Monday, March 28, 2005

Small and Large Letters in Esther

Steven Weiss of the Canonist blog solicits my input on the question of large and small letters in Esther 9:7-9. In many Masoretic manuscripts, the letter tav in the name Parshandatha (Est. 9:7), the letter shin in the name Parmashta (Est. 9:9), and the letter zayin in the name Vaizatha (Est. 9:9) are written smaller than the surrounding letters; and the letter vav in Vaizatha is written larger.

A fanciful interpretation has been put out claiming that the letters "foretell" the 1946 Nuremberg executions, and this idea is adequately refuted here. But Steve asks, Whence the differing size of the letters?

Short answer: Nobody knows.

Long answer: There are several occurrences in the Masoretic text of unusually large or small letters. Large letters are often found in certain words in Deut. 6:4, for instance, or in Gen. 30:42 or Deut. 29:27. The large vav in Lev. 11:42 marks the middle letter of the Torah, but most of the rest of the large letters are a mystery. It seems possible that in the original Masoretic exemplar, assuming there was one, a letter might have been superimposed over another one written in error, and this made it larger. The largeness was taken up into the tradition and preserved without change or explanation.

Small letters, such as the small aleph in the first word of Leviticus, are less common. A good guess is that they originated in supralinear corrections. This makes good sense for Lev. 1:1; the last letter of the first word and the first letter of the second word are both aleph: ויקרא אל. It would be easy for a scribe to skip one: ויקר אל, and then write it above the line in smaller script. Such supralinear corrections are common in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts. Again, the punctilious tradition may have taken up even the corrections that appeared in the archetypical scroll.

The names in Esther — jawbreaking Persian and Elamite names — must have been hard to copy correctly. They may well have given rise to corrective efforts that were then faithfully preserved as small and large letters.

The manuscript tradition, by the way, is not the same in every instance. The Leningrad Codex, for example, does not have the small and large letters in Esther, although it preserves them, e.g., in Deut. 6:4. The Leningrad codex is the basic text used in scholarly editions today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Yeivin, tr. E. J. Revell, Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Scholars Press, 1980, pp. 47-48.

1 comment:

Marnen said...

Good post. However, let me amplify a couple of things.

First of all, the large vav in Lev. 11:42 is actually not the middle letter of the Torah, though it is conventionally given as such. Rather, there is a rather convincing argument (presented here, for example) that the large vav is simply the middle one of the large and small letters in the Torah, not of all of them.

There's at least one instance of large letters in the Torah with an extremely clear purpose: those in the Shema (Dt. 6:4). The text as it is conventionally written has a large ayin in שמע and a large dalet in אחד. The reason seems to be that it would be easy to substitute an alef for the ayin (similar sound) and a resh for the dalet (similar appearance), producing two other common words that would totally change the meaning of the verse ("perhaps, O Israel, the Lord is another"?).

Mordechai Pinchas has compiled some excellent information about the small and large letters, as well as other scribal oddities in the Torah.