I recently read about some ancient writings that were in a script called Proto-Hebrew, which the Jews supposedly used to write in before the current Hebrew script. What’s up with that? Which Hebrew is the authentic Hebrew, and in what script was the original Torah written?
Indeed, there are two scripts. One is ketav Ivri (“Hebrew script”), also called Phoenician or Proto/Paleo-Hebrew. This is the “alternative” form of Hebrew you have discovered. This script was still widely in use during the age of the Mishnah, and was well known to the sages. The other script, ketav Ashurit (“Assyrian script”), is the one we know today as the Hebrew alphabet.
While this may be a fascinating revelation for some, your question regarding the script the Torah was written in is not a new one. In fact, the Talmud itself discusses this very question, and gives three opinions:
a) Mar Zutra (some say Mar Ukva) said: “Originally, the Torah was given to Israel in Ivri letters and in the sacred (Hebrew) language. Later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashurit script and the Aramaic language. Finally, they selected for Israel the Ashurit script and the Hebrew language, leaving the Ivri characters and the Aramaic language for the commoners.” Who are the “commoners”? Rav Chisda said, “The Cuthites (Samaritans).” What is ketav Ivri? Rav Chisda said, “Libonaah script [i.e., the ancient Hebrew].”
b) It was taught: Rebbi said: “Torah was originally given to Israel in Ashurit script. When they sinned, it was changed to roetz (Ivri script). When they repented, Ashurit script was reintroduced . . .”
c) R' Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of R' Eliezer ben Parta, who said in the name of R' Elazar Hamoda’i: “This writing was never changed [i.e., it was always in Ashurit script].”
This is a page of the scripture of the Samaritans, who still use Ivri writing.
So seemingly, opinions (b) and (c)hold that the Torah was originally written in Ashurit, and opinion (a) holds that it was in Ivri. But it’s not so simple, as we shall see when examining the Tablets.
The Talmud describes the miraculous script of the Tablets:
Rav Chisda said, “The letters mem and samech of the Tablets stood in place only by a miracle.”
The Talmud explains that the letters were engraved all the way through the stone to the opposite side. Now, since the letters samech and (final) mem are completely closed, the section of stone in their centers was unattached to the body of the Tablets, and could have remained in place only through a miracle. This, however, is true only with regard to ketav Ashurit. In ketav Ivri, neither the mem nor the samech are completely closed.
What is especially difficult with this passage is that its author, Rav Chisda—who is effectively saying that the Tablets were given in ketav Ashurit—is the very same rabbi who agrees with and elaborates upon the first opinion above, that the Torah was given in ketav Ivri!
What complicates things even further is that there is an opinion in the Jerusalem Talmud that it was the letter ayin that was held in place miraculously. This would imply that it was written in ketav Ivri and not Ashurit, since the letter ayin in Ivri—as opposed to Ashurit—is indeed a closed letter.
See below how the samech and mem are closed letters in Ashurit, and the ayin is closed in Ivri:
Special Script vs. Common Script
To resolve this, Rabbi Yom Tov al-Ishbili, known as Ritva (approx. 1250–1330), explains that the Tablets and the Torah scroll that was kept in the Holy Ark were written in ketav Ashurit. This was considered a sacred script. However, neither Moses or the Israelites wished to use this holy script for mundane purposes. This reverence extended even to the Torah scrolls that were written for purposes of study by the masses, so they were written in ketav Ivri.
Or as Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, known as Maharal of Prague (d. 1609), puts it, while the Tablets and the original Torah scroll were written in the beautiful Ashurit script (ashurit can be translated to mean “beautiful”), it is only logical that the Torah for the masses would be given to them in the script the people were familiar with.
Rabbi David ibn Zimra, known as Radbaz (c. 1479–c. 1573), explains that when we say that the Tablets were written in Ashurit script, this is only the first Tablets, the ones about which the verse states, “Now the Tablets were G‑d's work, and the inscription was G‑d's inscription, engraved on the Tablets.” The second set of Tablets, however, the ones about which G‑d tells Moses, “Inscribe these words for yourself,” were written in the script of the masses, i.e., ketav Ivri. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud is referring to the first set of Tablets, while the tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud is referring to the second set. However, the debate in the Talmud about the script of the Torah concerns which letters the Jews themselves used.
Radbaz further points out that until the Babylonian exile the Jews were referred to as Hebrews (Ivri’im), and their script may well have been the Hebrew (Ivri) script. However, after the Babylonian exile they were no longer called Hebrews, perhaps because at this time the beautiful ktav Ashurit script was taught by the prophets.
These coins, with Ivri writing, were minted during the Mishnaic era in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple.
Belshazzar and the Writing on the Wall
Some commentators posit that this is why, when the writing appeared on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast, none of the Jews present were able to interpret it. Most Jews were only familiar with ketav Ivri; only Daniel, a leader and the wisest Jew at the time, was familiar with ketav Ashurit. After this incident, the script became somewhat better known.
King Josiah and Moses’ Torah Scroll
The above explanation also sheds light on another historical incident. In the course of the repairs to the Holy Temple in King Josiah’s reign, the high priest Hilkiah found a Torah scroll, and the Jews turned to a scribe to have it read. In the verses, Hilkiah describes finding not “a” but “the” Torah scroll, i.e., the Torah scroll written by Moses himself. The reason many couldn’t read it was because it was written in ketav Ashurit.
Script But Not Language
Although there are differing opinions as to the type of script the ancient Jews used, it is important to keep in mind that there is no disagreement regarding the language itself—all agree that the language of the Torah was Hebrew, the holy tongue, the language of creation.