[This post contains characters that might not display correctly on all computers and operating systems. (FWIW, it was encoded in UTF-8 and displays correctly on Firefox 2 under Linux; the טעמי המקרא and Hebrew overdots rendered for me in Firefox 3.5 under Windows XP, but not in Firefox 3 on a different XP machine; and neither those nor the English overdots do in IE6 under Windows XP.)]
Something you'll see in any Hebrew text of the Bible, but lacking from translations are the occasional odd things done to particular letters in the Masoretic tradition. I think this is a shame—and indeed, has led to mistranslations, where the precise meaning of the text is only determinable through the Masoretic tradition.
For example, the opening of Isaiah 40 is generally mistranslated "A voice cries in the wilderness; clear a way," giving rise to the voice crying in the wilderness of English proverb. However, take a close look at the טעמי המקרא—the notes written around the Biblical text showing how to chant the text:
ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶך
This clearly indicates that the translation should actually be, "A voice cries: clear a way in the wilderness." Other examples abound, such as where only the טעמי המקרא (and the accompanying dropped דָגֵשׁ) distinguish:
He called on the name of the LORD (Gen. 12:8) וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה He called on the LORD by name (Ex. 34:5) וַיִּקְרָ֥א בְשֵׁ֖ם יְהוָֽה
Nevertheless, that's not actually what I primarily want to talk about here. The טעמי המקרא are not actually written in the text of Torah scrolls: the information they convey goes right back in the Oral Law, but their textual representation is a late innovation, and is therefore not written in Torah scrolls. (Neither are the dots indicating the vowels, another late innovation. Reading from the Torah would be so much easier if the Jews did what the Muslims do—and what Wikipedia does for the purposes of illustration here—and wrote both of these on the text, but in different colours, so you can tell what is canonical and what is not.)
Even just looking at the bare Masoretic Text, though, there are occasional twiddles of one form or another; but they get left out of English translations, and I think that's a shame. Here's some examples:
In Gen. 33:4, Jacob is about to meet his brother Esau for the first time since Jacob fled, many years ago, after hearing Esau vow to kill him. The text reads:
Esau ran to greet him, and embraced him, and fall upon his shoulders, ȧṅḋ k̇i̇ṡṡėḋ ḣi̇ṁ, and they wept. וירץ עשו לקראתו ויחבקהו ויפל על צוארו וׄיׄשׄקׄהׄוׄ ויבכו
You can imagine the field day the commentators have with the dots above "and kissed him". What do they mean? Did it mean Esau was not really sincere? Were they part of the Word of G-d, or were they put in later? (Consensus has it they were put in by Ezra the Scribe 2500 years ago, when he encountered words he was not sure should be there.)
Other examples are harder to translate without footnotes, though they can still be flagged up to draw attention to themselves; for example the opening of Leviticus:
[G-d] called to Moses ויקרא אל משה
The last letter of the first word is small, and so too I have rendered it in the English; but if you read the Hebrew word without that last letter—not to emend the Biblical text, but to add extra layers of meaning to it—the meaning becomes "[G-d] was dear to Moses".
There are plenty of other examples, both those amenable to interpretation—e.g. the broken letter ו in Num 25:12, or the large ו marking the central letter of the entire Torah (Lev. 11:42), and those not (for example, what's the significance of the small מ in Lev 6:2?).
One of the most important things conveyed by the Masoretic tradition is when the written text () differs from what's actually read ( ). Here is not the place to go into this in detail, but one ramification of it I had to deal with when translating the Wandering Jews Siddur was how to deal with the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of G-d.
This is spelled YHVH, but, because of the Jewish taboo about pronouncing the Divine Name, is pronounced as if it were written Ădonāi, "Lord"; this is where the custom of translating it as "LORD" derives from. (It's also where the name "Jehovah" derives from, as the Tetragrammaton is often marked with vowels to indicate whether the pronunciation should be Ădonāi or "Elohim".)
It would be nice to be able to reflect this duality of the Name's aspects in translation, but how? One possibility would be to intersperse the letters of the two words, like the Sephardim do in their siddurim:
That's nice, but it fails to capture the associations of the name יהוה in Hebrew. The name doesn't mean anything in its own right, but traditionally is interpreted as representing הָיָה hāyāh "[G-d] was", הֹוֶה hoveh "[G-d] is", and יִהְיֶה yihyeh "[G-d] will be"; hence the custom of the Reform Movement in rendering it "The Eternal". So then, I thought, how about:
The problem with that is that now you've captured the name's associations, but you've lost the name! It's not normal to do that when translating names. For example, I call myself Michael, I don't call myself Who-Is-Like-G-d?. So what we need is something like this:
Except that this will be a bugger to typeset, impossible to read at normal font sizes, and is probably pretty impenetrable unless you know what's going on with it.
At which point I decided to give up, and just settle for LORD... and resolve to blog this. (It's taken me until now to do so because this was a post that required a whole afternoon to put together.)
Which brings me onto something I saw a while ago, and didn't comment on, but which has been irking me whenever I remember it since.
Some time ago, someone (I forget who) linked on their blog to an article in which the documented online the decisions he made in coming up with such scribal oddities as I have been talking about above.commissioned to turn the Conservative Movement's מְגִילַּת הַשׁוֹעָה (Holocaust ) into an actual physical scroll
The scribe must take upon himself to achieve a meaningful interpretation. The text is very moving indeed and I wanted to create ideas for what I like to call 'visual midrash' (i.e. permitted scribal idiosyncrasies) to complement it so that not only the content of the text, but also its physical structure will then become part of our collective memory.
And he goes on to document how he chose to make various letter large or small, one word out of hollow letters, another out of thin letters and with two letters deliberately reversed, and other letters with curled tags attached to their upper or lower perimeter or other unusual tagin.
This got me rather annoyed. The whole point about the scribal oddities is not that they have been deliberately chosen for any one effect. You can say, if you like, that they were put there by G-d. Or you can say that they represent an accumulation, over hundreds then thousands of years, of copying errors—one scribe writes a letter inadvertently a bit smaller, when this scroll is copied, the copyist thinks this deliberate, and, generations of copying later (with, perhaps, some weeding of other lineages of scrolls through the vagaries of time and exile), the small letter becomes canonical. One thing the scribal oddities are not is the deliberate work of creative human hands.
Yes, you can pull all the midrash you like out of them. But the one thing you cannot do is put them in in order to create your own midrash! That would be like trying to add a patina of age to your new megillah, so it looks like the scroll is hundreds of years old!
Maybe one day, centuries hence, scribal oddities will have emerged of their own accord in a new text such as the מְגִילַּת הַשׁוֹעָה (if any such new text actually takes off and gets picked up by communities). If that is the case, such small, large or broken letters will have the ring of truth to them, hallowed as they would be by time. But actually seeking to put such things into a new document strikes me as... hagiographically fraudulent, is the best I could put it. It's like finding dental fillings on a Tyrannosaurus rex: no matter how good or convincing they are, they're not fooling anyone, but give the impression someone's trying to make a fool of you.