1847The practice of repeating the word זכר (z-kh-r) in Parshat Zakhor, once as zekher, with a segol under the zayin, and once as zeikher, with a tzeirei under the zayin, is par for the course in Ashkenazi synagogues. Sefardim, who do not distinguish between the pronunciations of the aforementioned Hebrew vowels, read the word only once. This discrepancy is rooted in an old and ongoing debate—the proper vocalization of the verse תמחה את זכר עמלק (timheh et z-kh-r amaleq; Deut 25:19). Professor Jordan Penkower of Bar Ilan University, a world expert on the history of Bible manuscripts, set out to determine the single correct reading of the verse by exploring over 130 manuscripts and the testimony of masoretic scholars and halakhic authorities throughout the ages.

At a lecture delivered this past Wednesday, February 6, to a packed audience of Revel students, faculty and alumni, Professor Penkower retraced the steps of his quest—sharing vivid slides of the manuscripts and other sources crucial to his research. While the difference maaseh02smallbetween two dots and three dots in old manuscripts may seem arcane and dry, the lecture was presented in an exciting way that highlighted the surprising turns involved in the preservation of the correct pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible. Professor Penkower showed, for example, how a misprint in R. David Kimhi’s Biblical Hebrew dictionary Sefer Ha-Shorashim, s.v., z-kh-r, published in Venice in 1547 misled some early authorities. (The error was finally rectified, based on superior manuscripts, in the Berlin 1847 edition.) Of special interest was the testimony of Rav Chaim of Volozhin regarding the Vilna Gaon’s practice appearing in his letter printed in the 1832 edition of R. Issachar Baer’s Ma’aseh Rav.

“Dr. Penkower really made the topic feel alive,” remarked Revel student Yaakov Taubes. “I especially liked how he showed large pictures of the different manuscripts so you could see the evidence for yourself. It is always nice when something you have known about since childhood is completely explained.”

Professor Penkower ultimately concluded that zeikher, with a tzeirei under the zayin, is the proper vocalization of the verse. His position is based on the views of Rabbi David Kimhi (according to the correct text of his dictionary entry!) and of R. Yedidiah Norzi, author of Minhat Shai. The Aleppo codex, regarded as the most accurate text of venice largethe Bible, is now missing most of the Torah (including Deut 25:19) and therefore cannot be consulted directly on this matter. But Professor Penkower cited the testimony of two nineteenth-century Jewish scholars who travelled to Aleppo and recorded its vocalization—with a tzeirei under the zayin.

This article was written by Rivka Jacob (Revel 2012).

For those interested in further detail on the lecture topic, see Professor Penkower’s article (in Hebrew): “Minhag and Massorah: On the Recent Ashkenazi Custom of Double Vocalization of ‘Zeikher Amaleq’ (Deut. 25:19),” Studies in Bible and Exegesis, vol. 4, Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press 1997, pp. 71-128.


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