Ancient Egypt is renowned for many scientific and cultural achievements. As with many later exiles and persecutions—most notably of course the German Holocaust—the morally corrupt oppressors of Israel were not backward nations, but world leaders in human culture, art and science.
One of the most well-known Egyptian advances was its hieroglyphic writing system. Hieroglyphics, which included characters representing words or phrases (logographic) alongside alphabetic and syllabic elements, are considered by some historians to be a precursor to Ksav Ivri, known as the ancient Paleo-Hebrew text. According to one opinion (as we will see below), only much later was this original Hebrew script replaced by the Ksav Ashuris (literally, Assyrian) we know today.
In the present article we will present an outline of the origins and sanctity of Ksav Ashuris, and discuss the halachos of the Torah script. Is it permitted to write mundane documents in Ksav Ashuris? It is permitted to bring Ashuris lettering into the bathroom? What is the halacha concerning get and kesubah documents? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Kesav Ivri and Kesav Ashuris
There is one Hebrew language—lashon ha-kodesh—but it has two distinct scripts. Both are mentioned in the Talmud, but one of them, Ksav Ivri, has not been in general use for many centuries. Our familiar Hebrew script of today is known as Ashuris, meaning Assyrian script. Both scripts possess 22 letters, though Ashuris adds five final letters for the ends of words.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) notes a dispute concerning the use and development of the two forms of Hebrew writing:
“Mar Zutra or, some say, Mar Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Iivri letters and in the lashon ha-kodesh. Later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashuris script and Aramaic language. Finally, they selected for Israel the Ashuris script and Hebrew language, leaving the original Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the ignorant people. Rabbi Yosi said: Why is it called Ashuris (Assyrian) script? Because they brought it with them from Assyria.”
According to this opinion, the original Hebrew script was not the current Ksav Ashuris, but rather the ancient Ksav Ivri, which was abandoned in favor of the Assyrian alternative. The Torah, according to this opinion, was originally given in Ksav Ivri.
The second opinion presented in the Gemara differs radically. According to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the Torah was originally given Ashuris script, which is the superior form. When the people sinned, it was changed to Ksav Ivri, and it later returned to Ashuris after they repented. According to this opinion, Ksav Ashuris is the ancient and original script for Hebrew, and the Torah was given in Ashuris. This elevated script was lost on account of sinfulness, only to be recovered later.
A third opinion, in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar (citing Rabbi Eliezer ben Parta, in the name of Rabbi Elazar of Modin), is that the Ashuris writing of the Torah never changed. According to this opinion the Torah script throughout Jewish history was the Ksav Ashuris known to us today.
Additional sources in Chazal give us further indications concerning the script in which the Torah was given. The Gemara in Shabbos (104a) mentions that the mem and samekh in the luchos were held in place by a miracle, since it is physically impossible to etch out these letters (assuming, as the Gemara does, that the letters were engraved all the way through the stone), without the middle of the letter falling out. This clearly indicates Ksav Ashuris, since in Ksav Ivri the samekh is not a full circle and the mem is not a closed square.
By contrast, in Ksav Ivri the letter ayin is a closed circle, and will therefore fall out of the Luchos. Based on an understanding that the Torah was given with Ksav Ivri, the Yerushalmi (Megillah 1:9) states that the ayin in the Luchos stood by miracle.
The Radvaz suggests a resolution of the two opinions. He suggests (3:883) that only the first Luchos, about which the Torah states that they were “the work of Hashem,” and the inscription “the inscription of Hashem,” were engraved in Ashuris. The second set, which were inscribed by Moshe, were written in Ksav Ivri (though the Migdal Oz points out that in the Torah it states that Hashem inscribed the words onto the Luchos). He therefore explains the Talmud Bavli refers to the first set of Luchos, while the tradition in the Yerushalmi refers to the second set.
The Radvaz also suggests that until the Babylonian exile the Jews were referred to as Ivri’im (Hebrew), so that their script was naturally the Ivri script. After the Babylonian exile they were no longer called Hebrews, possibly because Ksav Ashuris was taught by the prophets.
Sanctity of Ashuris
The Ritva mentions that although the Torah was (according to some opinions) given in Ashuris, this was considered a sacred script which was not to be used for mundane purposes. He explains further that even Torah scrolls written for Torah study were written in Ksav Ivri, befitting the common language of the people (he thereby resolves an apparent contradiction in the opinion of Rav Chisda).
The idea of refraining from usage of Ksav Ashuris for mundane purposes is noted by numerous halachic authorities. The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 284:2) mentions this principle, citing Rabbenu Yerucham. The original source of the teaching is from the Rambam in his teshuvos (268), who writes: “What you need to know is that this script, meaning Ksav Ashuris, is the script in which the Torah was given, and the Luchos were engraved with it, so that it is a great disgrace to use it for anything other than Holy Scripture.”
The Rambam says that this has been the custom for generations: For matters of casual communication, for wisdom writings and for mundane texts they used the Ivri script, and other communities use alternative scripts for their everyday needs.
The Tashbatz (1:2) permits writing mundane texts in Ksav Ashuris, but most authorities note the ruling of the Rambam, including Orchos Chaim (Talmud Torah 1:9), Shut Chavas Yair (109), and others (see Rav Pe’alim 4:32; Aruch HaShulchan 284:8; among others). The Gilyon Maharsha (to the Rema) thus writes that the tradesmen who use square script in their business annotations are out of order, and the Radvaz (4:45; cited by Pischei Teshuva, Yoreh De’ah 283:3) states that it is wrong to engrave any text (on one’s tallis) in Ashuris. The Pischei Teshuva adds that some are stringent even for using Ksav Ashuris on tombstones.
Parallel to this, we find Poskim who write that even mundane text written in Ksav Ashuris may not be treated with disrespect. Even for books of Euclidean geometry, the Chavas Yair (109) writes that than one should refrain from shows of disrespect, such as throwing them on the ground, cleaning with them, and so on. Yet, he limits the gravity of this matter to instances in which a Jew wrote the special script with intent to draw their special and sanctified form, and not to print or to books written by non-Jews.
He nevertheless mentions that one should refrain, on a lechatchilah level, from denigrating writing in Ashuris. This will apply, for instance, to taking Ashuris texts into a bathroom.
The Common Custom
Despite this, the common custom today is that a kind of Ksav Ashuris is used for all things mundane, including books of all types, magazines, newspapers, and everyday notes—and without the objection of any halachic authorities. In fact, the situation today is that Rashi script, which is another type of non-Ashuris shorthand, is reserved for sanctified use, while Ashuris is used for everyday writing—just the opposite of the halachic prescription!
The Aruch Hashulchan (283:14) notes this difficulty, and writes that the common custom is to rely on that which Chazal state, “It is permitted to speak of mundane matters in lashon ha-kodesh” (Shabbos 40b). But while this is said of oral speech, based on the authorities above it seems that it does not apply to writing in Ashuris. Indeed, it is actually a mitzvah to speak (even mundane matters) in lashon ha-kodesh, as the Rambam notes (Commentary to Mishnah, Avos 2:1)—while there is no parallel mitzvah concerning writing in Ashuris.
The Aruch Hashulchan himself makes the distinction between oral speech and writing in Ashuris, explaining that this is the reason why one should refrain from writing in Ashuris, as the Poskim note (the Aruch Hashulchan himself mentions [284:8] that one should refrain from using Ashuris for mundane matters).
A possible solution to the everyday custom is to distinguish between the square writing we use today, and the actual Ashuris which is kosher for a Sefer Torah. In our regular everyday script, there are numerous differences that invalidate it for use as true Ashuris for a Sefer Torah. Due to these differences, many Poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh De’ah 3:120), Shut Tzitz Eliezer (15:7), Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer, Vol. 9, Yoreh De’ah 23-24), and others, explain that there is no problem in using the square Hebrew script of today, and even in bringing it into the bathroom and disposing of it in a regular manner.
Not all Poskim are in agreement on this issue. Shut Chavas Yair (109) clearly implies that any square writing is considered Ashuris, and this is highlighted by some later authorities such as Shut Be’er Moshe (3:183), who writes that “certainly the Rambam’s intention was not to use any square letters, as the letters of a Sefer Torah, for mundane texts.” Shut Divrei Malkiel (Vol. 2, end of Siman 83) likewise writes that were it possible, he would forbid the publishing of any non-kodesh material in modern-day Ashuris script, and Shut Ksav Sofer (Even HaEzer 22) is likewise stringent, though he notes that the Chasam Sofer used Ashuris in invitations for a seudas mitzvah, and explains that this was permitted because of the honor of the mitzvah.
The common custom is to be lenient for square lettering but not Ashuris which is valid for Torah use. Were we not lenient in this, we would have difficulties with using an Israeli toilet basin, Israeli soap and shower gel, and with disposing of regular books, magazines and newspapers in Hebrew. In Israel of today, stringency in the matter of modern-day Ashuris is virtually impossible.
However, one should refrain, as noted, from writing mundane text in actual Ashuris lettering that is kosher for a Sefer Torah.
Gittin and Kesubos
The Beis Yosef (Even HaEzer 126) notes (citing the Ri Migash) that it is forbidden to use Ashuris for a get document, which is considered a mundane document and not something possessing kedusha. However, the Beis Yosef cites a number of Rishonim that a get must be written in Ashuris, and this is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch—and the common custom.
Apparently, since giving a get is a mitzvah, it is permitted to use even the proper Sefer Torah script in writing the get.
For a kesubah, Shut Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah 3:120) writes that it is permitted to use Ashuris script because Chazal instituted its use. Therefore, it is a somewhat holy text. However, he adds that if there is a slight change from the proper Torah script, there is surely no prohibition.
Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 9:24) as well writes that a kesubah is considered a mitzvah item, and therefore it is permitted to write it even in proper Ashuris.