The Biblical Text
The Biblical text in the Leningrad Codex is divided into at least three separate strands, including consonants, vowels and accents. Originally, each strand was transmitted separately and only the consonants of each word were actually written on the parchment.
From the evidence of the available documents, we know that the Jewish community preserved that consonants-only text virtually flawlessly for more than a thousand years. However, reading a text consisting of only consonants is harder than it might sound. Consider the Hebrew word shalom (peace, wholeness) which is represented by the three letters sh-l-m (the Hebrew alphabet has a single letter in place of our “sh” sound). These letters, without the help of vowels and other distinguishing marks, could be read as shalom(peace), or shalem (complete), or shillem (he recompensed), or shullam (it was repaid).
In practice, the context in which a word appears is usually sufficient to determine how the word ought to be read. Nonetheless, there are frequently places where the context leaves the consonantal text open for interpretation. Here is where the oral element of transmission comes in. We know that in the centuries before Jesus, a set way of reading aloud this consonantal text was developed and passed on orally. In this way the words themselves, not just the consonants, were preserved. The role of this ancient oral tradition was to pass on the correct interpretation of how to pronounce the consonants.
This reading tradition, astonishingly, continued to be transmitted orally for many centuries until the Masoretes developed their graphic systems of vowel and accent signs. Using those signs, they were able to record, with minute precision, the oral reading tradition they had received.
This raises the question of how on earth the Jewish community managed such a gargantuan feat of textual conservation. The answer, in short, is that they counted. An example will help to explain.
On the very first column of the very first page of L we see the following: