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How Did Jewish Children Learn to Write a Thousand Years Ago?

T-S K5.78
Cambridge University Library T-S K5.78
Shulamit Elizur
Tue 18 Jan 2022

How was writing in Hebrew practised in the Middle Ages? A glance at the discoveries from the Cairo Genizah supplies the answer and also reveals that little has changed over the years.

How do children practise writing the alphabet? By writing each new letter, one at a time, over and over again, of course. This is common practice today and it was common practice back in the Middle Ages. There are several pages preserved in the Cairo Genizah that contain these kinds of children’s writing exercises, from about a thousand years ago.

T-S K5.17

Writing exercises, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.17

T-S K5.20

Writing exercises, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.20

Often a child would learn the entire alphabet and practise writing all the letters in sequence. You can see that kind of practice sheet here, accompanied by children’s drawings in the margins of the page.

T-S K5.19

Writing exercise with children’s drawings, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.19

The letters of the alphabet sometimes appear in various different orders as well: תשר׳׳ק, אתב׳׳ש, אלב׳׳ם, אח׳׳ס and so on. Sometimes the children added all the possible niqqud signs to the letters too.

T-S K5.25

Writing exercise with letters and vowel signs, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.25

More professionally written lists of letters may have been written by scribes in order to teach children to read. As the Genizah researcher S. D. Goitein wrote, ‘Even then, they understood that the most effective way to teach little children is in the form of a game. The letters were written in different colours, the teacher would draw large outlines of letters, and the child would fill them in with red, brown, green and many other colours … or vice versa, the teacher would draw letters in black ink and the child would give it a colourful frame’ (S.D Goitein, ‘Jewish Education in Muslim Countries’ [Jerusalem 1962], p. 42).

T-S K5.13

Letter outlines coloured in, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.13

T-S K5.10

Writing exercise with a Torah blessing at the bottom, Cambridge University Library T-S K5.10

But after the children already knew all the letters, another, and more interesting, way was found to get them to continue practising writing letters. Sixty-five years ago, Menachem Zulay, a great scholar of poetry from the Genizah in the first half of the twentieth century, published the following phrase he found in manuscripts:

הָקֵץ עָצֵל דַּיָּךְ מִנּוּם גָּרֵשׁ כָּזָב פֶּן תֹּסֶף חֵטְא

Next to it, he found another phrase:

אַתָּה גֹחִי צוּר מִבֶּטֶן כָּל זֹעֵם סַף קָדְשָׁךְ נַפֵּץ

And he wrote ‘I read and wonder, what is their nature, and suddenly, in each of the two verses, twenty-two letters of the alphabet and five final letters appear before my eyes … Were these verses used by the students of the school, for the study of the alphabet?’ (M. Zulay, בין כתלי המכון לחקר השירה העברית, in מנחת דברים לשלמה זלמן שוקן, אחרי מלאות לו שבעים שנה [Jerusalem, 1948-1952]).

Today one can answer Zulay’s question with confidence: these phrases are indeed also used as writing exercises. Each one of the letters – including the final letters – appears once in each sentence, and while writing the phrases the child gets practice in listing all the letters of the alphabet. In some sources these phrases have been written down again and again.

T-S NS 110.11

Writing exercises of the epigrams אתה גוחי and הקץ עצל. At the end is the name of the writer, Saʿadya b. Judah. Cambridge University Library T-S NS 110.11

T-S NS 129.11

The child is encouraged to write repeatedly the phrase אתה גוחי צור מבטן. Cambridge University Library T-S NS 129.11

The phrase אתה גחי צור מבטן (‘You who brought me forth, O Rock, from a womb’) is a verse with the character of a prayer. The writer addresses God with the epithets ‘Who brought me forth, O Rock, from a womb’, according to the verse ‘Yet it was you who took me from the womb’ (Psalms 22:10), and he asks him to destroy everyone who is angry at the threshold of His holiness, that is to say, the gentiles who are preventing Israel from building the temple. The syntax of the sentence is a bit stilted, because of the need to include in it all the letters of the alphabet and not to use any of the letters more than once. In addition to this, the sentence is composed in a specific quantitative metre: there are two hemistichs, in each of which are exactly 8 vowels, without any vocalic shewa or ḥaṭef.

The first phrase – which has the same metre – is more interesting, because the teachers chose it not only to practise writing the alphabet using a sophisticated sentence, but also to convey to the children educational messages, against laziness that leads to a preference for sleep over getting up for studying, and against dishonesty (כזב) that leads to sin.

A number of years ago, while cataloguing Genizah fragments at the Ezra Fleischer Institute for the Study of Poetry and Piyyuṭ, I stumbled across the following manuscript:

T-S AS 118.272

Cambridge University Library T-S AS 118.272

Immediately, I saw I had writing exercises in front of me: the writer is copying the phrases that are in front of him over and over again. The sentence אומר אני מעשי למלך לשוני עט סופר מהיר (‘I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a skilled scribe’) is a verse from Psalms 45:2, and it is likely that it was chosen because of its mention of the scribe’s pen; but the second sentence is less familiar. It says:

אֶצְלָךְ חֵפֶץ גָּזַר הַשֵּׁם, טוֹב מִכֶּסֶף קִנְיַן דַּעַת

A quick glance showed me that all the letters of the alphabet appear here too, including the final letters, and each of them only once. And it too, like its predecessors, has a quantitative vocalic metre. This particular sentence apparently contains an appeal to the student to keep with him, that is, in his heart, God’s will and decree in the world. And this will is nothing but the wise dictum that is at the end of the sentence: the acquisition of good knowledge over the acquisition of money. Its presence urges the students even at the beginning of practising writing to persevere in their studies and value the acquisition of knowledge over material treasures.

In contrast to the previous phrases, which are scattered across the manuscripts of the Genizah (the sentence הקץ עצל is, according to the Institute of Hebrew Poetry, found in more than thirty manuscripts, and אתה גוחי in forty), this phrase has not been found up to now in any other Genizah fragment. But it is clear that it has not been forgotten for too many years: it is mentioned in a late poetic work, Qunṭres Pereq ba-Šir, which was written by Joshua Benveniste in Turkey in the mid-seventeeth century, as an example of poetry in a vocalic metre; from this work, it was even reprinted twice, but only its occurrence in the present Genizah fragment has taught us of its ancient use as a phrase designed for educational writing exercises.

Shulamit Elizur is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a scholar of ancient and medieval piyyut.

This blog post originally appeared in Hebrew on the blog of the National Library of Israel in 2017. Read it here. An abridged version appeared in English previously here.



I've been cataloging K5 for NLI this week. It appears that we can differentiate reading exercises from writing exercises. The repetitive letters almost always present all 8 vocalizations, and almost always are in more "adult" square handwriting. In these cases, we can determine that they are reading exercises, written by the teacher with the intention of practicing vocalized reading. K5. 2, 5, 14, 18, 25, 29, 33, 38, 50, 55, (57, one letter per vowel).
Some of these use color ink to make them attractive to the eyes of reading students and, like K5.3, 5,10,13. Some continue with vocalized blessing of the Torah and Leviticus I, for reading and recitation (in school this is one and the same). 4, 6, 11, 16, 21, 49, 56
It's likely that alphabets that advance from 2 letter "words" to 3 (אבג בגד) and then 4 are also reading exercises. There's no advancement in writing words with progressively more letters. Thus, these too are in adult hand with vocalization: 3, 12, 24, 49, 53, or without 36
Some of these are in relatively crude hand, but the square characters may still indicate that they are the teacher (or perhaps exercises in both reading and writing) .37, 51, 59

On the other hand, notebooks in crude hand, without vowel points are clearly beginners learning to write: K5. 15, 19, 27, 31, 34, 42, 45, 46, 47, 52, 54, 60
The more advanced ones, well-formed characters but without vowel points- 22, 23, 35, 39, 40, 43
Some writing notebooks are mimetic. In K5.44 (+ENA 3814.8) some pages are written by the teacher, and others copied by the beginner. In K5.8 the pupil has filled the hollow characters inscribed by the teacher. Because these are writing lessons, there's no functional need for vocalization in either of these.
58 seems to be elusive, the hand is excellent, and vocalized, but the copy mistake should not have been done by the teacher.
17 and 20 do not fit this identity model. They present repetitive writing without vowels, which would more fit Prof. Elitzur's explanation above.

Thanks for your comment, Ezra. If anyone would like to have a look at the other manuscripts in the K5 folder (many of which are writing exercises), they are all available to see here.

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