History of the Hebrew alphabet

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Aleppo Codex: 10th century Hebrew Bible with Masoretic pointing
A page from a 16th-century YiddishHebrewLatinGerman dictionary by Elijah Levita

The Hebrew alphabet is a script that the Aramaic alphabet was derived from during the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods (c. 500 BCE – 50 CE). It replaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet which was used in the earliest epigraphic records of the Hebrew language.


Variations of the "square" Hebrew script by region and time

The history of the Hebrew alphabet is not to be confused with the history of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, so called not because it is ancestral to the Hebrew alphabet but because it was used to write the earliest form of the Hebrew language.

"Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" is the modern term (coined by Solomon Birnbaum in 1954[1]) used for the script otherwise known as the Phoenician alphabet when used to write Hebrew, or when found in the context of the ancient Israelite kingdoms. This script was used in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as well as throughout Canaan more generally, during the 10th to 7th centuries BCE.[2][3][4][5] By the 6th or 5th centuries, this script had diverged into numerous national variants, the most successful of these being the Aramaic script, which came to be widely adopted in the Persian empire.

Following the Babylonian exile, the Jews gradually stopped using the Paleo-Hebrew script, and instead adopted a "square" form of the Aramaic alphabet. A similar "square Aramaic script" is still used for contemporary western dialects of Aramaic (Western Neo-Aramaic).

This "square" variant of Aramaic developed into the Hebrew alphabet proper during the Second Temple period, in a process that was not complete before the 1st century CE; for example, the letter samekh developed its closed or circular form only in the middle Hasmonean period, around 100 BCE, and this variant becomes the standard form in early Herodian hands, in the 1st century CE.[6]

The Samaritan alphabet, on the other hand, remains a direct descendant of the Paleo-Hebrew script.[7]

The Hebrew alphabet was later adapted in order to write down the languages of the Jewish diaspora (Karaim, Kivruli, Judæo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, etc.), and was retained all the while in relatively unadapted form throughout the diaspora for Hebrew, which remained the language of Jewish law, scriptures and scholarship. The Hebrew alphabet was also retained as the alphabet used for writing down the Hebrew language during its rebirth as an everyday modern language starting in the 18th to 19th century.

Talmudic views[edit]

In the Talmud, the Paleo-Hebrew script is known as the Libona'a,[8] associated with the Samaritan community who continued to preserve the script, and the Hebrew script is known as the Ashurith, associated with Assyria.[9]

The Talmudic sages did not share a uniform stance on the subject the development of the Hebrew alphabet. Some claimed that Paleo-Hebrew was the original script used by the Israelites at the time of the Exodus,[10] According to this tradition,[11] the block script seen today in Hebrew Torah Scrolls, called the "Assyrian script" (Kthav Ashurith) in the Talmud, was the original Hebrew script carved into the Ten Commandments.[12]

Others believed that Paleo-Hebrew merely served as a stopgap in a time when the ostensibly original script (the Hebrew alphabet) had been lost.[13] 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.[10] The arguments given for both opinions are rooted in Jewish scripture and/or tradition.

A third opinion[14] 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,[15] 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,[16] and rejected by others, partially because it was permitted to write the Torah in Greek.[17]

Ancestral scripts and script variants[edit]

Letter[18] Name Scripts
Hebrew Ancestral Related
Cursive Rashi Braille[19] Hieroglyphic base
of Proto-Sinaitic
[citation needed]
Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew Aramaic Greek Latin Cyrillic Arabic
א Alef ⠁ (braille pattern dots-1)
Aleph Aleph Aleph Αα Aa Аа ا
ב Bet, Vet ⠧ (braille pattern dots-1236) ⠃ (braille pattern dots-12)
Beth Bet Ββ Bb Бб
ﺑ ﺏ
ג Gimel ⠛ (braille pattern dots-1245)
Gimel Gimel Gimel Γγ Cc
Гг ﺟ ﺝ
ד Dalet ⠙ (braille pattern dots-145)
Dalet Daleth Daled Δδ Dd Дд دذ
ה Hei ⠓ (braille pattern dots-125)
Heh He Heh Εε Ee Ее
ه هـ
ـهـ ـه
ו Vav ⠺ (braille pattern dots-2456) ⠬ (braille pattern dots-346)
Vov Waw Vav Υυ
ז Zayin ⠵ (braille pattern dots-1356)
Zayin Zayin Zayin Ζζ Zz Зз
ח Het ⠭ (braille pattern dots-1346)
Khet Heth Khet Ηη Hh Ии ﺣﺡ or خ
ט Tet ⠞ (braille pattern dots-2345)
Tet Teth Tet Θθ Ѳѳ
י Yud ⠚ (braille pattern dots-245)
Yud Yodh Yud Ιι Jj
ﻳ ﻱ
כ ך Kaf, Khaf ⠡ (braille pattern dots-16) ⠅ (braille pattern dots-13)
Khof Kaph Khof Κκ Kk Кк ﻛ ﻙ
ל Lamed ⠇ (braille pattern dots-123)
Lamed Lamedh Lamed Λλ Ll Лл ﻟ ﻝ
מ ם Mem ⠍ (braille pattern dots-134)
Mem Mem Mem Μμ Mm Мм ﻣ ﻡ
נ ן Nun ⠝ (braille pattern dots-1345)
Nun Nun Nun Νν Nn Нн ﻧ ﻥ
ס Samech ⠎ (braille pattern dots-234)
Samekh Samekh Samekh Ξξ
Ss or Xx Ѯѯ
ص or س
ע Ayin ⠫ (braille pattern dots-1246)
Ayin Ayin Ayin Οο Oo Оо ﻋ ع
غـ غ
פ ף Pei, Fei ⠋ (braille pattern dots-124) ⠏ (braille pattern dots-1234)
Pey Pe Pey Ππ Pp Пп ﻓ ﻑ
צ ץ Tsadi ⠮ (braille pattern dots-2346)
Tsadi Sade Tzadi , Ϻϻ Цц
ﺻ ص
ضـ ض
ק Kuf ⠟ (braille pattern dots-12345)
Quf Qoph Quf Ϙϙ Qq Ҁҁ ﻗ ﻕ
ר Reish ⠗ (braille pattern dots-1235)
Resh Res Resh Ρρ Rr Рр
ש Shin, Sin ⠩ (braille pattern dots-146) ⠱ (braille pattern dots-156)
Sin Shin Σσς Ss Сс
سـ س
شـ ش
ת Tav ⠹ (braille pattern dots-1456) ⠳ (braille pattern dots-1256)
Tof Taw Tof Ττ Tt Тт ﺗ ﺕ
ﺛ ﺙ


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Hebrew scripts, Volume 2, Salomo A. Birnbaum, Palaeographia, 1954 Archived 2023-07-08 at the Wayback Machine, "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable. I have therefore coined the term Palaeo-Hebrew."
  2. ^ Deem, Rich (June 2006). "Early (10th Century B.C.) Evidence of Written Hebrew Language at Tel Zayit, Israel". God And Science.org. Archived from the original on 2018-07-29. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  3. ^ "Hebrew – (12th century BC? – today)". Mnamon Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean A critical guide to electronic resources. Archived from the original on 2018-07-29. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  4. ^ Rollston, Christopher (April 2018). "The Oldest Hebrew Script and Language". Biblical Archaeology Society. Archived from the original on 2018-07-29. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  5. ^ Noble Wilford, John (November 2005). "A Is for Ancient, Describing an Alphabet Found Near Jerusalem". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2018-07-29. Retrieved 2018-07-29.
  6. ^ Frank Moore Cross, Leaves from an Epigrapher's Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy (2018), p. 30 Archived 2023-09-03 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Alphabet, The Hebrew: Samaritan Alphabet Archived 2011-06-06 at the Wayback Machine: "While the Jews adopted the Aramaic alphabet, gradually abandoning their own, the Samaritans held fast to the original forms, in order to show themselves the veritable heirs of ancient Hebraism. ... It is the same character used in all the Samaritan books of to-day, and remains the only offshoot of the old Hebrew script extant, while the modern Hebrew Alphabet is of Aramaic origin."
  8. ^ This name is most likely derived from Lubban, i.e. the script is called "Libanian" (of Lebanon), although it has also been suggested that the name is a corrupted form of "Neapolitan", i.e. of Nablus. James A. Montgomery, The Samaritans, the earliest Jewish sect (1907), p. 283.
  9. ^ Klein, Reuven Chaim, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew Archived 2015-02-28 at the Wayback Machine. Mosaica Press 2014. pages 185–205. ISBN 978-1937887360.
  10. ^ a b Sanhedrin 21b
  11. ^ "The Script of the Torah". Jerusalem, Israel: Aishdas. 2002. Archived from the original on 2016-06-11. Retrieved 2008-04-05., Sanhedrin 21b-22a
  12. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 104a, Tractate Megilla 2b. "Rav Chisda says that the (final) mem and samech in the tablets were miraculously hanging in the air." This can only happen in Kthav Ashurith and not in Kthav Ivri.
  13. ^ Megillah 3a, Shabbat 104a
  14. ^ Sanhedrin 22a
  15. ^ Exodus 27, 10
  16. ^ Rabbeinu Chananel on Sanhedrin 22a
  17. ^ Maimonides. "Mishne Torah Hilchos Stam 1:19". Archived from the original on 2020-04-15. Retrieved 2019-11-30.
  18. ^ A second print letter is the form found at the end of a word.
  19. ^ A second braille letter corresponds to the letter plus dagesh (dot) in print.