What You Need to Know About the Hebrew Script

An Interview with Graphic Designer Meir Sadan

What do you need to understand before you start work with the Hebrew script? Graphic Designer Meir Sadan shared the history of the script, how the script is composed, and how different writing tools impacted how Hebrew appears.

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Thomas Jockin: Hi Meir, thanks so much for taking the time to talk on TypeThursday.

Meir Sadan: Hi! Happy to be here!

TJ: You’re teaching a workshop about Hebrew writing at TypeCon XX. Before we get into the particulars of the Hebrew script, I’d love to learn more about yourself. How did you get into Hebrew writing?

Meir Sadan

Meir’s Background

MS: Sure. I’ll give a short background about myself — I’m a designer based in Tel Aviv, I work on many different projects involving different design disciplines: book design, type design, design for digital media, etc. I have also been a teacher for eight years now. It’s funny to think about when I first started practicing Hebrew writing, because it has been there all my life! As a native of the Hebrew language, and as a designer who loves type, I have always had an obsession with the Hebrew script, which grew and grew as I got older and figured out I should probably be doing it as a profession. There weren’t many resources available back then, the internet wasn’t as big and full of information as it is now, so I had to do a lot of investigation, finding people to talk to and books to read in order to educate myself. I have been working professionally with Hebrew type for almost 10 years now, and I still feel I have so much to learn!

TJ: It does seem like when you work on something you love deeply, there is always more to learn. What about the Hebrew script do you love so much?

[Hebrew] went through changes — changes in style, in construction and in the way it’s used and by whom.

Consideration of the Hebrew Script

MS: Hebrew is the language I grew up with — I speak, write and even think with it every day. But apart from that, I think it’s a very interesting script. It’s very ancient, and been around for thousands of years, through many different historical periods, and through those times it went through changes — changes in style, in construction and in the way it’s used and by whom. The first serious book I read on the subject was “The Book of the Hebrew Script” by Dr. Ada Yardeni, that demonstrates the many versatile forms the Hebrew script has taken on during the ages. Its latest incarnation, the modern one that began in the early 20th century, is particularly interesting because of its active use today, but also because of the modernist influences it absorbed, for instance from constructivism and from the international style. It’s also a fairly simple script — 22 letters (with 5 final forms), one ascender, one descender and one case (no capitals/miniscules), so while being quite a basic system of writing, it’s a kind of prototype to many scripts that came after it, such as greek, latin and cyrillic.

TJ: That’s a perfect segue to my next question. What considerations are there when working with the Hebrew script? In your workshop, you’ll be teaching using a broad-nib pen. Is that essential to understanding the script?

MS: When you look at some the earliest examples of Hebrew writing, for instance the dead sea scrolls, you see the script has been written using a sliced reed, which was dipped in ink. Those very early examples show how the script slowly evolved and matured, and what I would like to demonstrate in the workshop, through the practice of writing Hebrew, is also a little bit about how it slowly formed into the shapes we see today. And I believe that a good way to see that is by using a similar tool to what the earliest scribes used. There are also of course practical reasons — a broad-nib pen is a relatively easy tool to master, in comparison to a pointed-nib pen or a quill, which are also tools that have been used to write Hebrew in other times.

…Each style has links to its ancient heritage as a semitic, middle-eastern script, but also ties to local culture and craft.

The History of the Hebrew Script

TJ: You stated the Hebrew script moved from broad-nib to pointed-nib to, I take it, constructivist. Is than accurate history? If so, how has the script evolved over time?

MS: It’s a little bit more complicated than that :) Hebrew has started as a language in the Middle East around 1100 BC. The script itself wasn’t only “Hebrew”, as other languages, such as Aramaic, also used it. During those ancient times, the script was either carved on stone, or written using a broad-nib instrument such as a reed. When the Jewish diaspora came to be, and you had Jewish communities in different places in the world, such as Spain, France, Italy, Yemen, Iraq and Morocco, for instance, the local methods of writing influenced the writing of Hebrew, as well, and that had an impact on the style. So during the middle ages, different “strands” of Hebrew formed — Spanish Hebrew and European Hebrew, and also Yememite Hebrew and Byzantine Hebrew. And each style had links to its ancient heritage as a semitic, middle-eastern script, but also ties to local culture and craft. During the late 19th century, with the Zionist movement in Europe, Jewish artists started thinking about what a modern Hebrew should look like, and that’s when more modernist influences came to be, such as the constructivist “Chaim” typeface which was designed in Poland.

The Rewards of Teaching

TJ: Quite the story! Thank you for sharing all this great information. You’ve shared before you have taught for eight years. Would it be fair to say you truly enjoy teaching?

MS: I would say teaching is the hardest job I ever had. It forces you to learn more than what you think you know about what you’re teaching, and to always be a few steps further down the path. I do think that, eventually, it’s also a very rewarding experience. But it’s difficult for me to call it enjoyable — it’s many things, and that’s what’s so great about it :)

TJ: Rewarding (but challenging!) is a great way to describe the teaching experience. What will students at your Hebrew workshop at TypeCon XX walk away with from the experience?

Hebrew has some interesting cases in which little “spurs” are very essential in recognizing different letters.

The Need for an “Insider’s Eye” to a Script

MS: Well, I noticed in the past few years, that there is a growing interest in Hebrew, as well as other non-latin scripts, in the latin type design community. Some designers even attempt their own Hebrew designs, and I think it’s great. But I do think, that in order to really understand a script, you need a bit of an “insider’s eye”. I’m hoping to provide some insights, as well as practical tips, about how to look at Hebrew letters, in terms of construction and style, so that the students can gain a better understanding of how to eventually approach the design of a Hebrew typeface. It can also be a great general introduction, to those who have never had any experience with the script or the language, and are interested to know how it works. I will also be showing some examples of Hebrew type in current use, to give a better context to the work we will be doing through the day.

TJ: Your comment about an “insider’s eye” is really interesting. If I can offer an example in the latin script, do you mean knowing what legibility limit there is for an “a”? Some parts of the “a” are optional; others are essential. Is that what you mean by “insider’s eye” for an script?

MS: That’s a great example! Hebrew has some interesting cases in which little “spurs” are very essential in recognizing different letters. For example, the letters ד (dalet) and ר (resh) are two completely different sounds, but the shapes are almost identical. When I talk about these examples, I often refer to historical examples of how the letters used to be drawn, so that you would understand where that differentiation came from and what can be done to improve legibility.

TJ: Outstanding. I’ll be at TypeCon this year and be sure to check this out! Thanks so much for joining us, Meir.

MS: Thank you, Thomas! I’m looking forward to meeting you and the rest of the people at TypeCon! See you then.

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