The Torah was originally written without vowels, and without spaces, so we imagine G-d uttering the words of the Torah to bring Creation into existence in one long breathless stream.
As Aramaic and Greek rapidly began to replace Hebrew in the early centuries of the common era, vowels (Heb: dots, because dots are used to mark vowels) were introduced by a family or school of linguistic experts called Masoretes (from masora - those who hand down or pass along) working in Palestine (mostly Tiberias, along the Sea of Galilee) beginning in the early part of the 3rd century CE.
The Masoretes worked from different texts to arrive at a composite, definitive version called the Masoretic Torah. Working with variora editions, the Masoretes had to make thousands of decisions regarding the varying pronunciations of words in the Scriptures and in each case choose one, in essence collapsing the multiple potential meanings into one actuality, one sense. In some cases this meant choosing among slightly different shades of meanings or tenses, but in others it meant radically reducing the free play of associations and interacting alternatives that a set of consonants might signify. They also added diacritical marks indicating intonation and made decisions about where to cut words in order to further reduce ambiguity and preserve an agreed-upon meaning.
The Masoretes preserved the sense of difficulty in this task, and some of the ambiguity, by frequently annotating the text with distinctions between what was written (kettiv, Aramaic for "written") and how it should be pronounced (qere, Aramaic for "read"). They also extensively annotated the Tanach with marginalia indicating unresolved difficulties and discussing some of the bases for final decisions. Working in competing schools in Babylonia and Palestine from 200-1005 CE, they even completed conflicting versions.
Even though the Masoretes registered difficulties and conflicts, the very activity of eliminating the free play of interpretation by fixing vowels and vocalizations was restrictive. For example, in Isaiah 44:24, the prophet speaks in the voice of the Creator, comparing the work of human creativity in building idols with that of G-d and Divine Creation, and concluding:
It is I, the Lord, who made everything
Who alone stretched out the Heavens
And unaided I spread out the earth
The Hebrew for what often gets translated into English as "by Myself" here is (mem-yod-aleph-taf-yod) = m'itti. The Masoretes note that what is written (kettiv) in the text includes a yod between the mi and the itti, which would literally give "Who [mi] with me [eettee]?" thereby phrasing a rhetorical question. But, the Masoretes insist, the text should be vocalized (qere) as m'itti as if the yod were missing, which means "from or by (mem-aleph-tav) me (final yod)." Slight differences in shades of meaning are produced by these two pronunciations. At first glance they seem inconsequential: mi itti = "Who was with me?" is a rhetorical question; m'itti = "From me [alone]" is emphatic, though a bit awkward.
Yet this difference is significant enough, and on a sufficiently important question, to produce a clash of opinion. What if we imagined ourselves in the position of a modern Talmudic scholar posing the following question about this passage from Isaiah: is G-d being ironic? Is this really a rhetorical question, or does it open up other possibilities, calling for expansion or amplification? If so, then the Talmudic scholar is faced with the heretical idea that G-d was assisted by others in His act of Creation, a Gnostic notion the Sages resisted in the early centuries of the common era, and exactly the sense that Isaiah is trying to negate by comparing G-d's solitary act of creation with the making of idols.
The Masoretic choice of inflection, spacing and vowelling here attempts to control this intrusion of the Gnostic idea of G-d's angelic assistants, since the project of the Masoretes worked in the face of declining Hebrew literacy in Palestine and Babylonia, declining coherence in Jewish thinking, increasing dispersion of Jewish people, and increasing threats from Gnosticism and then Christianity, Islam, and Orientalism - threats both physical and theological. However, a price is paid for the Masora project.
If we return to the letters of the word/phrase, we see that another powerful interpretation is possible, using the Talmudic practice of expansion and divine, irresolute punning: (mem-aleph-taf-yod) might also mean "From (mem- ) () mine (yod)"! This renders the verse:
It is I, the Lord, who made everything
Who alone stretched out the Heavens
And from my spread out the earth
Does this passage contain Isaiah's enticing hint of the creative power implicit in the aleph-tav, the word which stands for the Hebrew alphabet itself? Other clues in the passage suggest that Isaiah, the consummate poet and master of metaphor, is playing with a conceit of the alphabet, for in the next line, he continues with G-d's declaration,
"It is I that frustrated the letters (ha-oht'ot = he aleph tav vav tav) of the liars (badim = bet resh yod-mem)" [those who make up false tales; the whole object phrase is usually translated as "the tokens of the impostors" meaning "the signs or portents of the false mages and necromancers"]
The image of G-d "flattening out" or "spreading out" (resh-kof-ayin) echoes another word that means to spread out, peh-resh-shin, or perush, which means to spread out in the sense of unfolding or opening a scroll (in front of someone). In fact, Isaiah uses it in this sense just a few chapters earlier, recounting that when King Hezekiah received a letter from Rabshakeh, the Assyrian general who was threatening to destroy Hezekiah's kingdom, the king brought the letter to the temple "and spread it out before the Lord and prayed" (Isaiah 37:14). If vocalized as parash, it means to "amplify and define a separate meaning, to interpret distinctly or differently"; resh-kuff-ayin also puns on sky, since the same letters mean "the limiting plane" as in a ceiling or the vault of the sky. Since Isaiah here applies it, in G-d's voice, to the earth just after forging his image of the sky, it is clear Isaiah means to draw a parallel between earth and sky.
By using the energized combination of letters - the punning repetition of the and the image of G-d spreading out the Heavens and earth - in a system of multiplied alternatives, Isaiah pursues the metaphor of creation through the verses. The prophet unfolds before us a literal image of G-d spreading out the Heavens and flattening out the Earth by Himself. But hidden in this image is another one: in this image, G-d uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to unroll (perush) the twinned scrolls of the sky and the earth, like the Torah itself, in order to frustrate the alternative scripts (ha-o'tot) of those who make up false stories (badim) about Creation.
But this wonderful alternative conceit is lost if Isaiah's poetry is collapsed into a strict Masoretic choice to vocalize one way. The beauty of Hebrew is shown here. Unlike poetry written in more developed and efficient alphabets, alphabets capable of indicating with clarity a single intention, written Hebrew unavoidably multiplies alternatives. In the poet's hand, what we would normally consider a liability becomes a special power, since it invites the poet to multiply alternatives at the same level of sense, levels that may supplement each other rather than compete. The collapse of this enriching multiplication of unvowelled Hebrew into a single choice of vowelled Hebrew - Hebrew with dots by the Masoretes - was potentially catastrophic for the alephtavian energy of reading Hebrew. While helping to bring the Scriptures into confrontation with the oral tradition, it collapses the writtenness of the Scriptures, which invokes unique interpretive practices and gives us a unique vision of creativity ... and Creation. The catastrophe is almost averted - it is a
in Jewish tradition because of the religious significance attached to precise copying of every letter in the scrolls of the Torah. This religious tradition is founded on the belief that Moses received both the written and an oral Torah at Sinai. As a result, even in synagogues today, the text of the Torah is read aloud during services from parchment scrolls written in unvowelled Hebrew letters, while the congregation follows along in a book (the Chumash or Five Books of Moses, including extensive commentary) that contains the vowelled Hebrew text. But to rescue the reader from errors, or from getting lost in choices among alternative vocalizations, two "checkers" stand by the side of the reader making sure his or her recitation matches the Masoretic text.