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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.