Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Azariah de' Rossi's ancient Hebrew aleph-bet

Something that fascinates me is the errors in very old books, works that were meticulously and scrupulously researched. Why the errors? Simply because the available facts were limited.

Here we see a chart that shows the ancient Hebrew alphabet from R. Azariah de' Rossi's 16th century opus Me'or Enayim.

In fact, while clearly there is something to de' Rossi's rendering, this isn't actually the ancient ketav ivri script. De' Rossi's best available source, like the Ramban before him, was the script used by the Samaritans. The script was presumed to be identical to ketav ivri, while it's actually a descendent of it, but not the same. That de' Rossi's illustration comes from Samaritan can be shown by a comparison of his chart with the Samaritan alphabet:

When the Ramban was 'oleh he discovered that to truly understand much of Tanakh requires actually being in the land of Israel. Some of his prior held views, mainly relating to geography, were debunked simply by his being able to actually see and experience what until then were only words. Another interesting consequence of his move to Eretz Yisrael was his revised understanding of the shiur of the Biblical shekel ha-kodesh. There was an ancient shekel possessed by Jews in Acco, with ancient Hebrew writing on it. With the help of Samaritans, he was told that the writing confirmed that it was indeed a shekel. After weighing it, the Ramban concluded that Rashi's view of the shekel's weight (in Shemos 21:32) was correct, while his own view (in Shemos 30:13) was inccorect.

Here is de' Rossi's rendering of the shekel:

Interestingly, the Ramban's opinion was quoted a number of times by Christian writers in the 18th century in studies regarding the antiquity of the Hebrew alphabets. Here is an example, from Robert Spearman's "Letters to a friend, concerning the Septuagint translation, and the heathen mythology" (1759):

and another discussion in"Sketches of Hebrew and Egyptian antiquity, intended as an introduction to the Pentateuch" by John Walsh, Vicar of Cloncurry and Kilcock (1793)

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