Masonic Script.

Victor Mair has a Log post about an intriguing puzzle:

Michael Carasik, on behalf of NAPH (National Association of Professors of Hebrew), has forwarded to me a letter that was written to O. P. Schaub in the 1920s. Can anyone identify the script and/or translate it for him?

I urge you to visit the link and see if you can identify the writing; the two leading contenders in the Log thread are Samaritan script and what the commenters are calling Masonic script, which Wikipedia calls pigpen cipher: “The pigpen cipher (alternately referred to as the masonic cipher, Freemason’s cipher, Napoleon cipher, and tic-tac-toe cipher) is a geometric simple substitution cipher, which exchanges letters for symbols which are fragments of a grid.” It’s vaguely familiar to me from my childhood, when (like many kids) I was fascinated by codes and ciphers, and I was glad to have it brought again to mind.


  1. David Marjanović says

    Mark Shoulson has shown up, saying he can read Samaritan and this is not it. I’m not surprised, seeing as both pages are pretty clearly written left-to-right. Still, the second page is amazingly fluently written; not many ciphers are in daily use…

    Speaking of codes and ciphers, half of a response to Shoulson is in Klingon.

  2. Ha. Maybe somebody will translate it (either that, or render it into Masonic script).

  3. tangent says

    Commenter linked to this enterprise which strikes me as quite Hattic: a devoted elaboration and calligraphy of the pigpen cipher.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m just happy to know that there’s a National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

  5. Mark Shoulson, who can read Samaritan, took a look at it (I was sitting next to him at the time) and rules out any West Semitic script except at the level of chance look-alikes, so it is neither Palaeo-Hebrew aka Samaritan script, nor Square Hebrew aka Aramaic script, nor Arabic script.

    (Curious fact: a Torah scroll is normally written in Hebrew, but one written in Greek is also kosher and it “defiles the hands” to touch it. One written in Palaeo-Hebrew is not kosher, however, any more than one written in English would be. However, it is no longer permitted to make new Torah scrolls in Greek today, as “Greek is no longer spoken”, presumably Septuagint Koine Greek.)

  6. Fascinating!

  7. “One written in Palaeo-Hebrew is not kosher”—when has this come up? That wouldn’t include Samaritan, right?

  8. Owlmirror says

    I’m pretty sure that the Samaritan Torah was considered unacceptable by default. The fact that the Samaritan characters are closer in form to Palaeo-Hebrew than to the Assyrian/square writing does not help.

    I see that there is now a book called “The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah”, which highlights 6,000 differences between the Samaritan Torah and the MT. Its author, Binyamin Tsedaka (on its face, a standard Hebrew name), is in fact a Samaritan: Chavie Lieber, “The Other Torah.”

    Tangentially, I found a PDF of a publication, which might be of interest:
    Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (243-page pdf).

  9. Looks very interesting; it’s great that they’re making it available for free!

  10. When has this come up?

    It’s in the Mishnah, Yadayim 4.5:

    תרגום שבעזרא ואבדניאל, מטמא את הידים. תרגום שכתבו עברית, ועברית שכתבו תרגום, וכתב עברי־־אינו מטמא את הידים. לעולם אינו מטמא עד שיכתבנו אשורית, על העור, ובדיו.

    Freely (and anachronistically) rendered: “The Aramaic text in Ezra and Daniel [which are partly written in that language] makes the hands unclean. If the Aramaic text was written in Hebrew, or the Hebrew text in an Aramaic version, or in palaeo-Hebrew script, it does not make the hands unclean. The Scriptures render the hands unclean only if they are written in square script, on leather, and in ink.”

    Note that a non-kosher Torah is a perfectly useful object for the purposes of study or prayer; in particular, all printed Torahs are non-kosher. It just can’t substitute for the ritual purposes that a kosher Torah scroll serves.

    The above refers, of course, to a Masoretic text Torah written in palaeo-Hebrew, not to a Samaritan Torah (which is always in palaeo-Hebrew). Nobody knows why it’s non-kosher. It may have been an attempt to repudiate the Hasmonean monarchy, which before the Hellenistic conquest used palaeo-Hebrew on its coins and inscriptions as a way of harking back to the Davidic monarchy. Indeed, a modern Israeli sheqel coin has ࠉࠄࠃ on the obverse in palaeo-Hebrew along with the Hasmonean lily. In square script, that’s יהד YHD ‘Judaea’ (in Aramaic).

  11. modern Israeli sheqel coin

    N.b.: You have to click on the “Coins” tab and then on “NIS 1” to get the image John describes. Stupid site.

  12. David Marjanović says

    The Other Torah

    Interesting article; fails to mention, though, that whatever the Septuagint was translated from can’t have been quite identical to the Masoretic Text we have now.

  13. January First-of-May says

    By “the Hellenistic conquest”, you mean the Herodian dynasty, right? Judean coins kept using Paleo-Hebrew (though eventually with some Greek as well) all the way until Mattathias Antigonus (40-37 BC).

    As it happens, the modern 1 sheqel coin only has any Paleo-Hebrew on it due to being directly based on the design of an actual ancient coin (from the Persian period, when Paleo-Hebrew might well have still been the contemporary script), but the 10 sheqel coin does, in fact, have a somewhat functional legend in Paleo-Hebrew (“somewhat” because it copies the modern Hebrew next to it).

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I believe there are a few Hebrew passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls which differ from both the MT and the Samaritan version but are consistent with the Hebrew text (or more probably one of several plausible Hebrew texts) one could plausibly reverse-engineer from the LXX Greek. It seems frankly a little bit ahistorical to posit two (or three) complete but fixed rival redactions floating around two-thousand-plus years ago as opposed to a fair amount of variation between different manuscripts, with standardization providing the One Right Answer for all of the verses where there was variation between manuscripts being something that happened later on.

  15. About 5% of the fragments agree with the LXX as against both the MT and the Samaritan version. Note that a single fragment may agree with one recension in one part and another in another part. At any rate, the fragments nail down that there were Hebrew texts containing the LXX readings, as opposed to the older idea that the discrepancies are all the fault of the translators.

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