Occasionally I hear Torah that relates to the iconography of Hebrew letters, like the significance around the fact that the yud is a small point, and how the hey has two openings, allowing repentants to come back in when they fall out, etc.

Assuming it is agreed in Jewish tradition that the Torah was given with something similar to the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet and that our current alphabet was adapted later on, how can there be Torah about a borrowed character set? How is there intentional holiness around an iconography that is not the original?

  • 1
    The question is avoided if that "Torah" is meant as a derash; that uses a text, (or in this case letter) as a mere medium to express an idea, rather than attempting to interpret the text.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 19:16
  • related judaism.stackexchange.com/q/15420/759
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 21:05

3 Answers 3


The question is important and need to be asked.

The following answer is based on Jewish Tradition. The topic is treated in Gemara (Babylonian Talmud) Sanhedrin in which we find three opinions.

  1. The first opinion is that the Ashuri writing was given by an angel at the time of Ezra, as a second step of the Torah revelation (according to Rashi).

  2. The second opinion is that the first writing was this, this original was forget and further recovered.

  3. The third opinion is that this writing was from the beginning the Torah writing. 21b-22a:

The first opinion (Mar Zutra or Mar Ukba)

אמר מר זוטרא ואיתימא מר עוקבא בתחלה ניתנה תורה לישראל בכתב עברי ולשון הקודש חזרה וניתנה להם בימי עזרא בכתב אשורית ולשון ארמי ביררו להן לישראל כתב אשורית ולשון הקודש והניחו להדיוטות כתב עברית ולשון ארמי מאן הדיוטות

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.

ואף על פי שלא ניתנה תורה על ידו - נשתנה על ידו הכתב, שנאמר (עזרא ד') וכתב הנשתון ... כתב הראוי להשתנות

And even though the Torah was not given through him, its writing was changed through him, as it is written:... in writing which was destined to be changed.

Rashi: וכתב הנשתוון. כתב שנשתנה והאי קרא בעזרא כתיב שהיו כותבין בימיו כתב משונה שנשתנה ע''י מלאך שכתב מנא מנא תקל ופרסין בימי דניאל כתב דארמי ולשון ארמי ואומר לא כהלין כתבא למיקרא (דכיון שחטאו) לא היו יכולין לקרות כתב שכתב המלאך בימי בלשצר והיו שם יהודים הרבה ש''מ נשתנה להם אותו כתב באותו היום

The second opinion (Rabbi)

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

It has been taught: Rabbi said: The Torah was originally given to Israel in this [Ashshurith] writing. When they sinned, it was changed into Ro'az. But when they repented, the [Assyrian characters] were re-introduced, as it is written: Turn ye to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope; even to-day do I declare that will bring back the Mishneh unto thee.

The third opinion (Rabbi Shim'on Ben El'azar in name of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Parta who cited Rabbi El'azar Hamodayi).

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

R'Simeon B'Eliezer said on the authority of R'Eliezer B'Parta, who spoke on the authority of R'Eleazar of Modin: This writing [of the law] was never changed, for it is written: The 'waws' [hooks] of the pillars. As the word 'pillars' had not changed, neither had the word 'wawim' [hooks].

For each of the three opinions, the "new" alphabet is a part of the giving of the Torah. The interpretations of the form of letters is may be agreed by each of them.

  • I don't know why you are bringing the second and third opinion, as the question was asking according to the first opinion that the letters aren't original.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 22:36
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    "as a second step of the Torah revelation (according to Rashi)." I don't see where Rashi says this... Does this make it an act of prophecy?
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 22:37
  • @Double AA fine. May be that to show the 3 demonstrated a relative unity. Additionally may be that the question is based on a supposed equivalency between historical sources and first opinion
    – kouty
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 22:44
  • @Double AA Rashi wrote that an angel changed the writing, so I assume that it was a revelation, is it wrong?
    – kouty
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 22:48
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    There's an opinion that the writing on the wall with Daniel was ashuris, so no one else knew it, as it was forgotten. Also, either the Gemoro or meforshim say hedyotos are kutim, and the Samaritans (who are the kutim) nowadays still use a similar script to ivri, and try and claim that they're the real Jews, when really it was Ezra trying to distance us from them. One of (I think) the rishonim interpret the gemoro that ashuris was forgotten from ordinary people as a regular script but was still used by the talmidei chachomim for Torah
    – user613
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:38

If you have access to Margolios Hayam on Sanhedrin, see on daf 21b starting from #37 onward. He brings many opinons from Rishonim that even according to the opinion that the Torahwas given in ksav ivri, there was always holiness associated with ksav ashuri.

For instance, one of his sources, the Radvaz, IIRC, said the original luchos were given in ashuri. He was answering why chazzal said a miracle was needed to uphold them when no such miracle would be needed in kmksav ivri.

  • 1
    i think the miracle is refered to the luhoth having the letters fully carved through the stone. thereby the samokh and mastumo/meem sofit would be miraculously suspended in the stone since the inner of both letters would be hanging in place. however the yarushalmi in maghillo says the same thing but for kathav ivri about the letter ayeen which in kathav ivri would be an eye Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:19
  • Why do you say you think? Is there any other understating to the miracle?
    – user6591
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:22
  • because i didnt read the radvaz so idk what he said but im assuming that is what you were referring to in your answer Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:34
  • Ah. You were commenting to future readers. I thought you were addressing me.
    – user6591
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:37
  • why cant it be both? Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 20:58

The best brief answer can be found from Rabbi David Sperling from Yeshivah.org in Israel.

Question: If Ktav Ashurit was not introduced until Ezra, what Ktav was the Torah given in? Also, how can mystical meaning be derived from the Hebrew letters, as is currently done by many Kabbalists, if the shape of the Hebrew letters was different from what we use today?


Shalom, Thank you for your question. You are correct that there is a major opinion that ktav ashurit was introduced by the prophet Ezra and until then the Jewish people used ktav ivri (see the Talmud Sanhedrin 21b-22a). However, the matter is not so simple! The Talmud brings three different opinions about this question –

  1. That Ezra introduced the change in script from ivri to ashurit, as above. (R. Yosi and Mar Zutrah)
  2. That the Torah was originally given in ashurit, which was used until the end of the first temple, then forgotten until Ezra re-instated it. (Rebbi)
  3. That there was no change in the script of the Torah, and that we always used ktav assurit. (R. Shimon ben Elazar – also held by Rav, Shmuel, R. Yochanan, and R. Ashi)

The Geonim in their response (358) held the third view. The Rambam also holds this view (see commentary to Mishna Yadaim 2,5). According to this, the questions you raise do not apply – the Torah was always in the same letters we have today – Assurit.

However, even according to the first opinion there are at least two other explanations that may help us. Firstly, some say that the Torah was given in Assurit, but Moshe and the Jewish people did not want to use such a holy script for everyday use. As such, they used ktav Ivri – until the time of Ezra, when it became acceptable to use ktav ashurit at all times. According to this, even the first opinion agrees that the inherent holiness of the letters applies to Asssurit – and when we say that Ezra "changed" the text to assurit from ivri, we only mean for general open use.

Another explanation is found in the Radbaz (III, 882) where he explains that the first tablets were in ktav ashuri, but after the sin of the golden calf, the second tablets were in ktav ivri, which was used until the time of Ezra. This explains the holiness of the letters of ktav ashurit, together with the opinion that Ezra made the change from ivri to ashuri.

You may be interested to read about this (and the general holiness of the letters) in a wonderful book called "The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet" by Rabbi M.L. Munk (published by Artscroll) [on which I based this answer to you]. Also, Rav Kook zt"l has a very interesting understanding of this issue that can be found (in Hebrew) in his introduction to his Eiyn Aiyah.


It can be found at this link: Ktav of the Torah

  • Do the second two opinions call k'tav ashurit by another name, given that they hold it isn't originally assyrian?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 17:19
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    @RabbiKaii I can't answer with certainty, but in material I have read that discusses this subject my impression has been that the pre-Ashurit script is generally called Ktav Ivri. Archeologically speaking, there are some very interesting digs being done in the Sinai peninsula that are finding some kind of "proto/Paleo-Hebrew" engraving at Egyptian turquoise mines. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 20:50

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