Sunday 9 May 2021


Ketav Ivri


If the person of faith has not lost their ability to think, they soon realise that facts sometimes get in the way of faith. What happens when faith and facts collide?

This article, based on the writing of Haggai Misgav[1] from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explores three rabbinic approaches to this question.[2]



There are two forms of Hebrew script, Ketav Ivri or Old Hebrew and Ketav Ashuri, the square script of the Hebrew we still use today. Technically, our ‘Hebrew’ script is not really Hebrew but Ashurite.

The Talmud[3] records a second century CE discussion between three rabbis about the original format of Hebrew writing:

View 1) R. Yosi:

תניא רבי יוסי אומר ראוי היה עזרא שתינתן תורה על ידו לישראל אילמלא (לא) קדמו משה במשה הוא אומר (שמות יט, ג) ומשה עלה אל האלהים בעזרא הוא אומר (עזרא ז, ו) הוא עזרא עלה מבבל מה עלייה האמור כאן תורה אף עלייה האמור להלן תורה

Paraphrase (See Appendix for full translation):

R. Yosi says that Ezra could have received the Torah had Moshe not preceded him chronologically. The Torah says: “Moshe went up to G-d” (Shemot 19:3) and regarding Ezra, it states: “Ezra went up from Babylon,” (Ezra 7:6). The similar expressions עלה went up” are said to allude to the idea of going up to receive the Torah.

במשה הוא אומר (דברים ד, יד) ואותי צוה ה' בעת ההיא ללמד אתכם חקים ומשפטים בעזרא הוא אומר (עזרא ז, י) כי עזרא הכין לבבו לדרוש את תורת ה' (אלהיו) ולעשות וללמד בישראל חוק ומשפט ואף על פי שלא ניתנה תורה על ידו נשתנה על ידו הכתב שנאמר

But Ezra changed the Hebrew script of the Torah (to the square script we use today).

(עזרא ד, ז) וכתב הנשתוון כתוב ארמית ומתורגם ארמית וכתיב (דניאל ה, ח) לא כהלין כתבא למיקרא ופשרא להודעא למלכא וכתיב (דברים יז, יח) וכתב את משנה התורה הזאת כתב הראוי להשתנות

The Talmud offers a word play to emphasise this change in writing style: Moshe’s Torah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is called “mishnah Torah” which means a repetition of the Torah – but it can also mean a Torah whose script would change “lehishtanot”.

למה נקרא אשורית שעלה עמהם מאשור

Why was this new script that Ezra introduced called “Ashurit”?

Because it came to Jerusalem with the returning exiles from the land of Ashur.


View 2) R. Yehuda haNasi:

תניא רבי אומר בתחלה בכתב זה ניתנה תורה לישראל כיון שחטאו נהפך להן לרועץ כיון שחזרו בהן החזירו להם שנאמר (זכריה ט, יב) שובו לביצרון אסירי התקוה גם היום מגיד משנה אשיב לך

R. Yehuda haNasi says that the Torah was originally given in Ashuri script. However, after they sinned with the Golden Calf, the Israelites began writing in another script (called Libona’a[4] which is synonymous with Old Hebrew).

When they repented, the Ashuri script was restored to them.


View 3) R. Shimon ben Elazar:

רשב"א אומר משום ר' אליעזר בן פרטא שאמר משום רבי אלעזר המודעי כתב זה לא נשתנה כל עיקר שנאמר (שמות כז, י) ווי העמודים מה עמודים לא נשתנו אף ווים לא נשתנו ואומר (אסתר ח, ט) ואל היהודים ככתבם וכלשונם מה לשונם לא נשתנה אף כתבם לא נשתנה

R. Shimon ben Elazar says that the script never underwent any change. The Torah, he believes, was given in our Ashurit script and that script remained the same up to the present.



The Torah that we have today is written in Ashuri script.

When the Samaritans (or Kutim in Talmudic parlance) were living in the land of Israel, they had a Torah almost identical to ours.  The Samaritans claim to be the original Jews who never went into exile after the destruction of the first Temple, and some are still living in Israel today. One of the main differences between their Torah and ours, is that the Samaritan Torah referenced Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the place to bring sacrifices.[5] Also, the Samaritan Torah is written in Ketav Ivri as opposed to Ketav Ashuri. This Ketav Ivri was certainly known to the Talmudic rabbis.

These facts raise some fundamental questions: If the Samaritan script is the original Ketav Ivri, then what does that say about our script, Ketav Ashuri? Is it an import or did the Ashuri script somehow attain the same sanctity as the original Ivri script? And who today is sitting with the most ‘original’ Hebrew scripts, Jews or Samaritans?

It seems that the Talmud offers three approaches to these questions:



View 1) R. Yosi:

R. Yosi is described by Misgav as “the historian of the group…[who] could not close his eyes to historical information, and was prepared to reexamine his positions in view of reality.” For R. Yosi, facts mattered and could not be overlooked. An evolution of sorts had occurred with the textual history of the Jewish people and the turning point could be traced to around the time of Ezra. It was then that נשתנה על ידו הכתב, the script had changed from Ketav Ivri to Ketav Ashuri, or from Old Hebrew to Modern Hebrew.

Misgav paraphrases R. Yosi rather bluntly, as follows:

“The Torah was not given in our holy script [i.e., Ashuri]. The Samaritans actually possess this ancient script [i.e., Ivri] [6], but it is no longer holy because Ezra had the authority to change it.”


View 2) R. Yehuda haNasi:

R. Yehuda haNasi adopted a different approach. He acknowledged that a change had taken place with regard to the Hebrew script but he sought a compromise or middle ground. He knew that the alternate (or ‘older’) script was called “Ivri” but he was still prepared to claim that the Torah was given in the ‘newer’ text. The “Ivri” text certainly existed but he said it was only used from the time of the sin of the Golden Calf until the moment of repentance. Thereafter the Ketav Ashuri was restored as of old.

R. Yehuda haNasi didn’t deny the historicity of the Ketav Ivri but he wove it into a system that made ‘Halachic’ sense even if not historical sense, and it preserved the authority, and therefore, the sanctity of the existing Ketav Ashuri. Compromises are never clear.


View 3) R. Shimon ben Elazar:

R. Shimon ben Elazar took perhaps the most dramatic approach. He simply denied that any change had taken place at all. The empirical existence of older scrolls in older Hebrew did not concern him. The Torah was given in exactly the same script as the one we use today, Ketav Ashuri - and no changes or development or historical actuality occurred regarding the scripts.

Misgav writes:

“This is an approach that refuses to recognize the existence of any development in the Jewish religion. It is not far removed from the view that says, ‘Anything new is forbidden by the Torah.’[7]



This three-pronged debate is not just about dealing with history, rabbinical authority and empirical facts, it is also about defining holiness.

Both R. Yehuda haNasi and R. Shimon ben Elazar define holiness as being rooted only in antiquity. Any break in the line of antiquity represents a departure from holiness. The problem with this approach is that it sometimes demands creativity in developing a narrative of antiquity. This in itself is an innovation involving the formulation of conceptual frameworks.

Either way, whether through creative re-framing (R. Yehuda haNasi) or a blind acceptance that nothing changed (R. Shimon be Elazar), holiness stands or falls on the ability to show antiquity.

R. Yosi was the odd man out, he did not believe holiness was contingent only upon created or perceived antiquity.

In Misgav’s words:

“Whatever is consecrated by the people, the leaders, the sages, and the halakhah is holy. Rabbi Yose, the historian, was prepared to redefine his beliefs in light of new information from an external source, from his observation of the surrounding situation. Holiness does not determine the halakhah; halakhah determines holiness.”

R. Yosi was not afraid of the evidence of history. According to him - whatever the provenance, history or journey of the Hebrew script - Ezra introduced the script we use today and because we use no other script, that script is now holy.  On this view, there is no desperate need to innovate the matter further.



In the final analysis, the debate will probably never be resolved. The religious camp will always comprise these three personalities:

1) Those for whom facts are real, but who still can express their faith regardless, without the need to either creatively re-interpret them or deny them. These people are not afraid to engage in any inquiry - and the outcome or results are not seen as contradictions to their faith.

2) Those who acknowledge the facts in principle, but do not allow them their role to effectively alter anything (even in their minds) and thereby they effectively re-create and re-frame those facts to fit their pre-existing narrative. These people will only use science and data for 'chizuk' when it 'proves' or is somewhat compatible with their worldview.

3) Those who actively deny the data and the facts, and innovate a world where reality has little currency or purchase. 




View 1):

It is taught in a baraita (Tosefta 4:5): Rabbi Yosei says: Ezra was suitable, given his greatness, for the Torah to be given by him to the Jewish people, had Moses not come first and received the Torah already. With regard to Moses the verse states: “And Moses went up to God” (Exodus 19:3), and with regard to Ezra the verse states: “This Ezra went up from Babylon and he was a ready scribe in the Torah of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6). Just as the going up stated here, with regard to Moses, is for the Torah, which he received from God and transmitted to the Jewish people, so too, the going up stated there, with regard to Ezra, is for the Torah, as he taught Torah to the Jewish people and was suitable to have originally merited to give it.

The baraita continues: With regard to Moses the verse states: “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances” (Deuteronomy 4:14), and with regard to Ezra the verse states: “For Ezra had set his heart to seek the Torah of the Lord his God and to do it and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (Ezra 7:10). And even though the Torah was not given literally by him, the script of the Torah was changed by him, as it is stated:

“And the writing of the letter [hannishtevan] was written in the Aramaic script, and set forth in the Aramaic tongue” (Ezra 4:7). The term “hannishtevan” is similar to the word nishtana, meaning changed, alluding to the fact that the script had been changed. And it is written with regard to the writing on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace: “Then came in all the king’s wise men. But they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation” (Daniel 5:8), and the reason they could not read it is that it was written in the new script that Ezra would transmit. And it is written: “That he shall write for himself a second [mishne] Torah” (Deuteronomy 17:18), where “second [mishne]” teaches that it is written in a script that is apt to be changed [lehishtannot].

The baraita continues: Why is this script called Ashurit? Because it ascended with the Jewish people from Ashur when they returned from their exile in Babylonia.


View 2):

It is taught in a baraita (Tosefta 4:5): Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: Initially, the Torah was given to the Jewish people in this script, Ashurit, which is in use today. Once the Jewish people sinned, it turned into an impairment for them and they began writing with a different script, Libona’a. Once they repented, the first script was returned to them, and they resumed writing with Ashurit script, as it is stated: “Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope; even today do I declare that I will render double [mishne] unto you” (Zechariah 9:12), meaning that God restored to the Jewish people this script that had been changed [nishtanna].


View 3):

The baraita continues: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Perata, who said in the name of Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i: This script did not change at all, as it is stated with regard to the construction of the Tabernacle: “The hooks of [vavei] the poles” (Exodus 27:10). This teaches that just as the poles were not changed, so too, the hooks [vavim] were not changed. The letter vav in Ashurit script has the shape of a hook. Evidently, this is why the term for hook in the Torah is vav. And the verse states: “And to the Jews according to their script and according to their language” (Esther 8:9). This teaches that just as their language was not changed over the generations but remained Hebrew, so too, their script was not changed.

[1] Haggai Misgav, 2019, ‘Archaeology and the Bible’, in The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible.

[2] Misgav is an expert in ancient inscriptions and has decoded and published what is considered to be the oldest ancient piece of pottery with a Hebrew inscription.

[3] b. Sanhedrin 21b–22a.


[4] In the Talmud, the Paleo-Hebrew script is known as the Libona'a (translated by some as "Lebanon script") associated with the Samaritan community who continued to preserve the script.

[5] Hjelm (2000:76-7) cites the London Polyglot publication of the Samaritan Pentateuch in 1657 which lists six thousand variants to the Masoretic text (although the number varies in subsequent editions depending on which manuscripts were used). Most of these are indeed minor, with the exception of references to Mount Gerizim to where the sacrifices are to be brought. The Samaritan text adds its own tenth commandment to build an altar of unhewn stone on Mount Gerizim.



[6] Parentheses mine.

[7]Chadash assur min haTorah” (innovation is forbidden by the Torah) was a motto of the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) an early ideologue of the nascent Chareidi or ultra-orthodox movement.

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