After reviewing the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit in NYC [1], which included many artifacts from the “Iron Age” (“First Temple” period), I got very re-interested in the history of written Hebrew. There are many good books about it, including William Chomsky’s “Hebrew: The Eternal Language,” as well as innumerable online articles.

Hebrew was written quite differently between the time of Mosheh (@ 1000 BCE) and Ezra (@ 500 BCE). The earlier type of Hebrew writing is called in the Talmud “K’tav Ivri” — “Hebrew Writing.” Since the return from the First Exile at the time of Ezra, the more familiar “square” writing, called “K’tav Ashurit” — “Assyrian Writing”  — has been used:

“Mar Zutra…said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in K’tav Ivri [Paleo-Hebrew characters] and in the holy language [Hebrew]. It was given again to them in Ezra’s time in K’tav Ashurit [Assyrian characters] and in Aramaic…” [2]

K’tav Ivri, or Paleo-Hebrew, was part of a family of scripts that included Phoenician. Through the Phoenicians, who were great sea-going merchants around the Meditteranean, it spread to other lands and languages.

The chart below gives the corresponding forms:

Notice that in K’tav Ivri, there aren’t separate forms for letters in the final position, as there are in K’tav Ashurit for “kaf,” “mem,” “nun,” “peh,” and “tzadi.”

The forms of the letters pictorially represent something about the names.

“Mem,” for example, is connected with “mayim” (water). Its K’tav Ivri form depicts waves:

Can you see where the K’tav Ashurit form depicts the same thing in a more stylized way?

“Shin” means “tooth.” Its K’tav Ivri form depicts teeth:

The K’tav Ashurit “shin” is also a more stylized depiction of the same idea. Can you see it?

I doubt that a variety of fonts, let alone a keyboard, exists for “Paleo-Hebrew,” the way it does for “K’tav Ashurit.” Learning to write it might be too confusing for younger children. For older children, it would be hard to give it priority over other subjects, in most cases.

Still, it’s something that Jewish children might find interesting about our own history.

Making a game of writing Hebrew words in K’tav Ivri can also be an educational tool in teaching Hebrew spelling.

Further, if a “morah” or “moreh” (classroom instructor) asks students to choose a verse from Torah and write it in K’tav Ivri — even by tracing from a xeroxed sheet — the students will at the same time be repeating a verse from Torah multiple times. It could stay in their memories for a very long time.

There are also some very interesting connections between the family of written scripts, of which Paleo-Hebrew is one, and our modern written alphabet.

The K’tav Ivri form of “Alef,” which means “bull”

originally depicted a bull with horns:

Possibly because it would be easier to write from right-to-left, it became rotated. The cursive-Hebrew form of “alef” still resembles it today:

The same form became rotated again by the Greeks, whose alphabet was based on the semitic/Phoenician. They called the letter “alpha” — the Greek pronunciation of “aleph.” In fact, the names of the first two letters, “alpha” and “beta” (“aleph” and “bet” in Hebrew) became our word “alphabet.”

The Romans conquered Greece in the 1st century BCE and, “borrowing” the alphabet, called the letter “A.”

So, some students might become interested in how both written and spoken language changes over time.

K’tav Ivri could also be used in art projects illustrating scenes from Jewish History of that period, to give some extra “flavor.”

Using the chart, can you figure out which pasuk (verse) from Torah is written in K’tav Ivri at the top of this post?

Do you have any ideas for how K’tav Ivri could be used educationally, with any age group?

See also:

Another recommended article:


[1] see: https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/12-30-11-the-dead-sea-scrolls-exhibit-in-nyc/
[2] Sanhedrin 21b; The Talmud, of course, records several opinions about the history of the written Torah, but doesn’t seem to deny that K’tav Ivri as a written form existed at one time.