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:
- Beit Yosef
- Veilish (Sefardic)
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.