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Ancient versus Modern Hebrew Script

July 31, 2015 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

It’s known that the ancient Israelites wrote in a totally different script of Hebrew than the one used today. Wouldn’t the earlier one have been the original script of Hebrew – the one the Torah was given in? If so, how could it have been changed later? On the one hand, we are so concerned that a Torah scroll be written perfectly, with perfectly-formed letters. But on the other, the letters would seem to have no sanctity! They are just an adopted script from later on in our history!

The Aish Rabbi Replies

It’s a very important issue. You are quite right that ancient Hebrew was written in a completely different script from modern. This ancient script is known as Ktav Ivri or the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. It resembles the Phoenician alphabet of the time. The modern one is known as Ktav Ashurit – literally, the Assyrian script. It closely resembles the ancient Aramaic alphabet and became adopted by the Jews shortly after they were exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple. The two alphabets have identical letters and bear some resemblance, but are quite distinct.

All of the older archeological finds of written Hebrew were in this ancient script, while from around the 5th century BCE, with the return of many Jews from Persia, the newer script became common. Even at that point Ktav Ivri still continued to be used. Coins have been discovered from as late as the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-36 CE) with Ktav Ivri inscriptions.

All of this begs the question you raised. Does this mean the script of the Torah itself changed? If the “proper” and original script of Hebrew is Ktav Ivri, how could later generations begin using a different script, changing the form of the Torah itself?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b-22a) addresses this issue and explains that it was done through Divine sanction. In Deut. 17: 18, the Torah instructs that a Jewish king must write for himself a “copy of the Torah” (mishnei hatorah) which can equally be translated “a changed Torah.” From this the Sages saw an allusion to the fact that the text of the Torah scroll would eventually change.

Likewise, the Book of Ezra (4:7) refers to a letter the Jews of Israel wrote to the Persian king Artachshasta (Artaxerxes) in a “changed script” – written in Aramaic with Aramaic characters. From this the Sages likewise deduce that the script of the Jews had officially changed (to the Assyrian script, nearly identical to the Aramaic).

In fact, as the Talmud points out, this is perhaps the reason why shortly beforehand, when the famous “writing on the wall” appeared in Belshazzar’s palace on the fateful night of his death (Daniel 5), no one was able to interpret it, although no doubt many Jews were present. The message was written in Assyrian Hebrew, which not even the Jews could make out – until Daniel interpreted it with Divine inspiration. This was the point in time in which God officially sanctioned that Hebrew would now be written in a different script.

The Talmud there records a further debate if Hebrew began in the Paleo-Hebraic script and changed to the Assyrian, or if it began as Assyrian, changed to Paleo-Hebraic, and then changed back in Ezra’s time. As the Talmud and commentators explain, the Assyrian script is the ideal and more sacred one, but when Israel became sinful during the First Temple period, they were no longer worthy of it and began writing in the more crude Paleo-Hebraic script. Only in the time of the great scribe Ezra were they worthy of the preferred one again.

A third opinion in the Talmud holds that the script never changed – meaning, that although Paleo-Hebrew was in common use among the people, the higher script was always used for sacred purposes. (In fact, there are those who explain that all opinions agree the Ten Commandments and possibly the original Torah of Moses were written in the Assyrian script (Ritva Megillah 2b s.v. ‘v’tisbira’, Shu”t Radbaz 3:442, see also HaMikra v’ha’Mesorah by R. Reuven Margoliot). This is as the Talmud (Megillah 2b) points out that the letters samech and final-mem were miraculously suspended in the tablets (the writing of which cut through the entire stone). This would hold true for those letters only if the Ten Commandments were written in the Assyrian script.)

I should add finally that in truth the whole issue is not really problematic since by letter of law, a Torah may be written in Greek (and according to one opinion in any language) (Talmud Megillah 8b). Thus, the change from one script of Hebrew to another was not technically forbidden – although clearly Ezra would not have taken it upon himself to institute so drastic a change without the Torah’s approval (Rashba and Ritva to Megillah 2b).

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