Back in the hoary old days when I was a seminary student, one of the humongous texts we were required to purchase was the “Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia”, a massive tome over 1500 pages thick. The text is the entire Hebrew Bible with every variant spelling, insertion and deletion that is known in the world. The apparatus on every page refers to ancient versions of the Bible in different languages and to manuscripts, often just scraps of verses that have been preserved over the centuries. The purpose of the book is to seek out the original Hebrew text of the Bible as accurately as possible. This endeavor, which captures the imagination of the Jews, is actually a Catholic text, which is why the title is in Latin.
There are many, many notes of each page. Some the pages in The Prophets and The Writings, which were not subject to the strict laws of copying like the Torah was, are thick with notes down the sides of the page, on top of words and on the bottom of the page. To save room, all the notes are presented as abbreviations. The language of the textual notes is Latin because of the Catholic origins and all of the abbreviations are also Latin. If one wants to read the notes, which is the entire purpose of the text, one must know some Latin but also be able to recognize abbreviations of the Latin words. All of this is just to study the Hebrew text.
When I purchased my Biblia Hebraica, weighing in at three or four pounds, it came with two paper inserts. One insert matched the Hebrew trope that cantors use to chant with the Catholic symbols. The other insert was a translation of all the abbreviations, the more important of the two inserts. When I bought my text, I did not know about the inserts and did not check for them. They were not in my copy.
I used that text for an entire semester before I saw someone using the insert that was missing from my book. The word I use to describe the moment when I asked “where did you get that pamphlet?” is flabbergasted. That semester of extra studying was hours of sweaty frustration that I have yet to recoup.
My photocopy of the insert disintegrated years ago from use and poor quality paper. After a mention of the text in Torah study last week, I went back to the Biblia Hebraica and realized that I had forgotten some of the abbreviations. On a lark I did a Google search for the list of abbreviations. Lo and behold, I found a seven page pdf file with all of the information plus extra material that was just as relevant.
I am so happy. I am sure that many students have lost their inserts over time and wind up in the same predicament as me. Somewhere, somehow, one professional who has great respect for the decades of work poured into this text, posted a better-than-the-insert replacement where anyone can find it. What a gift.
I’m often asked if I have read all of the books in my library. One answer is “yes” but the reply is misleading. The real answer is that I am still reading a number of books in my library. Biblia Hebraica is not a reference text though, like a dictionary or a thesaurus. The text is used for teaching students, guiding scholars and starting searches for questions about the biblical text.
Entire careers have been poured into this text. I am grateful that I can pull the book off my shelf and seek out the verses or chapter in question without any hurdles or fences because of these generations of modern scholars. As I have already said, what a gift.