Brief History of עברית (Ivrit)
Ivrit (עברית) – Hebrew – is a Semitic (Northwest Semitic) language and one of the world’s oldest languages. The name Ivrit is derived from Ever (עבר), the son of Shem. Ever means “a region across or beyond” and is derived from Avar (עבר) which means “to cross over”. It is taught by the rabbis that Ivrit was the original language given to Adam and remained the only language until the time of the Tower of Babel.
Genesis 11:7-9: Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.” And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore, He named it Babel, for there the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth.
Like many other languages, Ivrit began as a pictographic script. Proto-Sinaitic Script is the stage of the alphabet at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. During the Late Bronze Age, the script splits into the South Arabian and the Canaanite groups. The script became well-known from a series of inscriptions from c.1700 BCE in turquoise mines at Serabit al-Khadim in Sinai. Other examples were found in Shechem, Gezer, and Lachish. The discovered texts are in West Semitic Canaanite which means the origin of the script was in a Semitic area.
This script was inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphs based upon “similarities of signs and the basic acrophonic principle”. The Semitic word for the object of the original pictograph is the starting point and the first letter of that word is the value of the sign. For example, house is “beit” so the pictograph for house was used for the consonant “b”.1
The Proto-Hebrew alphabet developed during the late tenth or early ninth century BCE, replacing cuneiform as the main writing system in the Assyrian Empire. At the end of the sixth century BCE, the Proto-Hebrew alphabet was replaced by the Hebrew square script (also known as the Aramaic alphabet).2
The earliest known inscription in Paleo-Hebrew was discovered in 2005 on a 38-pound limestone boulder embedded in a wall at Tel Zayit (located in the Beth Guvrin Valley). The inscription was determined to be an abecedary – letters of the alphabet written out in sequence. This raises the possibility of formal scribal training at Tel Zayit in the late tenth century BCE.3
The Gezer Calendar, discovered in 1908, is an engraved limestone tablet written in Paleo-Hebrew. The script dates to the tenth century BCE and cites an annual cycle of agricultural activities that begin in the Hebrew month of Tishri.4
The Samaritan alphabet – which is used to this day – was derived from the Proto-Hebrew alphabet.
Aramaic/Hebrew Block Script
After the sixth century BCE Babylonian captivity, the Jews adopted the Classic Hebrew script. The Aramaic characters were chosen as the official script for the Sefer Torah by the Jews who were captive in Babylon.
STAM is a stylized version of the Hebrew block letters used specifically for writing Sefer Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzah.
Rashi script is used in commentaries to Jewish texts – especially the Talmud. It is named after Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) who was a medieval Jewish scholar and Biblical commentator.
The modern Hebrew cursive script derives from Ashkenazi Jews.
Ivrit is divided into four basic periods by scholars.
1. Biblical/Classical Hebrew is the form of Ivrit in which the Tanakh was written.
2. Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew is the form of Ivrit in which the Talmud and Midrash were written.
3. Medieval Hebrew is the form of Ivrit that was used by Maimonides and other medieval scholars to translate Arabic works into Ivrit.
4. Modern Hebrew is the form of Ivrit that was developed in the nineteenth century as an attempt to bring Ivrit back into the modern-day usage of the Jews.
1J.F. Healey. Reading the Past: The Early Alphabet (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 1990), p. 16-18 [http://books.google.com]
2Omniglot Aramaic/Proto-Hebrew Alphabet [http://www.omniglot.com/writing/aramaic.htm]
3R. E. Tappy. The Tel Zayit Inscription: An Archaeological Benchmark in the History of Writing [http://www.zeitah.net/UpdateTelZayit.html]
4Jewish Virtual Library Gezer Calendar [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0007_0_07263.html]
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