Visiting the History of the Hebrew Alephbet Exhibit in the Tower of David<

    December 2011          
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Opinion & Society


An Exhibit in the Tower of David: Development of the Alphabet

By Jay Levinson

In today's culture ancient communication seems almost comical. As a user-friendly interactive exhibit in Jerusalem's Tower of David vividly illustrates, a precursor to writing was to send a messenger with a package of items from which the recipient was to deduce the message. Simple? Well, not exactly. Does a fish and a plate mean, "Hearty appetite," or "You are invited to dinner?" The example is simplistic, but it shows it hints at the problem of inexact meaning.

The exhibit starts with one true example recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE) Book 4: 131-132 shows a misunderstanding with extremely serious implications. The Scythians,1 barbarians living north of the Black Sea in today's Moldova and Ukraine, exchanged "correspondence" with the Persians. Amongst the items sent were a bird, a mouse, a frog, and arrows. What did all this mean? The interpretation seemed to be clear, "The Scythians are giving us the air, the land and the water. The weapons they are surrendering." Well, not exactly. As history would later show, the true meaning was quite different, "If you not know how to fly like the birds in the sky, go hide like mice underground. Jump into the marshes like frogs. If you choose to fight us, we will defeat you with arrows."

Obviously this type of sending messages was extremely problematic. The exhibit poses problems on dating, but suffice it to say that in the fourth millennium BCE (circa 3300) pictograms, or "hieroglyphics," first came into use in Egypt and more or less at the same time but quite independently in Mesopotamia. A practical test --- how clear is a message conveyed by hieroglyphics? The visitor to the exhibit is confronted by a wall with symbols on a card, and he is then challenged to write a message. Needless to say, since hundreds of words had symbols, very few people could read and write. And, meaning was not necessarily clear. Does a mouth and a wall mean, "Go talk to the wall," or "Walls talk too?"

The progression of writing from pictograms to symbols for syllables as in Akkadian is skipped. On the one hand Akkadian was a key language in the Fertile Crescent for centuries, but on the other and the exhibit is a simplified introduction to the alphabet and not an academic study.

Next is the development of the alphabet as we know it, progressing from early alphabetic writing to the Hebrew and Latin scripts as we know the today. The key to the presentation is modern didactic methods, and the curators took care to utilize tools ranging from YouTube skits to Touch-Screen aids. Yes, we think that we know everything about reading and writing, but the exhibit raises new issues.

  • The direction of writing can be classified as natural or logical.

  • Rashi never wrote in "Rashi script" --- it derives its name from a Tanach printed in 1475 in which the famous commentary appears in what came to be called Rashi Script." Several incunabula printers (Abraham Garton, the Soncino's, and Daniel Bomberg,) continued the tradition.

  • Over the centuries there have been changes to the Latin alphabet. The letter "W," for example, is a relatively late orthographic development, as is "U." Other letters such as "" (runic wynn) and "" (thorn) have fallen into disuse. (Hebrew letters have been more stable, but two systems of vocalization developed - Nikud Elyon and Nikud Tachton.) Yet, the Hebrew letter-set also changed.

  • Sometimes we transpose the current pronunciation of letters on older texts. For example, "ye" in "Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe" should be pronounced "the." This is just another example of how our orthography has changed.

Where are we going in writing? The exhibit ends with that very basic question. We know what this picture means -- -- even though there is no text.

A visit to the Tower of David is always worthwhile. Seeing this exhibit (particularly for children) is just another reason to add it to your itinerary.

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1 There is a dating problem. The exhibit logically places this exchange of items to the 4th millennium BCE, but the cited Scythians are much later.


from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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