In the Beginning: The Origins of the Hebrew Alphabet

Modern Hebrew writing isn't really based on ancient Hebrew letters at all, and it's because of the exile in Babylon.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

In the beginning God created heaven and earth, the bible tells us, in Hebrew, in the original.

The Hebrew language and its alphabet date back millennia in time.

Four elements distinguish the Hebrew alphabet from others. First, Hebrew is written from right to left.

Second, many alphabets are made up of consonants and vowels. The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 consonants ("vowels," really diacritical signs that don't appear at all in modern Hebrew texts such as books, are a later addition.)

Third, the names of the Hebrew letters have meaning in the Hebrew language. That doesn't actually matter when writing or reading, but it is nice to know.

Lastly, there is a text universally accepted by Western and Eastern cultures. It is the Old Testament. The five books of Moses describe, in Hebrew, the creation of the world by God and the early history of the nation that evolved from the Hebrews into the Israelites and the Jews.

The last two millennia BCE were turbulent years for alphabets as the two existing systems of writing – hieroglyphs and cuneiform – evolved into a third, representative form.

Hieroglyphs and cuneiform used symbols (pictographs or schematic drawings) to depict words. That morphed into a phonetic system, where each sign represents a sound.

Why early scribes wrote from right to left

Back then pictograms had no specific spatial orientation, nor did script have a definitive direction. But two main writing directions emerged towards the second half of the first millennium BCE.

In one, possibly the earlier one, writing runs from right to left. If we assume that a right-handed scribe made those inscriptions in stone, he would be holding the chisel in his left hand, hitting it with the hammer in his right hand. His script would, logically, go right to left.

When etching with a stick on tablets of wet clay, going from right to left would make the right-handed scribe smudge the text he had just painstakingly inscribed. Logically then, a right-handed writer would change direction and the text would run from left to right. (All this is plausible, of course, unless the first scribe happened to be left-handed.)

One slight snag to that narrative: the various writing methods – chisel and hammer, stick on clay, stick dipped in ink on parchment - did not evolve linearly, neatly superseding one another, but were used simultaneously over eons.

Ancient Greek script went right to left on one row, and then went left to right on the next - like an ox who leads a plow over a field. Finally it settled on left to right only some time in the first millennium BCE.

If indeed it was due to change in writing materials, with parchment becoming the norm, why didn't Hebrew script follow suit? Maybe it was because the Hebrew script was used to write down holy words, chisel on stone, right to left, and thosewere not to be meddled with, whereas the Greek wasn't considered sacred.

Don't call that Hebrew

The descendents of the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, are generally credited with inventing the 22-letter alphabet letters, each representing a sound, at about 1300 BCE.

They are also credited with the invention of money, so we do owe them much to this very day.

The Phoenician trunk of the alphabetic tree then branched out into three distinctive alphabetic sets: Greek (about 1100 BCE), ancient Hebrew (about 900 BCE) and Aramaic (about the 8th century BCE).

At this point we have to point out that the alphabet we call Hebrew today is, strictly speaking, not Hebrew at all.

About the end of the sixth century BCE the Hebrew language discarded the ancient Hebrew letters and adopted Aramaic ones. This dramatic act is documented in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Bible and commented on in the Talmud and in Greek sources.

With the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, most Jewish inhabitants of Israel and Judea went into exile. Among them were the best and the brightest of the local intelligentsia.

In their century of exile, Jews became involved in the intellectual and clerical life of Babylon. Even if they pined for Zion ("The rivers of Babylon," etc.), they mastered the lingua franca of those days, Aramaic.

Upon their return to Jerusalem, they found that life had gone on without them and those who had stayed behind continued life and religious ritual, based on the text of the Torah written in ancient Hebrew alphabet.

Ezra, the priest returning from exile, had to reassert himself as the political and spiritual leader of the revitalized Jewish community in the land of Israel. He decided to rewrite the Torah in the Hebrew language, but using the Aramaic alphabet.

As many scholars believe today that the books of the Old Testament as we know them were written, or at least edited, in that period, the Aramaic alphabet spelling out the Hebrew words of the Holy Writ are looked on by generations as being closest to the authorial source, whatever it may have been. It became the authoritative version.

The ancient Hebrew alphabet version was left to the “commoners”, and it is used to this very day by the Samaritans.

Service in the Temple

Meanwhile, religious services in the Temple and daily prayers were conducted in Hebrew, and scholars interpreting scriptures did it in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Whatever language they spoke in everyday life, the Hebrew (that is Aramaic) alphabet had to be known to those who wanted to participate in the religious life of the community. Thus, although not all were speaking Hebrew anymore, the Hebrew alphabet had to be known to all.

This practice of teaching the Hebrew alphabet for the sake of knowing the letters would continue through the almost two millenniums of the Jewish Diaspora. Scholars and intellectuals read and wrote Hebrew so that it was never quite as “dead”’ as the Zionist used to claim. The rest of the Jews just familiarized themselves with the letters, if not with the language.

When Zionism warmed up to the idea of speaking Hebrew, the idea was wrapped into a heroic story of an ancient language resurrected from the dead. The truth was that even if Hebrew was not spoken by all, the alphabet – that written-backwards alphabet with odd looking letters, each representing a consonant, without vowels – was known to all Jews. Perhaps the alphabet that the Hebrew language uses today, which is in fact Aramaic, should really be called Jewish.

The ostracon found at Mesad Hashavyahu, bearing a plaint in ancient Hebrew writing.Credit: Hanay, Wikimedia Commons
This is the form of modern Hebrew writing - which is, really, based on Aramaic. Credit: Jewish Publication Society