I’ve seen Hebrew lettering printed in both standard “square” letters and “Rashi script.” Can you please explain the origins of this script? Did Rashi have his own unique Hebrew script?

Reply

Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040–1105 CE), whose commentary, without exaggeration, is considered the foremost biblical commentary to this very day. The vast majority of Jewish Bibles are printed together with Rashi’s classic commentary, which is usually printed in a different script. Rashi, however, never wrote in this script.

Before getting into the origins of this script and where it got its name from, it should be pointed out that except for the letters א ב צ ש, Rashi script is very similar to the conventional fonts used in printing Hebrew:

The Printing Press

Up until the 15th century, Jewish scribes meticulously wrote each copy of the Bible, the commentaries, and other manuscripts. With the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439, “the People of the Book” began to take advantage of this innovative way to disseminate Jewish works.

It is not clear which Hebrew work can claim the title as the first Jewish book printed, since many of the early Jewish incunabula were printed without a date. However, the first Jewish work printed with a date is Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch, published on February 5, 1475, in Reggio, Calabria, by a Sephardic Jew named Abraham Garton. (This was not the first printed edition of Rashi’s commentary; between 1469 and 1472, three brothers, Obadiah, Menasseh and Benjamin of Rome, were known to have printed an edition of Rashi, but it was undated.1) What is unique about the 1475 edition of Rashi is that the printer created and used a new typeface based on existing Sephardic semi-cursive handwriting.

A page from the only known nearly complete copy of the first dated print of Rashi, housed in the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (image via University of Pennsylvania).
A page from the only known nearly complete copy of the first dated print of Rashi, housed in the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma (image via University of Pennsylvania).

While the first editions of Rashi’s commentary were printed as a separate work without the actual biblical text, later on, this typeface was adopted by other printers when they printed works such as the Mikraot Gedolot, an edition of the Bible that includes various commentaries such as Rashi. In order to distinguish between the biblical text and the commentaries, the biblical text was printed in the common square typeface, while the commentaries were printed in what is today known as Rashi script.

Although it is not clear who actually coined the term “Rashi script,” the term evolved from the fact that Rashi’s commentary—printed in “Rashi script”—is not only the most prominent commentary, it is often printed as the sole commentary alongside the Torah.

Reasons for Using Rashi Typeface

In addition to using the Rashi typeface as a means of differentiating between the texts, there are a number of reasons why printers chose to use this script:

1) Rashi script was a more compact typeface, which allowed more words to be fit on a page. At a time when paper and printing were very expensive, many opted to use Rashi script for other Hebrew works.

2) The Rashi typeface was considered to contain a “lesser degree of holiness,” so some chose to use it for rabbinic writings.

3) The common square typeface used in printing resembles the letters in a Torah scroll, and one is not supposed to use the Torah script for anything other than Torah scrolls and other holy articles. Since Rashi script is quite different from Torah script, some have preferred it.2

Nevertheless, the Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged the use of the common square typeface so that these many commentaries and Torah thoughts be more accessible to the most people possible.3

Final Thoughts on Learning Rashi

Discussing Rashi’s commentary, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, instituted that each person learn, as part of his or her daily study, a part the weekly Torah portion together with Rashi’s commentary. Each Torah portion is split into seven parts, corresponding to the seven days of the week. Thus, on Sunday, one would learn from the beginning until “Sheini,” the second aliyah, and on Monday until “Shelishi,” the third aliyah, etc.

Rashi’s explanation of the Torah is an indispensable part of a person's daily study of the Torah.

His commentary has the unique ability to both clarify the "simple" meaning of the text in a way that even a bright five-year-old could understand, but at the same time, provide the crucial foundation upon which most of the other classic commentaries are built upon. It also serves as the foundation for some of the most profound legal as well as mystical discourses, and it has garnered many “super commentaries” of its own.

Given the primacy of Rashi’s commentary, it is fitting that the the script generally used to denote rabbinic commentary to the Bible became universally known as Rashi script.

For the daily Torah study of Rashi, including online text, video and audio classes, see here. To download the daily study app, click here.