Special letters

Traditionally, some letters in the Hebrew Bible are written in a special way. Below we discuss large and small and raised letters.

The principal division of these abnormal letters is into small ("ze'ira") and large ("rabbati") letters, as indicated in the lists which are given below. The former appear to belong to an older Masorah than that which provides for the large letters, and should be classed with the "qere" and "ketib."

The Encyclopedia Judaica tells us that there are 17 places in the Torah where a letter is written extra-large or extra-small. There are six minuscules and eleven majuscules.

Apart from those there are a few other peculiarities, like the 9 inverted nuns (Num 10:35-36 and Psa 107:23-28, 40) and the broken vav (Num 25:12) and the specially shaped qof (Ex 32:25, Num 7:2).

See [YH] for more typesetting detail.

Enlarged letters

Traditionally, some letters in the Hebrew Bible are written enlarged.
The details on precisely how many, and which ones varies.
(Ashkenazic manuscripts have many more large letters than Sefardic mss. See also [MC].)
It has been suggested that there should be one large copy of each letter in the Torah, or in the entire Tanach.
Below a list.

The traditional enlarged letters

(of which 11 in the Torah).

ב Gen 1:1 בְּרֵאשִׁית all
נ Ex 34:7 נֹצֵר all
ר Ex 34:14 אַחֵר all
ו Lev 11:42 עַל־גָּחוֹן all, #
ג Lev 13:33 וְהִתְגַּלָּח all
י Num 14:17 יִגְדַּל־נָא all
ן Num 27:5 אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָן TE, MC, ML, MP, mm, R, HbD, BHS
ע Deut 6:4 שְׁמַע all
ד Deut 6:4 אֶחָד all
ל Deut 29:27 וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם all
ה Deut 32:6 הַ לְיְהוָה all
כ Jos 14:11 כְּכֹחִי ML, YH, HbD
ז 2 Reg 17:31 נִבְחַז ML, mm
צ Jes 56:10 צֹפָו ML, mm, YH, HbD
ז Mal 3:22 זִכְרוּ ML, mm, HbD
א 1 Chron 1:1 אָדָ֥ם ML, mm, YH, HbD
ה Psa 77:8 הַלְעוֹלָמִים HbD
כ Psa 80:16 וְכַנָּה ML, mm, YH, HbD
ק Psa 84:4 קֵן ML, mm, HbD
ט Job 9:34 שִׁבְטו ML, mm, YH, (HbD typo)
מ Prov 1:1 מִשְׁלֵי ML, mm, YH, HdB
נ Ruth 3:13 לִינִי ML, mm, YH, HdB
ש Cant 1:1 שִׁיר ML, mm, YH, HdB
ט Eccl 7:1 טוֹב ML, mm, YH, (HdB typo)
ס Eccl 12:13 סוֹף ML, mm, YH, (HdB typo)
ח Esth 1:6 חוּר ML, mm, YH, HdB
ו Esth 9:9 וַיְזָתָא ML, mm, YH, HdB
ת Esth 9:29 וַתִּכְתֹּב ML, mm, YH, HdB
פ Dan 6:20 בִּשְׁפַּרְפָּרָא ML, mm, YH, (HdB typo)
BHS has far fewer enlarged letters, but it has Lev 11:42, Num 27:5, Deut 6:4 (2x), and for Gen 34:31, Lev 13:33, Num 13:30, Num 14:17, Deut 18:13, Deut 28:68, Deut 29:27, Deut 32:4,6 there is the footnote "mlt Mss x maj" or similar.

Other enlarged letters in the Torah

ף Gen 30:42 וּבְהַעֲטִיף V, TE, MG, YH, HbD
ז Gen 34:31 הַכְזוֹנָה V, TE, MG, ML, YH, HbD, BHS fn
ח Gen 49:12 חַכְלִילִי V, TE, MP
ם Gen 50:23 שִׁלֵּשִׁים V, TE, ML, MP, YH, HbD
ט Ex 2:2 טוֹב V, TE, MP, HbD
צ Ex 11:8 צֵא TE, MP
ץ Ex 28:36 צִּיץ V, TE, MP
ש Ex 34:11 שְׁמָר־לְךָ MP
ל Lev 11:30 וְהַלְּטָאָה MP, HbD, #
פ Num 3:16 עַל־פִּי MP
ס Num 13:30 וַיַּהַס V, TE, MP, HbD, BHS fn
מ Num 24:5 מַה־טֹּבוּ V, TE, MP, HbD
ך Deut 2:33 וַנַּךְ V, MP
ש Deut 3:11 עֶרֶשׂ V, TE, MP
ת Deut 18:13 תָּמִים V, TE, MP, HbD, BHS fn, #
ק Deut 22:6 קַן־צִפּוֹר V, TE, MP
כ Deut 28:68 וְהִתְמַכַּרְתֶּם V, TE, MP, BHS fn
צ Deut 32:4 הַצּוּר V, MP, HbD, BHS fn
פ Deut 32:5 וּפְתַלְתֹּֽל TE
א Deut 33:29 אַשְׁרֶיךָ V, TE, MP

Small letters

Traditionally, some letters in the Hebrew Bible are written small.
This may belong to an older tradition than that of enlarged letters.
The details on precisely which ones varies a little. Here a list.
ה Gen 2:4 בְּהִבָּרְאָם V, TE, MP, mm, YH, HdB
כ Gen 23:2 וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ V, TE, MP, mm, YH, HdB
ק Gen 27:46 קַצְתִּי V, TE, MP, mm, YH, HdB
ק Ex 32:25 בְּקָֽמֵהֶֽם (MP), HdB - possibly not small but variant quf
א Lev 1:1 וַיִּקְרָא V, TE, mm, YH, HdB
מ Lev 6:2 מֽוֹקְדָה MP, mm, YH, HdB
י Num 25:11 פִּינְחָס MP, R
מ Deu 9:24 מַמְרִים V, TE, ML, MP, YH, HdB
י Deu 32:18 תֶּשִׁי V, MP, mm, HdB, BHS fn
ר 2 Sam 21:19 בֶּן־יַעְרֵי ML, HdB, BHS fn
ן Jes 44:14 אֹ֖רֶן ML, HdB
צ Jer 14:2 וְצִוְחַ֥ת ML, YH, HdB
ן Jer 39:13 וּנְבוּשַׁזְבָּן ML, HdB
ס Nahum 1:3 בְּסוּפָה mm, YH, HdB
ו Psa 24:4 לַשָּׁוְא ML, YH, HdB
ג Job 7:5 וגיש mm, YH, HdB
ץ Job 16:14 עַל־פְּנֵ־פָרֶץ mm, YH, HdB
ח Job 33:9 חַף mm, YH
ן Prov 16:28 וְנִרְגָּן mm, YH, HdB
ד Prov 28:17 אָדָם mm, YH, HdB, BHS fn
ב Prov 30:15 הַב mm, YH, HdB, BHS fn
ל Thr 1:12 לוֹא mm, YH, HdB
ט Thr 2:9 טָבְעוּ mm, YH, HdB
ע Thr 3:36 לְעַוֵּת mm, HdB
ת Esth 9:7 פַּרְשַׁנְדָּתָא mm, YH, HdB
ש,ת Esth 9:9 פַּרְמַשְׁתָּא mm*, ML, YH, HdB*
ז Esth 9:9 וַיְזָתָא mm, YH, HdB
פ Dan 6:20 בִּשְׁפַּרְפָּרָא mm, YH, HdB
*) mm, HdB have only small ש in Esth 9:9; ML, YH have small ש, ת.


Bereshit (Genesis) 23:1-2 And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kirjath-arba; the same [is] Hebron in the land of Canaan: and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
The end of the verse says that Avraham Aveinu came to eulogize Sarah Imeinu, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ and cry over losing her. וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ is inscribed with a small letter kaf. The commentary Baal Haturim says the little letter is telling us Avraham cried only a little because Sarah was an elderly woman. Hakham Shimshon Rafael Hirsch says that the word וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ, and to bewail her, is written with a small kaf to suggest that although Avraham's grief was infinite, the full measure of his pain was concealed in his heart and the privacy of his home.

Raised letters

Traditionally, four letters in the Hebrew Bible are written raised (or "suspended"). The list:
נ Jud 18:30 בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁה all
ע Psa 80:14 מִיָּעַר all
ע Job 38:13 רְשָׁעִים all
ע Job 38:15 מֵרְשָׁעִים all
There are four words having one of their letters suspended above the line. One of them, (Judges 18:30), is due to an alteration of the original out of reverence for Moses; rather than say that Moses' grandson became an idolatrous priest, a suspended nun was inserted to turn Mosheh into Menasheh (Manasseh).
The ע in Psa 80:14 is the middle letter of the book of Psalms.

Unexpected dagesh

Dagesh in alef is seen in Gen 43:26 וַיָּבִיאּוּ, Lev 23:17 תָּבִ֣יאּוּ, Ezr 8:18 וַיָּבִיאּוּ, and sometimes in Job 33:21 רֻאּוּ.

Resh with dagesh is seen in 1 Sam 1:6 הַרְּעִמָהּ, 1 Sam 10:24, 1 Sam 17:25, 2 Reg 6:32 הַרְּאִתֶם, Prov 3:8 לְשָׁרֶּךָ, Prov 14:10 מָרַּת, Eze 16:4 לֹא־כָרַּת, ibid. שָׁרֵּךְ, Cant 5:2 שֶׁרֹּאשִׁי, Prov 15:1 מַעֲנֶה־רַּךְ, and Psa 52:5, Prov 11:21, Jer 39:12 רָּע, Ezr 9:6, Hab 3:13 רֹּאשׁ, 2 Chron 26:10 מִקְנֶה־רַּב, Job 39:9 רֵּים.

(For ayin with dagesh, see below.)

ketiv and qere

The custom to leave the consonants as written (ketiv) and add vowels as should be read (qere) sometimes leads to unexpected word forms.

In Jes 9:6 there is a final mem in the middle of the word לְםַרְבֵּה. This is a case of ketiv and qere, where a word space was written but should not be read.


The closed, Final Mem, represents the era of Moshiach as explained in Kabbalah.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

In Job 38:1 there is a nonfinal nun at the end of a word in מִנ ׀ הַסְּעָרָה. This is a case of ketiv and qere, where no word space was written, but one should be read.

In Neh 2:13 there is a nonfinal mem at the end of a word in אֲשֶׁר־הֵמ ׀ פְּרוּצִים.

In Ez 9:11 there is a kaf with both sjwa and cholem in כְֹּ אֲשֶׁר, to be read as כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר.

In 1 Sam 5:12 there is an ayin with dagesh in בַּעְּפֹלִים, to be read as בַּטְּחֹרִים.

In Jes 54:16 there is a dagesh with vowel but without consonant in הִן ֵּ (or הִןֵ) to be read הִנֵּה.

Various places there are vowels only, without consonant, where these indicate a word to be read of which the letters were not written.

Broken vav, vav ketia

In Num 25:12 in the word שָׁלוֹם the ו is broken. See also [MP].

The story is that God promises peace after Pinchas has killed two sinners. According to tradition, the peace you get after killing is broken.

There are two often overlooked textual clues in the Hebrew text. There are lots of scribal oddities in the Torah: big letters, small letters and upside down letters. But with one exception, if any letter is broken or split, the Torah is not kosher. Here, the 'vuv' in the word for peace, shalom, is 'broken' and the reverse is true; if the 'vuv' is written normally, the Torah is not kosher. In other words the Torah seems to be saying God wants to give Pinchas peace, but it cannot be a whole peace, because of his actions. This reminds me of King David, who wasn't allowed to build the temple because he was a man of war. The second textual oddity is in Pinchas' name itself. It can be written with a 'yod' (or not). But when his name appears the first time in our parasha the 'yod' is written smaller than usual. Now the 'yod' is normally interpreted as God's presence, (so for example Hoshua has his name changed to Yehoshua when he takes over from Moses to signify that God is with him). I see the diminuition of the 'yod' in Pinchas' name to represent that God's presence has withdrawn from his violent actions.

Nun hafucha

There are symbols "reversed letter nun" (nun hafucha) before Num. 10:35, and after Num. 10:36. The shape varies: nun rotated or backwards, or with lower part backwards and upper half as usual, etc. These symbols are not to be pronounced, are separators rather than letters. Unicode 4.1 encodes NUN HAFUKHA as U+05c6.

Two explanations are given for these two symbols.

The first, by R. Simeon ben Gamaliel, says that the two verses enclosed will (when the Messiah comes) be removed from here and put in their proper place. According to R. Ashi that is after Num 2:34.

The second, by R. Samuel ben Na'hmeni, says that this passage (Num 10:35-36) forms a book in itself, so that Numeri is three books, and the Torah consists of seven books.

See shabbat 16 and nun_hafucha.

In the LXX this passage precedes Num 10:34.

Apart from Num 10, there is one more place that contains reversed/inverted/backwards nuns, namely Psalm 107. (There are 2 in Num 10 and 7 in Ps 107:23-28,40. [ML] has extra space instead of inverted nun in Ps 107.)

Puncta extraordinaria - Ezra's points

The puncta extraordinaria (nequdot, נקודות) are dots which are found over (53 times) and under (3 times) certain letters. Unicode 4.1 encodes them as U+05c4 (upper) and U+05c5 (lower). These dots predate the Masoretic system, and seem to be preserved but ignored by the Masoretes. They are also written in unvocalized texts. Probably the original meaning was to denote that the indicated letters are uncertain, perhaps have to be removed. (Such use of dots is known from the Qumran scrolls.)

Ten dotted expressions in the Torah: ... And he fell on his neck and kissed him (Gen 33:4). (The word וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵׄהׄוּׄ is dotted, (because) you might think he kissed him out of love. To pasture their father's flock at Shechem (Gen 37:12). You might think they really pastured them.... Why are all these letters dotted? This is what Ezra said: `If Elijah comes and says "Why did you write (them)?" I will say to him, "I have dotted them"; but if he tells me, "You have written well", I will remove the dots from them.'

Fifteen verses have nequdot:

# dots on verse word(s) remarks
1 י Gen 16:5 וּבֵינֶֽיׄךָ
3 איו Gen 18:9 אֵׄלָ֔יׄוׄ BHS: also on ל
1 ו Gen 19:33 וּבְקוּׄמָֽהּ
6 וישקהו Gen 33:4 וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ
2 את Gen 37:12 אֶׄתׄ־צֹ֥אן
5 ואהרן Num 3:39 וְׄאַֽׄהֲׄרֹ֛ׄןׄ
1 ה Num 9:10 רְחֹקָ֜הׄ
1 ר Num 21:30 אֲשֶׁ֖רׄ
1 ו Num 29:15 וְעִשָּׂרוֹׄן֙
11 לנוולבנינוע Deu 29:28 לָ֤ׄנׄוּׄ וּׄלְׄבָׄנֵ֨ׄיׄנׄוּ֙ׄ עַׄד־עוֹלָ֔ם BHS: not on ע
3 יצא 2 Sam 19:20 אֲשֶׁר־יָׄצָ֥אׄ mm: only on יא
3 המה Jes 44:9 הֵ֗ׄמָּׄהׄ
5 ההיכל Eze 41:20 הַׄהֵׄיׄכָֽׄלׄ ML: only on ההכל
7 מהקצעות Eze 46:22 מְׄהֻׄקְׄצָׄעֽׄוֹׄתׄ
3+3 ללא Psa 27:13 לׄוּׄלֵ֗ׄאׄ mm: upper on לולא, no lower;
one also sees 4+4


BHS is Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1997,
MC is Menachem Cohen, On the Number of Verses, Words and Letters in the Bible,
MG stands for Mikraot Gedolot (Pardes, 1951) as quoted by Mordechai Pinchas,
ML stands for Meir Halevi Letteris, Sefer Torah, Nevi'im u-Khetuvim (Berlin 1925),
MP stands for Mordechai Pinchas,
V is Vienna MS 1 (according to [MC]),
TE is R' Yosef Tuv-Elem (according to [MC]),
mm is the on-line Mechon-Mamre Hebrew bible,
YH is Yannis Haralambous, Typesetting the Holy Bible in Hebrew, with TeX,
HbD is the list by Hilel ben David (Greg Killian).

Send additions and corrections to aeb@cwi.nl.