Friday, June 06, 2008

I'm no Hebrew paleographer . . .

. . . but neither was William Chomsky.

William Chomsky was a Hebrew scholar who wrote one of - if not the best - popular histories of the Hebrew language in English ( Hebrew: The Eternal Language Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society of America, 1957). In addition, he authored scholarly articles and translated, annotated and reorganized the important medieval Hebrew grammar and dictionary, the Mikhlol of Radak (unfortunately without including the Hebrew text).

It is probably impossible to not mention that his son is MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, so I did not do the impossible.

Getting back to "Hebrew: The Eternal Language." The book is full of most interesting information presented in a very clear and engaging format. It contains a wealth of technical information which doesn't seem technical. It is suffused with a very Jewish spirit and a love for the Hebrew language and literature. t's a very good book.

Yet, it is not without factual error and the favoring of pet theories. For example, Chomsky adopts Solomon Zeitlin's war against the Dead Sea Scrolls view that the Dead Sea Scrolls are medieval and Karaitic (p. 298 n. 2) - although he does present the prevailing scholarly view regarding their antiquity, if not the identity of their authors (which can now be considered fact) and gives his reasoning for rejecting that view.

In any case, on pp. 87-88 we find the following about the Yiddish cursive script:

" . . . the Yiddish or neo-Hebraic current script . . . [along with the Rashi script] . . . of course, evolved from the square script, in different localities and periods. . . . Although the cursive script is clearly traceable to the square script as its origin, it also possesses traces of the old Hebrew script. This is particularly evident in the case of the Aleph letter, which in the Yiddish cursive form is closer to the old Hebrew than is the same letter in the square script."
(The letter he is talking about looks like this: )

One wonders, what could Chomsky have meant by this? Now, as trivia - as opposed to useful information - it is true that the letter aleph in the "neo-Hebraic current" script does more closely resemble a Ktav Ivri/ paleo-Hebrew aleph than does a square aleph. In fact, I once wrote out the Ktav Ivri script for a 12 year old who promptly told me that he thought the paleo aleph looked like the cursive aleph he was used to. But what could Chomsky have meant that "it also possesses traces of the old Hebrew script"? Traces? Does he mean this literally? How would that be possible?

As I said, I'm no Hebrew paleographer, but actually it seems to me that the aleph of the "current neo-Hebraic," or "Yiddish cursive" is derived from the form of the aleph in the Hebrew cursive form known as Rashi script.

Here are some examples.

This title page from a mid-19th century siddur for travelers to America is interesting in its own right, but take a look at the aleph in the name Ephraim (and the others). In virtually all respects this signature facsimile is written in the current cursive script, but instead of the right side of the aleph being a semi circle, it is more like a "greater than" sign.


This well known signature of Wolf Heidenheim appears on the title pages of all the books outputted by his printing firm in Roedelheim. Same form of aleph appears.

Many, many more examples can be supplied, but here is a sample of 19th century writing (this word happened to have been written by R. Yosef Feimer, rabbi of Slutzk).

Virtually all the letters (written by Ashkenazim) reproduced in the excellent series Shenos Dor Vador (by Reuven Dessler, publ. Mesorah/ Artscroll) show that this was by far the common way this letter was written until the 20th century.

Here is a chart from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia:

Note that in every example prior to 1900 in this chart has the two elements making up the letter attached - granting, that in the 19th century there were also those who wrote the aleph as a line with a half circle. But that was a later development in this script.

As near as I can tell, originally this particular letter was essentially of the the same appearance as the Rashi aleph. It was written in an easy way, by writing a line and a little <-like stroke. What basically happened later was, the right side rounded and detached from the left bar. Today one usually sees it written that way, but on occasion one sees it the older way as well (although often the < attaches in the center of the bar, instead of closer to the top, as it used to).

Now, it is true that the rounded form, the current one, looks kind of like that paleo-Hebrew aleph. But did the original form look like a paleo-Hebrew aleph? I submit that it did not. It looked kind of like a ches, as the Rashi script aleph tends to look. Does the Rashi script aleph "possess traces of the old Hebrew script"? I highly doubt it - how would it? I am sure there are excellent charts showing the development of that letter from a regular, garden variety square aleph.

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