History of The Alphabet

This section brings you the history of the Hebrew alphabet; the ancient origins of the letters and how they changed and modernized to become the letters we know today.

Hebrew writing is one of the most ancient writings in the world.


Was it the writing used to write the Bible? Did King Solomon use these letters to write the book of Psalms? Which writing was used in the time of the Second Temple? Is there a connection between the ancient Hebrew letters and English letters used today? Why didn’t the Egyptians ever change their unique writing and how is Hebrew writing connected to this? These questions and many more will be answered in this course, which deals with the development of Hebrew writing from the days of our fore- fathers until today.


Writing is one of the most important means of communication invented by man. Where would humanity be without it?

Human history is divided into 2 main periods: the pre–historical period and the historical period. The second period began when writing was developed. The minute man could write, human history began.

Well then, who invented the writing?

Egyptian Writing

Many people assume that ancient Egyptians were the first to use writing. Egypt, which was by all means an impressive nation, made good use of its wealth and talented people in order to bequeath to the world the conception of writing. Egyptian writing was complicated and difficult to comprehend. Very few people knew how to read and fewer, knew how to write. This was not because reading and writing were allowed only for the rich and famous, but because it required many years of studying and practice, which were not available to everyone, especially the commoners. This might explain why Moses, who grew up in the palace and had a lot of spare time, could read and write.



The wise, old Egyptian magicians (חרטומים –hartumim) invented writing and used it for hundreds of years with very few changes. The Hebrews who were in exile in Egypt called this writing כתב חרטומים(ktav hartumim – hieroglyphics). These magicians made sure not to make changes in the writing, believing that writing was holy. They studied the secrets of writing for years in temples, which encouraged the belief among the people that these wise old men were not only wise, but holy as well. However, despite the ancient Egyptians’ hope to stick to the original and not make changes in their holy writing it was quite impossible. In the beginning, stone platters were used to write on. Carving each letter on the stone took a long time and accuracy was very important. Later on, papyrus replaced the stone platters, which made the writing process easier and quicker. It also allowed the writer to put his personal touch into each letter. This completely changed Egyptian ancient writing.

Why was Egyptian writing so complicated?

In order to express their ideas, ancient Egyptians drew a series of pictures. Each picture represented a word. In order to express the term “man” for example, they drew a picture of a human being. Therefore, in order to understand writing at that time, one needed to decode hundreds of pictures to work out what they meant. Very few people at the time could do that.


Pegs Writing

The birthplace of Abraham – Mesopotamia, which is also known as Aram Naharayim, was where the next stage of the development of writing, took place. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, who were not as wealthy as the Egyptians, did not carve words on stone platters. Instead, they used small boards made of clay. The difficulty of being able to draw clearly on clay, caused the writers to come up with a new system – writing which contained only lines. The lines represented ideas, terms and words, which were expressed earlier by pictures drawn by the ancient Egyptians. This writing was later on named “pegs writing” because of the similarity of the lines to pegs. Although this writing was complicated and only few people could figure it out, it was in use for almost 3,000 years.


The Beginning of the Alphabetical System

The alphabetical system was not invented in the large financial empires of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Maybe because the wise old men there felt that changing or renewing their system of writing, which had been used for centuries, would mean damaging its sanctity. They might have not been allowed to do so, or maybe did not want to.

Rather, other nations who lived between those two, in the land of Israel, were the ones who invented alphabetical writing, as we know it today. This system contains, basically, a graphic sign for each letter or syllable. Since there is a limited amout of syllables, the number of writing symbols was reduced significantly. In Hebrew writing, for instance, there are only 22 letters. The alphabetical systems became very popular because one was now able to express abstract ideas and thoughts such as love, pain, happiness and hunger. These were quite difficult to express in drawings.


Findings of Alphabetical Writing in The Region of the Land of Israel


Proto-Canaanite Writing

This writing was used in the period between 17 B.C.E until 12 B.C.E, the time of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, including the period of time the children of Israel spent in exile in Egypt. In Nablus, Gezer and Lachish, very short inscriptions were found on shards of pottery. Longer ones were found in Sinai, which is surprising, since that area was deserted and not inhabited in those times. Researchers assume that Canaanite slaves working in the copper minds in the area, were the ones who engraved these long inscriptions on the rocks around. There were approximately 30 symbols on the Canaanite inscription. Each drawing symbolized a letter. For example a drawing of an eye (עיןa’yin in Hebrew) represented the Hebrew letter ע´ (also a’yin).

This may explain the names of the letters, which are connected to the original drawings, which represented them. Canaanite writing did not seem to have clear rules:

Some texts were written from left to right and others, from right to left. However, this writing was no doubt the pioneer of alphabetical writing. It was used by our forefathers and is the base of a more developed system of writing: the Hebrew alphabet.

Phoenician Writing

The Phoenicians, inhabitants of the coastal cities situated in Lebanon: Tyre, Sidon and others, contributed their part in forming the writing in the area. They reduced the number of letters to 22, as we know it today, they fixed the direction of writing from right to left and decided on the final design of the letters at that time.

The Phoenicians were seamen who were descendants of the Canaanites who lived in the region of the land of Israel. They had learned the art of writing from the inhabitants of the area, improved it a little and publicized it. Doing this was not too difficult as being seamen they travelled far and wide.


The Development Of Written Hebrew

Unfortunately, very few findings of ancient texts from the time of the forefathers have been uncovered in the land of Israel. High humidity and poor quality ink ruined the chances for researchers to find remains of ancient scriptures. Yet, with the little we do know, lets try to trace the development of Hebrew writing from the days of King Solomon until today.

The first discovery, which proves the change from Proto-Canaanite writing to Hebrew writing, is a collection of arrowheads, which was found near Bethlehem. On them it said: chetz abedlebat חץ עבדלבאת)) which means that the owner of the arrows believed that he was a slave of the goddess Bat (עבד ל {אלה} באת). The interesting thing about the writing on the arrows was, that part of the letters were in Proto-Canaanite style and others contained the form of Hebrew writing. This style of writing started to take hold in the whole area.


The Gezer Inscription

The most ancient Hebrew inscription known to the researchers is “The Gezer Inscription”. It was found in ancient Gezer, which was located between Jerusalem and Tel–Aviv.

Gezer is mentioned in the Bible several times. This settlement was ruled by King Solomon, who had received it from Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, as a wedding gift: “פרעה מלך מצרים עלה וילכוד את גזר וישרפה באש ואת הכנעני היושב בעיר הרג ויתנה שילוחים לבתו אשת שלמה”. (מלכים א´, ט´, ט”ו)

“For Pharaoh king of Egypt had gone up, and taken Gezer, and burnt it with fire, and slain the Canaanites that dwelt in the city, and given it for a present unto his daughter, Solomon’s wife”. )The first book of Kings, 9, 16)

The inscription was engraved on stone and referred to the months of the year and the agricultural activities that take place during each month. Following is the text, which was engraved on a monument in Gezer:……………..


























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