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Ben-Asher, Aaron ben Moses


BEN-ASHER, AARON BEN MOSES (called Abu Sa ʿid in Arabic; first half of tenth century), last and most important of a family of masoretes active in Tiberias for five generations, from the second half of the eighth century. That Ben-Asher lived in the first half of the tenth century may be deduced from a list in the Keter, a biblical manuscript formerly in Aleppo, now in Israel. This states that Ben-Asher vocalized and masar (i.e., wrote the *Masorah of) the Keter, which was written by Solomon b. Bouya'a, a well-known scribe, who wrote another Bible dated 930. It is also known that Ben-Asher was no longer alive in 989, since the scribe of the manuscript of the Former Prophets from that date says of him: "may he rest in the Garden of Eden" (Leningrad, Firkovich ii, Ms. 39). Ben-Asher was apparently an elder contemporary of *Saadiah Gaon, who wrote the anti-Karaitic critique "Essa Meshali," against Ben-Asher.

The controversial question, as to whether or not Ben-Asher was a Karaite, was seemingly settled when this reply of Saadiah (mentioned in Dunash's objections on Saadiah, p. 21, no. 72) was discovered. In this reply it is clear that the Ben-Asher who was Saadiah's opponent worked on masorah, and it seems, therefore, that he was identical with Aaron Ben-Asher, the well-known masorete. The assumption that he was a Karaite serves to explain his attitude to the Bible and its authoritativeness in matters of halakhah (for example, Dikdukei ha-Te'amim, ed. A. Dotan (1967), ch. 2: "The prophets… complete the Torah, are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah") and to vocalization, opinions rooted in Karaite thought. It appears from the parallel ideas and style used in the Maḥberet Ben-Asher (see below), from the "Wine Song" written by his father, and from the list which his father appended to the codex of the Prophets (kept in the Karaite synagogue, Cairo), which he wrote "827 years after the destruction of the Second Temple" (i.e., in 895), that his father, Moses Ben-Asher, was also a Karaite, and it is probable that Karaism was a family tradition. (Note, however, that Dotan (Sinai, 41 (1957), 280ff.) and M. Zucker (Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 61ff.) hold that Aaron Ben-Asher and his family were not Karaites.) It is noteworthy that the founder of the family, "Asher the Great Sage," apparently lived in the first half of the eighth century and was a contemporary of Anan, a precursor of Karaism.

Ben-Asher rapidly gained fame as the most authoritative of the Tiberias masoretes, and in 989, the scribe of the abovementioned manuscript of the Former Prophets vouched for the care with which his copy was written by the fact that he had vocalized and added the masorah "from the books that were [vocalized] by Aaron ben Moses Ben-Asher." Maimonides, by accepting the views of Ben-Asher (though only in regard to open and closed sections), helped establish and spread his authority. Referring to a Bible manuscript then in Egypt, he writes: "All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on (ve-dikdek bo) by him for many years, and was proofread many times in accordance with the masorah, and I based myself on this manuscript in the Sefer Torah that I wrote" (Yad, Maim. Sefer Torah, 8:4). It is generally agreed that the codex used by Maimonides is that formerly in Aleppo.

Proof for this is adduced from Saadiah b. David Al-Adni, who wrote in his commentary on the Yad (ibid.): "The Codex that the Gaon [i.e., Maimonides] used is in Zoba, called Aleppo, and is called the Keter… and at the end is written, 'I Aaron Ben-Asher proofread it… I saw and read it'" (Oxford, Bodleian Library Ms. Hunt. 372, fol. 138b; cf. P. Kahle, The Cairo Genizah (1947), 58). However, Cassuto, who studied the Keter in Aleppo, was doubtful. An attempt was made to refute these doubts by M. Goshen-Gottstein (Textus, 1 (1960), 1ff.), but A. Dotan further supported Cassuto's position (Tarbiz, 34 (1964/65), 136ff.) It now appears likely that it was Ben-Asher who vocalized and added the masorah to the Keter of Aleppo, despite the fact that the note in the manuscript was written after his death. The masorah has been vocalized and added by "the lord of scribes, the father of wise men and the first of teachers… the unique Rabbi Aaron ben Rabbi Asher, may his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life" (the latter being an epithet applied to a person who has died)

The tradition of Ben-Asher is the one accepted in the Jewish Bible, but this does not mean that the version of the Bible found in the common editions is exactly the same as that which Ben-Asher produced. The differences between the printed editions and the various manuscripts assumed to be written in the Ben-Asher tradition are mainly in the placing of the accents, especially the use of the meteg, different uses of the sheva and ḥataf in certain grammatical forms, all differences that are unimportant for the average reader. These differences developed over the years, usually as a result of grammatical assumptions that were not always correct. Furthermore, certain divergences in vocalization and masorah are found even in manuscripts that are accepted as Ben-Asher codices. This fact, combined with the evidence of Mishael b. Uzziel in his Kitab al-Khulaf, indicates that Ben-Asher used different systems of vocalization at different times in specific words. It may be said, therefore, that different Ben-Asher manuscripts reveal a continual development in his method of vocalization.

Ben-Asher was one of the first to lay the foundations of Hebrew grammar. His Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (or the Maḥberet Ben-Asher, as David *Kimḥi called it in his commentary on Judg. 6:19) is a collection of grammatical rules and masoretic information. Grammatical principles were not at that time considered worthy of independent study. The value of this work is that the grammatical rules presented by Ben-Asher reveal the linguistic background of vocalization. The book was first published in Biblia Rabbinica edited by Pratensis, the format later called Mikra'ot Gedolot (1516–18), and again in 1879 by S.I. Baer and Strack, who edited the material according to topics, in a manner different from that in the first edition. Until recently all studies relating to Ben-Asher's system of grammar and masorah were based on this edition. A. Dotan's edition (1967), which includes a commentary and studies on the content of the book, changed the previous conception of Dikdukei ha-Te'amim as it had been understood for 90 years. Many of the phonological and morphological topics which had been commonly attributed to Dikdukei ha-Te'amim are not included. The main theme discussed in the book is the relationship of the biblical accents to the rules of vocalization and pronunciation. The sheva and its pronunciation play a major part in this work.

Except for certain parts, including masoretic lists, the book is written in a rhymed poetic style, using paytanic language. It can be assumed that the parts not written in this style were not by Ben-Asher. The language of the book shows a certain Arabic influence, particularly with regard to grammatical terms. Even in its more limited form Dikdukei ha-Te'amim is important not only for showing how the different vocalizers determined the correct vocalization, but also for a clearer understanding of the grammatical world of the later masoretes, who laid the foundations for Hebrew grammar in later generations.


Fuerst, Karaeertum, 1 (1862), 112; Graetz, in: mgwj, 20 (1871), 1–12, 49–59; Bacher, in: zaw, 15 (1895), 293–304; Mann, Egypt, 2 (1922), 43–49; P. Kahle, Masoreten des Westens, 1 (1927); idem, in: vt, 1 (1951), 161–8; idem, in: Donum Natalicium H.S. Nyberg (1955), 161–70; L. Lipschuetz, Der Bibeltext der Tiberischen Masoretenschule (1937); K. Levy, Zur masoretischen Grammatik (1936); Teicher, in: jjs, 2 (1950/51), 17–25; S. Pinsker, Likkutei Kadmoniyyot (1860), 32; Schorr, in: He-Ḥalutz, 6 (1862), 67ff.; J. Saphir, Even Sappir, 1 (1866), 11–20; 2 (1874), 185ff.; B.Z. Bacher, Niẓẓanei ha-Dikduk (1927), 27–41; D. Yellin, Toledot Hitpatteḥut ha-Dikduk ha-Ivri (1945), 6–29; M.H. Segal, Mevo ha-Mikra, 4 (19523), 896–9 and esp. notes 15, 17; Ben-Ḥayyim, in: Leshonenu, 18 (1953), 92–94; B. Klar, Meḥkarim ve-Iyyunim (1954), 276–319; Cassuto, in: Haaretz (April 15, 1949). add. bibliography: E.J. Revell, in: abd, 4: 593–94; J. Penkower, in: dbi, 1:117–19.

[Zeev Ben-Hayyim]

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