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.