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During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did religious Jews know about Ktav Ivri? Are there examples of traditional texts they would have been exposed to written in Ktav Ivri?

Would highly educated Jews in the Middle Ages been capable of recognizing letters of Ktav Ivri?

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  • 3
    Do you mean did they know what the letters looked like? They certainly knew it existed as it's mentioned in the Talmud
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 19:30
  • 3
    Just mentioned or are the actual letters in the Talmud? Would they have known that the earlier version of Tav was an 'X' and so on ? thanks
    – Seth Appel
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 19:56
  • Welcome to MiYodeya Seth and thanks for this first question. Can I recommend you take the tour to get a sense of how the site works? Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 15:55
  • I don't see why this question is on-topic for this site. Is it about Judaism?
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 17:52
  • Probably some rabbi was highly educated and knew about Ktav Ivri, though I cannot back that up with a source. It is pure speculation and we probably will never know unless someone does come up with a source.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 23:21

4 Answers 4

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The Samaritan alphabet, closely related to Ketav Ivri, was still in use by the Samaritans in the Middle Ages. The Ramban writes in a letter that when he arrived in Israel, the leaders of the Jewish community had an ancient shekel in ketav ivri. They showed it to the Samaritans, who still used the script, and they read the coin for them as שקל השקלים on one side and ירושלים הקדושה from the other side. (It's generally accepted that the coin was likely from the Jewish War and said שקל ישראל, not שקל השקלים as the Samaritans read it. See this article in English or a more extensive version in Hebrew.)

The letter is printed in some editions of Ramban's commentary, either at the end of the commentary or at Exodus 20:13.

ברכני ה' עד כה שזכיתי ובאתי לעכה ומצאתי שם ביד זקני הארץ מטבע כסף מפותח פתוחי חותם, מצדו האחד כעין מקל שקד ומצדו השני כעין צלוחית, ובשני הצדדין סביב כתב מפותח באר היטב. והראו הכתב לכותיים וקראוהו מיד, כי הוא כתב עברי אשר נשאר לכותיים כמו שמוזכר במסכת סנהדרין, וקראו מן הצד האחד שקל השקלים, ומן הצד השני ירושלים הקדושה. ואומרים כי הצורות מקלו של אהרן שקדיה ופרחיה, והצורה השני צנצנת המן. ושקלנו אותה בשלחנות ומשקלו עשרה כסף אסטרלינש, והם חצי האוקיא שהזכירה רבינו שלמה. וכן ראיתי מן המטבע ההוא בצורות ההן ובכתיבה ההיא חצי משקלה, והוא חצי השקל שהיו שוקלין לקרבנות.‏

The Lord has blessed me so greatly, for I have been so fortunate as to come to Acco and there to find in the hands of the elders of the land a silver coin with engravings, on one side resembling the branch of an almond tree, one the other some sort of dish, and one both sides, around the edges, clearly engraved writing. He showed the writing to the Cuthites [Samaritans] who read it forthwith, because it was in a Hebrew script that remained by the Cuthites, as is mentioned in Tractate Sanhedrin (21b). On the one side, they read, “Shekel of Shekels,” and on the other, “Sacred Jerusalem.” They say that the shapes are Aaron’s staff, with its almonds and blossoms, and the other shape, the container of manna.

And we weighed it at the moneychangers, and its weight was 10 silver sterling, which are the half ounce that Rashi mentions. And so I saw of the same coin with the same form and the same writing in half its weight, which is the half shekel which they used to weigh for the sacrifices.

(Text from Mosad Harav Kook edition of his commentary, translation of first paragraph from aforementioned article.)

Rabbi Ishtori Happarchi and Maharam Alshakar also saw and read coins in ketav ivri. Rabbi Azarya dei Rossi also read from a coin and corrected the reading given to the Ramban by the Samaritans. Quoting from this article from daat.ac.il:

הרב אישתרי הפרחי מחבר כפתור ופרח כותב (פט"ז):‏

"בא לידי דינר ממטבע "שקל הקודש", והוא כסף נקי, כתוב בתוכו בכתב הכותיים שהוא כתב הדיוט שצד אחד צורת מחתה (יותר קרובה לצנצנת), ומצד השני אילן שקד בשלושה פרחי שקדים, שקלתיו בדיוק, ועלה ארבעה דראהם וחצי וקורט אחד".‏

ר' משה אלשקר כותב בתשובותיו (סי' ע"ר):‏

"דע שבאו לידי מאותן המטבעות כמה מינים משונים, שקל ומחצית השקל, ויש מהם שכתוב בם "שנת כך לנחמת ציון", "שנת כך למלך פלוני", וראיתי באחד צורת לולב אגוד ואתרוג בצדו, ואמר לי יהודי אחד בקי באותו הכתב, כי מהצד האחר היה כתב יוני עם הארמ"ה (armas) של יונים חקוקה בו, ומן הצד האחר כתוב עברי, ונראה שזה היה בזמן השתעבדם ליונים".‏

[...]

ר' עזריה מן האדומים בספרו מאור עינים (פנ"ו) מעיר על דברי הרמב"ן ואומר:‏

גם אני הכותב ראיתי אחד מן השקלים הנזכרים ביד אלמנת התגר החסיד יצחק חאגיו ספרדי ז"ל, אשר היה מתושבי פירארה... ובסביבות המטבע הנ"ל ראיתי כתוב באותיות דלעילא "שקל ישראל", ובאמצעו צנצנת עם "ש"ד" עליה, אשר לדעתי ראשי תבות "שקל דוד" (טעות! ראשי תבות "שנת ד'"), ומצד אחד "ירושלם הקדושה" או "ירושלים קדושה", ובאמצעו מטה בעל שלושה פרחים.‏

So some of the rishonim did see and read ketav ivri from coins, and were able to recognize the letters well enough to read (some of) the writing on them.

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Well we can assume that some were aware of at least a couple of the letters.

See the beginning of the article here for a nice write up about the opinions in the gemara concerning which were the original letters and how that played out with the miracle of the Mem and Samech in the Luchos.

But the important thing for this discussion is that at least Rabbeinu Tam (the source in Rashba although not mentioned on the site linked), the Rashba, the Ritva and Radbaz were all aware that the shapes of the Ksav Ivri letters Mem sofi and Samech were not the closed loops found in the Ashuri script.

It would be strange to say they knew this without knowing what those letters looked like.

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According to Rashi in Sanhedrin 21b, there was a practice in Ashkinaz to write in a mezuza using ktav ivri, which the Gemara there describes as being "Lebanese":

ליבונאה - אותיות גדולות כעין אותן שכותבין בקמיעות ומזוזות:

In Sefer Yereim 400 examples of this are brought, and the letters do look like ktav ivri.

See also Raviah 432.

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  • Actually I don't like my own answer. The symbols there are similar to ktav ivri, but not exactly such. Also, being able to write esoteric symbols doesn't mean they would be able to read it.
    – Mordechai
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 19:07
  • Thank you - what are these letters in this link called? These aren't Ktav Ivri - but I have seen these in other texts and I have no idea what they are.
    – Seth Appel
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 2:59
  • Those symbols are not Ktav Ivri though. They more closely resemble old kabbalistic signs found in old Ashkenazi mystic works.
    – ezra
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 3:32
  • They are kabalistic signs found in an Ashkenazi mystic work. But Rashi thought that were ktav ivri, and there is a resemblance
    – Mordechai
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 21:23
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Wikipedia says

In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages (or medieval period) lasted from the 5th to the 15th century.

As an example Wikipedia says

The earliest Talmud commentaries were written by the Geonim (c. 800–1000) in Babylonia.

This is definitely during the Middle Ages and the geonim knew about Ktav Ivri even though they did not use it. It is even used nowadays for some purposes such as the logo of the City of Nahariya

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    Yes, they refer to Ktav Ivri, but would the geonim know what it looked like? And, if so, how? Are there any known religious texts from that time that were written in Ktav Ivri? Or they just knew that it existed in theory?
    – Seth Appel
    Commented Nov 22, 2019 at 20:41

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