Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Torah script

Suppose I told you that I thought the Torah was given in cyrillic letters. You think I was nuts, wouldn't you? There'd be laughing and pointing, and mocking. Not only that, but the upper balcony at Godol Hador's blog would go on chatting about into the wee hours of the morning.


GH: DovBear said something that superficially seems rediculous, and I'm too busy with my own posts to look at it closely. Discuss.
Dude: Wow, DovBear sure is crazy. And his nickname, unlike mine, is far from manly.
Bishul Akum: And Liberal! Don't forget Liberal! Argh! He's a Liberal!
JoeCool: And not nearly so handsome as he claims.
Bishul Akum: Plus he voted for Klinton!
Mis-Nagid: But rememeber: he's not Orthodox!
GH: Ah, Nachas.


So what do we do about the fact that there are actual Gedolim who make an analogous claim? I'm speaking of the very famous ktav ivri vs ketav ashuri argument.

What we call ktav ivri is a cuneiform script, written using an alphabet that is barely discernible from the Phoenician alphabet from which it was derived. The square script used for Hebrew today is a direct decendant, not of Phonenician, but of Aramaic/Assyrian or ketav ashuri a script first attested to in the 9th century BCE. Sometime around the 3rd or 4th century BCE, ketav ashuri began to gradually replace ktav ivri for Hebrew writing as Aramaic became the region's most important language.

The Torah, you will recall, was revealed on Mount Sinai around 1300 BCE or about 400 years before ketav ashuri appeared, and perhaps 1000 years before Jews started using it.

What script did Moshe use when he took on the role of Executive Secretatry, and wrote the Torah, according to the divine dictation? There are four views:

Some (1) say the original Torah scrolls were written in ketav ashuri. According to other opinions (2) the ketav ashuri was forgotten and the ktav ivri was used for Torah scrolls, until the ketav ashuri script was restored by Ezra. A third opinion (3) is that the Torah was originally given in the ktav ivri ; later the ketav ashuri script was introduced by Ezra. A fourth opinion (4), which I made up just now, is that the ktav ivri was just an ancient form of shorthand, used by Moshe because God simply refused to slow down.

The most logical opinion, of course, is the third one. Perhaps this is why it's also the least popular. [Sidenote: Have you ever noticed that the same people who claim that the Talmud is wonderful brain exercise, have the most difficulty with logic? They're also most likely to embrace the mosr mystical, most ahistorical solutions. One day, we'll have a long discussion about that]

Anyway, just last week, I had the misfortune of speaking (in the yeshivish dialect) to a young yeshiva student who outright refused to accept the testimony of archelogists who know from their research and discoveries that ketv ashuri did not exist when the Torah was given.

Young yeshiva student: Archeologists? Feh!

When I told the young yeshiva student that his view, the view expressed by the Rabbis who took the first opinion, was analogous to saying the Torah was revealed in cyrillic letters, he had this clever reply:

Young yeshiva student: Chazal said that a Torah is only kosher if it's written in ketv ashuri. That's a halacha! So how could it be possible that all the Torahs written by Dovid Hamelech and the other kings of Israel weren't kosher? And by the way: Archeologists? Feh!

At this point, I considered terminating the conversation and heading for the nearest cliff, but I took one last stab:

DovBear: Look, you know that Chazal made mistakes with medicine. We've had that conversation, and you agreed with me. So why can't you accept that those who say the Torah was originally written in ketv ashuri were wrong about that, too?

Young yeshiva student: You voted for Klinton, didn't you? Liberal! Have some faith!!

Sigh. I don't know what will become of our young yeshiva student. Like so many other young yeshiva students, he has an acute contempt for science that would make him feel right at home in the Bush administration. And as he goes, so goes our world.

Mood: Pessimistic