Jewish life centers around the Torah, which, for thousands of years, has been transmitted from generation to generation. With such an extended chain of transmission, it has often been noted how amazing it is that hand-written copies of the Torah from around the world are almost identically letter perfect. All the more fascinating is the fact that even as a Torah scroll has no vowels or trope (cantillation) marks included, the vowelling and trope also match throughout the numerous Jewish communities. (While communities vocalize vowels and trope differently, nevertheless, the marks for these vowels and trope are consistent and universal.)
At one point in history, as the diaspora began to expand, a group of scholars arose who dedicated themselves to make certain that all Jewish texts were copied accurately, without error. The Masoretes, as these scholars were known, flourished between the 7th and 11th centuries. It should be noted that, as mentioned in the Talmud Ketubot 106a, Temple funds were used to pay “book readers” to proof the work of scribes.
The Masoretes are often referred to as schools, most notably, the school of ben Asher and the school of ben Naphtali, but these terms sometimes refer to specific scions of these families - Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher and Moshe ben Naphtali.
The Masoretes created codices, copies of the biblical and Talmudic texts to which they added vowels, trope and important notes and annotations in the margins. Additionally, the Masoretes made numerical notations such as the count of the number of letters and verses in each section of the Torah and also noted the repeated usages of certain words. The most famous of these codices are the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex.
*From the word mesorah, which means tradition.
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