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‘Zeicher’ or ‘Zecher’ in Parshat Zachor?

Most of us will be surprised to learn that the widespread custom today to repeat the verse (or phrase) started about 100 years ago, based on an instruction in the Mishna Berurah.

What follows are the main things one needs to know on this topic:

זכר appears two times in the Torah (Exodus 17:14, Deuteronomy 25:19) and four times in Nach (Isaiah 26:14, Psalm 111:4, Psalm 145:7, and Proverbs 10:7). Also, three times in Nach, we have לזכר (Psalm 30:5, 97:12 and 112:6).

The entire controversy arose based on a statement of Radak (died circa 1235). Then, further confusion arose due to subsequent erroneous printings of what he wrote. In the centuries before the Radak, every single old Tiberian manuscript of Tanach—that we know of today—had five dots (i.e., tzeirei) as opposed to six dots (segol) in every instance of זכר and לזכר. The Tiberian Masorete Aaron ben Moshe ben Asher (10th century) confirms this in his Dikdukei HaTaamim.

(One of the old Tiberian manuscripts just mentioned is the “Aleppo Codex,” written in Tiberias in the early 10th century. Today, the Torah text is missing from Genesis 1:1 through Deuteronomy 28:17. But in 1857, Rabbi Yaakov Sappir from Jerusalem sent a list of many questions to Syria for the codex to be checked. The response on this one was five dots. Regarding the authority of the Aleppo Codex, see Rambam, Hilchot Sefer Torah 8:4.)

The vast majority of medieval manuscripts have five dots in every instance. Neither of the 16th century works on the Masorah, Ohr Torah and Minchat Shai, mention any variant. Neither do the Masoretic notes in Tanach. Nor does CD Ginsburg. The manuscripts that have six dots—in any instance—are, generally, those with many other mistakes and often from areas where tzeirei and segol were pronounced the same.

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Radak wrote in Sefer HaShorashim: “‘Timcheh et זכר Amalek’ with six dots, but ‘לזכר kodsho’ with five dots—and there is none other like it—so it is in some books, and in some books, all זכר with five dots.”

That first statement of Radak would give grounds to some for reading six dots, even though Radak mentioned an alternative view. But the problem became more severe, because in the two most popular editions of the Radak available in Europe in the 16th-19th centuries, Radak’s remark was erroneously cut off early—ending with, “and there is none other like it,” omitting the alternative view.

Many works were influenced by the erroneously truncated Radak. For example, an important Ashkenazic siddur printed—in the early 17th century—by Rabbi Shabti Sofer decided to follow it. Also, an early Mikraot Gedolot (1517, edition Felix Pratensis) put six dots at Exodus 17:14 and this led many Chumashim to print it that way. Eventually, the correct text of Radak was published in 1857. Nearly all Chumashim have returned to printing the text the original way—with five dots in both Torah verses.

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The first Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, died 1812) wrote a homiletic explanation for why Exodus 17:14 has six dots, while Deuteronomy 25:19 has five dots. (The truth is there is no difference in meaning.) Within a century, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Fradkin (died 1902)—a disciple of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe—decided that there should be a reading of both versions when one of those verses was read.

“Maaseh Rav” is a work by a student of the Vilna Gaon. Its author testifies (Shabbat, section 134) that the gaon read it with a segol during parshat Zachor. But Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin—the primary disciple of the Vilna Gaon—wrote the following in his approbation to the above book: “As for his statement that in parshat Zachor, one should read ‘zecher’ with six dots, I myself heard from the gaon’s holy mouth that he read it with five dots. I, thus, cannot be sure whether someone was listening but heard wrong … or whether, perhaps, in his later years, the gaon had a change of heart.” (Today, the widespread view is that the gaon did have a change of heart—probably, motivated by the text of the Radak that he had.)

But the Vilna Gaon was not doing a double reading. (Maaseh Rav also reports that the gaon read it with a segol in Ashrei.) The custom of a double reading in parshat Zachor only (in contrast to the Rabbi Fradkin approach above regarding both Torah verses) was an innovation of the students of the gaon, who settled in Jerusalem. They understood that there was a doubt as to what the custom of the gaon actually was. But—most likely—this custom of a double reading was not practiced anywhere else in Israel or the Diaspora.

The final step that led to the present Ashkenazic minhag is Mishna Berurah 685:18, which concludes: “The correct approach, therefore, is to read it both ways, in order to be certain that one has fulfilled his obligation.” Mishna Berurah’s ruling has been accepted as halacha in almost all Ashkenazic communities, both inside and outside Israel. (One notable exception is the Breuer community in Washington Heights, which follows the customs of Frankfurt.) Of course, Sefardim and Yemenites are reading it only once, with five dots.

The post on the “Mi Yodeya” site that I cite below concludes (and I am paraphrasing):

The traditional way to deal with an issue like this is to follow the majority of the older reliable texts, and there is, now, no longer any doubt what that entails.

If one wants to be stringent about every variant mentioned in manuscripts, there is no end.

It is high time for the memory of “zecher” (six dots) to be erased!

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A few more points:

Nowadays, the siddurim of Artscroll have five dots everywhere but Psalms 145:7. The Siddur Avodat Halev (2019, the new RCA Siddur) has five dots at 145:7 and throughout the siddur, explaining that it is choosing the authoritative “Aleppo Codex” over the Vilna Gaon.

There are siddurim that (unintentionally) print Psalms 145:7 differently in Mincha from Shacharit!

It seems that Radak himself eventually preferred five dots, citing only it in his later work “Et Sofer.”

It is reported that Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik recited 145:7 twice, once with each version.

There are many other verses, where there are real disputes as to the correct text of the Torah (not merely vocalization issues). The nine main controversial verses are listed in the Torat Chayim Devarim volume, page 447. Seven out of the nine are merely issues of “malei” versus “chaser.” Genesis 9:29 is a bit more serious: ויהי versus ויהיו. Finally, at Deuteronomy 23:2, the issue is דכא versus דכה.

Another interesting textual issue is at Exodus 25:22. Our Torah has את, but Rashi clearly had the reading ואת—as he explains that vav. One can find many such textual issues if one goes through the Rishonim.

As Rabbi Breuer points out (see below), no one has ever suggested that we should wear two pairs of Rashi tefillin because of the disagreement about the spelling of the word “totafot” between the Talmudic text and our mesorah! (For a list of these variants, see Gilayon HaShas, Shabbos 55b.)

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Sources: The site “Mi Yodeya,” June 23, 2016 (“Zeicher versus Zecher”); Hakirah 22, article by Betzalel Shandelman (a translation of an article in Megadim 10, 1990, by Rabbi Mordechai Breuer). See also the article by Y. Penkower (in R. Kasher et al, eds.) Iyyunei Mikra uParshanut, volume 4, pages 71-128 (1997) (summarized at “Mi Yodeya”).


For those who might have forgotten, Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would like to thank Neal Yaros for suggesting this topic.

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