The Mysterious Gershayim

And you shall provide from the whole nation virtuous men who fear God, men of truth, haters of corruption; and place over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
—Exodus 18:21

Bernie Sanders presidential buttons

Bernie Sanders presidential buttons. O, the things you find on the internet. Note that the button on the left is in Hebrew and the one in the middle is in Yiddish.

Let’s talk about Hebrew punctuation for a minute. Earlier this week, I came across this conversation on Tumblr:

Do you know what תשעייז means? I found it on a Bernie Sanders button and Google translate has failed me thus far.

As other users correctly pointed out, “It’s the Jewish year (5)777. (the current year is 5776 but it’ll be 5777 in november when the elections are)” The Jewish year begins at Rosh Hashana, which this year starts October 2, so having that year on the button is essentially a very Jewish way of saying Sanders 2016. How does this work? And what’s the deal with those two yud-looking things on the button?1 Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. A version of this post was previously posted on my Tumblr.

Counting Omer Counters

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה; שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה
And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer of the wave offering; seven complete weeks shall there be.
—Leviticus/Vayikra 23:15

Dutch-Portuguese-style 3-row Omer Counter. H is Portuguese for homer (omer); S for semanas, “weeks,” and D for dios, “day.” See more of this kind of counter here and here.

Previously, I wrote about the concept of hiddur mitzvah, incorporating physical beautify into ritual observance. We are now in the midst of an oft-overlooked and unappreciated ritual, but one that has great artistic potential: Sefirat Ha-Omer, the Counting of the Omer. We commemorate the lead up to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai by counting the 49 days from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. We no longer bring the Omer barley offering at the Temple in Jerusalem; instead, the liturgy includes a simple statement every day of what number day it is and how many weeks it’s been thus far. “Today is the forty-seventh day of the Omer, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.” Thrilling, right? This year, I decided to liven things up a bit with typography.
Continue reading

Typographic Art in Jewish Ritual and Service

זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ
This is my God and I will glorify Him.
—Exodus 15:2 (Song of the Sea)

Growing up, I was largely unimpressed with Judaica. I got four kiddush cups for my bar mitzvah, every one of them baroque. Once I saw someone use a pair of elegant blue blown glass candlesticks for Shabbat and wondered why everything at the Judaica store was either straight out of 19th century Vienna or totally kitschy. During the course of my research into Hebrew typography, I discovered a lost world of Jewish arts and craft, one that inspires me in my quest to make Jewish work that is rooted in history but is still new and relevant today. There’s so much history here, and so much wonderful typography!1
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Notes   [ + ]

1. This essay is adapted from a lecture given at Temple Aliyah on March 26, 2015 as part of their Experiments in Spiritual Expression Adult Learning Series.

Hebrew Murals: Writing on the Wall

At that moment, the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote opposite the lamp on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king’s color changed and his thoughts terrified him so that his hips became weak and his knees knocked together.
—Daniel 5:5-6

I’d like to apologize for leaving this blog for as long as I did. I’ve been busy. I spent the months of February and March coordinating and then painting murals around Los Angeles with my collaborator, Itamar Paloge (a.k.a. Faluja). Hebrew street art? Jewish graffiti? Sounds pretty awesome, right?

dura-europos synagogue

The western wall of the Dura-Europos synagogue with an ark facing Jerusalem. Photo credit unknown.

The roots of Jewish mural arts go way back to the earliest days of the Diaspora, if not earlier. The Dura-Europos synagogue in eastern Syria, completed in 244 AD, is famous not only for being one of the oldest synagogues yet found — and so well preserved — but for the paintings covering its walls. A whole collection of synagogues in northern Israel dating from the third to sixth centuries feature vivid mosaics of biblical and historical events. It’s even been proposed that the tradition of Christian iconography and manuscript illumination has its roots in this Jewish art form. Continue reading

Haggadah Typography through the Ages

In every generation, each person is required to see themselves as if they came out of Egypt.
—Passover haggadah

Cairo Geniza Haggadah

Haggadah from the Cairo Geniza, likely the oldest yet known, dating from around the 10th century.

The Passover haggadah holds a special place on the Jewish bookshelf. Unlike a torah scroll or megillah, it is not a ritual object. Unlike a bible, its contents and layout are not subject to codes and conventions. Unlike a siddur or mahzor, it is not used ceremoniously in regimented communal prayer. Unlike a talmud or typical other work of exegesis, it is short and self-contained and not exclusive to the learned. Instead, it is a layered book of prayers, teachings, and songs, used privately at home with family and friends who join together to celebrate and learn in one of the most enduring Jewish rituals, the Passover Seder. By design, the Seder encourages participation by attendees of all ages and backgrounds, and that universality makes the haggadah the most creatively designed book throughout Jewish history. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting haggadot over the last thousand and a bit years for a glimpse into how Jews have taken the styles and tools of the day and created works of lasting beauty. With an eye on type, of course. Continue reading

February Updates

I had the fantastic opportunity recently to explore the Hebraic collection at the Library of Congress. I have so much to write about this! Big thanks to the incredibly helpful LOC staff. Look below for a preview of what’s to come.

However, just when things are getting interesting, I will be posting less frequently on this site for the next month and a half while I work on my Jewish mural project, Illuminated Streets. In the meantime, spread the word and let me know what topics you’d like me to add to my list. And yes, I’m aware the footnote numbers aren’t working properly. See you soon!

Teshuvot sheelot lehaRashba

This edition of תשובות שאלות הרשב״א — Teshuvot She’elot ha-Rashba (Responsa of R. Solomon ben Abraham Adret) — printed in Rome sometime between 1469 and 1472, was very likely the first Hebrew book ever printed. Part of a group of a half dozen books printed without a date or place, having been published just two decades after Gutenberg printed his Bible before that was standard practice, its heritage is posited from outside references and inferences from the look of the typography.

Will the Alphabet Ever Change?

One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it rises again.
—Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 (Koren Publishers)

Nothing lasts forever. Egyptian hieroglyphics fall into disuse after three thousand years. Demotic rises only to be replaced with coptic. Cuneiform is abandoned after millennia in favor of Aramaic. Coptic and Aramaic are both ultimately dropped as the new Arabic script sweeps the region, also leaving many other forgotten scripts in its wake.1 Europe, too, is littered with lost alphabets. Ancient Greek spawns numerous scripts that last for centuries2 before Latin, an offshoot of Etruscan, overtakes them all. Some languages, restricted to ceremonial or religious use, return and flourish (like Hebrew!) while others will likely never regain their glory (poor Samaritan). The fate of many remains to be seen.3

Why do some writing systems thrive when others fail? How do they change and develop, both into new scripts and within their own orthographies4? From my observations, I’d group changes in writing into four basic categories, all with one thing in common: upheaval. Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sogdian, different Arabian scripts like South Arabian and Thamudic
2. Lycian, Lydian, tons of scripts from ancient Italy
3. Tifinagh, Hungarian
4. Orthography encompasses how a language is written, including spelling, punctuation, character variance like capitalization, and other formal and informal conventions.

1. The Invention of the Alphabet

I am learning the signs. I am seeing that the eye gives the breath of a sign into the ear by a stylus on clay [which is] dried [and] polished. The eye and the mouth, with the resting of the voice, have come to the splendour of old age. See, now I shall be seen for a thousand lifetimes of the world.
—Izbet Sartah inscription, c. 1200 BC1

Serabit el-Khadem, Sinai Desert, 1850 BC. The Canaanite miners were jealous. They toiled in the merciless desert digging for turquoise in the Egyptian mines, isolated from their families and civilization. They watched as the Egyptian overseers prayed to their goddess Hathor, Mistress of Turquoise, in her temple, currently being renovated and enlarged by Pharaoh Amenemhet III, but to which they were barred. They saw the stelae2 dedicated to her, covered in small drawings they couldn’t understand but knew ensured the success of their enterprise by her divine hand. Some among their people could read a bit. Khebeded, their Canaanite workforce leader, official in the Egyptian mining operation, and esteemed “Brother of the Ruler of Retenu” (an ancient name for Canaan), spoke Egyptian and knew a little hieroglyphics. The pictures represent words and sounds, they learned. If we make our own inscriptions, they thought, we could ensure our own success by our goddess, our “ba‘alat” (mistress), Asherah. We, too, could make our names endure for eternity! Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. At least according to Brian E. Colless. Most scholars regard the Izbet Sartah inscriptions as nonsensical. More on the inscription soon.
2. plural of stela, also spelled stele, a stone monument with inscriptions

0d. Hieroglyphics

Europeans long believed that hieroglyphics were purely symbolic picture-writing, a preconception that stymied translation efforts for centuries. Hieroglyphics is actually a complex mix of logograms, phonograms (signs that represent sounds), and determinants, robust enough to encode any verbal information, but vastly different than cuneiform or really anything else you may be familiar with. Continue reading

0c. Egyptian Origins

Nekhen (later, Hieraconpolis), Upper Egypt, c. 3100 BC. King Narmer was triumphant, having united the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and ushering in the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt. In his honor, a ceremonial palette was carved out of siltstone illustrating his glory, smiting foreign captives with a mace. At the top of the Narmer Palette is a serekh—a designed enclosure for a royal name—framing a catfish (n‘r in Egyptian) and a chisel (mr). Using the rebus principle, Narmer’s name was one of the first ever recorded.1 Continue reading

Notes   [ + ]

1. That distinction may go to an earlier pharaoh called Iry Hor.