Mark of Cain

Punctum Extraordinarium

Edited: August 31st, 2014

While reading Genesis 33:4 from the Hebrew Bible, I noticed the occurrence of several dots above one of the verbs -- specifically וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ  "and he kissed him."  The addition of these dots above the letters in the Hebrew Text is known as the Punctum Extraordinarium meaning extra ordinary punctuation.

Because the Biblical Text was considered sacred, there was one over arching rule: the consonantal text of the scroll was NEVER altered.  The copying process was slow and meticulous.  Only a slight number of errors were tolerated and if the occurrence of errors rose above a predetermined threshold, the scroll was destroyed.  (This explains in part why the number of textual variants in the Hebrew Bible are so few).  Typically, the corrections of the text were done through a system which is now known as qere and ketiv -- two Hebrew words meaning "what is written" and "what is read."
Fifteen times in the entire Hebrew Bible text an additional system is used to signify special attention. In these cases dots are placed over certain letters to indicate to the reader that the text is raised to a level of uniqueness when compared to the surrounding text.  On some uses of this extra punctuation only a single letter is marked.  On some uses on a couple of letters are marked.  On some cases all letters of a word are marked.
Here is a list of the 15 verses which contain Puncta Extraordinaria.

  • Genesis 16:5; 18:9; 19:33; 33:4; 37:12
  • Numbers 3:39; 9:10; 21:30; 29:15
  • Deuteronomy 29:28
  • 2 Samuel 19:20
  • Isaiah 44:9
  • Ezekiel 41:20; 46:22
  • Psalms 27:13
Ten of the Puncta Extraordinaria occur in the Torah (aka Pentateuch, Books of Moses, First 5 books of the Bible) and are sometimes referred to as a separate group known as the "Ten Nequdoth."