Jewish Thought

What’s the Truth about . . . Rashi Script?

The Shiloach inscription. Found in 1880, this inscription, in Ketav Ivri, was engraved on the rock wall of a tunnel known as the “Shiloach tunnel,” which brought water from the spring of Gichon into the Shiloach Pool. The inscription discusses the digging of the tunnel, an impressive engineering feat at the time.

Misconception:1 Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki [1040–1105 CE]) wrote his famed commentary using “Rashi script.”

Fact: “Rashi script,” a script based on an earlier Sephardic cursive script, was used by the early printers (late fifteenth century) to distinguish Rashi’s commentary from the holier Biblical text. It has nothing to do with Rashi the person, who likely would not have been able to read it. The script subsequently gained wide popularity and was used to print many rabbinic texts.

Background: This misconception is widespread. Esteemed rabbis, too, had this misconception. For example, Rabbi Yosef Messas (d. 1974; Nachalat Avot, sec. 5, vol. 1, 297) wrote that Rashi used this script, and Rabbi Chaim Sofer (d. 1886; Machaneh Chaim [5622 ed.], 1:25) suggested that Rashi created the script to be used for writing mundane matters. 

The English language has various ways to represent the same letters (uppercase vs. lowercase, block vs. cursive), and over the millennia there have been various scripts for Hebrew letters. The two most famous scripts are Ketav Ivri (“Hebrew script”), also known as Proto/Paleo-Hebrew, and Ketav Ashuri (“Assyrian script”). Ketav Ashuri is the square script found in most sifrei Torah and in common use today. Ketav Ivri was the standard script in use prior to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash in 586 BCE, and continues to be used by the Samaritans and in selected other contexts. Many archaeological finds, such as the Shiloach inscription and ancient coins, are written in Ketav Ivri,2 and it is found on the modern-day one-shekel coin. 

Ketav Ivri, the standard script in use prior to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, can be seen on the modern-day one-shekel coin spelling the word “Yehud(yud-heh-dalet).

One application for Ketav Ivri, which continued to be used for hundreds of years, was to differentiate texts that were more and less sacred. For example, within the treasure trove of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are documents written in Ketav Ashuri that used Ketav Ivri, which is more ancient, for the Tetragrammaton.3 

This idea of reserving a particular script for holy text is found in the Rambam and other halachic sources. When Ketav Ivri was no longer used by Jews, the Rambam (teshuvah 268 in the Blau ed., 5720, p. 513), explains that Ketav Ashuri has a level of holiness and it is not right to use it for mundane matters. He states [translation from the Arabic by Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel, z”l, email Feb 11, 2002]: 

What you must know is that this script, viz. Ketav Ashuri, since the Torah was given in it . . .  it is improper to use it for anything other than kitvei hakodesh [holy writings]. Furthermore, Jews always observed this, and so letters and compositions of the rabbis and scholars and kitvei chol shelahem [their writing regarding mundane matters] were in Ketav Ivri. Because of this, you will always find the inscriptions on shiqlei hakodesh [shekalim from the time of the Beit Hamikdash] [and] devarim shel chol [mundane matters] in Ketav Ivri. . . . And it is because of this that the Spanish [Jews] altered their script and use different forms for the letters, until it is almost like ketav acher [another script], so that [the script] could be used for divrei chol.4

This aversion to using holy script for the mundane reached the point where some suggested not to use Ketav Ashuri for any secular purpose.5 

In general, block letters are more standardized and easier to read. Cursive, whose goal is to speed up writing, sometimes by connecting letters, will have more regional variation and be more difficult to read.6 Prior to the innovation of printing, there was greater variability in writing style, particularly cursive, and there were always differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in both block and cursive writing. The Rosh wrote, “The forms of the letters are not the same in all countries; the letters in our country [Germany] are very different from those of this country [Spain] and these differences do not invalidate. . .” (Shu”t 3:11, quoted in Tur, YD 274). Rabbi Moshe Kunitz (d. 1837) discusses (Hametsaref 1:20) the question of whether, given a fixed sum of money, an Ashkenazi should donate two Torahs in Sephardic writing or only one in Ashkenazic because the expert sofer is Sephardi and charges double to write in Ashkenazic print. Still today, although all sifrei Torah are written using Ketav Ashuri, there is variation in the customs regarding the nuances and details of how some of the letters are written. Some of the historical scripts are quite difficult to read, especially the Sephardic cursive.7

When printing was introduced in the late fifteenth century, styles of script had to be selected in which to print the various Jewish texts.8 The very earliest Hebrew printing, around 1470, was in either block print or local cursive. The very first known dated printed Jewish work was Rashi’s commentary on the Chumash. Printed in 1475 in Southern Italy without the Chumash text, the printer created a new typeface based on an existing Sephardic semi-cursive script called Masheit or Meshkit, a script likely influenced by Arabic script, and possibly the script referred to by Rambam in the above-cited responsa when he said that Spanish Jews had altered their script.9 In 1483, when Soncino printed tractate Berachot, the printers placed the Talmud in the center of the page in block lettering. To differentiate the Talmudic text from the commentaries, Rashi and Tosafot were placed around the text in Sephardic cursive, despite Soncino’s Ashkenazic roots.10 

The commentary of Rashi is the unrivaled king of Biblical and Talmudic commentaries, and was subsequently printed in this “Rashi script” numerous times alongside the Biblical and Talmudic texts, which were printed in block lettering resembling Ketav Ashuri. Everyone studied Rashi’s commentary, and the script used to print Rashi became popular, either because of the 1475 commentary on Chumash or because of the Soncino Talmud, and it became associated with Rashi.11 It eventually became so popular that it became standard in the rabbinic world that even sefarim with only one text were printed in Rashi script.12 The irony is that Rashi likely never saw, knew or would have even been able to read “Rashi script” and thus might not have been able to study those rabbinic texts. He wrote in a script now known as Zarphatic script, which was long out of use when printing was developed. An example of how Rashi actually wrote can be seen in the HaEncyclopedia HaIvrit (entry: Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki, vol. 31:998 [1988]) in a reproduction of a Cambridge manuscript of a responsum of Rashi in his own handwriting.

Other scripts evolved from Rashi script. For example, early Yiddish was written in a script similar to Rashi script, known as Veiberteitsch (lit. “women’s interpretation”; The Modern Yiddish-English Dictionary by Uriel Weinreich [1968, p. 625] translates it as “old Yiddish typeface”) or Tzena U’rena script. 

A distinct Sephardic cursive developed and was known as Solitreo or Chatzi Kulmus. It evolved to include many ligatures, as in Arabic and English script, thus making it difficult for the uninitiated to read. It was commonly used for writing Ladino and was popular in Turkey, the Balkans and North Africa. Unfortunately, the eradication of Ladino-speaking communities during the Holocaust, coupled with the Ashkenazic script being chosen over Sephardic in Israel, caused Solitreo to almost disappear. (Notable exceptions are the works of Rabbi Meir Mazuz and some rabbis in Djerba.)

As script writing gained in popularity in the last few hundred years, texts about scribal laws have emphasized the importance of distinguishing the block Ashuri script used in ritual items (such as tefillin or mezuzah) from the more mundane Masheit script. The Tikun Tefillin (Rabbi Avraham of Sinsheim, late thirteenth century, a student of the Maharam of Rothenburg [p. 98, 1970 ed.]) describes how to write an Ashurit vav and says that his description distinguishes it from Masheit script. Rabbi Shimshon ben Rabbi Eliezer’s Baruch She’amar (an important source on scribal law; commentary to Tikun Tefillin [p. 99, 1970 ed.]) bemoans that most of those who write tefillin in his generation do it incorrectly and write in Masheit script instead of Ketav Ashuri. Similarly, the early-fifteenth-century Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Mulhausen, in Alfa Beta, cautions ritual scribes to be careful about certain elements of yud, kaf, and resh to ensure the result is Ketav Ashuri and not Masheit script (pp. 224, 229, 242 in 1970 ed.). 

Over the course of history, there were many Hebrew scripts;13 today there are three principal ones: block, cursive, and Rashi, with many fonts for each. The ingathering of the exiles, coupled with mass communication, has created near uniformity in writing scripts. Through it all, just like Rashi’s commentary has endured, its eponymous script, although having nothing to do with Rashi himself, has also endured.  


1. This article is written as a tribute to Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel, z”l, a good friend and mentor, who was an inspiration to me. For almost twenty years, Rabbi Mandel served as an OU rabbinic coordinator who oversaw shechitah, and it was in that capacity that we first met. Possessing a quick wit, he was also a fount of knowledge in so many areas, and a paradigm of ethical behavior—all of which made it stimulating and fun to interact with him. Since his passing in Sivan this past year, he has been sorely missed, and researching this article acutely reminded me of that. Having earned a PhD from Harvard in Semitic and African linguistics, Rabbi Mandel would have had so much to contribute to this particular piece. (See his article, for example, on Hebrew pronunciation: In an email many years ago (May 27, 2001) in response to my referring to him as “erudite,” Rabbi Mandel wrote about himself: “I am but a regular Jew, albeit in a sort of strange specialty.” Many would disagree with this underestimation. 

2. On the change from one script to the other, see: Sanhedrin 21b–22a; Megillah 9a; Tosefta, Sanhedrin 5:7; Y. Megillah ch. 1. See also Rabbi Reuven Margolies, Hamikra VeHamesorah, 5749, ch. 9 (Ketav Ashuri), 30–34; and Moshe Lipschitz, “Did the Script of the Torah Change?” [Hebrew], Shma’atin 128 [5757]: 106–110. Although there is debate regarding the script the ancient Jews used, there is no disagreement regarding the language—it is universally accepted that the language of the Torah was Hebrew.

Rishonim knew about Ketav Ivri, but most had never seen it. The Ramban, in an amazing letter penned after he made aliyah, writes (printed at the end of his Bible commentary, Mossad Harav Kook ed., pp. 507–8): “The L-rd has blessed me that I have merited to come to Akko and I found there in the hands of the [Jewish] elders of the Land a silver coin . . . and they showed the writing to the Kutim [Samaritans], who read it immediately, because it was the Ketav Ivri that the Kutim preserved, as mentioned in Sanhedrin” [21b].

3. Most people assume that Ketav Ivri was used for the more sacred. Cf. P.W. Shekan, “The Divine Name at Qumran, in the Masada Scroll, and in the Septuagint,” Bulletin of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies 13 (1980): 14–44; J.P. Siegel, “The Employment of Paleo-Hebrew Characters for the Divine Names at Qumran in the Light of the Tannaitic Sources,” Hebrew Union College Annual 42 (1971): 159–72; and Emanuel Tov, “Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert,” Leiden/Brill (2004): 123-25. Boaz Zissu and Omri Abadi (“Paleo-Hebrew script in Jerusalem and Judea from the second century BCE through the second century CE: a reconsideration,” Journal for Semitics 23.2 (2014): 653-64) postulate the opposite: that what is written in Ketav Ivri is less holy. Either way, there were different scripts for different levels of holiness.

4. This halachah is quoted by the Beit Yosef, YD 283, which in turn is quoted by the Magen Avraham, OC 334:17. See also Rema, YD 284:2 and the commentaries there. The Beit Yosef (beginning EH 126) discusses if a get must be written in Ketav Ashuri; the Shulchan Aruch rules that indeed Ketav Ashuri is preferable. The Pitchei Teshuvah (EH 126:3) discusses the status of Rashi script for a get. Rabbi Hirsch Jakob Zimmels (Ashkenazim and Sephardim: Their Relations, Differences, and Problems as Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa [London: Oxford, 1958], ch. 2) observes that from the time of Rabbeinu Tam, all Ashkenazi gittin were written in square characters, while among Sephardim there were five phases in the type of script that was used. 

5. See Keset HaSofer 5:6 (p. 56 in 5778 ed.).

6. Because of the less professional nature of script writing, there are those who would allow such writing on Chol HaMoed (Mishnah Berurah 545:35; Biur Halachah 545: afilu). See Magen Avraham, OC 340:10 about Shabbat.

7. See, for example, the writing style of the eleventh-century Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in Ada Yardeni, HaKetav ha-Ivri: Toledot, Yesodot, Signonot, Itzuv (1991), 223.

8. Today, with the popularization of computers and other devices, there has been a proliferation of fonts, true for Hebrew as well.

9. Also known as “Rabbani” script. See Yardeni, p. 216, for a description and history.

10. Despite the perception that Rashi script is different, the reality is that with the exception of four letters (alef, bet, tzadi, and shin), Rashi script is quite similar to block print.

11. For example, the Chida (d. 1806; Birkei Yosef, YD 282:7) mentions otiyot Rashi (Rashi letters), as does Rabbi Yair Bacharach (d. 1702; Shu”t Chavot Yair 109) and many others. The association with Rashi can already be found in the mid-seventeenth century. See Yaakov Spiegel, Amudim B’Toldot HaSefer HaIvri, 5774, 332. For a treasure trove of information on this topic, see Spiegel, ibid., 329–61. 

12. Various explanations have been suggested for this phenomenon. Today there is a trend to reprint many of these rabbinic texts in standard block font to make it easier for the modern reader. Ironically, many of the early printings of Rashi on Chumash were actually in block letters.

13. See Jewish Encyclopedia 1:449–53 and Encyclopedia Judaica 2:690–743 for a description and diagrams of a variety of scripts. Malachi Beit-Arié, Hebrew Manuscripts of East and West (1992), has many examples of various scripts. The grand three-volume set Mifal HaPaleographia HaIvrit: Asufot Ketavim Ivriyim MeYimei Habeinayim (1987) is a treasure trove of examples of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. 


Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Ketav Ivri, the standard script in use prior to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, can be seen on the modern-day one-shekel coin spelling the word “shekel.”

The Shiloach inscription. Found in 1880, this inscription, in Ketav Ivri, was engraved on the rock wall of a tunnel known as the “Shiloach tunnel,” which brought water from the spring of Gichon into the Shiloach Pool. The inscription discusses the digging of the tunnel, an impressive engineering feat at the time.

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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