Saturday, May 2, 2009

Jewish Fonts - A Guide for the Different Ktavim

Although all Holy scrolls are written in Ktav Ashurit, there are many subdivisions within this script. Additionally, there are other fonts that are not related to Ktav Ahurit, so I think it's worthwhile to talk a little about the Jewish Fonts.

Let's start from the beggining. There's a discussion in the Talmud if the Luchot given in Har Sinai were given in Ktav Ashurit (the font we use today) or perhaps Ktav Ivri, an obscure and completely different font. We follow the opinion that the Luchot were given in Ktav Ashurit.

So right from the start, we have two fonts: Ashurit and Ivri. The Ktav Ivri is also known as "Paleo-Hebrew Alphabet" and you can see a full verse from Tanach in the pic in the right. It's way easier to write Ktav Ivri than Ashurit - it's basically sketches rather than an artistic alphabet and I imagine it would be a lot easier to write a Sefer Torah in Ktav Ivri.

Another font that became very popular is Rashi's Script, which is commonly found in Chumashim, Talmud and commentators. This font was introduced in the 15th century and it is still printed today in a standard way, that is, with no variations. If you take to account the quantities of Talmuds, Mishnayot, Peirushim out there that use this script, it's no exaggeration to claim that this script has become more popular than the Ktav Ashurit, only found in the holy scrolls.

But I'll spend more time talking about the different versions of the Ktav Ashurit, since this is the script we use for all scrolls and most people have no clue about this. There are four versions:
  1. Beit Yosef
  2. Ariz"al
  3. Chabad
  4. Veilish (Sefardic)
All scripts have the same Halacha status and are Kosher for any Jew, since the differences are very slight. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the foremost authority of the Sefardic Jews today, proves this extensively in his sefer Yebia Omer and before him the Kaf Hachaim claims the same, so there's nothing to fear - whatever script you have is okay.

However, if you can choose between these four versions of Ktav Ashurit, why not make the right choice? Most people who buy Tefillin or Mezuzot don't really pay any attention about the version used by the scribe but just like anything else in life you should make an informed decision. And I will try to organize it for you here.

If you are Sefardi, it's easy - buy a Tefillin/Mezuza/Torah written in Veillish. The easiest way to identify this ktav is through the Shin, which has a distinctive round base like this (you can see a full sample in the end of this post)

For the Ashkenazim it's more tricky. If you are not Hassidic go Beit Yosef, which is the standard and most popular version. But for the Hassidic readers I need to first give the big picture.

The Arizal script was introduced by the Ari, in the 1500's. Before him, the Ashkenazim basically wrote in a uniform way, but the Ari, with his unmatched Kabalistic knowledge, pushed for a few changes in the Ktav Ashurit. He also introduced a new way of writing the Holy Shem, according to the Kaballa and many sofrim today write it this way (click here for my post about the Holy Shem). But what most people overlook is the fact that the Ari only pushed for changes in the Tefillin, not in the Torah scrolls. The Ari never intended to change the way our Torah scrolls are written and that's when the confusion starts.

Most Hassidic scribes today write not only Tefillins, but also Torah scrolls and Mezuzas in Ktav Arizal. Frankly, I don't know why, but that's a fact. One of the few Hassidic sects who oppose this practice is the Tzanz dynasty, since the Divrei Chaim was very clear about writing the Torah in Ktav Beit Yosef and Tefillins in Ktav Ari.

So if you are Hassidic, you should order a Ktav Arizal Tefillin. But if you one day hire a sofer to write you a Torah, make sure you ask your Rebbe if you should use Ktav Ari or Beit Yosef. Anyways, it's easy to identify an Arizal ktav - the Chet and Shins look like this:

On top of all this mess there's the Chabad Ktav, introduced by the Alter Rebbe. I heard from a fellow Chabad scribe that the Alter Rebbe once said that when Mashiach comes this will be the main Ktav, but the fact is that the Chabad Ktav is the least popular of all the four versions of the Ktav Ashurit. This Ktav is very similar to the Ktav Arizal, but you can identify it by the exquisite Lamed and Peh:

So, if you are still reading this, yes, there are many Jewish Fonts. And next time you order a
scroll, make sure you choose the one that is right for you!

From left to right: Sephardi, Beit Yosef, Arizal and Chabad.


Anonymous said...

I am a Conservative (Masorti) American woman who is doing a term paper for my graduate school library class on Preservation Challenges of Judaic Collections. I googled "Torah Parchment" and found your blog. I just wanted to tell you how interesting it is. I can't wait for the next installment.

YK said...

I dont write so often so I would suggest you to add the blog to an RSS feed. There's suprisingly little info in the web about Safrut and I hope to fill the knowledge gap with this blog, which I started just a few months ago. Wish me luck!



YK said...

Oh, and let me know if i can help you in your term paper. I don't know how much it relates to safrut but in this topic I have good sources.

Lion of Zion said...

"which has a distinctive round base like this"

it doesn't look round.

also, do you still have the photos i emailed you? i assumed that was ashkenazi (bet yosef) torah, but there it really looks round

שבוע טוב

Lion of Zion said...

i just reread your email comment on the script of the torah, so scratch that last question.

so the delineations you list are only for contemporary sifre torah, and in older ones there is more of a mix?

YK said...

i meant that it's roundish in the bottom right.
It's probably better to describe it as "flat" based shin, opposed to the pointy shins.

"so the delineations you list are only for contemporary sifre torah, and in older ones there is more of a mix?"
Yes. For instance, many of the older Ahskenazi torah have what is today the Chabad Pey and Lamed - today it's much more standarized. Also the "flat" Sephardi shin is to be found in many old ashkenazi torahs like yours.

micha said...

There is a profound difference between Ashkenazic and Sepharadic kesav -- pen angle.

In Kesav Beis Yoseif, the pen is held vertically, so that the horizonal lines are thicker than vertical ones.

In Ketav Vellish, the pen is held at an angle, meaning that the difference in thickness between vertical and horizontal is not great. Pen stroke also changes which lines predominate in how the
font is designed. And so, the diagonal position of the pen when writing in Vellish is also why the diagonal foot of the lamed used in Ketav Vellish is possible -- lines at a downard angle are thinnest.


Tefillin rabbi said...

It is incorrect to say that any ksav is ok for anyone. Sephardi ksav is kosher bedieved or even passul for (most?)non Sephardim due to the yack of oketz of Rabbeinu Tam on the Yud, The leg of the Nun and Gimel protruding from the right edge, rather than the center, etc. Arizal is bedieved according to many poskim for those who are Ashkenaz/non chassidic due to the backwards yud of the tzadi, etc. Furthermore, specifically in tefillin, the spacing between Shema and Vehaya im shamoa according to the Alter Rebbi is bedieved according to many poskim for Ashkenazim/non chassidim and finally the in tefillin, the spacing between shema and vehaya im shamoa according to the Taz is passul for Sephardim according to many poskim including rav Ovadia Yosef. So one must be sure to choose the correct ksav and most religious people do know which ksav is the correct one for them.

The most obvious way to identify ARI ksav is the Tzadi as the Yud on the top right is backwards.

Anonymous said...

Tefillin rabbi,

Virtually all sephardic/vellish stam today has kotz RT on the yud. This is the only thing that would really be meakev for ashkenazim. the rosh and nun of gimmel is not a major issue, I do not think any ashkenazi poskim would say this is a problem. Of course one should get the correct stam to suit their minhag but I have to agree with YK that its still DEFINITELY kosher for an ashkenazi who ends up with modern day vellsih.

By the way I've seen your book. I mean no disrespect but It would have been appropriate for you to have put in mare mekomos (sources). I think it is a michshal to write a book on heresay and to write minority opinions as though it is halacha moshe misinai.

YK said...


I was meaning to react to Tefillin Rabbi's claim sometime ago but I forgot, so thanks for rekindling it.

I second all you said and just wanted to summarize my own reaction to Tefillin Rabbi's opinion:

SOME poskim raised issues about reading from other scripts other than your own, but MOST of them say (please read Rav Ovadia's teshuva on this if you want to see all the opinions - he is the best melaket) the following: all scripts -beit yosef, ari, veillish- are kosher and are MiSinai. Tefillin Rabbi's stance is with the minority view, and if he wants he can go that way.

For the reversed Tzadik, I refer you to a great book on this topic, aptly called Tzidkas HaTzadik.


micha said...

Nit, or not a nit if you're "into" gematrios using the osios nistaros: the name of the letter is "צדי" not "צדיק". I think the latter comes from people running together "צדיקוף" when reciting the א"ב.

In terms of derashah, R' Aqiva says (Shabbos 104a), "...צד"י כפופה וצד"י פשוטה צדיק כפוף צדיק פשוט..." So, calling it "tzadiq" isn't THAT wrong, except that I think that knowing Lashon haQodesh is part of talmud Torah, and therefore common misstatements are worth correcting.


inachman said...



Anonymous said...

Do you have a larger Beit Yosef sample? I've been searching for hours to find a comparison of Beit Yosef and Ari Zal. It would be great if there were a simple aleph, bet,... of one font on one line the the other right below it to see the difference plain as day. Your samples are the best I have found, but the Beit Yosef is so tiny I can't put them side by side to compare.

stam.scribe said...

@ inachman:

From the samples I have seen of Karite Sifrei Torah, their writing resembles Sefardi ("velish") writing. However, given their approach to interpreting Jewish law, it is possible that they are not particular about the exact font, as long as it is recognizable as Hebrew.

The Samaritans use ksav Ivri (Paleo-Hebrew) in their Torah.

I am not familiar with "Ionninites" — Google doesn't seem to have anything either…

tefillin rabbi said...

Dear Anonymous,

It is true that today most Sephardi kesavim has kutzo shel Yud. I refer to when it doesn't which can be easily identified. If The other things I mentioned are only for bedieved for Ashkenazim.
With regards to my book, it gradually and unexpectedly turned into an 8 year project so to have gone back and identified all the sources would have been a major undertaking. As the book was intended as a guide and not for halacha lemaaseh I chose not to hold back the printing any longer. While I certainly agree that it would have been much better to include sources, to conclude that the book is hearsay is unfair and inappropriate and the gedolim and rabbanim who have penned letters in support (and the many positive comments I've received from rabbanim and sofrim) squashes your anonymous hearsay theory. Every single thing mentioned is either sourced in writing from recognized halacha and STaM seforim or from personal discussion with major poskim of STaM. I also clearly state that the book is a guide to make people aware of the different issues and opinions and that people must consult their rav/posek. I do not take sides nor pasken. I share respected opinions from popular sefarim or from major stam poskim, some will obviously be from the majority and some of the minority, as is always the case in halacha. I discussed many of the psakim with one of the major poskim before including them. Your last comments are inappropriate and border on motzei shem ra.

tefillin rabbi said...

I may not have been clear and hence your misunderstanding of my intentions.
Obviously all ksavim are kadosh and misinai! The question is if one may lechatchila or bedieved use the ksav of another edah and the halacha may differ if we discuss kriyas hatorah, tefillin and mezuzah.
here are samples how the ksav of one edah can affect the practical halacha for one of another edah:
Most Sephardi poskim, including Rav Ovadia, consider tefillin with spacing of the Taz to be passul. This is not a minority The spacing of the taz in a mezuzah however, is kosher for Sephardim.

The Arizal ksav according to many poskim is not lechatchila for non chassidic Ashkenazim, (I discussed this with a number of major poskim- Litvish and Chassidish) other than for yekkis for whom Arizal ksav is kosher lechatchila.(from Rav Hamburg in Bnei Brak who is a renown expert on yekki minhag and mechaber of many sefarim on the matter and based on discussion with a grandson of Rav Shimon Schwab, who personally discusssed this matter with his Zaidie)
The Mishna Brura also states by tefillin that the spacing of the 9 osios at the end of shma as well at the beginning of vehaya Im is not lechatchila.
This is a sampling of how different ksavim affect different edahs even though each ksav in its own right is kadosh and with solid halachic basis. Obviously, if one finds out he has mezuzahs or tefillin parshios from another edah then he should consult a posek.

Anonymous said...

@Tefillin rabbi

I did not mean to be motzei sheim ra G-d forbid.

It has been a number of years since I saw your book and when reading it I felt that the lack of sources was problematic, particularly when you state some very "out there" concepts as basic fact.

An example of this (from memory) is when you write with complete authority that if the vov from uleovdo sticks out of the line it is a problem of kuba (or anochi falls short of the end of the line) and the like.( I dont remeber the exact case except that you included the paragraph break as one of the three uneven lines.)

However the line ending "uvisharecha" cannot be counted, since the line is supposed to end early so it would not be a shaila. This is the halacha bepashtut, and while I can't remember the exact scenarios you brought down in your book, I remember feeling that it was misleading.

That, coupled with the fact that you were bringing it down without a mare makom made it all the more dubious.

Sorry to be critical but in my opinion it is misleading.