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“First, …recognize that it's a penny”: Report on the "Newark" Ritual Artifacts



    The two phylacteries are made of black material, which is in accord with the rabbinical law that phylacteries must be black in color. Although contrary to Palestinian and Babylonian rabbinic rulings in the second century CE, the use of a condensed "decalogue" is in accord with a known prior tradition. That other traditions continued to exist alongside the Palestinian and Babylonian tradition is known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, papyri from Egypt, and was also was mentioned by Jerome.




The two phylacteries are written in the incantation format (Figure 6). As they are, in fact, incantation texts meant to be recited exactly as written, the format matches the text -- and the purpose of the artifact.

Fig. 6: The incantation format on the back of the hand phylactery: (photo, J. Huston McCulloch)




    The texts on the two phylacteries are written between bilinear limits, that is, the text is "frozen." Incantation texts are intended to be frozen and are written between bilinear limits The limit system is in accord with the incantation format used on the two artifacts.




    The font used on these two phylacteries is a consolidated grid font. The base script is a Late-Medieval Hebrew "squared" font where the “aleph” is a three-sided "box" open at the bottom. Of the 21 symbols (“tet” is not used), 12 graphs are directly from the base-script: aleph, bet, dalet, heh, chet, khaf, nun, samech, peh, resh, shin, and taf. The shin and bet are squared off standard graphs from the base script. The “yod” is a single line that runs full height of the square; full height yods have been used in various Hebrew script systems since the late BCE period. Qof has a descender and caused a problem in this design. The designer used the top part of the qof and incorporated the descender into a tail that wraps around the bottom of the grid square.

    Incorporated into the font are one cuneiform-type composite graph (ca. 16th BCE) that appears to have been the model for numerous descendants both in North and South Semitic script systems; one South-Sinaitic graph (ca. 16th-15th BCE), two South-Semitic graphs, one Nabatean graph; one Neo-Sinaitic graph, and one Hebraeo-Phoenician graph that dates to ca. 10th BCE (Figure 7).

Fig. 7:
(a) Modern Hebrew -- Formal typeface and cursive;
(b) The Late-Medieval Hebrew Base-script;
(c) The Consolidated Grid font on the phylacteries;
(d) South Sinaitic;
(e) Nabatean;
(f) South-Semitic;
(g) Neo-Sinaitic;
(h) Hebraeo-Phoenician

  (click on image for larger view)

    As there can be neither ascenders or descenders in this design (or the graphs will not fit between the limits and will intrude on the incantation spiral), the designer created a variant form to indicate a final (sofit) graph on the “khaf” by leaving a space. Variant forms are also used to distinguish “shin” from “sin” and “taf” from “dhaf.”

    We should also note that the ancients were "thrifty." Graphs were used not only as themselves, but to indicate special purpose. Xenographic exchange is one example of multiple use; variant forms are another. Just as Phoenician territorial scripts used variant forms of “aleph” to indicate which vowel phone was attached to the consonant, this design includes four variant forms of “aleph.” Each variant form has a different "vowel" attached to the specific location and shape of the left-hand leg of the “aleph.” The technique of denoting instructions on the left-hand leg of an “aleph” or an “A is well attested.48

    Multiple use is also seen in the tzadik. The tzadik is a cuneiform-type composite and appears to be the class model for both North and South Sinaitic graphs. As the mutations of this graph are found in both branches of Semitic script systems, the composite graph antedates the earliest descendants and is from ca. 16th or 15th centuries BCE.49 The “V”of the tzadik appears in Aramaic and Hebrew Square Script systems from at least the fifth century BCE onwards and can be seen in the Medieval Hebrew base-script [b]); the “V” on the “tzadik” is still used in the modern formal typeface [a]. In South-Semitic scripts systems [e, f, g], the tzadik appears with a rounded upper graph along with a second form that indicates a “tzadik sofit.” The “mem” is a squared off South Sinaitic graph, as old as the tzadik. These two graphs may be "magic" letters, for the designer did not include final forms of either the “tzadik” or “mem.” Whether "magic" or not, it is clear that these graphs were to be copied without change -- which they were.

    We should note that somewhere down the fifteen centuries or more of copying this decalogue text, the “vav” and “zayin” became interchanged. What is placed in the “vav” position is a South Semitic “zayin”; in the “zayin” position is the third form of Hebraeo-Phoenician “vav.” While the two graphs were interchanged, again, it is clear that the “vav” was to be copied without change.

    The lamed is a Nabatean graph that was the model for the Neo-Sinaitic, and later, the Kufic scripts.50 Two forms of “taf” (“t” and “dh”) are also used in Nabatean and appear as variant forms in the Nabatean script systems. The "crossed" gimel is Neo-Sinaitic. The “ayin” is a South Semitic graph that dates to ca. 10th-century BCE. (The North Semitic “ayin” at this date is a circle, i.e., “o [h].) The symbol at the center and front of the inscription may be some type of religious emblem or it may be an identification of sect affiliation. We cannot, at this juncture, know its purpose.

    The text is written in a consolidated grid font, which is what we would expect for use in an incantation format.




    The hand phylactery is the shape of a Mosaic tablet and it does indeed contain a "law" code. In fact, it contains a condensed version of "The" Law code.




    Phylacteries are black under the "halacha mosheh misinai" [laws given to Moses at Sinai].




    Stone as the materials used for the set follows rabbinic halachic rules on purity. Both the black stone for the phylacteries and a different stone for the purification ritual of washing are in accord with these rulings.




    The pose on the sculpture is the classic Semitic pose.

    In 1861, the appearance of the bas-relief on the hand phylactery led Rabbi Lederer, editor of the "Israelite," to class the artifact as "not Jewish" because the making of images of anything in the sky, on the earth, or in the sea contravenes Exodus 20: 4.51 Exodus 20: 5, however, is the second half of the injunction in Exodus 20:4 and explicitly states that such images should not be worshipped as gods. This further statement can be interpreted as not applicable to anything that is not worshipped as a god. It is rather apparent that the second half in Exodus 20:5 was so interpreted in some communities. There is nothing "god-like" in this "portrait" of Moses.

    The word "Moses" (Moshe) is inscribed above the head of the figure, which is just as well or we would not know who was depicted. In medieval Christian art, Moses is rendered with a stern expression; a long, flowing beard and hair; and voluminous sweeping robes that descend from the shoulders and also from which depend wide flowing sleeves. Moses is always depicted as holding tablets with the high rounded-arch shape of "The" Law. This Moses, however, wears a benign expression; his hair is completely covered, his beard is the neatly trimmed beard of late medieval portraits, his robe is loose, but not flowing, and he is wearing a short tunic with close fitting sleeves. Tucked under his arm is a tablet in the triangle "arch" shape of "The" Law used by the North Central and Northwest Semitic peoples in the Dan-Edom area.52

    More specifically, Moses' clothing consists of a robe, a short tunic, a hat with a tight band, and a girdle. From the bulk at the shoulders, he may also be wearing an ephod.53 This ensemble, of course, is the description in Exodus 28 of the priestly garments to be made for Aaron. All in all, his clothing most closely resembles Josephus' word picture in Ant. III, vi, 3. We should note that the entire ensemble has been depicted with a decided South Semitic bent.

    The "hat" may originally have been an interpretation of the "priestly" headwear;54 but here it more closely resembles the identifying hat of an Arabic Ollamh, a professor of the law.55 Similarly, the robe worn by the figure of Moses may have been an interpretation of the priestly garments described in Exodus.56 Again, in this sculpture, we find the type of robe worn by "teachers of the law" in the Moslem world. The neatly trimmed beard, in direct contrast to the usual flowing beard on Moses in other medieval portraits is a mark of late-medieval provenance. The sculpture bears all the signs of a late-medieval interpretation of a Semitic profile portrait. The workmanship is more likely to be Spanish than French because of the decided Arabic influences, although we cannot rule out the possibility that a Spanish artisan worked in France. There is little doubt as to the ca. 11th-13th centuries date of this sculpture. The workmanship and style date the sculpture to the same period as the late-medieval base-script used for the consolidated font.


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