Temple. Although it receives little scholarly attention, this change is of major importance in the history of the Hebrew Bible and in the history of the Hebrew language.

In fact, the cessation of the activities of the Masoretes had consequences that are analogous in some respects to the consequences of the earlier watershed in the history of the Hebrew Bible after the destruction of the Temple: Just as the pluriformity of text types in the pre-destruction period yielded to a fixed Proto-Masoretic Text in the post-destruction period, the multiple forms of vocalization yielded to a fixed, written Masoretic Text with Tiberian vocalization signs upon the closing of the Tiberian school.

A System in Flux

The Tiberian vocalization sign system was originally designed to reflect a constantly developing oral reading tradition. This living tradition varied in small details in the transmission or performance of the various Masoretes, and the sign system was adapted to reflect these differences. In this earlier period, the oral reading tradition was primary, and the sign system was a mechanism of graphic notation of this oral tradition.

In fact, the sign system was constantly being refined to represent the reading with maximal accuracy. For example, in some cases a vowel sign was added to shewa to indicate explicitly that a shewa was to be read as vocalic, as in ‎הָרֲכֽוּשׁ (Num 16:32)[10] instead of ‎הָרְכוּשׁ.

After the loss of the oral tradition, the vocalization sign system became a written fossil. Scholars have attempted to reconstruct what the oral reading tradition was like before it had fallen into oblivion. They have attempted to do this by looking at medieval manuscripts, in particular those containing Masoretic treatises, early grammatical texts, and transcriptions of the oral tradition into Arabic script.

Many of the processes scholars have noted with regard to the formation and transmission of the Proto-MT in the Second Temple period apply to the formation of the Tiberian reading tradition in the 1st millennium C.E. I would highlight two in particular: (1) the role of orality in the formation and transmission of Scripture and (2) the pluriformity of Scripture.

From Oral to Written Text

William Schniedewind, Professor of Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages at the University of California at Los Angeles, argues in his How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel that biblical literature was largely in oral form until the reign of Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.E.) when it began to be written.[12] The writing of biblical literature was closely tied to the urbanization of Jerusalem, to a growing bureaucracy, and to the development of a more complex global economy, which in turn gave rise to the spread of literacy.

In the days of Hezekiah, Judah experienced significant growth not only in population but also in the size of its cities. A burgeoning government bureaucracy oversaw a new system of taxation, the revenues of which provided funds for vigorous building projects throughout Judah. From this growing bureaucracy, the use of writing spread throughout society.

Such a process is not unique to Iron Age Judah. Historians of various cultures have identified the rise of administrative bureaucracy as an important factor that stimulates a shift from oral to written culture. The historian Michael Clanchy has claimed that this was the catalyst for the spread of writing in medieval England.[13] I suggest that the same factors were at work in the creation of the written vocalization sign system of the Masoretic Text.

Bureaucracy and Writing in the Abbasid Period

The textualization of the oral reading tradition is likely to have been a product of the general increasing shift from oral to written transmission of knowledge in the Islamic Middle East during the early Abbasid period in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., which itself was stimulated by the rise of a centralized bureaucracy during this period.

As Gregor Schoeler writes, earlier in the Islamic period, i.e., the Umayyad period (661–750), poetry and prophetic traditions (ḥadīth) were performed in public orally and just private notes were committed to writing. It was only in the following Abbasid period that written transmission became dominant. This, in turn, affected Jewish culture, and led to the production of the Tiberian Masoretic codices.[14]

The adoption of the codex (i.e., book form) for writing MT manuscripts with vowels and cantillation marks—scrolls for synagogue reading were/are still written without these—was also likely the result of convergence with the surrounding Islamic culture. The codex was the standard form of book used for writing Qurʾāns and indeed the medieval Hebrew word for codex, מצחף, which is found in the colophons of the Hebrew Bible codices,[15] is a loan from the Arabic muṣḥaf (مصحف).

From Pluriformity to a Fixed Text

The differences between reading traditions reflected by the various systems of vocalization, as well as the internal diversity within the Tiberian reading tradition, are predominantly of a linguistic nature, i.e., in features of phonology and morphology, e.g.,




אתן (you, f.pl.)


אַתֵּן (ʾattēn)

הם (they, m. pl.)


הֵם (hēm)

מדבר (desert)


מִדְבָּר (miḏbå̄r)

יהרוס (he destroys)


יַ֭הֲרוֹס (yahărōs)

In a few cases, however, different reading traditions of consonantal text reflect textual differences.[16] Even with these differences, the Tiberian tradition reflected in the manuscripts was far more uniform than other traditions, as a result of greater efforts to stabilize and unify this reading.

The stabilization process is reflected in particular by masoretic treatises collating differences between Masoretes. The best-known example of this is the Kitāb al-Khilaf (“The Book of Differences”) of Mishaʾel ben ʿUzziʾel,[17] which lists differences between the great Masoretes of the 10th century, Aharon ben Asher and Moshe ben Naftali. These related to very minor details, such as the minor gaʿya and the maqqef, e.g.,


Ben Asher

Ben Naftali

בנקבו שם, “when he blasphemes the Name,” (Lev 24:16).


בְּנָקְב֥וֹ שֵׁ֖ם

Hybrid Pronunciations

During the Masoretic period, the Tiberian reading tradition was the most prestigious pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible. Teachers of the Tiberian tradition were much sought after in the diaspora communities of the Middle East, and the early Hebrew grammarians, such as Saadia and the Karaites, based their description only on the prestigious Tiberian reading tradition.

Many manuscripts vocalized with Babylonian and Palestinian signs reflect a convergence with the Tiberian reading, indicating that scribes attempted to replicate the more prestigious reading, although they often fell short of the target, which resulted in a hybrid type of pronunciation.

Moreover, there are biblical manuscripts in the Genizah and elsewhere that use Tiberian vocalization signs in ways that deviate from the standard Tiberian system, e.g.,


Non-Standard Tiberian[18]

Standard Tiberian[19]

מוכיח, “he who reproves,” (Job 40.2)



לאברהם, “to Abraham,” (Gen 35.12)



בשנה, “in the year,” (Deut 14:28)



יעשק, “it will oppress,” (Job 40:23)



In such manuscripts, Tiberian vowel signs were often mixed up,[20] as is reflected in multiple examples from one Genesis fragment:


Non-Standard Tiberian[21]

Standard Tiberian[22]

ויען, “and he answered,” (Gen 23:10)



שער, “gate,” (Gen 23:10)



זקן, “old,” (Gen 24:1)



סביב, “around,” (Gen 23:17)



As remarked, although the Tiberian tradition’s authority was transferred to the written sign system, the Tiberian pronunciation tradition itself became extinct. In other words, the Tiberian signs were not read in Jewish communities as they were intended by the Tiberian Masoretes. Instead, most communities, while writing biblical texts using the Tiberian signs, followed the Palestinian pronunciation of Hebrew, with a five-vowel system (without distinctions between qameṣ and pataḥ, on one hand, and ṣere and seghol, on the other). This was based on the vowel system of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. The reason for this seems to be that Palestinian pronunciation was widely used by Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, not only in Palestine but also in North Africa and Europe, whereas the Tiberian pronunciation was the preserve of a few elite scholars.

Consequently, many features of the Tiberian pronunciation that are not discernible in the sign system were completely forgotten. Happily, the discovery of medieval manuscript sources that reflect the living Tiberian oral tradition such as Masoretic treatises and transcriptions have now helped us breathe life into these fossils.


I have recently published an open-access book that presents a detailed reconstruction of the Tiberian reading: Geoffrey Khan, The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew: Including a Critical Edition and English Translation of the Sections on Consonants and Vowels in the Masoretic Treatise Hidāyat al-Qāriʾ ‘Guide for the Reader’, 2 vols, Cambridge Semitic Languages and Cultures 1 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge & Open Book Publishers, 2020). This includes sounds files of an oral performance of sample biblical texts with the reconstructed Tiberian pronunciation by Alex Foreman. See www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1144 and www.tiberianhebrew.com.


April 17, 2020


Last Updated

December 31, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Geoffrey Khan is the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Cambridge. He holds a Ph.D from the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, as well as honorary doctorates from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Uppsala. Khan is a Fellow of the British Academy Search Results, an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, and an Honorary Member of the American Oriental Society. Among his many publications are The Early Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought, Exegesis and Grammar in Medieval Karaite Texts, the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (editor), A Short Introduction to the Tiberian Masoretic Bible and Its Reading Tradition, and The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew (2 vols.).