Hebrew Typography

How did Hebrew become such a unique script?

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

In the Book of Genesis, the Hebrew language is the very stuff of creation. The Talmud tells us (Menahot 29b) that Rabbi Akiba would derive new laws from the "crowns" of Hebrew letters. In the Kabbalah, the shape of the letters is said to reflect the shape of God's own inner being. What type of type can do justice to any of this?

As a distinctive script, Hebrew emerged from its Phoenician and Canaanite origins at roughly the turn of the first millennium B.C.E., eventually adopting the Aramaic (in talmudic lingo, "Assyrian") look during the Second Temple period. In some ways a no-frills alphabet, Hebrew has no uppercase, capital letters, or italics; vowels float around the consonantal letters, or are left to the reader's memory and imagination. But the basic framework has proved fertile ground for visual creativity.

The Evolution

Over the centuries, three Hebrew "hands" emerged: the formal square or block letter, which, in its thinner Sephardi version, became the most popular printed font ; a semi-cursive known today as "Rashi script," the visual calling card of rabbinic texts;  and a cursive, flowing hand for everyday correspondence.
hebrew letters
The invention of movable type in the late 15th century was seized upon by Jews in Italy and Spain who were literate and hungry for books. The standard was set by the Soncino family, which from 1484 to 1557 published works in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Non-Jewish printers with their own attraction to the Hebrew classics included Daniel Bomberg of Venice (died 1549), who developed an elegant typeface for the first printed Talmud, and Guillaume Le Bé (1525-1598), who, working in Venice and Paris, created almost twenty Hebrew fonts. To the north, Prague's Jewish printers developed Gothic, Ashkenazi-based fonts in the 1520s; Amsterdam became a printing center in the 17th century.  All these set the typographical templates for the entire Jewish world.

Modern Hebrew

Modern times saw new technologies and new sensibilities. Frank-Ruehl, named for the early-20th-century Leipzig duo (a cantor and a graphic artist) who designed it, transposed Sephardi script into Art Nouveau. As "Rashi script" was abandoned by all but traditionalists, new sans-serif faces expressed the geometric design principles of the Bauhaus school and the shaking-off of layers of tradition. Closer to our own time, graphic designers strove to unite the old with the new: Ismar David and Zvi Narkis created the popular fonts that bear their surnames; Fransizka Baruch's new Ashkenazi style greets today's readers of Ha'aretz.

Perhaps the best-loved modern Jewish fonts are those of Eliyahu Koren (Korngold), who designed Israel's official seal and its first postage stamp and created fonts for the first original edition of the Hebrew Bible published in Israel and, later, the Siddur. Today, new faces continue to roll off designers' screens at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy and elsewhere, while faux-Hebrew Latin fonts ring their own changes on the crazy quilt of American-Jewish identity.

The Zohar (I:30b) says that in the beginning, all of existence was like ink secreted in a bottle, from which were drawn the letters, "rising above and falling below, garlanded with the four winds," and adorning the ineffable Name of God.  Fonts are only vessels, but the written word could not exist without them. There is a great double truth secreted in typography, a visual medium that uses all of its creativity to bring words into being, only to dissolve and be absorbed into them at the same moment.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.