In Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, Chapter 7 ("The End of Remembering"), he writes:

One of the last places where this tradition of recitation still survives is in the reading of the Torah, an ancient handwritten scroll that can take upward of a year to inscribe. The Torah is written without vowels or punctuation (though it does have spaces, an innovation that came to Hebrew before Greek), which means it’s extremely difficult to sight-read.

What does he mean by saying that the Torah is written without vowels?

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abjad "an abjad is a type of writing system in which (in contrast to true alphabets) each symbol or glyph stands for a consonant, in effect leaving it to readers to infer or otherwise supply an appropriate vowel"
    – user10944
    Sep 20, 2020 at 4:39

3 Answers 3


As other answers have mentioned, what is meant is simply what is said: many renderings of the Torah leave out the vowel markers (and punctuation). As several comments have offered, this is a common feature of a lot of Hebrew text, and more broadly, is found in quite a few languages (off the top of my head, I believe Arabic is also often written this way, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were always written this way—that writing system doesn’t even have a way to indicate vowels). You sometimes see words from these languages rendered this way in the Roman alphabet, particularly 1. the names of deities, and 2. ancient words where the vowels used are uncertain.

Why are Hebrew and Arabic often written without their vowel markings? Because for a long time, they didn’t have any, the same as Egyptian hieroglyphics. These writing systems are known as abjads,1 after the first four letters of Arabic, just as “alphabets” (which have vowels) are named for the first two letters of Greek.

But what I think is the real impetus behind this question is something more like “How?” or perhaps “Why?” And the answer is simply because it works, and changing it makes things harder to read (for those who already know how to read it the other way), not easier. Fluent readers don’t read letter-by-letter, after all; they recognize words, or even phrases, and don’t check each individual letter. For a semi-infamous example in English, there’s the “Cmabrigde Uinervtisy” chain e-mail that seemed to end up in everyone’s inboxes around the turn of the millenium. Dictionary.com has a solid write-up of it, but as a demonstration, look at this:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The chain e-mail isn’t particularly accurate—and definitely leaves out a lot of details. But nonetheless, this is fairly readable for most English readers, and those mostly aren’t English words. There was another similar chain e-mail—that I can’t find now, so I suppose it was less famous—that had you counting the letter “o” in a fairly-long passage, and most readers got it wrong because they consistently skipped the word “of” even when they were looking for o’s. And that’s because the brain is lazy and skips work when it can—so if it can tell at a glance what a word probably is, it’s not going to carefully go through all the letters.

Same thing happens in every other language, and that includes those written in abjads. And since the reader’s brain is just recognizing words, it doesn’t need vowel marks—indeed, that might mess up your recognition of the word if you are used to it without.

Nd w cld d th sm n Nglsh f w wntd—ftr ll, cn y rd ths?

And we could do the same in English if we wanted—after all, can you read this?

(Not easily, I’d guess, but you probably more-or-less can—and if this was normal, it likely wouldn’t even be hard).

The other thing here, as TRiG and slebetman mentioned in comments, is that the languages themselves lend themselves to this kind of writing style. In the English example above, there are a fair few ambiguous entries, even only considering common words. Other languages could be worse—most Romance languages require vowels, because a word may well differ only in its vowels when it is declined and/or conjugated. Since those languages rely on those different forms to make a sentence intelligible, you really can’t leave the vowels out. But the abjads for Arabic and Hebrew are, well, designed with those languages in mind—they can handle the different words of those languages with limited ambiguity. Those languages don’t often rely on vowels as the only distinctions between words. If they did, their scripts would most likely have been alphabets instead of abjads, because they would have needed to indicate vowels to make it understood. But since they don’t, the abjad works fine.

  1. Technically, Egyptian hieroglyphics aren’t an abjad, or at least aren’t just an abjad, though particularly later in their history they were mostly used like one. Basically, this is what happens when you’re the first: you kind of have to figure it out as you go along. Hieroglyphics developed from simple pictograms/icons, which you’d just draw the thing you meant, into more abstract forms representing words (as in many Asian scripts, for example), then syllables (also found in several Asian scripts), and finally letters. The hundreds of pictograms and word-glyphs didn’t go away, though, so all told there are about a thousand hieroglyphics, even though the core abjad that eventually developed is a more reasonable number.
  • While @mithical 's answer clearly defined what do vowel represent in Hebrew Your answer is the one which addresses my question. What i was unsure about was that how could some text do not have vowels and yet some peoples were able to read it and the examples given by you made it clear,Thanks a lot. Sep 19, 2020 at 17:50
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    It might be worth noting that different languages work differently. Leaving out the vowels of a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Arabic, works in a way that it would not work for Germanic or Romance languages. It is possible to read English without vowels, but it's very tricky.
    – TRiG
    Sep 19, 2020 at 19:15
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    @abhaymishra What TRiG is alluding to is what's called a language's phonetics (Google it). Basically different languages have different rules for how sounds can construct words. For example even though "xxwgkqqz" is a legal sequence of alphabets it would not be recognizable as an English word whereas "logopoly" sounds like it could be a valid English word even though it's just as nonsense as "xxwgkqqz". The phonetics of Hebrew and Arabic are such that they almost never generate two words that is spelt the same if you leave out vowels.
    – slebetman
    Sep 20, 2020 at 16:04

Vowels in Hebrew - called n'kudot - are written as dots and lines surrounding the letters. In an actual Torah - written on parchment - these symbols aren't there.

As an example, here's a picture of a book called a "tikkun", which is used to help learn the chanting for the traditional way to read the Torah:

description below

On the right side is text with punctuation and vowels. You'll notice that there are dots and lines and other symbols surrounding the text. (Along with the n'kudot is the "t'amei mikra", which show the traditional chanting tune.)
On the left is the text as it appears in the Torah. There is no punctuation or vowels. (You'll notice that there are symbols on top of certain letters - these are called "crowns" and are decorational for the most part.)

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    It should be mentioned that any Hebrew text can be written with or without vowel marks. It's not a feature of the Torah specifically. As I understand it, the vowel marks are considered an aid for learners and are almost always absent in writing aimed at fluent adults. (For example, the Hebrew-language news site Haaretz does not carry vowel marks.)
    – zwol
    Sep 19, 2020 at 1:59
  • If you're talking about the text of the Torah which is most commonly used, the Leningrad Codex, it does have vowels. They were added long before that particular manuscript was produced, but also long after the original text of the Torah was first written. Sep 19, 2020 at 2:06
  • @curiousdannii: The quote seems to be talking about what is called a "Sefer Torah"; there are other sources that say that this type of scroll lacks vowel marks. Is the Leningrad codex commonly reproduced in the form of a "handwritten scroll"?
    – sumelic
    Sep 19, 2020 at 2:26
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    @curiousdannii: Re: "maybe there are traditions which still copy the text onto scrolls without the vowels": That's quite an understatement; as far as I'm aware, all traditions do this. But to be clear, it's not as if Jews have hand-copied Torah scrolls at home; rather, we generally have ordinary printed Bibles, with vowels and punctuation and facing-page translation. But most synagogues have at least one or two Torah scrolls, which are used for public readings during prayer services.
    – ruakh
    Sep 19, 2020 at 7:00
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    @ruakh This answer says "In an actual Torah - written on parchment - these symbols aren't there." which just isn't true for all Torahs written on parchment, such as the Leningrad Codex. I think we're going in circles now, so unless you do know about the textual family of modern synagogue Torah scrolls, I'll leave it at that. Sep 19, 2020 at 7:29

The vowel pointing was added about 600 AD.

There are two speculations as to why:

  1. To make the pronunciation easier.
  2. To hide allusions to Christ which exist when applying the 32 rules of Rabbi Eliezer.

#1 doesn't make much sense since vowels are not used in Modern Hebrew newspapers. #2 has the strength of argument in that the Jews who rejected Christ had persecuted the church until the government put an end to it. Allusions to Christ in the text were then obfuscated by the addition of vowels.

'Amar' means both 'word' and 'Lamb'. [1] When John the baptist said "Behold the Lamb of God, some heard him say "Behold the word of God." but by the addition of vowels we see in the Hebrew dictionaries that they are now two words; amar, and emeer. The effectiveness of the obfuscation is noted in the Theologian's problem of where John got the 'Logos' in John 1:1, presuming that it is a new idea from Philo, rather than a natural part of the Hebrew language.

The prevalent idea that the square text doesn't have vowels is actually a modern invention. The language has been re-invented a couple times. Most recently it was a dead language which was reconstructed to support the Zionist movement.

According to the Sefir Yetzirah, a book commonly believed to be an esoteric source for Cabbalism, is actually a kind of Grammar for Hebrew, but it begins with phonetics. It explains that vowels are breath and consonants interrupt breath.

Every consonant has an 'implied' vowel. When you speak a consonant you naturally speak the associated vowel. Some have the breath before the consonant, some have it after as the breath explodes from the build up of air behind it.

It is said that there are five consonants that act like vowels, but because the vowel (breath ) is foundational to all consonants, it is better explained as five vowels which also are used like consonants. they are placed on one side of the consonant to change the natural flow of area around the consonant 'b' ב is b-ah 'ab' אב is 'ahb' .

Not only does Hebrew have vowels, but all the letters have meanings which are combined to form the meaning of the words.

Adam came from the adamah (ground) and is formed of blood (dam) and spirit (ah). This is called 'formations' when a word is built up, and 'notarikon' when the word is divided into it's smaller parts.

The issue concerned with the OP is based on the common misconception, which gives us an idea of his pedantic understanding of Hebrew. When you sight read, you do not look at the details of a word. Consider aplpe , Jhon, Cnostinoplante. As long at teh frist ltteer and lsat are in pitosoin, and the rest of the letters are there, we can still read them easily. We can also read them easily if the lower half of the letters are chopped off by the shape of the line formed by letters in the proper order on top. Sight reading needs very little information.

[1] אמר, without vowels which were added about 600 AD, is both 'word' Ps 68:11 and lamb Ezr 6:9.

  • Thank you for your contribution. However, is it really necessary to accuse the OP of a "pedantic understanding of Hebrew"?
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 22, 2020 at 14:17
  • I don't think I did. Context is king: In the book "Moonwalking with einstein" by Joshua Foer In chapter 7 "The end of Remembering" he writes:" The author , mentioned in the original post. I think I was saying the author had a pedantic understanding. I addressed the author's lack of understanding of sight reading as well.
    – Bob Jones
    Sep 23, 2020 at 0:32
  • I know of no word for lamb in Hebrew that would be אֹמֶר (which, by the way would be Latinized as ’omer and not amar). Much of the rest of your commentary seems similarly misinformed. Sep 27, 2020 at 2:56
  • Actually, with the vowels added in 600 AD, it is Latinized as 'im-mar' . וְאִמְּרִין . See footnote above.
    – Bob Jones
    Sep 28, 2020 at 14:01
  • Latinization is based on the added vowels. Since there is not an accepted standard between Ashkenaz and Shephardic Latinization, and since I am collapsing all the 'new' words' into their original, it doesn't really matter which Latinization is chosen. It is an anachronism to apply the vowels to this conversation.
    – Bob Jones
    Sep 28, 2020 at 14:57

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