Thursday, March 09, 2017

Parshat Tetzaveh. Greek letter Chi and Tav in Paleo-Hebrew

Parshat Tetzaveh. Greek letter Chi and Tav in Paleo-Hebrew
By Chaim Sunitsky

Rashi[1] on Parshat Tetzave writes that the priests were anointed with oil, poured in the shape of the Greek letter כי.[2] One would assume this is referring to letter Χ[3] – 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet which sounds somewhere between English K and H[4]. This letter spelled χῖ in Greek, is usually spelled “Chi” in English and indeed if one wanted to write it in Hebrew, he would probably transcribe it as כי (where Chaf is intended without dagesh). Moreover[5], when Hebrew names are transliterated into Greek, Chi is used for Hebrew Chaf. In addition, if the Talmud meant this letter it becomes clear why it didn’t use an example of any Hebrew letter, as this shape is not found in Ashuri script of Hebrew.

Despite all this evidence we find various other shapes offered by the Rishonim[6]. In fact in our printed editions of the Gemora only in Rashi on Kritot (5b) the printed illustration looks like an “X.” Some of Rambam’s editions (Kelei Hamikdash 1:9) also printed this shape, but the Frankel edition of Rambam[7] claims that neither Rashi nor Rambam had this shape in mind and it was changed later by some publishers[8]. Still, one is inclined to think that the correct explanation is that it is the letter X, and most Rishonim simply didn’t know Greek or have access to find out, and the correct tradition regarding the shape of “Greek Chi” was forgotten, despite the fact that it pertains to many halachot[9].

Before we go on, I’d like to make another interesting point: Greek X has the same shape as the last letter Tav in Paleo-Hebrew. Let us first examine the relationship of Greek letters to Phoenician[10] and Paleo-Hebrew[11]. R. Shaul Lieberman[12] brings a very interesting idea with regards to the letter Tav in Paleo-Hebrew. We find in Yehezkel (9:4) that Tav was marked on the foreheads of people to distinguish the righteous from the wicked who were sentenced to death. According to Hazal (Shabbat 55a) the mark was the actual letter Tav. As we mentioned this letter in Paleo-Hebrew looked like the Greek Chi (X)[13] and indeed became symbolic for a number of reasons[14]. R. Lieberman brings that the X shape was used for crossing out a debt and was therefore represented an annulment of a bad decree. On the other hand, Tav was pronounced similarly to Greek Theta, whose shape was also associated with a death sentence[15]. We thus have a double association of Tav (X) with Theta and with Chi. (Note in general that while most letters in Greek alphabet clearly come from respective[16]  letters in Phoenician[17], there are a few Greek letters, where it’s not certain which Phoenician letter they correspond to and the Greek X is one of them[18].)

R. Lieberman further proposes that originally the symbol of X written in blood was taken to mean forgiveness (crossing out the decree) while X in ink was symbolic of death sentence (verdict written in ink). However, since X has a shape similar to a cross, the early Christians started to utilize cross in blood as symbolic of atonement, and therefore our sages reversed that symbolism[19].

Coming back to the shape of “Greek Chi,” it seems logical that the Hazal’s tradition is based on an earlier tradition that the shape was that of letter Tav in Paleo-Hebrew[20] – the last letter of the alphabet. It’s also possible that there was some connection between the “sign” on the forehead in Yehezkel and the anointing of a High Priest. Though the correct shape of this letter became subject to multiple disputes over time, we may now be able to restore its ancient symbolism[21].


[1] On verse 29:7 based on the Talmud (Kritot 5b, Horayot 12a). He also brings the same shape in verse 29:2 in regards to the way oil was poured on the meal offerings.
[2] In some places instead of Chi Yevanit there are versions that say Chaf Yevanit, but the preferred girsa is Chi. While it is possible if the original version had Chi, some copyists changed it to familiar Chaf, but if the original was Chaf, why would someone change it to Chi? It is also possible that the Hazal themselves sometimes used an expression Chaf Yevanit and sometimes Chi Yevanit.
[3] See additions to Aruch by R. Benjamin Mussafia (Erech כי יונית) and Tiferet Yisrael on Menachot 6:3 and after the last Mishna in the 10th perek of Zevachim.
[4] The Russian letter Х (kha) also comes from it, and it is usually transliterated as kh into English (e.g. Mikhail Gorbachev).
[5] We will discuss this in the 17th footnote below. Similarly for those Greek words that made it into rabbinical Hebrew, כ is generally used for χ (e.g. אוכלוסא – populace – όχλος). However there are some exclusions, as קנקנתוס (or קנקנתום) has the first letter χ in Greek but for some reason is not spelled with כ but with ק.  
[6] See Rabeinu Gershom on Kritot 5b and Menachot 74b, Rashi (ktav yad) on Menachot 74b and Kritot 5b, Tosafot Menachot 75a, Rashi on Shemot 29:2, Rambam, Perush Hamishna Menachot 6:3, Rash and Rosh on Mishna Kelim 20:7, Meiri, Horayot 12a.
[7] In the end of Frankel’s edition they have a section where variant girsaot are brought.
[8] At least one of the “corrections” is based on “Mesoret Hashas” in Horayot 12a, but Frankel’s Rambam points out that Rashi’s explanation on the Gemora actually contradicts this shape. Indeed Rashi writes different explanations in various places and the shapes in our editions include that of Hebrew Chet (Horayot) and Tet (Menachot) and Nun (Torah commentary to Shemot, but Tosafot quote him as mentioning the shape of a Gimel there, see also the super-commentaries on Rashi, Shemot 29:2 and the English Artscroll where all the variant shapes of Rashi are explained). Tosafot (ibid) also mentions Kaf and that is the shape in some editions of Rambam. They also seem to understand Aruch to mean a shape like ^ (similar to a Greek Lambda). These shapes are reasonably similar, they all contain a type of semicircle (כ,ט,נ) with possibly a sharp angle (^) or two angles (ח), see Tzeda Laderech super commentary on Rashi ibid. None of these shapes look even remotely similar to X. (Note also that Lekach Tov on Shemot 29 apparently has a shape of Kappa, but I didn’t find anyone who agrees with this).
[9] See for instance Menachot 74b-75a regarding pouring oil on certain types meal-offerings; also this crisscross shape seems to be mentioned in Kelim 20:7, see TIferet Yisrael there. We find another shape based on the Greek Gamma used in various halachot (e.g. Kelim 28:7, Pesachim 8b, Baba Batra 62a, Zevachim 53b and many other places) which was preserved quite well (see commentators to these sugias).
[10] This is ancient Canaanite script very close to Paleo-Hebrew. Note that Ramban (Bereshit 45:12) and Ibn Ezra (Yeshayahu 19:18, see also his perush hakatzar to Shemot 21:2) knew that Canaanites spoke the Hebrew language, (though Hazal also thought that Hebrew was a somehow unique Holy Tongue used only by Avraham and his descendants, see for instance Sotah 36b).
[11] This ancient Canaanite Hebrew script is called Ktav Ivri, see Sanhedrin 21b. In times of Rishonim the shape of Ktav Ivri letters was not too well known (see Haara Nosefet printed in the end of Ramban’s Torah commentary, how when he was shown an ancient coin with Ktav Ivri he had to ask a Samaritan to read it for him). Still these letters apparently did retain some influence in certain communities. Some Yemenite Jews actually make Shin-Dalet-Yod with Tefillin straps on their hands in Ktav Ivri, not like the prevalent custom to make a Shin and Dalet in Ashuri script. R. Reuven Margolios proposed that our “four-headed” Shin on the left side of Tefillin Shel Rosh is actually based on the Shin in Ktav Ivri (which looks similar to English “W”).
[12] “Greek in Jewish Palestine”, pages 185-191.
[13] And interestingly both are the 22nd letters of their respective alphabets. 
[14] Besides being the last letter of the alphabet this letter is taken by Hazal to stand for life or death (Shabbat 55a), but the primary reason for its symbolism according to R. Lieberman is its shape.
[15] This tradition was also preserved in R. Bahye to Yitro (20:14) who discusses why there is no letter Tet in the 10 commandments and associates Tet and Theta with death: כי לשון טיט"א סימן הריגה, see also comments of R. Chavel ad loc. in the name of Emuna Vibitachon.
[16] On an unrelated topic I’d like to mention that R. Reuven Margolios (HaMikra Vehamesora, 22) wanted to prove, based on the shape of Paleo-Hebrew letters, that the so called Arabic numbers (that are assumed to have come from India) were actually invented by Jews. I find this theory far-fetched. If one looks at the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet only Bet, Dalet and Het seem to look like 2, 4 and 8 and moreover the shape of the “Arabic numerals” changed drastically over time and in the times “the Jews” could have possibly invented them, they didn’t look similar to the way we write them today. As for his other proofs that sometimes we find gematrias of numbers used together with the position of the digits as for example in Midrash (see Theodor Albeck edition of Bereshit Rabbah, 96) about the number of animals Yakov had: קבזר : מאה ותרתין רבוון ושבעה אלפין ומאתיין (1027200) that uses קב (102) then ז (7) and thenר  (200), at most this shows that for very large numbers they already started using some letters to indicate thousands and ten-thousands (רבבות) separately. Similarly we write for year 5776: תשעוה, but this is a far stretch from system developed in India where the value of each digit depends on its position. Indeed the Rishonim that R. Margolius himself mentions all attribute this to Indian system. (As a side point, just to illustrate the advantage of current mathematics symbols, look at the Rif on Pesachim, 23b, where he calculates the reviit in terms of cubic fingers. In current notation, his calculations taking half a page, would take one line: 3*243/(40*6*4*4)=10.8=2*2*2.7.)  
[17] Many of them look like Phoenician letters, except they are inverted vertically, since in Greek the writing is from left to right.
[18] Certainly this letter can’t come from Tav since it is pronounced completely differently. Note that the issue of correspondence between Greek and Phoenician letters is not related to the issue of how various Hebrew letters were transliterated in the Septuagint and other Greek translations of Hebrew writings. By the time these translations were made, the pronunciation of many letters changed both in Hebrew and in Greek. For example, Theta is usually used to transliterate Tav, and Tau to transliterate Tet, while their origins are the opposite: Tau came from Tav, and Theta from Tet, as their names and shapes indicate. Perhaps by the time of Septuagint the Tav without dagesh was pronounced in some areas closer to English “th” and so was Theta, and that’s why the translators chose to use Theta for Tav. Similarly, Mitchell First in an article “The Meaning of the Name ‘Maccabee,’ ” (available on this blog here), writes that Kuf is usually transliterated as Kappa and Kaf-Chaf as Chi, even though originally the Greek letter Kappa came from Kaf-Chaf. The reason for this might be similar, at the time of these translations, the pronunciation of Chaf and Chi was similar, while Kuf sounded like Kappa. (Other examples of this include Samech that is transliterated as Sigma, not as Xi which originally came from it, but sounded at the times of Septuagint like English X=KS, not S; similarly in Greek words used by Hazal, Sigma is transliterated not as Sin from which it came but as a Samech, possibly because at that time Sin and Samech were pronounced the same but since Sin is written as Shin, Samech was chosen to make it clear the sound is S, not Sh.)
[19] See the above-mentioned sugia in Shabbat 55a. We find occasionally that the sages had to change the explanation “keneged haminim,” see for example Sanhedrin 31b, see also Berachot 59a, 12a.
[20] It’s not surprising that they used a Greek letter rather than not well known Paleo-Hebrew. Moreover they sometimes used Greek letters instead of Ashuri, see Shekalim 3:2.
[21] It might be possible to suggest that in medieval times this shape was purposefully misrepresented, especially when dealing with the way anointing is performed. The associations regarding Messiah, “the anointed one,” with anointing an X on the High Priest’s head would certainly make many Jews living in Christian lands recoil. Later on, this may have influenced the Jews living in Muslim lands. Interestingly the Frankel edition of Rambam and R. Kapach (in his edition of Rambam’s Mishna commentary) bring that in the manuscript attributed to Rambam’s own writing (Kritot), the picture of Chi was blotted out.

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