The dots appearing over a handful of words or letters in the Bible are called the eser nekudot (there are ten instances in the Torah; five in other books), or puncta extraordinaria. While the latter term may sound a bit pretentious in casual conversation, it is still preferable to “stigmatized words,” another description I have seen used. These words may have problems, but they do not deserve to be stigmatized.
One of the most intriguing examples is in Gen. 33:4, the opening scene of Jacob’s dreaded encounter with Esau. Even in the unpunctuated Torah scroll, there is dot above each letter of the word וישקהו.
וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ:
Rashi addresses the dots, quoting from Sifre:
וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ - נקוד עליו, ויש חולקין בדבר הזה בברייתא דספרי (בהעלותך סט), יש שדרשו נקודה זו לומר שלא נשקו בכל לבו. אמר ר' שמעון בן יוחאי הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו:
Hazal saw the dots as cause for derasha; a signal for midrashic interpretation to account for a problem with the word underneath. The first opinion cited by Rashi claims that the dots detract from the literal meaning of the word. Since Esau’s greeting was halfhearted, the word is marked with a kind of exegetical strikethrough. R. Shimon bar Yohai views these dots much like an underline or italics, meant to emphasize the uniqueness of Esau’s behavior rather than diminish its literalness. The kiss was heartfelt, but it was also extraordinary; an exception to the rule borne out by history that “Esau hates Jacob.”
Interestingly, Rashi cites the version of this midrash from Sifre, rather than its parallel in Bereshit Rabba (78):
וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, נקוד עליו. אר"ש בן אלעזר . . . מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו. אמר לו ר' ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו? אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו, ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע. ומה ת"ל וַיִּבְכּוּ? אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו, ר' אבהו בשם ר' יוחנן מייתי לה מן הכא (שיר השירים ז) צוארך כמגדל השן וגו'.
The latter opinion in this version suggests we exegetically "modify" וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ and read it וַיִּשָּׁכֵהוּ. The dots allow us to completely overturn the simple meaning of the verse by changing – homiletically, not textually – one of the letters within the word. In choosing the Sifre version, perhaps Rashi believed that it is closer to the peshat; that dots may indicate a word marked for emphasis or for “erasure” – again, on the level of midrash, rather than textual criticism – but that they could not suggest such a radically nonliteral reading as found in Bereshit Rabba. Ibn Ezra, for one, believed that the story of Esau biting Jacob’s neck was very far from peshat. In his own characteristically sharp words: הדרש על נקודות וישקהו טוב הוא לעתיקי משדים, כי על דרך הפשט לא חשב עשו לעשות רע לאחיו, והעד ויבכו, כאשר עשה יוסף עם אחיו
On another instance of supra-linear punctuation in Genesis (19:33), וְלֹא-יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ, Rashi makes a fairly clear statement to the effect that dots are midrashic deletion marks. There is a dot above the second vav in the word וּבְקוּמָהּ. Rashi makes the following comment:
ובקומה - של בכירה נקוד, לומר הרי הוא כאילו לא נכתב, לומר שבקומה ידע ואף על פי כן לא נשמר ליל שני מלשתות.
A thorough treatment of the eser nekudot is offered by David Weiss Halivni in Peshat and Derash (1991) and Revelation Restored (1997). Halivni writes both as a traditionalist and as an academic scholar of rabbinic literature. His thesis – in a summary that will not do justice to his erudition, or to the precision and elegance of his writing – is as follows: Ezra, the prophet-scribe, and his colleagues inherited a Torah that had become “maculate” due to neglect, i.e., because of the culture of idolatry and syncretism which dominated the First Temple period. In reintroducing Torah Law to a people eager for instruction, Ezra had to overcome the human maculation of the divine Torah. One of the methods Ezra used to accomplish this was to place dots over corrupted texts. Halivni cites a much-discussed passage on the nekudot in Bemidbar Rabba (3:13) which preserves the memory of Ezra’s role in this process:
וי"א למה נקוד. אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר, למה כתבת אותן? אומר לו כבר נקדתי עליהם. ואם יאמר לי, יפה כתבת! כבר אמחוק נקודותיהן מעליהן.
Some give another reason why the dots were inserted. Ezra reasoned thus: If Elijah comes and asks, “Why have you written these words?” I shall answer, “That is why I dotted these passages.” And if he says to me, “You have done well in having written them,” I shall erase the dotes above them (Translation from David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored, p. 17).
Other sources from the literature of Hazal (e.g., Sanhedrin 21b), in which Ezra is ranked almost as an equal to Moses in the revelation, point to Ezra’s pivotal role in the restoration of the Torah after the exile. The idea of textual emendation by Ezra was understandably downplayed over the generations, Halivni suggests, in order to emphasize the sanctity of the written word. But evidence of such activity remains in these passages.
Theories dealing with changes to the text of the Torah may cause bnei Torah much confusion and discomfort, as they fly in the face of the most popular, and most radical, notions regarding the Masoretic text. One such idea is Maimonides’ Eighth Principle of Faith, which states that the Torah we possess today is exactly the same – to the letter – as the one given to Moses on Sinai. Without minimizing the problem, it is important to be aware of Maimonides’ detractors on this matter and also to view the Eighth Principle in its theological and historical context, both of which have been facilitated by Dr. Marc B. Shapiro in The Limits of Orthodox Theology (2004). (The theological issue goes well beyond Maimonides’ Principles of Faith and is addressed in detail by Halivni in Peshat and Derash). The question of when, or whether, to introduce traditional students to modern critical views of the eser nekudot, as well as other aspects of modern biblical scholarship, is an educational matter which must be carefully considered.
That the nekudot may be understood -- on the level of peshat -- as scribal marks casting doubt on the underlying words, can be visualized in the recent online publication of five Dead Sea Scrolls (on an Israel Museum website powered by Google). In the Great Isaiah Scroll, viewable here and below, we see two examples, in nearby verses, of supra-linear dots; both are within the column designated XXIX. The first example is from Isaiah 36:4, where the words מלך יהודה are dotted in the same manner as the eser nekudot. The second is from 36:7, where dots were added above the word בירושלים. In both cases, the marked words are absent in the Masoretic (i.e., our) version of Isaiah. I am not suggesting that the dots in the Isaiah Scroll are perfectly analogous to those in the Torah, especially since the latter were, in the end, preserved along with the words below. Furthermore, the notations in the Isaiah Scroll may have been driven by an unknown sectarian agenda. Still, there is enough similarity here – lehavdil – to warrant some comparison and to begin a discussion, even among bnei Torah.
Returning to our original example from the reunion of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 33:4), I suspect that the dots over וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ were originally placed there for structural reasons, related to the proper flow of the verse. Note how the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ is placed directly between two phrases, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו – hugging – and וַיִּבְכּוּ – crying. However, in three other instances in Genesis, crying follows hugging immediately, without interruption:
45:14 וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן-אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל-צַוָּארָיו:
46:29 וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְֹרָאֵל אָבִיו גּשְׁנָה וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו עוֹד:
50:1 וַיִּפֹּל יוֹסֵף עַל-פְּנֵי אָבִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עָלָיו וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ
Like other issues regarding the biblical text, we will never know the history of the dots with certainty. In this case, it is possible that doubts about Esau’s sincerity motivated the scribes to place, or to maintain, the dots. I also believe it is possible, even likely, that dots were first placed above Esau’s kiss as part of a prophetic, yet human, attempt to determine the most faithful wording of kitve ha-kodesh.