Q&A: Why is God’s name written in old Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

[continued question, by Alfredo Torres:]

At circa 500 BCE Jews return to Judea from Babylon with a new Assyrian/Aramaic alphabet. Almost five centuries latter, at the time of the second temple destruction, Jews still use old/paleo Hebrew for G’d’s name—not only in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in almost all archaeological findings that includes letter/words (sarcophagus/coins/seals/pottery/masonry/ I am looking for the historical finding like Josefus Flavius saying “The people thought Assyrian/Aramaic Hebrew was artificial/foreign/less sacred”)

Answer: The use of Assyrian script for Hebrew had been a contentious issue for centuries. The educated Judean elite who had been exiled to Babylon, and their descendants who returned to the Holy Land, had grown accustomed to using its language (Aramaic), and its script (Assyrian) when writing Hebrew (it was the same alphabet, but in different forms). But how could one justify writing in a script other than the one that was used in the Ten Commandments and throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, until their fall? It was a conundrum that remained unresolved until the times of the Gemara (200–600 CE), when, in Tractate Sanhedrin 21:2, a typically Talmudic interpretation and justification was provided:

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Q&A: How was modern Hebrew created?

Modern Hebrew wasn’t ‘created’ in the sense that constructed languages such as Esperanto or Lojban are created ex nihilo. Rather, the traditional Hebrew of Scriptures, the Talmud, and nearly two thousand years of rabbinical commentary was taken and updated to make it serviceable for the modern age.

Eliezer Ben-Yehudah is often credited as single-handedly doing this himself, by creating the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and coining hundreds of new terms, but in fact, innumerable people were involved in this enterprise—such as writers such as Mendele Mocher-Sforim, Ehad Ha’am, and Hayim Nahman Bialk, who in the second half of the 19th century spearheaded, aided by a slew of Hebrew-language publications (HaMagidHeHalutzHatzfirah, etc.).

Ben-Yehudah’s other notable contribution is proving—using his infant son as a guinea pig—that a child can acquire Hebrew as a native tongue. But even without Ben-Yehudah, this would have happened, because the real revival of Hebrew as a spoken, everyday language was taking place in the schools of the first Zionist moshavot (settlements), such as Lev Frumkin’s boarding school in 1886, and the Ḥaviv School, founded two years later in Rishon Lezion.

The Ḥaviv School in Rishon Lezion, early 20th century (Credit: rishon.mynet.co.il)

Hebrew was the inevitable chosen language of the burgeoning Zionist community, not only because it was the only language that Jews of all countries had in common, but because it symbolised the return to ancestral land and cultural roots.

Q&A: How different was Hebrew from Akkadian?


Hebrew was a Canaanite dialect. Akkadian was the language of Mesopotamian peoples (Babylonians and Assyrians) that went through several stages until it finally died out towards the Common Era.

Being closer to the original Proto-Semitic language that gave birth to all Semitic languages, Akkadian only featured four vowels (a, e, i , u); had a strong preference for /sh/ instead of /s/; and tended to end nouns with the vowel u.

In Canaanite dialects, the end u in nouns was dropped; the hard k became pharyngeal in some instances (like ch in loch, or Bach); the hard b also softened in some cases, to /v/; and—due, perhaps, to influences by non-Semitic, Indo-European nations, such as the Hittites and Grecian Sea People invaders—a vowel shift occurred that introduced all five basic vowels (a, e, i, o, u) into the language. As a result, words that had the same consonantal root as Akkadian, usually sounded quite different. Thus:

  • akal [food] in Akkadian > okhel in Canaanite
  • libbu [heart] > lev
  • shipru [missive, letter] > sepher
  • mahiru [price] > meḥir
  • shataru [bill] > shtar

In addition, many words changed in meaning—e.g.:

  • siklu [wise man] > sekhel [wisdom]
  • emutu [family, society] > amit [colleague]
  • mazzaztum [star position] > mazal [luck, fortune]

The end result is that the Akkadian and Hebrew/Canaanite were not mutually intelligible in speech, but partially intelligible in writing, if the same script was used (such as the Canaanite script, which was ultimately adopted by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians). In that regard, the relationship is very similar to that between Arabic and Hebrew, today.

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“The SimHebrew Bible” is out

Four years after the start of conversion from Square Hebrew to SimHebrew and compilation, and twenty years after the start of the SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew) project, The SimHebrew Bible: The Hebrew Bible in Simulated Hebrew – with English Guide is finally out.

Fig. 1: The book’s front cover.

As evident from my prolonged silence on this blog in recent years, work on this project—one chapter a day—came at the expense of my usual blogposting, in my spare time and in the wee hours of the night.

In the end, given the scope and complexity of the project, this first major application of SimHebrew was a joint collaboration with Bob MacDonald – a retired software developer, composer, Hebrew Bible translator, and author of the Dust blog, and Seeing the Psalter, The Song in the Night, and other books on the Hebrew Bible – whose automated convertor engine (based on the SimHebrew algorithm) complemented my semi-manual efforts, and served as a quality control. His conversion was based on the pointed Leningrad Codex, while mine was based on the unpointed ktiv malé (‘full spelling’) which I ‘semi pointed’ manually (to distinguish between consonantal vav (ו), ḥolam malé (וֹ) and shuruq (וּ), and converted by my in-house convertor app. The final SimHebrew manuscript is therefore a blended and resolved version of the two, to ease reading.

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Cantillations—SimHebrew style

In light of his continued integration of SimHebrew in his system of Hebrew representation, I asked my friend Bob MacDonald if he found SimHebrew more amenable than phonetic or scholastic rendition in combination with Hebrew téamim (cantillation marks). In reply, he told me that there are several problems with it—e.g., the dots of the i could be confused with a revia mark—and of course, the font would cause problems for some technical environments.

He then followed this up with an interesting blog post on the topic, including his improvised method of representing téamim, and the issues of using the actual ones.

But in light of the SimHebrew approach of adapting standard ASCII characters instead of the traditional characters which require higher, double-byte Unicode encodings that are not available in many contexts (much like Square Hebrew itself), I wondered if it isn’t possible to use standard signs to stand in for the official téamim. This is something that has been at the back of my mind to check out at some point, so now was as good an opportunity as ever.

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The SimHebrew Bible (MacDonald version)

If I have rather quiet on the Autumn Light front in recent months, it’s because I’ve been hard at work on the SimHebrew Bible, and other projects.

My friend Bob MacDonald, retired computing developer and musician, who has done an extraordinary amount of work in translating the Hebrew Bible and setting it to music (based on the original cantillation values), appears to have taken to SimHebrew, and in a matter of days has created his own Square Hebrew-SimHebrew Convertor to rival my own, and with it, has produced SimHebrew versions of the Book of Psalms, The Twelve [minor prophets], Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis, and the five scrolls.

‘Tis a thing of beauty—illustrating the concision and gem-like simplicity of the original Hebrew, revealing the word stems, preserving the distinctions between aleph and ayin, ḥet and khaph, tet and tav, etc. that are lost in phonetic transcription, but without the jumble of eye-glazing diacritics that characterize scholarly transliteration. It’s humbling that he rustled up a converter in a few days that took me and my programmer son and another programmer several months and tweaks to get to the same point. Although the project is currently viewable by invitation only, you can see an example in Bob’s post yesterday at https://meafar.blogspot.com.

Unlike my own SimHebrew Bible, which is based on a ‘full spelling’ (ktiv malé) of the Masoretic text, the Macdonald SimHebrew Bible uses the traditional deficient spelling (ktiv ḥaser) version, as used in the Leningrad Codex. I, too, did so initially, but halfway through the Book of Genesis, I realised that since the SimHebrew Bible is aimed primarily at a non-Hebrew-reading readership, it’s best to used the ‘full spelling’ version, as it helps the reader distinguish the presence of /o/, /i/, and /u/ vowels in the text, which is often not readily apparent in the deficient spelling version. Ultimately, however, both the full and the deficient spelling variations of the SimHebrew Bible will be required, so MacDonald’s endeavour is very welcome.

Q&A: What is the Moabite word for “Israel” in the Mesha Stele?

Exactly as in Hebrew—Yisrael ישראל (blue rectangle below)—as evident at the start of the third sentence (line 5), in which he describes how Omri king of Israel had oppressed Moab:

Top of Mesha Stele (b&w rendering) Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
Source: en.wikipedia.com https://images.app.goo.gl/jzFsMqXUisxZAVFo8
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Q&A: What is the difference between the Hebrew words dabar and amar?

The verb d-b-r (דבר) is to speak—i.e. it is more formal and intentional. Hence words put in writing are also dbrim* (‘dvarim’); the Ten Commandments in Hebrew are Aseret Hadibrot (The Ten Proclamations); and religious prophets always warned civic leaders to honour at hdbrim awr H’ xivh* etc. (the things that the Lord commanded).

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