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From Aleph (א) to Tav (ת‎)

Jan 20, 2021 | JMW News

The Hebrew alphabet has 22 characters. If you enter “Hebrew” as a search term in the museum inventory, 606 objects are listed. Did you know that Yiddish and Ladino are written in Hebrew letters? That the Hebrew letters have a numerical value? That there are letters with an “evening dress?” One after the other, from aleph (א) to tav (ת‎).

The origin of the type case with Hebrew letters is not completely clear. It is a permanent loan from the Holzhausen printing company to the old Jewish Museum. The Holzhausen company was once the printing house of the University of Vienna. Perhaps the letters cast from lead were made for this purpose? Or maybe they come from a Hebrew printing company and were taken over for the university? One of the most important Hebrew printers in Vienna was Anton Schmid, born in Krems in 1765. He was one of the apprentices of the master printer Josef Edler von Kurzböck, who specialized in Orientalist works. Schmid later bought the Hebrew script material from Kurzböck’s widow, which had been specially cast or imported from Amsterdam, and took over Kurzböck’s business in 1805. Emperor Joseph II had banned the establishment of Hebrew printing houses in Vienna, as well as the import of Hebrew printed works, so that a lucrative market niche opened up for the Christian printer.

Image © JMW

This educational material for children came from the Eli Stern Collection to the holdings of the Jewish Museum Vienna. The cardboard box says in Hebrew letters that the letters would make you wise. In this type case (the letters are printed on moderately thick cardboard) you can easily see the letters in block printing and in the last line you can also make out some of those with “evening dresses.” These “evening dress” letters look different at the end of a word – like wearing a different dress at the end of the day. This was the simple explanation from my Hebrew teacher that no one had to question, since an evening dress is an evening dress. The little cards with points and lines on the far right show the vowels; vocalization marks appear below the respective letter.

Image © JMW

L. M. Singer from Eisenstadt issued an acknowledgment of receipt in Hebrew cursive in 1839. His handwriting seems swift and confident; the letters with the “evening dresses” are particularly striking. Unfortunately, the inventory entry from the old Jewish Museum is missing.

Image © JMW

You probably knew that numerous Viennese slang words come from Hebrew, including Beisl (pub) from Hebrew “beit,” Haberer (friend) from “chaver,” Massl (a stroke of luck) from “mazal” and Zores (“trouble”) from “tsarót,” or perhaps you found out in the context of our “Yiddish in Viennese” postings on the museum’s social media channels? Yiddish originated in the Middle Ages in the cultural area of Ashkenaz in Central and Eastern Europe, when a separate, non-holy language developed for everyday life. Hebrew was reserved for worship and religion; ordinary everyday affairs were dealt with in Yiddish, a mixture of Hebrew and Middle High German. Anyone who knows the Hebrew letters will immediately recognize the word “pass” in this illustration. It is an eight-page Lithuanian-German passport on blue paper, which was issued in Wilkomierz (Ukmergė) on January 30, 1917.

Image © JMW

The Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and settled all over Europe with the Ottoman migrations, used the Jewish Spanish, also known as Ladino, which was originally written with Hebrew letters, too. The Viennese Sephardic congregation was allowed to officially act as a congregation, build synagogues and celebrate worship services as early as the 18th century. Around the turn of the 20th century and up into the 1920s, there were cultural associations in Vienna and even a separate Sephardic press landscape. The major publishing places were, of course, Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The illustration shows a page from the newspaper “La Tribuna Djudea” from 1947.

Image © JMW

The kabbalistic amulet presented here from the collection of the old Jewish museum shows the so-called Sephirot, the ten emanations of the kabbalistic tree of life. Under the term “emanation,” mysticism and philosophy understand the process of arising and producing. Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) explains much from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which in turn have numerical values. The Israeli artist Victoria Hanna “spells out” the Aleph Bet from beginning to end in a song. She is a teacher and at the same time a student at a religious school for girls and, together with her students, illustrates this process of creation from air and breath. The artist comes from a religious family: her father was a rabbi who, when she was sick, wrote down different letters with chalk, erased them with water and gave her the water to drink. If it didn’t work, at least it probably didn’t do any harm.

Listen to Victoria Hanna’s song “Aleph Bet” on Spotify.

Image © Gottfried & Söhne

The numerical value of the letter chet (ח) is eight, that of the letter yod (י) ten. When toasting you say “Lechaim” and drink to life. When it comes to donations or gifts, the number 18 is often a multiplier, which certainly doesn’t do any harm either.

Cover image © JMW