Aaron ben Moses ben Asher

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Aaron ben Moses ben Asher (in Hebrew אהרון בן משה בן אשר; in Tiberian Hebrew ʾAhărôn ben Mōšeh benʾĀšēr) (10th century, died circa 960) was a Jewish scribe who refined the Tiberian system for writing down vowel sounds in Hebrew, which is still in use today, and serves as the basis for grammatical analysis. For over a thousand years he has been regarded by Jews of all streams around the world as having produced the most accurate version of the masoretic text. Since his day, both handwritten manuscripts of the Tanakh and printed versions strove to emulate his achievement and continue to do so. He lived and worked in the city of Tiberias (Hebrew טבריה) on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (Hebrew ים כנרת).

He was descended from a long line of Masoretes, starting with someone called Asher, but nothing is known about them other than their names. His father, Moses ben Asher, is credited with writing the Cairo Codex of the Prophets (895CE); if authentic, it is among the oldest manuscripts containing a large proportion of the Hebrew Bible. Umberto Cassuto used this manuscript as the basis of his edition of the Hebrew Bible. Aaron ben Asher himself added vowelization and cantillation notes, and mesorah to the Aleppo Codex, correcting its letter-text according to the masorah.

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 wrote: "All relied on it, since it was corrected by Ben-Asher and was worked on and analyzed 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".

Aaron ben Moses ben Asher was the first to take Hebrew grammar seriously. He was the first systematic Hebrew grammarian. His Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (Grammar or Analysis of the Accents) was an original 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 for the first time. He had a tremendous influence on the world of Biblical grammar and scholarship.

A rival system of note was that developed by the school of Ben Naphtali.

Was Ben Asher a Karaite?

Most of the secular scholars conclude that Aaron ben Asher was indeed a Karaite though there is evidence against this view (see suggestions for further reading). One of the strongest arguments against it is that it would be astonishing if Maimonides, famously opposed to the Karaites, had followed the authority of a Karaite, even in the matter of open and closed sections.

In his critiques of Karaites, Saadia Gaon mentioned a "Ben-Asher." Until recently, it never occurred to scholars to associate this "Ben-Asher" with the famous Aaron ben Asher of Tiberias. Recent research indicates, however, that it is probable. This may explain why he preferred the "Ben Naphtali" system.

In his work Sefer Dikdukei ha Te'amim, Aaron ben Asher wrote, "The prophets... complete the Torah, are as the Torah, and we decide Law from them as we do from the Torah." This belief is known to have been held by Karaites. Documents found in the Cairo Geniza also indicate that ben Asher was a Karaite.

If Aaron ben Asher was indeed a Karaite, it may be argued that he was the most influential Karaite in world history.

Further reading

  • Aaron Dotan, "Was Aharon Ben Asher Indeed a Karaite?" (Hebrew), in S.Z. Leiman, The Canon and Masorah of the Hebrew Bible: An Introductory Reader (New York: Ktav, 1974).
  • Aaron Dotan, "Ben Asher's Creed" (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1977).
  • Rafael Zer, "Was the Masorete of the Keter a Rabbanite or Karaite?", Sefunot 23 (2003) Pages 573-587 (Hebrew)

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