Monday, June 17, 2024

Our Oldest Fragment of the Bible and What It Tells Us About Hebrew


Our oldest fragment of the Bible and what it tells us about Hebrew



The Shabbat of the portion Naso- Numbers

The blessing of the priests, which we use in the Cantor’s repetition of the Amidah and also by parents for children is in this portion.

Beautiful structure pyramid style 3 words 5 words and seven words

כד  יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.  {ס}

כה  יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.  {ס}

כו  יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.  {ס}


Repetitive rhythm. If any of you have had the chance to watch the Cohanim reenact the Dukhanan service, and it's done well, it can be very inspiring.


It's especially instructive because it comes right after a very disturbing elements for us, which is the portion of the jealous husband. It follows a listing of specific families among the Levites , their jobs, and then shifts to  the law of lepers,  and then it goes to the question of trespasses of human beings one against the other in business , so see a flow from issues of ritual impurity, to impurity of crimes between fellow and fellow, and then to the impurity that is caused when there's a crime between a husband and wife , when the husband is jealous of the wife.

The name of God is written on a scroll, is stirred into water the wife drinks, and if she is innocent, nothing happens to her and they live happily. If she is guilty, then her body is bloated and distended, and woe to her—she is cursed

but note, she is not killed or beaten to death, as is done in the middle east even into modern times.

The units goes one to deal with a man  or woman who takes a vow to abstain from wine in particular, the Nazir. Again, a discussion of defilement, as the Nazir may not be in contact with the dead—again , an impurity that upsets or creates a barrier.

In all of these, then, the proper order of the world is upset, and it must be cleansed away. Therefore, the placing of the blessing of the priests, to provide blessing and peace, undoing the rupture that can take place between the Israelite and fellow human, male female, or human to God.

Now, it takes me to my main point—about the blessing of the priests and the antiquity or origins of ourselves, as Jews. And then, some surprising asides.


How far back can we really trace ourselves? How far back can we really find evidence of the Bible ?

We don't have any complete existing manuscripts of the Bible, with the full punctuation of the Masoretic scholars,  that go back more than about 1000 years. There is the Leningrad Codex , on which most printed versions are based,and another one the Aleppo . Then in Bologna, Italy, researchers discovered the oldest complete Torah scroll, matching our texts. Before that, we have fragments or partial scrolls of different Bible texts, as in the Cairo Genizah, perhaps as far back as 1500 years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls, that  can go back about 2000 years ago.  

Keep in mind, that it doesn’t mean that old manuscripts didn’t exist- it is rather, that the earliest manuscripts disappeared with the ravages of time, and the texts were then copied anew by scribes, or, perhaps going further back, committed to memory.


Of course, we also have evidence from outside, such as Septuagint, the translation into Greek commissioned by the Ptolemies of Egypt,  not long after the time of Alexander. Here too, are fragments, in Greek, that are older that the Hebrew texts, but they serve as proof that the Hebrew original had been very well known and authoritative, long ago, albeit with some significant variations.

 For all our gripes about the historic Christian Church and theological anti-Judaism, we owe it to the early Church founders for preserving, at least in various translations, our Bible texts, as well as many other texts that we ignored, such as the Macabbees.

So let's look at what we have going back to my opening.

That's why this blessing of the priest is so beautiful for us because of the Torah text this is exactly the oldest one that we have.

Ketef Hinnom scrolls

The two silver scrolls were uncovered in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, an archaeological site southwest of the Old City of Jerusalem, and were found to contain a variation of the Priestly Blessing, found in Numbers 6:24–26. The scrolls were dated paleographically to the late 7th or early 6th century BCE, placing them in the First Temple period.[5]

Discovered by a 13 year old volunteer!

It's ironic that this is found in what is called Ketef Hinnom, Corner of Hinnom.

That is because Hinnom becomes the basis for the word Gehenna, taken from “ Gei Ben Hinnom”, the valley of the Hinnom family , the Jewish hell. To make a long story short, it seems to have been the place where children were sacrificed, a practice common among the Phoenicians/Canaanites and their colonies across North Africa.  Hence, it is appropriate that in a place associated in the Bible with the worst human evil, in this same place, we have the oldest  piece of the Torah, a piece  this is now tells a story of love in the form of God's blessing.



1.     -h/hu. May be blessed h/sh-

2.     -[e] by YHW[H,]

3.     the warrior/helper and

4.     the rebuker of

5.     [E]vil: May bless you,

6.     YHWH,

7.     keep you.

8.     Make shine, YH-

9.     -[W]H, His face

10. [upon] you and g-

11. -rant you p-

12. -[ea]ce.


Scroll KH1

The scroll KH1 measures 27 by 97 millimetres (1.06 in × 3.82 in).

·        [Top line(s) broken]

1.     ...] YHWH ...

2.     [...]

3.     the grea[t ... who keeps]

4.     the covenant and

5.     [G]raciousness towards those who love [him] and (alt: [hi]m;)

6.     those who keep [his commandments ...

7.     ...].

8.     the Eternal? [...].

9.     [the?] blessing more than any

10. [sna]re and more than Evil.

11. For redemption is in him.

12. For YHWH

13. is our restorer [and]

14. rock. May YHWH bles[s]

15. you and

16. [may he] keep you.

17. [May] YHWH make

18. [his face] shine ...

·        [Bottom line(s) broken.]



Of course, these scrolls are almost impossible to read!

1)    Severely torn and fragmented, as you can see, so there is much of “ creative reading”

2)    The script is ancient, or paleo-Hebrew, not at all looking like our print, though there may be a semblance to our script Hebrew.



Which leads me to my third direction- from whence our Hebrew? How come the Torah text doesn’t look at all like the text here?


So, for this, we have to go to the Sinai desert, where we discover the very first writings in what can be called the first experiment in creating an alphabet== or an alef-bet. In other words, a system in which symbols represent individual sounds that make up words, rather than pictures to indicate words and sounds that are then combined to create more or newer words. The Egyptian Heiroglyphs- about 1000 signs, Mesopotamian Cuneiform- also about 1000 signs, Chinese, as many as 10,000 or more. This means that only the highly educated could master and utilize it. So-

We get to the Sinai, where the people working the mines there were tired of trying to master all these signs just to tell the boss they needed another shovel. So we get:



The Proto-Sinaitic script is a Middle Bronze Age writing system known from a small corpus of about 30-40 inscriptions and fragments from Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as two inscriptions from Wadi el-Hol in Middle Egypt.[2][3][4][5] Together with about 20 known Proto-Canaanite inscriptions,[6] it is also known as Early Alphabetic,[7] i.e. the earliest trace of alphabetic writing and the common ancestor of both the Ancient South Arabian script and the Phoenician alphabet,[8] which led to many modern alphabets including the Greek alphabet.[9] According to common theory, Canaanites or Hyksos who spoke a Canaanite language[10] repurposed Egyptian hieroglyphs to construct a different script.[11]


PS Where it mentions “ South Arabian”= that is not an ancestor of the Arabic alphabet—that arose almost 2000 years later, after the formation of the Hebrew alphabet and Aramaic alphabets.


So who is scribbling away in those caves?


 Many of the workers and officials were from the Nile Delta, and included large numbers of Canaanites (i.e. speakers of an early form of Northwest Semitic ancestral to the Canaanite languages of the Late Bronze Age) who had been allowed to settle the eastern Delta.[20]


Who are those “ Northwest semitic speakers”? Ancestors of the Hebrews and other related tribes that had been going back and forth Canaan to Egypt, as we have in the descriptions of Abraham and Jacobs son going down to Egypt.

They took what had been developing in Egypt to add specific sounds, and  threw out the pictographs and the words and syllables that went with them.  24 consonants, no vowels needed, and anyone could learn to read and write!


We start with the image for OX, which still looks like an ox head, simplify it , then give it a value as place holder for sounds,name the sound for the image, alef, for the head of cattle. By the time it gets to Phoenicia, hundreds of miles to the north, it is made clean and simple,an ox head,lying on its side.The ancient Greeks flipped it upside down—A. Ashkenazi Hebrew script kept it in its side,but moved the horns over, away from the head.


From this to Phoenician, Canaanite, Hebrew, to Greek and Latin, hence to all European languages, and  Aramaic and hence, Arabic, and even Sanskrit of India. The scribbles of the mine workers has become the alphabet of note of  the entire world.


So, we ask the question- how come we can’t read it?


The Evolution of Two Hebrew Scripts

Paleo-Hebrew or Phoenician script was used before Aramaic script was introduced by Jews returning from Babylonia.

By Jonathan P. Siegel




Until the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. the paleo-Hebrew script was the only alphabet used by the Israelites. After the Babylonian destruction, Judean leaders and the important people of the country were deported to Babylon. Fifty years later, Cyrus, King of Persia, who fell heir to the Babylonian empire, declared that the Judean exiles could return to their land and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. According to the Bible, 42,000 Judeans chose to return (Nehemiah 7:66).

They brought back with them a new language—Aramaic—and a new script—the square Aramaic script—both of which were in common use in the Persian Empire. Ultimately, the Aramaic script replaced the older paleo-Hebrew script, but for hundreds of years the two scripts were used simultaneously by the Jews.

The square Aramaic script which the Jews brought back with them from the Babylonian exile also derives from the original proto-Canaanite alphabet, but via an entirely different route, which accounts both for the similarities and the marked differences.

Initially, the Aramaic language and script were reserved for official correspondence with the Persian government. …

Thus, by Alexander the Great’s time, we find two languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) and two scripts (paleo-Hebrew and square) being used simultaneously by the Jews.

But by the first century A.D. the Aramaic script had become predominant.


Mixed script, our Aramaic “ Ktav Ashuri”, Assyrian, with God’s name in the original Hebrew script.

The final triumph of the square Aramaic script occurred after the Bar Kochba or Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 A.D.).

Jews adopted the new square script, especially for our Torah scrolls, while our cousins to the north, the Samaritans, retained the older Hebrew script for their scrolls.


A Samaritan Torah scroll

A Polish scroll, Ashkenazic script, 20 th century, in our ark.


So, a few miners, working in the Sinai, who spoke a language that may have been an old form of Hebrew, created a system of markings that revolutionized communication around the world till our times, and with it , the communication of ideas that still affect our workld today,

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