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Why Do We Write Hebrew from Right to Left?

Why Do We Write Hebrew from Right to Left?

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One popular theory is that Hebrew is written from right to left because, in ancient times, when chiseling out words on a stone tablet, the engraver would hold the hammer in his stronger hand (usually the right hand) and the chisel in the left hand, making it much easier to write from right to left.

As writing tools developed to include ink on parchment or a stylus on clay, scribes began to write from left to right so as not to smudge the letters. However, by the time this happened, Hebrew and other Semitic languages were already “set in stone,” so to speak, so they continued to be written from right to left.

Without getting into the accuracy of this answer, we know that way back when we were just a fledgling nation, Moses wrote the Torah with ink and parchment,1 and the Torah scroll is written from right to left. So it would seem that there are more than technical reasons for writing Hebrew from right to left.

The Right Side

The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (the Tzemach Tzedek), explains that writing from right to left is in keeping with the general rule in Judaism that we give precedence to the right side, e.g., we put on our right shoe first2 and wash our right hand first.3 Once we have written the first letter on the extreme right of the parchment or page, we move on to the next available space on the right side, which is to the immediate left of the letter we just wrote. And so it happens that we are writing from right to left.4

The Tzemech Tzedek adds that although there is another Talmudic rule, “All turns that you make should be only to the right”5—which would seem to imply that we should write from left to right (so that we are move toward the right)—it only applies when one has to actually turn one’s body.6

Why is the right side given precedence in Judaism? In kabbalistic teachings, the right represents the attribute of chesed (kindness) and the left, gevurah (severity). Just as there is a general rule that the right takes precedence in Jewish life, so too, whenever faced with a situation where you need to decide between kindness or severity, kindness comes first.

For more about the right side’s precedence in Judaism, see The Right (and Left) Way.

Footnotes
1.
See for example Deuteronomy 17:18, 28:58, 28:61, 29:20, 31:24; See also Talmud Bava Batra 15a.
2.
Talmud Shabbat 61a.
3.
Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 2:4.
5.
Talmud Sotah 15b.
6.
There are others (see Responsa of Chatam Sofer, Orech Chaim 187) who are of the opinion that this rule applies not only to when one turns one’s whole body, but even to movements of the hand. Based on this opinion, we would still be left with question of why a Torah scroll is written towards the left side. (See Levush on Orech Chaim 676.)
The Chatam Sofer explains that we should not look at each individual line; rather, we should look at the Torah as a whole. A Torah scribe makes sure to finish with just a few words on a new line, thus ending at the right side. In this case, we start writing the Torah on the right side, and then move toward the end, which is also on the right side.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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David May 8, 2017

I find the connection to; "In kabbalistic teachings, the right represents the attribute of chesed (kindness) and the left, gevurah (severity)," very interesting. I have noticed that in many situations of biblical characters, who they are may or may not be actually connected to their name. Through kindness (right hand) we give people the benefit of a doubt, but in the end, through retrospect (looking back) after witnessing their actions, we then apply either chesed (David's name is the same, from either the right or the left) or gevurah in judging their character. A good example of this is Jacob's father-in-law Laban/Nabal. What seemed like a brilliant light, in the end, was in actions a reprobate in how he treated Jacob, his own daughters and his grandchildren. Reply

YiSra'el Ngow Set Chinn. WP March 20, 2017

Toda Raba b'ahavah Reply

jack 77036 March 19, 2017

Cool, i didint know this. Awesome explanation, thank you Reply

Dr. Mendel Bocknek Virginia, USA January 4, 2017

hebrew written right to left could it be possible that 5000 years ago most educated persons were "left handed" [in spite of "sinistra"], so drew/wrote right to left as the only way to prevent "smearing" figures on their soft clay tablet ???? ask any lefty about their early learning curve.....hey, my 10 yr. old Granddaughter asked the same question---seems as good an answer as others.....
love to all for 2017.
Mendel/Springfield,Virginia Reply

Charles K. Honolulu November 7, 2016

The Writing from right to left is a sacred reminder. So that as we read and as we live, we return again and again to the Right Side, each time to begin anew with a fresh eye upon G-d's Word. Reply

Thomas Orr Mpls November 4, 2016

I heard a theory that all writing points to Jerusalem, west of Jerusalem writing is left to right and east of Jerusalem all writing goes left to right. Reply

Chase November 3, 2016

That's a very popular theory, but it doesn't seem to hold up. Ancient Latin and greek were both written left to right despite having many stone inscriptions Reply

israel Ngow K.L. Malaysia April 11, 2016

Ahavah Ahavah Thanks I appreciate your help right to left real correct way . Reply

steve abraham new york April 10, 2016

right vs left You wrote,"The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (the Tzemach Tzedek), explains that writing from right to left is in keeping with the general rule in Judaism that we give precedence to the right side". If the torah was written left to right, would we give precedence to the left side first? And put on our left shoes first then? Reply

Auhna April 10, 2016

Fascinating! Reply

Michael Rudmin Portsmouth, Va April 28, 2015

And on the nature of the characters I have a brother who noticed that the Hebrew characters show a person's mouth (mouth facing left for most characters, mouth facing towards the reader for a, s, and sh), and what the mouth is doing as it makes the sound (or not, in the case of a).
. Reply

Gladys USA April 25, 2015

Actually, I found this quite interesting from how one would hold chiseling tools. I would hold them as described above, as I would think most would since many more people are naturally right handed. Reply

Thomas Orr Mpls, Mn April 25, 2015

Left to right Well I heard somewhere that all writing points to Israel. In the west it goes left to right and in the east it goes right to left. Reply

arthur killum redondo beach April 25, 2015

Right to Left I believe that Moshe observed with his own eyes the direction (right to left) in which the letters were inscribed upon the tablets. He just did the same, only with ink upon parchment. Reply

steve nyc April 24, 2015

confusing essay RABBI, with respect, your essay does not give a definitive answer. It leaves more questions. Your conclusion seems to be that you don't really know. Why would you publish something that seems as if you know the answer when you don't? It is misleading . Reply

Lyons Israel April 24, 2015

Rav Shurpin. Beware of 'popular theories' They often have their source in 'academic' [non-orthodox] frameworks.
But the rest is just fine ! Chazak Chazk !

Dovid Yehudah Ashdod [PhD] Reply

Mike Plotycia Oregon April 24, 2015

Is it possible that the reading of Hebrew from right to left has contributed to the mental development/collective brilliance of the Jewish race. (I am not Jewish, so this is based on my candid observation and not narcissism). Reply

Anonymous Champaign, IL, USA April 23, 2015

Right to Left writing - a possible explanation Again, as has been mentioned by others, giving favor to the right hand: we receive from and and give to others with the right hand. Having received the words of G-d, we would transcribe the letters in a motion that draws them toward our heart, rather than pushing them away from us. Since we have been commanded to love the L--d with all our heart, it only makes sense that we should treasure and internalize the holy Scriptures that he has breathed to Moses and the Prophets. Reply

Dr Ley Wiggins, MS April 23, 2015

Hebrew writing My dear friends, it is fairly common knowledge that Moses had a speech impediment. What if that was a symptom of a form of dyslexia? Again, what if the written letters, by Moses, were a mirror image of what others would have seen or written? And finally, Moses could have simply been left-handed. Reply

Ron Sharpe California April 23, 2015

Right and Left Hebrew Seichal -What is RIGHT is RIGHT and LEFT, is what is LEFT. Reply

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