The evolution of the Hebrew Letters

There is one problem with the Hollywood movies showing Moses coming down Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. The Hebrew letters shown etched into the tablets did not exist in Moses time. The real tablets must have looked slightly different…

Proto-Canaanite writing was used in the period between 17 B.C.E until 12 B.C.E, the time of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, including the period of time the children of Israel spent in exile in Egypt. In Nablus, Gezer and Lachish, very short inscriptions were found on shards of pottery. Longer ones were found in Sinai. There were approximately 30 symbols on the Canaanite inscription. Each drawing symbolized a letter.

Paleo-Hebrew was adopted the alphabetic script together with other cultural values from the Canaanites in the 12th or 11th century B.C.E. They followed the current Phoenician script until the ninth century, when they began to develop their own national script. The earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was discovered on the stone on a wall at Tel Zayit, in the Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands of ancient Judea. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38 lb stone (17 kg) – which resembles a bowl on the other. Next would be the Gezer calendar dated to the late 10th century BCE. The script of the Gezer calendar bears strong resemblance to contemporaneous Phoenician script from inscriptions at Byblos. Clear Hebrew features are visible in the scripts of the Moabite inscriptions of the Mesha Stele. From the 8th century onward there was a gradual spread of literacy among the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.

The meanings of the Proto-Hebrew  letters:

  • aleph – To represent the word אַלּוּף(aluf), a head of a bull.
  • bet – From the wordבַּיִת (bayit), a square shape which represents home.
  • gimel – To represent a throw stick, boomerang.
  • dalet – To represent the word דַּג (dag), a fish.
  • heh – To represent הֵיי (hey), a man calling out “hey”.
  • vav – From the word וָו (vav), a peg knocked into walls to be used as a hook.
  • zayin – The meaning of this shape is unclear.
  • chet – This seems to derive from חוּט (choot), a piece of string.
  • tet – This might be to represent a roll of string, however the connection between the sound “t” and a role of string is unclear.
  • yood – From the word יָד (yad), an arm.
  • kaf – To represent the word כַּף יָד (kaf yad), the palm of a hand.
  • lamed – From the word מַלְמָד(malmad). This is a goad used by a herdsman to guide the cattle. Malmad comes from the word “to teach“ (lelamed in Hebrew), but is obsolete these days.
  • mem – From the word מַיִם (mayim), water.
  • noon – To represent the wordנָחָשׁ (nachash),a snake.
  • samech – The meaning of this shape is unclear.
  • a’yin – To represent the word עַיִן (a’yin), an eye.
  • pey – To represent the word פִּנָּה (pina),a corner in a room.
  • tzadi – To represent the word צֶמַח (tzemach),a plant.
  • kuf – The meaning of this shape is unclear.
  • resh – To representרֹאשׁ (rosh), a human head.
  • shin – This might be a bow (keshet) or breasts (shadayim).
  • tav – To represent the word תָּו (tav),a sign, a note.

 Aramaic –  Ancient Hebrew writing reached its peak at the time of the first temple. Nations living in the region of the land of Israel were influenced by the Hebrew writing and used it as well. However, at the end of the first temple period, the Aramaic language began to develop. This language, which was very similar to ancient Hebrew, was affected later on by Phoenician writing and slowly began to differ from Hebrew writing, which was dominant until then. In 7 and 8 B.C.E., the Assyrian kingdom increased in greatness and size and ruled over many nations that spoke different languages and used various systems of writing. The Assyrians decided to make Aramaic the official language of the empire. This decision promoted the usage of Aramaic and eventually helped it become an international language. The development of Aramaic reached its peak at 5 B.C.E. Hebrew writing was not very popular at the time and was rarely used. Aramaic lost its glory with the fall of the kingdom of Assyria and the rise of the Persian Empire. Although Greek became very popular at the time, many nations began developing a new written language, which was based on Aramaic and some Greek influences.

Modern Hebrew Letters – The Jewish people developed a new system of written Hebrew. Many of the letters included four-sided shapes. The letters ך, ם ,ן ,ף ,ץ developed at that time. We know the term “Jewish writing” existed since the time of the House of Hasmoniea. The ancient form of written Hebrew was no longer in use. The Judea Desert scrolls are the classic example of Jewish writing. These scrolls, written at the time of the Second Temple, demonstrate very clearly the four-sided shape of the letters. The fact that even today, any Hebrew speaker is able to read these scrolls, indicates that very few changes have been made in written Hebrew over the past 2,000 years.