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The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (Hebrew: כתב עברי עתיק, "Ktav Ivri Atik") is an abjad offshoot of the ancient Semitic alphabet, identical to the Phoenician alphabet. At the very least it dates to the 10th century BCE. It was used as the main vehicle for writing the Hebrew language by the Israelites, both Jews and Samaritans.

It began to fall out of use by the Jews in the 5th century BCE when they adopted the Aramaic alphabet as their writing system for Hebrew, from whence the present Jewish "square-script" Hebrew alphabet descends. The Samaritans, who now number less than one thousand people, have continued to use the Old Hebrew alphabet until today.

Unlike the current Jewish Hebrew alphabet, the Samaritan Hebrew alphabet descends directly from the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. However, because of the numerical advantage of Jews, it is the Jewish script that is normatively called the "Hebrew alphabet", despite descending from the Aramaic script.

Origins

The earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was discovered on the stone on a wall at Tel Zayit, in the Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands of ancient Judeamarker. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38lb stone (17 kg) - which resembles a bowl on the other. Next would be the Gezer calendar dated to the late 10th century BCE. The script of the Gezer calendar bears strong resemblance to the akin contemporaneous Phoenician inscriptions from Byblosmarker. Clear Hebrew features are visible in the scripts of the Moabite inscriptions of the Mesha Stele. The 8th-century Hebrew inscriptions exhibit many specific and exclusive traits, leading modern scholars to conclude that already in the 10th century BCE the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was used by wide scribal circles. Even though very few 10th-century Hebrew inscriptions have been found, the quantity of the epigraphic material from the 8th century onward shows the gradual spread of literacy among the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.

In 1855 a Phoenician inscription in twenty-two lines was found among the ruins of Sidonmarker. Each line contained about forty or fifty characters. A facsimile copy of the writing was published in United States Magazine in July 1855. The inscription was on the lid of a large stone sarcophagus carved in fine Egyptian style. The writing was primarily a genealogical history of a king of Sidon buried in the sarcophagus. It was in the Hebrew language except for a few words.

Jewish View

‘’The Ritva's commentary on the Talmud (Mesechet Megillah 2b) paraphrases the Jewish view on the two scripts. Torah was given in the Ashuri script. The prove comes from Talmud (Mesechet Megillah 2b), which states that a miracle was needed to hold the letters ם (mem) and ס (samech) on the stone tablets. However, because of script's sanctity, it was not used for mundane writings, but kept in the Holy of Holies. A non-holy (and easier to write) Ivri script was adopted to the point where even the Torahs used for mass study were written in it. Eventually, the Ashuri script became forgotten by the common people, and was only preserved by the Sages. For this reason, only Daniel (a sage) could decipher the "writings on the wall" (Daniel 5:5 - 5:28), which appeared in the Ashuri script. After the Assyrian-Babylonian exile, the Ashuri script was reintroduced, and gained popularity even among the common people. According to the the Talmud (Mesechet, Sanhendrin 22a) the name Ashuri comes from the fact that its an "upright" (מאושר) script, or because it became popular, when Jews returned from the Assyrian (אשור) exile.

The Dead Sea Scrolls support Ritva's view, in that Ashuri is the holiest script. Most Qumran fragments were written in this script. In many cases, however, G-d's name (YHWH) appears to be referenced to by four dots, or is written in the Ivri script (see picture). The reason? As soon as G-d's name is written in the Ashuri (holy) script, it requires extra care and more caution . For the same reason, Rashi created a new script for his writings that came be known as the Rashi script.‘’ Scientific and Prophetic Evidence for Torah

Further development

The independent Hebrew script evolved by developing numerous cursive features, the lapidary features of the Phoenician alphabet being ever less pronounced with the passage of time. The aversion of the lapidary script may indicate that the custom of erecting stelae by the kings and offering votive inscriptions to the deity was not widespread in Israel. Even the engraved inscriptions from the 8th century exhibit elements of the cursive style, such as the shading, which is a natural feature of pen-and-ink writing. Examples of such inscriptions include the Siloam inscription, numerous tomb inscriptions from Jerusalemmarker, the Ketef Hinnommarker amulets, a fragmentary Hebrew inscription on an ivory which was taken as war spoils (probably from Samariamarker) to Nimrudmarker, and the hundreds of 8th to 6th-century Hebrew seals from various sites. The most developed cursive script is found on the 18 Lachishmarker ostraca, letters sent by an officer to the governor of Lachish just before the destruction of the First Templemarker in 586 BCE.

Decline of use

Coin from Bar-Kokhba Revolt demonstrating the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet


After the Babylonian capture of Judea, when most of the nobles were taken into exile, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet continued to be used by the people who remained to work the fields. One example of such writings are the 6th-century BCE jar handles from Gibeonmarker, on which the names of winegrowers are inscribed. Beginning from the 5th century BCE onward, when the Aramaic language and script became an official means of communication, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was preserved mainly for writing the Tanakh by a coterie of erudite scribes, who most likely belonged to the sect of the Sadducees . Some Paleo-Hebrew fragments of the Torah were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls: manuscripts 4Q12, 6Q1: Genesis. 4Q22: Exodus. 1Q3, 2Q5, 4Q11, 4Q45, 4Q46, 6Q2: Leviticus. The vast majority of the Hasmonean coinage, as well as the coins of the First Jewish-Roman War and Bar Kokhba's revolt, bears Paleo-Hebrew legends. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet fell completely out of use only after 135 CE.

Use of Paleo-Hebrew by Samaritans

Sometime in the the last two centuries BCE the Samaritan alphabet began to diverge from the Jewish one. Unlike the Jews, the Samaritans have continued to use this script for writing both Hebrew and Aramaic texts until the present day. A comparison of the earliest Samaritan inscriptions and the medieval and modern Samaritan manuscripts clearly indicates that the Samaritan script is a static script which was used mainly as a book hand.

The Script according to Jewish Scholars

The Ritva's commentary on the Talmud (Mesechet Megillah 2b) paraphrases the Jewish view on the two scripts. He states that the Torah was given in the Ashuri script. The proof comes from Talmud (Mesechet Megillah 2b), which states that a miracle was needed to hold the letters ם (mem) and ס (samech) on the stone tablets. However, because of script's sanctity, it was not used for mundane writings, but kept in the Holy of Holies. A non-holy (and easier to write) Ivri script was adopted to the point where even the Torahs used for mass study were written in it. Eventually, the Ashuri script became forgotten by the common people, and was only preserved by the Sages. For this reason, only Daniel (a sage) could decipher the "writings on the wall" (Daniel 5:5 - 5:28), which appeared in the Ashuri script. After the Assyrian-Babylonian exile, the Ashuri script was reintroduced, and gained popularity even among the common people. According to the the Talmud (Mesechet, Sanhendrin 22a) the name Ashuri comes from the fact that its an "upright" (מאושר) script, or because it became popular, when Jews returned from the Assyrian (אשור) exile.

Current use in Sacred Name Bibles

The Paleo-Hebrew script has been recently revived for specific use in at least two Sacred Name Bibles: Zikarown Say’fer and The Besorah. These translations use it for writing the Tetragrammaton and other divine names, incorporating these name written in this script in the midst of the English text.

See also



References

  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4422628.stm
  • "Alphabet, Hebrew". Encyclopedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0). Ed. Cecil Roth. Keter Publishing House. ISBN 965-07-0665-8


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