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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Small and Large Letters
There are about 100 abnormal letters in the Masoretic text of the Bible—many of them in the Pentateuch—which were always copied by the scribes, and appear also in the printed editions. Among these letters are: the "waw ḳeṭi'a" (ו; bisected waw) in the word ("peace"; Numbers 25:12); the final "mem" in the word ("increase"; Isaiah 9:6 [A. V. 7]); the inverted "nun" () in nine passages (Numbers 10:35,36; Psalms 107:23-28,40); and the See SUSPENDED LETTERS. The principal division of these abnormal letters is into small ("ze'ira") and large ("rabbati") letters, as indicated in the lists which are given below. The former appear to belong to an older Masorah than that which provides for the large letters, and should be classed with the "ḳere" and "ketib."
The large letters are used mainly to call attention to certain Talmudic and midrashic homilies and citations, or as guards against errors. References to them in Masseket Soferim read substantially as follows:
In Masseket Soferim.
- The letters of the first word of Genesis, "Bereshit" (In the beginning), must be spaced ("stretched" = "peshuṭin"; according to the Masorah, only the "bet" is large).
- The "waw" in the word "gaḥon" (belly; Leviticus 11:42) must be raised ("erect" = "zaḳuf"), because it is the middle letter of the Pentateuch (comp. Ḳid. 30a).
- The word "wa-yishḥaṭ" (And he slew; Leviticus 8:23) must be spaced, as it is the beginning of the middle verse of the Pentateuch (the Masorah designates the dividing verse as ib. 8, but does not indicate that any change is to be introduced in the form or spacing of the letters).
- "Shema'" (hear; Deuteronomy 6:4) must be placed at the beginning of the line, and all its letters must be spaced; "eḥad" (one), the last word of the same verse, must be placed at the end of the line (the Masorah has the "'ayin" of "Shema'" and the "dalet" of "eḥad" large).
- The "lamed" in the word "wa-yashlikem" (and he cast them; ib. 29:27) must be large ("long" = "'aruk").
- The letter "he" in "ha la-Yhwh" ("the Lord"; ib. 32:6) must be spaced more than any other "he," as "ha" is here a separate word (comp. Yer. Meg. : "The 'he' must be below the shoulder of the 'lamed'"; also Ex. R. : "The 'he' is written below the 'lamed.'" The Masorah has a large "he" as indicating the beginning of a separate word).
- The "yod" of the word "teshi" (thou art unmindful; ib. 18) must be smaller ("ḳaṭan") than any other "yod " in the Scriptures.
- The "yod" of "yigdal" (be great; Numbers 14:17) must be larger ("gadol") than any other "yod" in the Pentateuch (Yalḳ., Num. 743, 945).
- The last word in the Pentateuch, "Yisrael," must be spaced and the "lamed" made higher than in any other place where this letter occurs (the Masorah has no changes).
References in Talmud and Midrash.
The references in Talmud and Midrash which are probably the bases of these abnormalities are as follows: (1) Citing "For in Y H the Lord created the worlds" (Isaiah 26:4, Hebr.), R. Judah b. Ila'i said: "By the letters 'yod' [Y] and 'he' [H] this world and the world to come were created—the former by the 'he,' as it is written ["when they were created," Genesis 2:4]" (Men. 29b); hence the letter "he" is small here, indicating this world. (2) Citing "And when she saw him that he was a goodly child" (; Exodus 2:2), R. Meïr said: "'Ṭob' ["good"] was his name" (Ex. R.; Yalḳ., Ex. 166). (3) "And the Lord called unto Moses" (; Leviticus 1:1); "wa-yiḳra" is written here with a small "alef," to emphasize its contrast with "wa-yiḳḳar" in the verse "God met Balaam" (; Numbers 23:4); the former indicates a familiar call used by loved ones, but the latter refers to an accidental meeting, difference being thus expressed between the call of God to a Jewish prophet (Moses) and His call to a non-Jewish prophet (Balaam; Lev. R. ). (4) "And Caleb stilled the people" (; Numbers 13:30). He used diplomacy in quieting them, as he feared they might not heed his advice (see Soṭah 35a; Yalḳ., Num. 743); and the use of the large ט symbolically denotes the way in which Caleb quieted the people. (5) "Hear, O Israel . . . one God" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Whosoever prolongs the word "eḥad" [one] in reciting the "Shema'" prayer, his days and years shall be prolonged—especially if he prolongs the letter "dalet" (Ber. 13b). The emphasis on the "dalet" (ד) is intended to distinguish it from the "resh" (ד), which resembles it, and which would change the reading to "aḥer" (another)—in this case a blasphemous expression. (6) Proverbs () begins with a large "mem"—which has the numerical value of forty—because it is claimed that Solomon, like Moses, fasted forty days before penetrating to the secret of the Torah. According to another explanation, the "mem" is the center of the alphabet, as the heart is the center of the body, the fountain of all wisdom, as revealed in Solomon's Proverbs (Yalḳ., Prov. 929). (7) The large "waw" in "Vajezatha" (; Esth.9:9) is accounted for by the fact that all of Haman's ten children were hanged on one large cross resembling the "waw" (ו; Yalḳ., Prov. 1059). The "zayin" in the same name is small, probably to indicate that Vajezatha was the youngest son.
Other large letters were intended to guard against possible errors; for instance, in the passage "when the cattle were feeble" (; Genesis 30:42) final "pe" (ף) is written large in order that it may not be mistaken for a final "nun" (ן) and the word be read (comp. in Job 21:24). The Septuagint translation, based on the second version, is "whenever the cattle happened to bring forth."
The large letters in the words "ha-ke-zonah" (Genesis 34:31), "ha-la-Yhwh" (Deuteronomy 32:6), and "ha-le-'olamim" (Psalms 77:8) are probably meant to divide the root from the two preformatives. Some books begin with large letters, e.g., Genesis, Proverbs, and Chronicles; perhaps originally these were divided into separate compilations, each beginning with a large letter. The large "mem" in "ma ṭobu" (Numbers 24:5) is probably meant to mark the beginning of the column as designated by the Masorah.
Jacob b. Asher, author of the "Ṭurim," gives in his annotations to the Pentateuch various reasons—some of them far-fetched—for the small letters. He says, for instance: "The small 'kaf' of , in the verse 'Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,' indicates that Abraham really cried but little, since Sarah died in a ripe old age. The small 'ḳof' [=100] in , in the verse 'Rebekah said to Isaac: I am weary of life' [Genesis 27:46], indicates the height of the Temple, 100 cubits. Rebekah in her prophetic vision saw that the Temple would be destroyed, and therefore she became weary of life."
|Passage.||Hebrew Word.||Translation.||Hebrew Letter.|
|Deuteronomy 9:24||rebelious||first mem|
|2 Samuel 21:19||Jaare||resh|
|2 Kings 17:31||Nibhaz||zayin|
|Isaiah 44:14||ash (tree)||final nun|
|Jeremiah 39:13||Nebushazhan||final nun|
|Proverbs 16:28||whisperer||final nun|
|Job. 16:14||breach||final ẓade|
|Daniel 6:20||very early||first pe|
|Passage.||Hebrew Word.||Translation.||Hebrew Letter.|
|Genesis 30:42||feeble||*||final pe|
|Gen. 23||third generation||*||final mem|
|Numbers 14:17||be great||yod|
|Numbers 27:5||cause||final nun|
|Deuteronomy 29:27||cast them||lamed|
|Deuteronomy 32:6||Lord||first he|
|Joshua 14:11||strength||first kaf|
|Song of Solomon 1:1||song||shin|
|Esther 9:29||wrote||first taw|
|Daniel 6:20||dawn||second pe|
|1 Chronicles 1:1||Adam||alef|
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Small and Large Letters'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/s/small-and-large-letters.html. 1901.
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13