Thursday, January 30, 2014

The 'Broken' Hebrew Script

According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 4.5):
תרגום שבעזרא ואבדניאל, מטמא את הידים. תרגום שכתבו עברית, ועברית שכתבו תרגום, וכתב עברי־־אינו מטמא את הידים. לעולם אינו מטמא עד שיכתבנו אשורית, על העור, ובדיו.
 In Danby's translation (p. 784): 
The [Aramaic] version that is in Ezra and Daniel renders the hands unclean. If an [Aramaic] version [contained in the Scriptures] was written in Hebrew, or if [Scripture that is in] Hebrew was written in an [Aramaic] version, or in Hebrew script, it does not render the hands unclean. [The Holy Scriptures] render the hands unclean only if they are written in the Assyrian character, on leather, and in ink. 
There are several weird features of this passage that I wont address here (e.g., the link between defiling the hands and sanctity, on which see the next mishnah). I am interested in one of the surprising features of this rabbinic declaration, that the appropriate script for writing scripture is not the paleo-Hebrew script but rather the Aramaic square script. Indeed, say the Rabbis, scripture written in Hebrew script does not defile the hands.

I've been reading through William Schniedewind's book A Social History of Hebrew, and this is how he explains this odd decision:
Writing the Scriptures in Aramaic script makes the texts sacred, whereas writing in Paleo-Hebrew, according to the Pharisaic tradition, renders the Scriptures profane! This turns on its head the principle that we see, for example, in the use of Paleo-Hebrew from Qumran, where the divine name is frequently written in Paleo-Hebrew instead of regular Aramaic script in order to demonstrate the sacredness of the divine name. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, writing in Paleo-Hebrew was even more sacred than Aramaic script. Indeed, it was precisely this special meaning given to the Paleo-Hebrew script by groups like the Samaritans and the Essenes that must have encouraged the Pharisaic tradition (reflected in the Mishnah) to reject the special nature of the Paleo-Hebrew script. (p. 172)
I wrote something very similar in my book (pp. 121-22) where I also pointed out that the Talmud (b. San. 22a) explicitly links the 'broken' (רועץ) script to the Samaritans.

I wonder, though, whether there's something else going on. Reading through Schniedewind's book, I made a connection that had escaped me before. He mentions on the previous page (p. 171):
The ideological importance of the Hebrew script is most evident in the Hasmonean (and later in the Bar Kokhba period, and even in the contemporary Israeli) adoption of the Paleo-Hebrew script on their coins. The relative rarity of the Hebrew script also made it a much more powerful religious and political symbol. 
Again, I also mentioned the coins in my book on pp. 111-12, p. 115, and p. 121, where I quote Ya'akov Meshorer (p. 48):
The rulers who minted the coins sought to make them especially prestigious by means of symbols of Jewish significance and inscriptions written in letters from the glorious days of the kingdom of Judah in the First Temple period. 
You can also see a modern Israeli shekel at Wikipedia and observe the paleo-Hebrew word 'Yehud' on the obverse. More relevant, here's a shekel minted in Jerusalem during the First Revolt, and here's one minted during the Second Revolt.

Now, Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kosiba (Bar Kokhba) during the Second Revolt, which was also the last of the Jewish revolts against Rome. Following the Second Revolt, violent resistance seems to have been discouraged among the Rabbis. During the Second Revolt, the paleo-Hebrew script itself served as a symbol of that violent resistance, hearkening back to the glory days of political independence.

So, I wonder, might there be a link between paleo-Hebrew script as a symbol of political revolt and the rejection of this very script by the pro-peace Rabbis who codified the Mishnah? I'm sure that is simplistic on many levels, but still, might there be a connection? After all, about 135 CE the most famous rabbinic authority of all time threw his support behind a revolt that used paleo-Hebrew as a political symbol, and seventy years later the major rabbinic authority declared the paleo-Hebrew script unsuitable for scripture.

In that case, the Talmudic linking of the 'broken' script with the Samaritans could be interpreted as a late justification for the use of the Aramaic script.

This may not be a new suggestion, I don't know. I haven't yet gotten my hands on Willem Smelik's new book, which I'm sure will educate me on some of these matters.

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