All Over It Like a Rashi Script

If He Didn’t Use Those Letters, Why Do We?


By Philologos

Published January 12, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
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Ben Warwick writes:

“After reading your article on italics, Rashi script immediately came to mind. In my yeshiva days, most of the m’farshim [biblical and talmudic commentators] were printed in it. I never really understood why it was used in the first place. As I understand it, Rashi never used it himself. Rather, it developed in Spain as a counterpart to Arabic script and was then adopted by Italian Jews and proliferated throughout Europe.”

Mr. Warwick has his facts right. “Rashi script” was given its name long after the lifetime of the renowned biblical commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, or Rashi (1040–1105). It was named for him even though he didn’t write in it, because its first appearance in movable type was in an edition of his commentary on the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, published by the Italian Jewish printer Avraham ben Garton in 1475, a mere 20 years after the first Gutenberg Bible.

Ben Garton, about whom little is known, probably came from a Spanish Jewish family. Certainly, as Mr. Warwick points out, the print he designed was based on the cursive handwriting of Spanish Jews. If one looks at Hispano-Hebrew manuscripts from the 15th century, by which time the great majority of Spanish Jews were living under Christian rule, one is looking at a style that is all but indistinguishable from “Rashi script.” And if one goes back further, to the 11th and 12th centuries, when most Spanish Jews were living under Muslim rule, one can see both “Rashi script” in an incipient stage of development and the Arabic influence on it. Below are samples from two mid-12th century letters composed by Spanish Jewish merchants in Judeo-Arabic, the vernacular of Spanish Jewry that was written in Hebrew characters. Two of these characters have been circled.

I’ll get back to the circles in a minute. First, though, let’s take a look at “Rashi script” itself. Although at first glance it may seem totally foreign to those familiar with only the ordinary Hebrew alphabet, most of its characters are quite similar to ordinary Hebrew’s. At the end of this article is a table in which they appear in the left of each box, with the ordinary Hebrew to the right of them:

Of the 22 Hebrew letters, only four “Rashi script” ones differ to the point of being unrecognizable: the first letter of the alphabet, alef; the seventh letter, zayin; the 19th, tsadi, and the next to last, shin. And now, look again at our 12th-century samples — which, when regarded from a distance, indeed resemble Arabic a bit. Sample 1 was written by a man named Yosef ben Shu’ayb, and the letter circled in it, the shin of “Shu’ayb,” is very much like the shin of “Rashi script.”

Ben Shu’ayb’s alef is like that of ordinary Hebrew cursive. In Sample 2, on the other hand, written by someone else, the shin is like ordinary Hebrew while the circled alef in the name “Avraham” is like that of “Rashi script.” And both Ben Shu’ayb’s and our second sample’s zayin and tsadi, which I have not indicated here, represent transitional stages halfway between the two styles of writing.

The Hispano-Hebrew cursive known to us as “Rashi script” developed, then, over a long period of time. And Mr. Warwick is right, too, that it was made to function like italics, thus answering his question about why it was resorted to in the first place. Just as italics were used by European printers to set off certain passages from others and create a contrast between them, so Avraham ben Garton had the idea of using Hispano-Hebrew cursive to do the same thing with Rashi’s commentary and the biblical verses on which it commented.

Subsequently, other Hebrew printers followed suit, employing “Rashi script” not only for Rashi, but for other commentators, as well, including mishnaic and talmudic ones. From there the practice spread still further, so that in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it became common for entire rabbinical books to be printed in “Rashi script” even if they were not commentaries at all.

Today, that’s done rarely, and “Rashi script” is once again used mostly just for commentators like Rashi. Don’t let it daunt you. If you can already read Hebrew, 10 minutes of practice is all it takes to master it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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