Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

SimHebrew: Hebrew unbound (and preserved)


Ask the average Westerner what Hebrew looks like, and they would probably imagine something like this:


Ask the average Israeli, and they would probably imagine much the same, but perhaps in a more modern, more subtly serifed, or a non-serif font:


Some might cite an example of modern Hebrew cursive writing, which is far less familiar to people outside Israel:


or lesser-known traditional varieties, such as “Rashi Script”, which is often used in Talmudic commentary:


Some might know of other varieties of Hebrew script over the centuries, such as the cursive script among Sephardi Jews in the Arab empire in the late Middle Ages, which not surprisingly was influenced by the Arabic script:


Medieval Sephardi Hebrew cursive (courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

or the Gothic-like cursive among Ashkenazi Jews at the same period:


Medieval Ashkenazi Hebrew cursive (courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Someone more versed in the history of Hebrew script might point out that the original Hebrew script (which was common to all Canaanite nations—including Israel and Judah right—up to the end of the First Temple period, in 586 BCE, and served as the basis for the Greek alphabet, which begat the Roman one), could also be used:


But it’s only when you see the same text in Hebrew Morse code:


or in Hebrew Braille:


—that you begin to understand that Hebrew is not so much a script, as a language—and that Hebrew characters can vary enormously in their graphic appearance, and still retain the integrity of the language. In other words, as long as you designate that a particular sign means aleph, another stands for bet, another stands for gimmel, and so forth, for all letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet (alphabet)—any collection of signs can be used to represent Hebrew.

With this insight in mind, it is easy to see how Hebrew script can easily be simulated in any character set—as long as you maintain a one-to-one mapping (and preferably, one that is comparatively easy to relate to the familiar Square Hebrew).  One such mapping is the following:


The ramifications of such simulated Hebrew—or SimHebrew, for short—are tremendous, as the use of traditional Square Hebrew is impossible, limited, or buggy in many computer applications and other electronic contexts (which I shall detail on another occasion). Using SimHebrew makes it possible to convey Hebrew in all and any computerised or electronic environment which supports standard ASCII (i.e., the English alphabet). The sample one-line text that I used above, for example, would look like this in SimHebrew:

dg sqrn w’t bim mauczb ulpty mxa kbrh

and the first five verses of the Book of Genesis would look as follows:

a brawit bra alhim at hwmim vat harx.  b vharx hith thu vbhu vkwç yl-pni thom; vruk alhim mrkpt yl-pni hmim.  g viamr alhim ihi aor; vihi-aor.  d vira alhim at-haor ci-‘tob; vibdl alhim bin haor ubin hkwç.  h viqra alhim laor iom vlkwç qra lilh; vihi-yrb vihi-bqr iom akd.  {p}

Reading or writing SimHebrew takes a little practice—whether your native language is Hebrew or English, you need to train your mind to remember that the characters should not be read as in English (just as it knows not to pronounce Champs Élysées as “champs eleezees”), but as the Hebrew characters that they represent.  However, this task is made easier by the fact that it is graphically not unlike a mirror version of standard Square Hebrew—as evident when you flip the above text horizontally*:


That said, even I, who developed the method eighteen years ago and have been using it for my own purposes and in communication with one or two close friends, still find it easier to read Square Hebrew than this variety (mainly because the Hebrew character lamed has a greater presence in Square Hebrew than the lowercase <l>). But the point of SimHebrew is not to serve as a replacement for Square Hebrew where Square Hebrew is available and functions satisfactorily, but as a means of storing or conveying Hebrew material where Square Hebrew is not possible, or too buggy.

Accordingly, an essential part of the SimHebrew scheme is a computerised converter, that can take electronic Square Hebrew text and convert it to SimHebrew—and back—with full fidelity.  Since I have always been fairly useless when it comes to programming, I had to wait until I found someone who could take my algorithm and create such a converter for me. Fortunately, Guy Stoppi was able to produce a fairly good alpha version last year, and Rob Dunsmuir of was able to finish the job, and it is now available for general use on my website:


With the Square Hebrew-SimHebrew Converter, anyone can now produce and store texts of any length in SimHebrew, with the knowledge that they can converted back to Square Hebrew at any time, at will. This may be of interest to anyone with mission-critical Hebrew texts who wishes to preserve them without concerns about the Square Hebrew compatability of future platforms and environments.

For me, the first application I have in mind is a SimHebrew version of the Hebrew Bible: this will allow computerised analysis of the Hebrew Bible with standard text-mining software, and much besides. Watch this space.

* An idea which forms the basis of my book, Aleph Through the Looking Glass


Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

3 thoughts on “SimHebrew: Hebrew unbound (and preserved)

  1. Pingback: So long Genesis, hello Exodus | Notes by Autumn Light

  2. Pingback: What does “Havah” in “Havah Nagilah” mean? | Notes by Autumn Light

  3. Pingback: Which top countries have their own alphabet but have transliteration problem in Latin characters? | Notes by Autumn Light

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