Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 23 February 2019 / 18 Adar I 5779

Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Chassidic Script

by Rabbi Ze'ev Kraines
Library Library Kaddish

Remarkably, over the centuries and millennia of Jewish history, the text of Torah, tefillin and mezuzah scrolls has remained remarkably the same — but different: There are subtle distinctions in the formation of many of the Hebrew letters in the scrolls of the various traditions of world Jewry.

It’s important to stress that all of these are merely variants of the original font, referred to as Ktav Ashuri. This is the font inscribed in the Tablets and written in the original Torah scroll of Moshe.Although the status of ancient the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet found on ancient Hebrew tomb inscriptions and coins is the subject of some discussion in the Talmud and commentaries, the accepted tradition is that the Ashuri script is the original holy font. All scribal writing today, in every community, is based on this font.

The Talmud does prescribe certain minimal forms for many of the letters and insists on precise adherence to several halachic criteria. For example, if a poorly formed letter resembles another letter too closely, it is disqualified. Also, if the ink of one letter merges with another letter, the resulting “blob” is not acceptable. In some cases, these mistakes can be rectified, but some errors can permanently render a mezuzah or tefillin scroll non-kosher.

Thankfully, since the differences found in the scrolls of the various traditions do not conflict with these criteria, most halachic authorities rule that a Jew of one tradition may fulfill his mitzvah with a scroll that accords with one of the other traditions. This mutual acceptance was articulated hundreds of years ago, and it has been affirmed by the contemporary Sephardic decisor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Ashkenazic Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, among many others.

However, these authorities also concur that, as in all halachic matters, a person should ideally strive to follow the custom of his community. Thus, one who is buying mezuzot should mention his tradition to the seller.

Ironically, the most common Ashkenazic script (Beit Yosef) was codified by the Sephardic author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo. In a reverse irony, Sephardic and Yemenite scrolls are written in a different script (called Velish), which is reported to be found also in Bohemia.

Yet a third script (Ketav Ari) follows the guidelines of the great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, Ha'Ari HaKadosh (1534-72). This script, a variant of Beit Yosef, has been adopted by most Chassidic communities. Although, as stated, most authorities maintain that this script is also kosher for Ashkenazic Jews, several contemporary decisors, including the Chazon Ish, strongly question the acceptability of its variant form of the letter "צ".

· Sources: Shabbat 104a; Yerushalmi Megillah 1:1; Sanhedrin 21-22; Shulchan Aruch O.C. 36; Shu”t HaRosh 3:11; Tur Y.D. 274; Yabia Omer Y.D. 2:20; Halichos Shlomo 4, note 31; Shevet HaLevi 10:7:2; Chazon Ish O.C. 9:6

Got a mezuzah question or story? Email rabbi@ohrsandton.com or submit on my website mymezuzahstory.com. Free “Mezuzah Maven” book for every question or story submitted (when published in the near future!)

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