Hebrew – Why Two Ancient Alphabets

Why are two Hebrew alphabets better than one? Nothing makes an archeologist’s heart glow warmer than discovering old, broken bowls or tools of no earthly use to any regular member of society. If a particular artifact is older than any such artifact ever discovered before, the archeologist’s heart is in imminent danger of spontaneous combustion.

This happened three years ago when archeologists were sifting through the ancient hill city of Tel Zayit south of Yerushalayim, uncovered an ancient wall and were electrifi ed to discover what seemed to be the most ancient Hebrew script ever unearthed. The inscription itself was none too remarkable – simply a Hebrew alphabet hacked into a chunk of rock. What made this script so exciting was that it purportedly dated back to the regal days when Dovid and Shlomo ruled in Yerushalayim.

Until then, pride of place for the oldest Hebrew inscription was held by the Gezer calendar discovered 30 miles northwest of Yerushalayim at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similar to the verses at the end of parshas Noach, this simple calendar described the year not in terms of days, weeks, or months, but in terms of bimonthly crop seasons: “Two months of harvest, Two months of planting, Two months are late planting, One month of hoeing, One month of barley-harvest, One month of harvest and festival, Two months of grape harvesting, One month of summer fruit.”

Savants are uncertain whether it is the product of a schoolboy’s writing lesson, or a tablet reminding farmers when the tax collector would be coming for his share of their produce.

Another famous inscription from those far off times is the inscription King Chizkiyahu carved into the Silwan tunnel that was hewed out in order to bring the waters of the Gichon Spring within Yerushalayim’s walls.

All three of these inscriptions share a common peculiarity that the Rambam fi nds puzzling, as we will see later.

It is clear from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 22b) that Klal Yisroel used two kinds of scripts from the earliest times. One is the incredibly holy Kesav Ashuris whose letters Hashem used to create the world and to write the Luchos Habris and Torah. This, of course, is the alphabet we use to write Sifrei Torah, tefi llin and mezuzos. Kesav Ashuris is imbued with incredible kedusha both because of its innate spiritual importance, and because every detail of its letters’ shapes hints at a myriad of ethical and Kabala teachings.

Regarding their innate sanctity, the Maharal explains that Chazal (Pirkei Avos 5:6) list hakesav (the letters) among the ten supernatural items Hashem created on Shabbos eve at twilight since Kesav Ashuris was too sanctified to be created during the regular days of Creation.

Concerning the teachings hinted at in these letters, Chazal (Menachos 29b) describe how Moshe went up to receive the Torah and found Hashem tying crowns to the letters. Hashem told him that Rabbi Akiva would one day learn tilei tillim (heaps and heaps) of halachos from every kotz (projection).

Besides the important kabalistic secrets and halachos hinted at in these letters, the Gemara (Shabbos 104) adds that their forms also hint at numerous spiritual and ethical concepts.

For example, the left leg of the gimel projects towards the dalet in order to hint that a poor person should make himself easily available to his wealthy supporters in order to save them the trouble of searching for his whereabouts. In other words, even when circumstances force a person to accept tzedakah, he should retain his nobility of spirit and his consideration for others.

The second alphabet Jews used in early times was Kesav Ivri, which enjoyed immense popularity for thousands of years until falling into disuse after the Bar Kochva revolt. Why did Klal Yisroel have two different alphabets? The simplest explanation is that Kesav Ivri was simpler and easier to write and engrave than Kesav Ashuris, and served the same purpose as the simple cursive script of our time.

The Gra (Yoreh Dei’a 284:6) offers a deeper reason. The Gemara (Gittin 2a) rules that before writing three words from any verse, one must fi rst incise guide lines on the parchment or paper one is writing on. Since, according to the Ramban, this requirement only applies to Kesav Ashuris, Jews used Kesav Ivri to avoid accidentally transgressing this rule.

The Rema (Teshuvos 34) suggests another reason – people perhaps invented alternative alphabets in order to make it possible to write the Oral Torah in the days when it was forbidden to commit the Oral Torah to writing.

“Possibly,” he writes, “the early ones z”l invented different scripts in order to write those things that are oral. Even though they are not permitted to be written, this may only be in Kesav Ashuris in which the Torah was written, but with other scripts there is no problem.”

Presumably, the Rema is referring to talmidei chachamim who occasionally wrote megillas sesarim (private notes) as memory aids in those days. In order to minimize the prohibition of writing the Oral Torah, they would write these notes in Kesav Ivri.

The most drastic explanation of all is that of the Rambam (Teshuvos 7), who rules that due to the immense sanctity of Kesav Ashuris we should treat it with respect and awe, and not do anything that might lead to its denigration. With this new concept he answers a historical mystery – why are all ancient Jewish coins and inscriptions of ancient times written in Ivri script? Why are none of them ever in Kesav Ashuris?

Someone had asked the Rambam whether it was acceptable to embroider verses onto a tallis. In reply, the Rambam explains that such a practice is forbidden since the verses might end up being denigrated if the person enters unclean places wearing his tallis. He then adds a tremendous chiddush – that it is wrong to denigrate the letters of Kesav Ashuris even when one uses them for non-sacred purposes.

“You should know,” he writes, “that regarding this script called Ashuris, since the Torah was given in it and the luchos habris were written with it, it is very fi tting to use it only for holy writings. From early times, Jews were careful regarding this in their writings and the books of their wise men, and their non-sacred writing was in Ivri script. Therefore, you find that the non-sacred words inscribed on holy shekels are in Ivri script, and you will never find one letter of this Kesav Ashuris on any object of Jewish origin, not on any coin or on any stone. Rather, everything is in Kesav Ivri.”

The Rambam then explains that this is why Jews developed new alphabets after Kesav Ivri became defunct: “This is why the Sephardim altered their writing and made their letters different until it became a different script, in order to allow them to use it for non-sacred use… And whatever is done this way is considered an honor of the Torah.” The Rambam is referring to the Sephardi script generally used in his time, which most modern readers find almost illegible.

Following the Rambam’s line of reasoning, the Rema (Yoreh Dei’ah 284:2) notes, “And some say that one should not write non-sacred matters in Kesav Ashuris with which the Torah is written.”

This ruling’s ramifications affect shop signs, gravestone inscriptions, newspapers and invitations, and anything else written in Kesav Ashuris, and has an impact on the issue of bringing Hebrew newspapers and books into unclean places. Although the practical halacha concerning these issues is beyond the scope of this article, some opinions regarding the subject are as follows:

The Aruch Hashulchan writes that the prevalent custom is to be lenient, but admits that lechatchilla it would be better to be stringent. The Pischei Teshuva and the Maharsham discuss whether there is room to be more lenient with modern Hebrew print since it is not the same as Kesav Ashuris.

Similarly, the Igros Moshe (Yoreh Dei’ah II:76) writes: “Regarding bringing newspapers and a dictionary printed in square [Hebrew] letters of a printing press into a bathroom, there is no prohibition in this because these are not letters from which one can learn dinim. And the prohibition is not clear even with Kesav Ashuris written properly that is kosher for a sefer Torah. Nevertheless, it is fitting to be stringent with Kesav Ashuris used to write divrei reshus (nonsacred matters)…”

A certain Jew in Eretz Yisroel always walked bent over with his eyes fixed to the ground, hastily lifting up every scrap of newspaper that appeared in his path. Asked the reason for this practice, he explained that he was fearful to allow even one Hebrew letter to fall into denigration.

(Source: Miasnik, Aharon. Minchas Aharon, Chag HaShavuos. Yerushalayim, 5768.)

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