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Masoretic lists: what crowns on letters have to do with paragraph-breaks in the Torah

Jen Taylor Friedman

You might expect a work called Sefer Tagé (or Liber coronularum, if you're the kind of nineteenth-century scholar who writes in Latin) to be about crowns on letters, mightn't you? The published work of that name deals with modified letters of various kinds.[1] Sefer Tagé, or Tagin, surfaces in discussions of strangely-shaped letters from geonic times to the present day.[2]

Minḥat Shai (Yedidiyah Shelomo Norzi, sixteenth-century fixer of biblical text) mentions Sefer Tagé a handful of times, and almost every time it's related to a question of the layout of the text: are two paragraphs in Torah to be separated with an open break or a closed break? Other sources too—Masoret Seyag laTorah, for instance—reference Sefer Tagé on paragraph breaks.[3] Why is a book about tagin being cited for matters of layout?

Oxford: MS heb. d.33/8 - MS heb. d.33/9 gives us the answer. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger characterises it as an eleventh-century western Oriental, probably Egyptian, script.[4] This fragment is a bifolio from a larger volume.

33/8 1v helpfully tells us it's a list of paragraph-break types: אילו הפסקיות פתוחות וסתומות וסדורות. The list starts בראשית. ויהי רקיע. יקוו. יהי מארת. ישרצו. תוצא. ויכלו. אלה תולדות השמ. פתוחות which is to say that the breaks before Genesis 1:6, 1:9, 1:13, 1:20, 1:24, 2:1, and 2:4 are all to be of the “open” type.[5] The list continues (but only as far as Genesis 35, where the page ends). There are some unexpected variations from today’s norm: for instance, a whole new paragraph-break before 2:13, and again before 4:3 and 4:13.[6] Other times the fragment lists an Open break where we would expect a Closed break, and vice versa.

The second folio, 33/9 1r, is another list; it’s not immediately obvious what it is, but the dots above certain letters are a clue, and the diagrams of curled nun (at the bottom of 33/9 1r), samekh-with-tagin (on 1v) and high-five ʿayin (same – ʿayin with an extended head) are another clue.

 

Bodleian image MS Heb.d.33/9a

Left fragment: Oxford MS heb.d.33/9 (1r). Inset left: detail of modified nun. Right: details from verso: modified samekh and ayin. 

Images reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries, Univesity of Oxford.

(For futher images see: https://genizah.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/fragments/full/MS_HEB_d_33_8b.jpg and https://genizah.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/fragments/full/MS_HEB_d_33_9b.jpg)

 

This is a page from Sefer Tagin, listing the locations of modified letters: all the modified final mems, all the curled nuns, and so on. When we compare it to the Sefer Tagin found in the Parma Maḥzor Vitry[7] we see at once it’s the same work, modulo transmission errors.

And it was apparently once part of the same volume as this list of paragraph-breaks.

Looking again at the paragraph-break list, we see that towards the end of the page there is some unusual phrasing: תרתין פרשייתא דלית להון פיסקא לא סתום ולא פתוח ויצא יעקב' ויחי יעקב, or There are two sections which are neither Open nor Closed: Vayyetzé Ya’akov and Vayḥi Ya’akov…and then the fragment is anxious that you should know that an open paragraph-break before Gen. 30:14, וילך ראובן, would be erroneous. Now, we find pretty much exactly this language in Minḥat Shai and in marginal notations to Masoret Seyag laTorah, explicitly attributed to Sefer Tagé. So the people who made those notes, with this particular phrasing, had a work called Sefer Tagé which listed paragraph-breaks. Our fragment is part of a work containing Sefer Tagé (unarguably) which also lists paragraph-breaks (unarguably).

Our fragment, therefore, suggests a larger pamphlet containing masoretic lists of all sorts of layout issues; paragraph-breaks first, perhaps other lists (large and small letters?) in the middle, and continuing with another masoretic list, Sefer Tagé. The whole work is, perhaps for convenience, known as Sefer Tagé. The scholar who used it to annotate MS JTS 2958 had a copy; the scribe of MS Firkovich Evr. II C 156 had another.[8] Sefer Tagé, like the list of paragraph-breaks with which it is here copied, is first and foremost a masoretic list, a snapshot of a tradition, here transmitted in the same volume as other masoretic lists.[9]

 


Bibliography

Bargès, J.J.L. ספר תגין Liber Coronularum. Paris1866.

Basser, Y. Sefer Tagei. 2010.

J. Isserles, J.M.O., F. D. Hubmann. "The Torah Scroll Fragment from the Parochial Archives in Romont (Switzerland)." In The Ancient Sefer Torah of Bologna: Features and History, edited by M Perani (ed.): Brill, 2109.

Ofer, Y. "A Babylonian List of Open and Closed Parashiyot in the Pentateuch." In Mas'at Aharon: Linguistic Studies Presented to Aharon Dotan, edited by M. Bar-Asher & C. E. Cohen (ed.). Jerusalem, 2009.

Penkower, J.S. "Fragments of Six Early Torah Scrolls: Open and Closed Sections, the Layout of Ha’azinu and of the End of Deuteronomy." In Manuscrits Hébreux Et Arabes: Mélanges En L’honneur De Colette Sirat, edited by J. Olszowy-Schlanger & N. de Lange (ed.). Bibliologia 38, Brepols, 39-61, 2014.

Penkower, J.S. "A Sheet of Parchment from a 10th or 11th Century Torah Scroll: Determining Its Type among Four Traditions (Oriental, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, Yemenite)." Textus 21 (2002): 235-64.


 

Footnotes

[1] Bargès, ספר תגין Liber Coronularum (Paris 1866). There is some discussion of the book’s provenance in M. Perani, “The Oldest Complete Extant Sefer Torah Rediscovered at the Bologna University Library: Codicological, Textual, and Paleographic Features of an Ancient Eastern Tradition,” in Y, Garel and M. Perani (eds), The Jews In Italy: Their Contribution to the Development and Diffusion of Jewish Heritage (Academic Studies Press, 2019) The relevant section is on pp. 20-24 of the article, but I cannot provide a page number in the book because of the pandemic.

[2] Summarised in Basser, Sefer Tagei (2010).

[3] Penkower, "Fragments of Six Early Torah Scrolls: Open and Closed Sections, the Layout of Ha’azinu and of the End of Deuteronomy," in J. Olszowy-Schlanger & N. de Lange (ed), Manuscrits Hébreux Et Arabes: Mélanges En L’honneur De Colette Sirat, Bibliologia 38, Brepols (2014), 48.

[4] J. Isserles, "The Torah Scroll Fragment from the Parochial Archives in Romont (Switzerland)," in M Perani (ed), The Ancient Sefer Torah of Bologna: Features and History (Brill, 2109), 212.

[5] Today we recognise two types of paragraph break (a third type is mentioned in Masoretic sources): open and closed. If that does not bring a visual image to mind, it will suffice to think of them as being approximately like a hard return versus an indent: two ways of indicating a break in the text, but with higher stakes: getting them wrong invalidates the scroll for ritual use.

[6] Variations are extremely common in pre-modern times; see Penkower, "A Sheet of Parchment from a 10th or 11th Century Torah Scroll: Determining Its Type among Four Traditions (Oriental, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, Yemenite)," Textus 21 (2002); Penkower, "Fragments."

[7] Parma MS cod. 2574 – NLI film number F 13582.

[8] These MSS are discussed in Penkower, "Fragments." Firkovich Evr. II C was published by Ofer, "A Babylonian List of Open and Closed Parashiyot in the Pentateuch," in M. Bar-Asher & C. E. Cohen (ed), Mas'at Aharon: Linguistic Studies Presented to Aharon Dotan (Jerusalem: 2009).

[9] Modified letters are extant in quite a few early manuscripts, but not the same ones as listed in Sefer Tagé. There seems to have been a multiplicity of traditions, recorded in a multiplicity of ways. Sefer Tagé is impractical as a scribes’ reference tool, owing to its alphabetical, rather than lexical, arrangement.

 


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