Paleo-Hebrew alphabet

The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (Hebrew: הכתב העברי הקדום), also spelled Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet, was the script used in the historic kingdoms of Israel and Judah, specifically when recording the Hebrew language.

Paleo-Hebrew alphabet
LanguagesBiblical Hebrew
Time period
c. 1000 BCE – 135 CE
Parent systems
Sister systems
South Arabian alphabet
ISO 15924Phnx, 115
Unicode alias

It is a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet, a term used when referring to epigraphy found along the Levantine coast.[1] The Paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician alphabet is an abjad of 22 (consontantal) letters, the immediate continuation of the Proto-Canaanite script used in the Late Bronze Age. Use of the term "Paleo-Hebrew alphabet" is due to a 1954 suggestion by Solomon Birnbaum, who argued that "[t]o apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable".[2]

The earliest known examples of Proto-Hebrew writing dates to the 10th century BCE. By the 5th century BCE, the alphabet had been mostly replaced by the Aramaic alphabet as used in the Persian empire (itself a descendant of the Proto-Canaanite script). The "square-script" variant now known as the Hebrew alphabet developed from the Aramaic script by about the 3rd century BCE (although some letter shapes did not become standard until the 1st century CE). By contrast, the Samaritan alphabet is a direct continuation of Proto-Hebrew. There is also some continued use of Proto-Hebrew in some religious contexts, notably in certain parts of the Dead Sea scrolls, down to the 1st century BCE.



The Paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician alphabet developed in the wake of the Bronze Age collapse, out if its immediate predecessor script used in the Late Bronze Age Syro-Hittite kingdoms during the 13th to 12th centuries BCE.

The earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew script is the Zayit Stone discovered on a wall at Tel Zayit, in the Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands of ancient Judea in 2005, about 50 km (35 miles) southwest of Jerusalem. The 22 letters were carved on one side of the 38 lb (17 kg) stone, which resembles a bowl on the other. The find is attributed to the mid-10th century BCE. The so-called Ophel inscription is of a similar age, but difficult to interpret, and may be classified as either Proto-Canaanite or as Paleo-Hebrew. The Gezer calendar is of uncertain date, but may also still date to the 10th century BCE.

The script on the Zayit Stone and Gezer Calendar are an earlier form than the classical Paleo-Hebrew of the 8th century and later; this early script is almost identical to the early Phoenician script on the 10th century Ahiram sarcophagus inscription. By the 8th century, a number of regional characteristics begin to separate the script into a number of national alphabets, including the Israelite (Israel and Judah), Moabite (Moab and Ammon), Edomite, Phoenician and Old Aramaic scripts.

Linguistic features of the Moabite language (rather than generic Northwest Semitic) are visible in the Mesha Stele inscription, commissioned around 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab. Similarly, the Tel Dan Stele, dated approximately 810 BCE, is written in Old Aramaic, dating from a period when Dan had already fallen into the orbit of Damascus.

The oldest inscriptions identifiable as Biblical Hebrew have long been limited to the 8th century BCE. In 2008, however, a potsherd (ostracon) bearing an inscription was excavated at Khirbet Qeiyafa which has since been interpreted as representing a recognizably Hebrew inscription dated to as early as the 10th century BCE. The argument identifying the text as Hebrew relies on the use of vocabulary.[3]

From the 8th century onward, Hebrew epigraphy becomes more common, showing the gradual spread of literacy among the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah; the oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible, although transmitted via the recension of the Second Temple period, are also dated to the 8th century BCE.

Use in the Israelite kingdoms

The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was in common use in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah throughout the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. During the 6th century BCE, the time of the Babylonian exile, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was gradually replaced by the use of the Imperial Aramaic alphabet. The letters the of Imperial Aramaic were again given shapes characteristic for writing Hebrew during the Second Temple period, developing into the "square shape" of the Hebrew alphabet.[4]

The Samaritans, who remained in the Land of Israel, continued to use their variant of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, called the Samaritan script.[5] After the fall of the Persian Empire, Jews used both scripts before settling on the Assyrian form.

The Paleo-Hebrew script evolved by developing numerous cursive features, the lapidary features of the Phoenician alphabet being ever less pronounced with the passage of time. The aversion of the lapidary script may indicate that the custom of erecting stelae by the kings and offering votive inscriptions to the deity was not widespread in Israel. Even the engraved inscriptions from the 8th century exhibit elements of the cursive style, such as the shading, which is a natural feature of pen-and-ink writing. Examples of such inscriptions include the Siloam inscription,[6] numerous tomb inscriptions from Jerusalem,[7][8] the Ketef Hinnom amulets, a fragmentary Hebrew inscription on an ivory which was taken as war spoils (probably from Samaria) to Nimrud, the hundreds of 8th to 6th-century Hebrew seals from various sites, and the Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll discovered near Tel Qumran. The most developed cursive script is found on the 18 Lachish ostraca,[9] letters sent by an officer to the governor of Lachish just before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. A slightly earlier (circa 620 BCE) but similar script is found on an ostracon excavated at Mesad Hashavyahu, containing a petition for redress of grievances (an appeal by a field worker to the fortress's governor regarding the confiscation of his cloak, which the writer considers to have been unjust).[10][11]

Decline and late survival

After the Babylonian capture of Judea, when most of the nobles were taken into exile, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet continued to be used by the people who remained. One example of such writings are the 6th-century BCE jar handles from Gibeon, on which the names of winegrowers are inscribed. Beginning from the 5th century BCE onward, the Aramaic language and script became an official means of communication. Paleo-Hebrew was still used by scribes and others.

The Paleo-Hebrew script was retained as an archaizing or conservative mode of writing. It is found in certain texts of the Torah among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE: manuscripts 4Q12, 6Q1: Genesis. 4Q22: Exodus. 1Q3, 2Q5, 4Q11, 4Q45, 4Q46, 6Q2, and the Leviticus scroll (11QpaleoLev).[12] In some Qumran documents, YHWH is written in Paleo-Hebrew while the rest of the text is in Aramaic square script.[13] The vast majority of the Hasmonean coinage, as well as the coins of the First Jewish–Roman War and Bar Kokhba's revolt, bears Paleo-Hebrew legends. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet fell completely out of use only after 135 CE.


Samaritan alphabet

The paleo-Hebrew alphabet continued to be used by the Samaritans and over time developed into the Samaritan alphabet. The Samaritans have continued to use the script for writing both Hebrew and Aramaic texts until the present day. A comparison of the earliest Samaritan inscriptions and the medieval and modern Samaritan manuscripts clearly indicates that the Samaritan script is a static script which was used mainly as a book hand.

Babylonian Talmud

The Talmudic sages did not share a uniform stance on the subject of Paleo-Hebrew. Some stated that Paleo-Hebrew was the original script used by the Israelites at the time of the Exodus,[14] while others believed that Paleo-Hebrew merely served as a stopgap in a time when the ostensibly original script (The Assyrian Script) was lost.[15] According to both opinions, Ezra the Scribe (c. 500 BCE) introduced, or reintroduced the Assyrian script to be used as the primary alphabet for the Hebrew language.[14] The arguments given for both opinions are rooted in Jewish scripture and/or tradition.

A third opinion[16] in the Talmud states that the script never changed altogether. It would seem that the sage who expressed this opinion did not believe that Paleo-Hebrew ever existed, despite the strong arguments supporting it. His stance is rooted in a scriptural verse,[17] which makes reference to the shape of the letter vav. The sage argues further that, given the commandment to copy a Torah scroll directly from another, the script could not conceivably have been modified at any point. This third opinion was accepted by some early Jewish scholars,[18] and rejected by others, partially because it was permitted to write the Torah in Greek.[19]

Contemporary use

Use of Proto-Hebrew in modern Israel is negligible, but it is found occasionally in nostalgic or pseudo-archaic examples, e.g. on the ₪1 coin (𐤄𐤃‎𐤉 "Judea")[20] and in the logo of the Israeli town Nahariyah (Deuteronomy 33:24 ‎‎𐤁𐤓𐤅𐤊 𐤌𐤁𐤍𐤉𐤌 𐤀𐤔𐤓 "Let Asher be blessed with children").

Table of letters

Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew characters were never standardised and are found in numerous variant shapes. A general tendency of more cursive writing can be observed over the period of c. 800 BCE to 600 BCE. After 500 BCE, it is common to distinguish the script variants by names such as "Samaritan", "Aramaic", etc.

There is no difference in "Paleo-Hebrew" vs. "Phoenician" letter shapes. The names are applied depending on the language of the inscription, or if that cannot be determined, of the coastal (Phoenician) vs. highland (Hebrew) association (c.f. the Zayit Stone abecedary).

Letter Name[21] Meaning Phoneme Origin Corresponding letter in
Image Text Samaritan Hebrew
𐤀 ʾālep head of cattle (אלף) ʾ [ʔ] 𓃾 א
𐤁 bēt house (בית) b [b] 𓉐 ב
𐤂 gīml throwing stick (?) g [ɡ] 𓌙 ג
𐤃 dālet door (דלת) d [d] 𓇯 ד
𐤄 jubilation/window[22] h [h] 𓀠? ה
𐤅 wāw hook (וו) w [w] 𓏲 ו
𐤆 zayin weapon (זין) z [z] 𓏭 ז
𐤇 ḥēt(?) courtyard/thread[22] [ħ] 𓉗/𓈈? ח
𐤈 ṭēt wheel (?)[23] [] ? ט
𐤉 yōd arm, hand (יד) y [j] 𓂝 י
𐤊 kāp palm of a hand (כף) k [k] 𓂧 כך
𐤋 lāmed goad (למד)[24] l [l] 𓌅 ל
𐤌 mēm water (מים) m [m] 𓈖 מם
𐤍 nūn fish (נון)[25] n [n] 𓆓 נן
𐤎 sāmek pillar, support (סמך[26]) s [s] 𓊽 ס
𐤏 ʿayin eye (עין) ʿ [ʕ] 𓁹 ע
𐤐 mouth (פה) p [p] 𓂋 פף
𐤑 ṣādē ?[27] [] ? צץ
𐤒 qōp ?[28] q [q] ? ק
𐤓 rēš head (ריש) r [r] 𓁶 ר
𐤔 šīn tooth (שין) š [ʃ] 𓌓 ש
𐤕 tāw mark, sign (תו) t [t] 𓏴 ת

The Phoenician Unicode block (U+10900U+1091F) is intended for the representation of text in Palaeo-Hebrew, Archaic Phoenician, Phoenician, Early Aramaic, Late Phoenician cursive, Phoenician papyri, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
U+1090x 𐤀 𐤁 𐤂 𐤃 𐤄 𐤅 𐤆 𐤇 𐤈 𐤉 𐤊 𐤋 𐤌 𐤍 𐤎 𐤏
U+1091x 𐤐 𐤑 𐤒 𐤓 𐤔 𐤕 𐤖 𐤗 𐤘 𐤙 𐤚 𐤛 𐤟
1.^ As of Unicode version 12.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also


  1. Reinhard G. Kratz (11 November 2015). Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. OUP Oxford. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-19-104448-9. [...] scribes wrote in Paleo-Hebrew, a local variant of the Phoenician alphabetic script [...]
  2. The Hebrew scripts, Volume 2, Salomo A. Birnbaum, Palaeographia, 1954, "To apply the term Phoenician to the script of the Hebrews is hardly suitable. I have therefore coined the term Palaeo-Hebrew."
  3. On January 10, 2010, the University of Haifa issued a press release stating that the text "uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as ‘śh (עשה) ("did") and ‘bd (עבד) ("worked"), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah ("widow") are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other Canaanite languages. "Most ancient Hebrew biblical inscription deciphered". University of Haifa. January 10, 2010. Archived from the original on October 5, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2011. See also: "Qeiyafa Ostracon Chronicle". Khirbet Qeiyafa Archaeological Project. Retrieved November 5, 2011., "The keys to the kingdom". 6 May 2011. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
  4. The Mishnah, ed. Herbert Danby, Oxford University Press: Oxford 1933, s.v. Megillah 1:8, p. 202 (note 20); Yadayim 4:5-6, p. 784 (note 6) (ISBN 0-19-815402-X)
  5. Angel Sáenz-Badillos (1993). A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1.
  6. An illustration of the Siloam script is available at this link.
  7. An illustration of a tomb inscription said to be scratched onto an ossuary to identify the decedent is available here. An article describing the ossuaries Zvi Greenhut excavated from a burial cave in the south of Jerusalem can be found in Jerusalem Perspective (July 1, 1991), with links to other articles.
  8. Another tomb inscription is believed to be from the tomb of Shebna, an official of King Hezekiah. An illustration of the inscription may be viewed, but it is too large to be placed inline.
  9. An illustration of the Lachish script is available at this link.
  10. See Worker's appeal to governor.
  11. The conduct complained about is contrary to Exodus 22, which provides:"If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?"
  12. Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.
  13. e.g. File:Psalms Scroll.jpg
  14. Sanhedrin 21b
  15. Megillah 3a, Shabbat 104a
  16. Sanhedrin 22a
  17. Exodus 27, 10
  18. Rabbeinu Chananel on Sanhedrin 22a
  19. Maimonides. "Mishne Torah Hilchos Stam 1:19".
  20. This is in imitation of the "Yehud coinage" minted in the Persian period. Yigal Ronen, "The Weight Standards of the Judean Coinage in the Late Persian and Early Ptolemaic Period", Near Eastern Archaeology 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), 122126.
  21. after Fischer, Steven R. (2001). A History of Writing. London: Reaction Books. p. 126.
  22. The letters he and ḥēt continue three Proto-Sinaitic letters, ḥasir "courtyard", hillul "jubilation" and ḫayt "thread". The shape of ḥēt continues ḥasir "courtyard", but the name continues ḫayt "thread". The shape of he continues hillul "jubilation" but the name means "window". see: He_(letter)#Origins.
  23. The glyph was taken to represent a wheel, but it possibly derives from the hieroglyph nefer hieroglyph 𓄤 and would originally have been called tab טוב "good".
  24. The root l-m-d mainly means "to teach", from an original meaning "to goad". H3925 in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible, 1979.
  25. the letter name nūn is a word for "fish", but the glyph is presumably from the depiction of a snake, which would point to an original name נחש "snake".
  26. H5564 in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance to the Bible, 1979.
  27. the letter name may be from צד "to hunt".
  28. "The old explanation, which has again been revived by Halévy, is that it denotes an 'ape,' the character Q being taken to represent an ape with its tail hanging down. It may also be referred to a Talmudic root which would signify an 'aperture' of some kind, as the 'eye of a needle,' [...] Lenormant adopts the more usual explanation that the word means a 'knot'." Isaac Taylor, History of the Alphabet: Semitic Alphabets, Part 1, 2003.


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