Paleo-Hebrew alphabet

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Paleo-Hebrew alphabet
Paleo-hebrew alphabet.jpg
Languages Hebrew
Time period
10th century BCE – 135 CE
Parent systems

The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום‎), also Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet, is an abjad variant of the Phoenician alphabet. It dates to around the 10th century BCE. It was used as the main vehicle for writing the Hebrew language by the Israelites, who would later split into Jews and Samaritans.

The term was coined by Solomon Birnbaum in 1954, writing "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable".[1]

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 which the present Jewish "square-script" Hebrew alphabet descends. The Samaritans, who now number less than one thousand people, continue to use a derivative of the Old Hebrew alphabet, known as the Samaritan alphabet.


The chart below compares the letters in the present Hebrew alphabet with those from Paleo-Hebrew, with their names traditionally used in English.

Hebrew letter (Dfus) Paleo-Hebrew English name
א Aleph Aleph
ב Bet Bet
ג Gimel Gimel
ד Daled Dalet
ה Heh He
ו Vav Waw
ז Zayin Zayin
ח chet Heth
ט Tet Teth
י Yud Yodh
כ/ך Khof Kaph
ל Lamed Lamedh
מ/ם Mem Mem
נ/ן Nun Nun
ס Samekh Samekh
ע Ayin Ayin
פ/ף Pey Pe
צ/ץ Tzadi Tsade
ק Quf Qoph
ר Resh Resh
ש Shin Shin
ת Tof Taw


Drawing of inscription on the Zayit Stone.

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 Judea. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38 lb 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 contemporaneous Phoenician script from inscriptions at Byblos. 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 Sidon. 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.[2]

Further development[edit]

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 Jerusalem, the Ketef Hinnom amulets, a fragmentary Hebrew inscription on an ivory which was taken as war spoils (probably from Samaria) to Nimrud, and the hundreds of 8th to 6th-century Hebrew seals from various sites. The most developed cursive script is found on the 18 Lachish ostraca, letters sent by an officer to the governor of Lachish just before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. (cf. the Mesad Hashavyahu petition for favorable judgment.)

Decline of use[edit]

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. One example of such writings are the 6th-century BCE jar handles from Gibeon, 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. 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.[3] In some Qumran documents, YHWH is written in Paleo-Hebrew while the rest of the text is in Aramaic square script.[4] 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 by Samaritans[edit]

The Samaritan alphabet is a direct descendant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. The better-known "square script" Hebrew alphabet traditionally used by Jews is a stylized version of the Aramaic alphabet which they adopted from the Persian Empire (which in turn adopted it from the Arameans). After the fall of the Persian Empire, Judaism used both scripts before settling on the Aramaic form. For a limited time thereafter, the use of paleo-Hebrew (proto-Samaritan) among Jews was retained only to write the Tetragrammaton, but soon that custom was also abandoned.

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.

According to the Babylonian Talmud[edit]

The Talmudic sages did not share a uniform stance on the subject of Paleo-Hebrew. Some stated that Paleo-Hebrew was the original script used by the Israelites at the time of the Exodus,[5] while others believed that Paleo-Hebrew merely served as a stopgap in a time when the original script (The Assyrian Script) was lost.[6] According to both opinions, Ezra the Scribe (c. 500 BCE) introduced, or reintroduced the Assyrian script to be used as the primary Alphabet for the Hebrew language.[7] The arguments given for both opinions are rooted in Jewish scripture and/or tradition.

A third opinion[8] in the Talmud states that the script never changed altogether. It would seem that the sage who expressed this opinion did not believe that Paleo-Hebrew ever existed, despite the strong arguments supporting it. His stance is rooted in a scriptural verse,[9] which makes reference to the shape of the letter vav. The sage argues further that, given the commandment to copy a Torah scroll directly from another, the script could not conceivably have been modified at any point. This third opinion was accepted by some early Jewish scholars,[10] and rejected by others, partially because it was permitted to write the Torah in Greek.[11]

Current use in Sacred Name Bibles[edit]

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


The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was unified with the Phoenician alphabet and added to the Unicode Standard in July, 2006 with the release of version 5.0.

The Unicode block for Paleo-Hebrew, called Phoenician, is U+10900–U+1091F. It is intended for the representation of text in Palaeo-Hebrew, Archaic Phoenician, Phoenician, Early Aramaic, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyri, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+1090x 𐤀 𐤁 𐤂 𐤃 𐤄 𐤅 𐤆 𐤇 𐤈 𐤉 𐤊 𐤋 𐤌 𐤍 𐤎 𐤏
U+1091x 𐤐 𐤑 𐤒 𐤓 𐤔 𐤕 𐤖 𐤗 𐤘 𐤙 𐤚 𐤛 𐤟
1.^ As of Unicode version 7.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Hebrew scripts, Volume 2, Salomo A. Birnbaum, Palaeographia, 1954, "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable. I have therefore coined the term Palaeo-Hebrew."
  2. ^ The Newly Discovered Phoenician Inscription, New York Times, June 15, 1855, pg. 4.
  3. ^
  4. ^ e.g. File:Psalms_Scroll.jpg
  5. ^ Sanhedrin 21
  6. ^ Megila 3, Shabbat 104
  7. ^ Sanhedrin 21
  8. ^ Sanhedrin 22
  9. ^ Exodus 27, 10
  10. ^ Rabbeinu Chananel Sanhedrin 22
  11. ^ "Mishne Torah Hilchos Stam 1:19".  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)


External links[edit]