Engraved on Two Stone Tablets

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Coming up in just a few days is the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It is also a harvest festival, which in ancient times, included the bringing of first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem.

This Tanakh, the acronym for “Torah” (bible), “Neveim” (prophets), and “Kvtuvim” (writings), is from the 1950s and printed in Israel by “Sinai Publishers.” The metalwork binding is especially interesting, and also made in Israel. The Tanakh includes lovely illustrations of biblical events. Pictured here are the images of Moshe on Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and Ruth gathering sheaves of wheat in the field of Boaz (her story is traditionally read on Shavuot).

You may notice that the tablets on this binding are written in an ancient script known as Paleo-Hebrew or “Ktav Ivri” (its Talmudic name). The numbered commandments Aleph through Yud are rendered in this script, in addition to the name of God, YHVH, shining above the mountain. Archeologists believe the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, as shown in this artwork, was in use from 13th century BCE and onward, until “Ktav Ashurit,” emerged and was adopted as our Hebrew block letters, in the 6th century, BCE. The narrative of the Exodus and Mount Sinai would have taken place in the 12th century, hundreds of years before Ktav Ashurit was established, so it would seem that artistic representations of these events should incorporate the Paleo-Hebrew script. Why do these depictions, in synagogues and artwork, appear almost exclusively with the common block letters of modern Hebrew instead?

Three sages of the 3rd century CE, debate in Talmudic tractates Shabbat (104a) and Sanhedrin (22a/b) a seeming conflict regarding the original script of the commandments. According to Mar Zutra, the Torah was given in “Ktav Ivri” (Paleo-Hebrew) and later recorded by the Prophet Ezra in the 5th century in Hebrew block script, “Ktav Ashurit.” Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is of the opinion that the Israelites always had “Ktav Ashurit” (our block Hebrew script) but that its interpretation eluded the Israelites due to their transgressions, and they were given Paleo-Hebrew as a substitute. Ktav Ashurit was returned to them after they repented. The last opinion is that of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai, who says that the script of the Israelites was never changed, but rather they always had Ktav Ashurit and never lost it.

It is possible to reconcile these three Talmudic opinions with a recollection that the Torah records two sets of tablets (one before the sin of the Golden Calf and one post-sin) and with the help of an insight from Rabbi Reuven Margaliot (1889-1971). Like other ancient cultures, he suggests the Israelites regarded Ktav Ashurit as sacred, and therefore while it was lost at certain points to the masses, the scribes and scholars retained this script at all times. With these understandings, we could interpret Mar Zutra’s teaching as referring to the second set of tablets. These were in fact given in Paleo-Hebrew, and then Ezra, as a scholar who kept the scribal tradition and retained that knowledge, returned them to their Ktav Ashurit form. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi teaches that the first tablets were written in Ktav Ashurit, then after the sin, were gifted a second time, now in Paleo-Hebrew. Ezra, once again, had kept the scribal tradition and returned it to the masses. And when Rabbi Elazar Hamodai says that the ‘script was never lost,’ he is referring to the unbroken general tradition of the scholars and scribes, and Rabbi Elazar may be in complete agreement with the other sages regarding the specific script in which the different sets of tablets were written.

As of yet, the earliest archeological evidence of Ktav Ashurit, our Hebrew block script, is from around the 9th century BCE, about 400 years before Ktav Ashurit was adopted by Ezra and the Jews, and several hundred years after the biblical events of Mount Sinai. However, since the Rabbinic tradition presumes that the elevated (“ashur”) script was always part of our tradition, this is the script typically used in synagogue imagery and artwork. Whether future archeological discoveries from the thousands of unexcavated sites of antiquity in Israel will support this belief remains to be seen.


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