I've assumed that the Torah scrolls we read today as the same that Moses wrote. I always assumed it's been the same alphabet.

However lately I came across documents explaining the evolution of the Hebrew alphabet, and how it evolved from the Phoenician alphabet, to the Aramaic and then Hebrew.

Is it just a disagreement between archeologist and orthodoxs? Or is there more that I'm missing?


From the archaeological evidence it is clear that the Hebrew srcipt being used during the First Temple Period was what's known as the Ivri script (a handy conversion chart can be found here) which is very similar to Phoenician, as opposed to our script nowadays which is called Ashuri script.

In terms of what script was used at Mount Sinai, there is a 3 way disagreement in the Talmud Sanhedrin 21b-22a.

  • Mar Zutra (some say it was Mar Ukva) holds that the Torah was originally given in Ivri script, but later the standard was changed to Ashuri in the times of Ezra.

  • Rebbi says that it was given in Ashuri script, but after the Jews sinned (not clear which sin is referred to) it was switched to Ivri script. Later when they repented it switched back to Ashuri script.

  • Rav Elazar HaModai says it was always in Ashuri script, and Ivri script was likely just a common handwriting used by the people but not in Torah scrolls.

  • If it is ktav ivri, what implications does it have for Qaballah? Why didn't the gemara ask that as a kashya on mar zutra? – ALK Apr 24 '12 at 2:58
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    @ALK I'm not sure I follow. Why would mar zutra's opinion be in contradiction with "Qaballah"? – Double AA Apr 24 '12 at 3:10
  • The shapes of the ashuri letters have deep significance in post lurianic (and maybe pre?) luranic qaballah. First there are the meanings letters in isolation, the letters in hashem name, (the yod etc). Then there are the different permuations of hashem's name in the qavanot. To be honest, the weight of evidence seems ot be slanting towards ashuri being the original script. In fact, some of the dead sea scrolls, as mentioned, are written in ashuri with only hashem's name kept in ivri. – ALK Apr 24 '12 at 3:32
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    @ALK I've stated here a number of times that I am not a kabbalist, so I don't feel very qualified to answer this kind of issue. I will venture to suggest that perhaps Ezra formed his new script with Ruach HaKodesh so it still has different meanings. I will post on chat to here so others more qualified than I can chime in. – Double AA Apr 24 '12 at 3:41
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    @SethJ What I meant by 'vague' was that the tradition was that hollow letters floated in the air. Each side then explained, "Oh this is referring to the [ayin|mem and samech]". So the fact that we have one side's explanation recorded doesn't preclude the other's existence. As for the message, this midrash seems to be emphasizing the general claim that the letters were carved all the way through the stone. I don't know that we need to really darshin which letters those were. – Double AA Oct 3 '12 at 4:06

As others have mentioned, there are three opinions in the talmud regarding the issue.

To summarize (as brought by DoubleAA):

  1. Rav zutra / R' Yossi - Torah was given ivri and turned to ashuri in the time of Ezra.
  2. Rebbe - given in ashuri, forgotten and used ivri until Ezra fixed it back to ashuri.
  3. R' Elazar Hamodai - Torah was always in ashuri.

Rabbonim have had a difficult time with the concept of the Torah being changed, even though R' Yossi adresses this by saying "משנה התורה - בכתב הראוי להשתנות", they looked for other explanations. Also, many drashos were said on the shape of the letters (noted too by Qoheleth) so they feel uneasy saying it's changed over the years.

I've recently seen a book titled "כתב עברי, כתב אשורי" by R' Zvi Einman which brings later reference to this issue. According to him:

  • Ge'onim (starting with רב האי גאון and רב שרירא גאון) understand the Talmud just like that and simply state - אין הלכה כר' יוסי!
  • Ritva says the tana'im couldn't be arguing what was on the Luchot, hence offers an explanation that the Luchot were ashuri but sifrei torah were written ivri until the time of Ezra.
  • Radvaz comments that the Ritva probably did not see the Yerushalmi (brought by Qoheleth) which explicitly states that the machlokes is around the Luchot. He says luchot rishonim were ashuri but after the sin (perhaps what Rebbe is referring to) luchot shni'im were ivri and so were scrolls until the time of Ezra.
  • I'm not sure what it means for the Ge'onim to paskin what letters were used. – Double AA Oct 15 '12 at 16:49
  • @DoubleAA It's a phrase used for agada as well as halacha. I can't give something concrete here, but sometimes a נפקא מינה can be found. – JNF Oct 16 '12 at 6:51

There's a debate in the Talmud (which is in turn subject to more debate by commentaries how to understand it), the two opinions appear to be as follows:

  • The original Torah was given in the script we now know (ktav ashuri). Back then, this script was only used for "sacred matters." Regular (not sacred) Hebrew documents were written in the proto-script (ktav ivri). Around 2500 years ago, Ezra realized that Jews were starting to forget the sacred (ashuri) script, so he convinced people to use that script for both sacred and regular documents, so that it would not be forgotten.

    (Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found use the modern script for most words but the paleo script for G-d's name; that would be consistent with this "sacred/non-sacred" distinction.)

  • The original Torah was given in paleo-script. 2500 years ago Ezra recognized it was the end of an era -- prophecy was ending and instead teaching would be based on books and rabbis -- and to reflect that change, the script was switched to the modern one. (Ezra saw hints to this in the Torah itself, but that's a bit more complicated.)

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    +1. But about the parenthetical comment in your first bullet point - isn't it the other way around? Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in "modern" (Ashuri, square) script but use the old (Ivri, Livona'ah) script for Hashem's name. (Although that still might support the sacred/nonsacred distinction, just in a different way: they may have written these this way so that the Names wouldn't have full kedushah and could be erased.) – Alex Mar 28 '12 at 14:11
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    Sources for second point would be wonderful. – Shmuel May 22 '14 at 4:14
  • @Alex I've corrected this answer. – Shmuel May 22 '14 at 18:44

The March/April 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review had an article By Dr. Orly Goldwasser on the creation and evolution of the Hebrew alphabet. The full article is on her website here.

It's pretty detailed - but the main idea of what she writes is that the earliest (around 1800s-1600 BCE) aleph-betic writings were found in the Sinai mines alongside hieroglyphic writings, sometimes even on the same stone. Evidently, it started out as the "Canaanite" turquoise miners attempting to make something easier to use to memorialize people and record prayers than the ruling Egyptian class's hieroglyphics, and succeeding in inventing a pictographic near-alphabet with the initial sound of the picture being the sound value of it in their language - for example:

yud was a hand "yad" picture,

nun was a snake "nahash" picture,

mem was a water "mayim" picture,

resh was a head "rosh" picture, and so on...

Her website has a nice video she made for the Israel museum explaining the process here.

The pictures gradually evolved into the Canaanite / Phoenician / Hebrew Ivri alphabet by the 10th century BCE, as evidenced by the Izbet Sartah (1200 BCE) and Tel Zayit (1100-1050 BCE) ABCeDaries, then the Gezer "calendar" (1000-950 BCE). The timing of the development of the alphabetic writing of the time suggests that the Torah was given in the Early Alphabetic precursor of the Ivri script. Archaeology so far shows that the Ashuri characters(yet another derivative of the same Early Alphabetic script) were not in use until 500-700 years later.

The Jerusalem Talmud in Megillah 1:9 has R. Levi quoting Mar Zutra's(see DoubleAA's answer above) opinion that it was in Ivri, and the Ayin and Tet stood stood up miraculously. This makes sense only in Ivri script - Ayin is an eye/circle and Tet is a circle with an "x" in it. The Babylonian Talmud(also ref Double AA's details) has an opinion that the Mem and Samech(on Ashuri tablets) stood up, which only makes sense with the closed characters in Ashuri. To me, this situation seems perfectly logical - The Jerusalem/Israeli Rabbis of that time would still have seen plenty of evidence of the older script"s former use in the Land of Israel. On the other hand, the Babylonian Rabbis would have seen little to no former Ivri script use in Babylonia by that time, 600-1000 years after Ezra.

In Pritchard's ANET and A. Mazar's Archaeology Of The Land Of The Bible they have NO surviving Land of Israel inscriptions from before the Babylonian conquest - royal inscriptions, letters, jar handles, grave markers, you name it, that are NOT in the Ivri script.

The earliest Ashuri Hebrew/Aramaic writings are from Elephantine and Samaria from around 500-400 BCE. Dead Sea scrolls are in both, but mostly Ashuri, with only some Torah books (4Q Paleo-Leviticus, 4Q Paleo-Genesis/Exodus, etc) written entirely in Ivri.

Ashuri was evidently mostly used during the Second Temple period, except for the coins, probably because Ivri was the only proper script for JERUSALEM THE HOLY.

I hope this clears things up...By the way, I LOVE the fact that the last Israeli use of the Ivri script was when Simon Bar Kosiba took nice Roman Latin coins – hopefully a LOT of Judea Capta coins – and restamped them as Israeli coinage!

edit: added some references

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    This really needs references. We are not a talky-talk site, we are students. – Zachariah Oct 9 '12 at 3:51
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    @yoel Maybe yes maybe not, but good thing this site is not such a site. We expect questions about Jewish life/learning/tradition but we will accept anything that answers the question, and for many possible questions academic science or other 'neutral' sources of information are perfectly good ways of dealing with the issue qua Judaism. Feel free to bring it up on meta if you disagree. – Double AA Oct 16 '12 at 2:56
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    @Gary I don't see any discussion in the Yerushalmi about tet; only ayin. Also, the Yerushalmi quotes the opinion that it was a samech as well so you can't prove that they knew it was Ivri based on their personal experiance, only that they knew it might have been Ivri. – Double AA Oct 16 '12 at 3:10
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    @yoel Why not? Assuming it's real science it should be very clear about what it's assumptions are (essentially: things have tended and will tend to work the same way that we observe and measure them working now) and by what reasoning it claims what it claims. What about that is skewed from neutral? And aside from that being extremely reasonable, the fact is that literally countless Jews over the millenia have used scnitific method, experimentation and data in their interaction with the world and in their interaction with the Divine. How else do you propose we as Jews interact with God's world? – Double AA Oct 16 '12 at 17:14
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    No Exodus evidence, so it's a fable? Bull! They've found buildings at Pithom and elsewhere with different, decreasing straw/mud ratios in the bricks...there's even a roll in the Louvre(LR1724)from Rameses II's reign that has the taskmasters explaining their quota failure as being due to the slaves not gathering enough straw...they probably won't find the daily brick production records for Amram Levi's family, but the slaves' situation is absolutely accurate as described for that time period.. – Gary Oct 18 '12 at 0:09


Based on Archaeological and Talmudic sources at least from the time of the giving of the Torah by Moshe(pbuh) to the end of the Babylonian exile writing was done in K'thav Ivri/Paleo-Hebrew script. It thus could be assumed that this was also the case with the actual tablets.

Clearest statement about this concept if found in the Bavli : "Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar ‘Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna'ah script." - Sanhedrin 21b

In the Yerushalim it is stated: "Rabbi Levy said that according to the view that the Torah was given in r'tz script (Paleo-Hebrew), the 'ayin stood by a miracle. According to the view that it was given in Ashuri script, the Samekh stood by a miracle." - Megillah 1:9

In K'thav Ivri the Ayin looks like "O" Where as in K'thav Ashuri an Ayin looks like "ע"

As far as the TaNaKh is concerned there is no direct reference to this, though some say we can find an allusion to this in YeHezqe'l 9:4-6 where it is stated that a "תָּו" was placed on his forehead. Now was it a Taw written in Ashuri which looks like "ת" or Ivri which looked like "X" from what i have heard on the subject most say that it must have been in K'thav Ivri not only because of the archaeological evidence of when which Aleph-Beth was used when, but by simply looking at the shape of each letter and which made more "sense" to mark with.

Even in the post the Ezra period K'Tav Ivri was still held with respect and sanctity so much so that it seems to have always been used in holy writings as shown in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls that are written in Ashuri but where ever Hashem's name comes up it is writen in K'thav Ivri It also shows up in practical Halakha: (in reference to saving items from a fire on shabboth) "... provided that the [sacred writings] are written in the Assyrian script and in Hebrew. If, by contrast, they are written in any other language or using any other script, we should not save them even if there is an eruv... Even if [these sacred texts] are written with other tints or with red ink, or even if the writing is not permanent, since they are written in the Assyrian script and in Hebrew, we should save them." - M"T Hilkhoth Shabboth 23:26-27

  • Some people downvoted his post - can someone explain why? – Nathan H Jul 29 '12 at 18:50
  • i have a question> even if the script was transfered to other languages written and oral time, granted the meaning stayed the same, "how" it was writte, if the letters were different does that change the meaning alltogether of the text>? you mentioned>" In K'thav Ivri the Ayin looks like "O" Where as in K'thav Ashuri an Ayin looks like "ע", this is but one of many examples, it is a known fact that over time the trouble was that meaning were changed by literation, when passing on to one language to another, which creates a significant problem~~do you have answer for this>? ken? toda raba in sha – user1773 Aug 5 '12 at 14:54
  • BS"D Im not to sure what your question is. – Qoheleth Aug 7 '12 at 4:59
  • BS"D EDIT: Im not to sure what your question is if you dont mind restating it. If it's if there is a chance of the literation changing because of a change in the font of the text I think its clear that it does when it came to the Talmudic/midrashic literature that talks about the specific letters and their symbolism , But that has nothing to do (that I know of) with a basic understanding of the Miqra, unlike the way some people might view gamatria. I could be wrong though since personally I have no interest in such methods of elucidation so I have no knowledge on it. sorry. – Qoheleth Aug 7 '12 at 5:08
  • The sources you bring are clear that it's a machlokes... how can you then state definitively that it was ksav ivri? Further, your Rambam says only to save ksav ashuri, doesn't it? (@nute, that's why I downvoted, anyway) – yoel Aug 7 '12 at 13:16

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