With a roll of the scroll

The Hebrew script we use so proudly nowadays, the square script, is in fact not Hebrew at all

By Michael Handelzalts

Haaretz

Adar2 17, 5765

Just before Esther, the eponymous heroine of the scroll read this Purim week, enters, stage center, King Ahasuereus is worried that the "deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported King Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not." To ascertain that the man will ever be the ruler in his own household, and that the wife - if it is a mixed marriage - will speak her husband's lingo, "he sent letters into all the king's provinces, [and we are talking 127 provinces here], into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that it should be published according to the language of every people." King James' translators erred here, as in the Hebrew version it says explicitly that each man will speak in his own house in his language, meaning that the wife should obey her husband's voice and adopt his native language.

However, Ahasuereus can't make himself understood and obeyed even within his palace. Esther overrules him easily and has her say in her own language in every province of the kingdom and every roll of the scroll. She gets Haman, the Jews' enemy, hanged. As a king's decree once signed (instigated by Haman and ordering the annihilation of the Jews) cannot be rescinded, the king says to Esther and her uncle (according to some commentators, Mordecai was to her less than kin and more than kind) "Write ye also for the Jews, as it liketh you, in the king's name, and seal it with the king's ring: for the writing which is written in the king's name, and sealed with the king's ring, may no man reverse."

And Esther and Mordecai send letters to the Jews telling them "to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish all the power of the people and province that would assault them, both little ones and women, and to take the spoil of them for a prey." Those letters are sent "unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their writing, and according to their language."

As proud Israeli Jews, we claim today that we are speaking and writing Hebrew, the ancient language revived along with the Zionist movement, and decreed by the newly established State of Israel to be Israel's national language. But the Hebrew script we use nowadays, the square script, is in fact not Hebrew at all.

Sometime at the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. the emissaries of the Babylonian king presented themselves at the court of Hezkiahu the king and wanted to address the people. "Then said Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and Shebna, and Joah, unto Rab-shakeh, Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall; But Rab-shakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? Hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you; Then Rab-shakeh stood and cried with a loud voice in the Jews' language, and spake, saying, Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria" (Kings 2, 18, 26-28).

Those who stayed in the land of Judah and were not exiled to Babylon in 586 B.C.E. kept on writing in the ancient Hebrew alphabet. God's name is spelled out in such letters in the Qoumran scrolls, and the alphabet is used to this very day by the Shomronites, the descendents of the (good?) Samaritans. As those who stayed in Judah after the Babylonian exile did not have to obey Ahasuereus' decree sent out from Persia about the same time, "Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people" (Nehemia, 13, 24).

Those Jews who exercised their law of return from Babylon to the Palestine of those days brought with them the lingua franca of the ruling administration, and were speaking in Aramaic and writing in an Assyrian alphabet. The book of Ezra is "written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue" (the Hebrew says "Assyrian"). And the Babylonian Talmud says on the matter as follows: "Mar Zutra, according to others Mar Uqba, said `Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Hebrew language; the second time it was given to Israel in Ezra's time, but in Assyrian characters and in the Aramaic language; finally the Assyrian characters and the Hebrew language were selected for Israel, and the Hebrew characters and the Aramaic language were left to the Hediotim (Idiots). Who are meant by Idiots? Said R. Hisda: The Samaritans" (Sanhedrin).

The Midrash Esther Raba says apropos Ahasuereus' decree about the language of the male lord and master spoken in his house that "Hebrew has the speech, but has no script; The Assyrian has the script but has no speech; Therefore they have chosen Assyrian script and a Hebrew speech." And to make things as clear as can be, the story of the letters is summed up: "And why are they named Assyrian? Because they were brought from the country of Assyria." In Hebrew there is a pun here, as the word spelled in Hebrew "Assyrian" means also "approved," in writing.

Anti-Semitic misnomer

In 1781, the German historian and theologist August Schloezer came up with a common name for all the languages of the area (Babylonian, Assyrian, Amorite, Aramaic, Canaanite, Moabite, Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic, Sabaean, Arabic, Ethiopic, Amharic, Nabataean, Samaritan) and called them Semitic languages, based on Genesis (10, 31): "These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations." That is just before the peoples "of one language, and of one speech" (Genesis, 11, 1) tumble down at the hands of God (acting in self-defense of his unassailable position as a supreme being) from the Tower of Babel, and their languages become confounded.

In 1879, the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, the author of a book called "The Victory of Judaism Over Germanism," in step with the swelling tide of anti-Jewish feeling in Germany, founded his Bund der Antisemiten or "Anti-Semitic League." By 1882 there was an official Anti-Semitic Party in Germany that won several seats in the Reichstag. "Anti-Semitism" is a sort of a misnomer or euphemism for "anti-Jew-ism," which was adopted by Zionism as well. There is no "Semitic" race, nor is it an ethnic term. There are only Semitic languages and anti-Semitic racists. Haman was an anti-Semite, as Persian is an Indo-European language. In theory, Arabs cannot be anti-Semites, as their language, Arabic, is a Semitic language. In practice, some of my best friends are Jewish anti-Semites.

Ada Yardeni, in her eye-opening "The Book of Hebrew Script" (British Library, 2003) calls the square Hebrew letters in use by Israelis today "Jewish script." And Jews had days of "feasting and gladness," and a Hebrew language and an Assyrian - make that Jewish - script.