Of dots and peculiar cantillation signs…Part 1: Dots

A reader asks:

There are a lot of funny touches in the Esau stories (like the dots in Vayishlach on vayechabkehu and there was a mercha kefula  in the reading this week, and some other funny things that I asked Jack about.  Maybe it has to do with all the deception in one of the most dysfunctional families in the Torah.

There are a few issues tangled in this short paragraph, but let’s start with the dots. In the entire Tanakh there are 15 places where our Masoretic Bibles place dots over words. Of those, 10 occur in the Torah. One of those 10 occurs at Genesis 33:4 where we read:

 וַיָּ֙רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַ֗יִּ֗שָּׁ֗קֵ֑֗ה֗וּ֗ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Translation: And Esau ran towards him (Jacob) and embraced him and he fell on his neck. And he kissed him and they wept.

I have kept this translation literal rather than attempting to convey any nuance that might be intended by an idiomatic expression such as “fell on one’s neck.” The question, for the moment, is why the verb vayishakehu is written with a dot placed over each letter.

The answer is not difficult to find: dotted letters were a common scribal device throughout the region in the Hellenistic era into Late Antiquity for indicating a word or phrase regarded as requiring deletion. In our Masoretic biblical manuscripts these and a few other editor’s marks are called tiqunei soferim which means “scribal corrections.” In other words, their dots operated like our “strike through.” If we simply delete the dotted word, the translation becomes: And Esau ran towards him, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him.

But can we analyze this further and possibly discover a reason why the Scribes might have wanted to delete the word rendered as and he kissed him? Part of the reason may possibly be found in the idiomatic expression I referenced above. What exactly is meant by and he fell on his neck?

The same expression is used at Genesis 45:14, where we read:

וַיִּפֹּ֛ל עַל־צַוְּארֵ֥י בִנְיָמִֽן־אָחִ֖יו וַיֵּ֑בְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִ֔ן בָּכָ֖ה עַל־צַוָּארָֽיו׃

And (Joseph) fell on Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.

And yet again a chapter later (Gen 46:29):

וַיֶּאְסֹ֤ר יוֹסֵף֙ מֶרְכַּבְתּ֔וֹ וַיַּ֛עַל לִקְרַֽאת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אָבִ֖יו גֹּ֑שְׁנָה וַיֵּרָ֣א אֵלָ֗יו וַיִּפֹּל֙ עַל־צַוָּארָ֔יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃

(And) Joseph prepared his chariot and journeyed towards Israel his father in Goshen. And when he saw him, he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck some more.

From all these citations you might conclude that this was a common Hebrew expression, but that is not the case. In fact we have now exhausted the list of citations which employ this phrase or something close to it. The notion of “falling on someone’s neck” is not exactly obvious, although many translators have chosen to render this literally–as if the person fell to the ground on his neck. But since it is hard to embrace someone in this position, I submit that it is an idiom of some sort which was familiar to the author (and readership) of the passages at the time, but has since been lost to us. Although there is almost certainly no connection, you might get a chuckle out of considering the English idiom of necking. (Thanks to a friend for drawing the comparison.)

It may not have been lost just to us. Since no other biblical source seems to use this particular idiom, I would suggest that the idiom was lost even on some who transmitted the text. One of those editors may have tried to explain “he fell on his neck” by inserting the gloss “he kissed him.” A later Scribe, recognizing that a gloss had entered the text, dotted “and he kissed him” as an instruction to other Scribes that when they copied this text they should omit that word.

While I haven’t found evidence yet that would allow me to better understand “fell on his neck,” there is substantial evidence that other Scribes understood the dots to mean “delete.” In the cases of several others of the dotted words (eg Num 3:39 and Num 21:30) the words actually are omitted in several Masoretic manuscripts as well as ancient versions of the Bible (eg the Samaritan Torah, the Septuagint and even the Babylonian Talmud.)

To summarize my reconstruction of the history of this text, there was at some point in the evolution of biblical Hebrew an idiom “to fall on someone’s neck” which clearly means to demonstrate great affection. A later editor, perhaps not familiar with the idiom or just trying to explain it to those who might not be, added the word which is rendered and they kissed to explain the phrase. Still later a subsequent editor who knew that and they kissed was not part of the original text marked it for deletion.

If you would like to consult the technical references I used in preparing this article, please see Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd Revised Edition, Minneapolis, 2012 pp 51-52 and 203. For a different take on the interpretation of dotted words (this instance from the perspective of the early sages), see Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York, 1962 pp 43ff.

This is the first part of the question. In the next blog entry I will try to answer the question about merkha k’fulah.