April 9, 2024
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The Ancient Comb With an Inscription, Just Discovered From Lachish

There was a very important find recently from Lachish. The item — an ancient comb — was discovered in 2017, but the faint writing on it was not noticed until 2022.

Here is some background… The two most ancient writing systems are hieroglyphic writing and cuneiform writing. In hieroglyphic writing, each picture represented a word. The Egyptians were using hieroglyphic writing by around 3000 BCE. Cuneiform writing used wedge-shaped signs to represent words. It was already in use in Mesopotamia by 3000 BCE.

Alphabetic writing did not arise until later. In alphabetic writing, each letter represents a sound. The idea behind alphabetic writing is that — in spite of the thousands of different words that people use when they speak — there are only a limited number of sounds that people use. All words are simply varying combinations of this limited number of sounds. The next step was to make a picture to represent each sound.

The pictures were chosen so that they would immediately suggest to the reader the sound the picture was to represent. For example, for the sound “b,” the picture would be of a house (“bayit”). For the sound “y,” a hand or forearm (“yad”).

This is not evident in our time, because the way our Hebrew letters look today is not the way they looked initially. (Starting with the Babylonian exile and over the next few centuries, the shapes began to change.) There are many charts available that show what the Hebrew letters looked like in First Temple times and earlier. The original form of the letters is often referred to by scholars as “Old Hebrew,” or “Paleo-Hebrew.” (In the Talmud, it is called “ketav ivri.”) Many of the letter-picture resemblances are obvious. But, some are less clear or unknown today.

The earliest alphabetic writings known to us come from around 1700 BCE from Egypt and the Sinai. This is, probably, when and where alphabetic writing was invented. (The above date is a rough guess … There are other estimates.) Later, there is some alphabetic writing from nearby Canaan.

The alphabetic findings until now, from this early period (before the Israelites arrived around the 13th century BCE or, perhaps, a few centuries earlier) have been very limited: one to four words.

Now all of a sudden, we have an inscription from Lachish from this pre-Israelite period with a full sentence: 17 letters, comprising 7 words. And, we know enough to read these words! (The inscription is estimated to date to 1700 BCE, but this is just a very rough guess like the other guess above.)

As further background, the language of the Canaanites in Lachish was roughly the same as what we call “Hebrew.” But scholars do not call this language and alphabet “Hebrew” yet, at this early stage.

Here is the sentence that was found on this comb, made of ivory: “May this tusk remove the lice of hair and beard.” Here, it is in its original form: “Y-T-Sh Ch-T DZ L-Q-M-L S-A-R V-Z-Q-T.”

That first word is יתשׁ. Its root is נתשׁ with the initial “nun” dropped — a frequent grammatical phenomenon. We all know this word for “remove/root out.” It is found, for example in Deuteronomy 29:27: “Va-yitshem Hashem me-al adamatam … va-yishlichem el eretz acheret.”

That last word is וזקת. The first letter is just a “vav” and זקת is just a different form of זקן, which is a word for beard. See, e.g., Samuel 2, 10:5.

As to the other words:

חט is found in Mishnah Bechorot 6:4 and 6:12 and means “teeth of animals.” Here, it is being used as the word for “the comb,” which was made from ivory.

“ḎZ” (this is one letter) means “this,” like the Hebrew זה. (This “DZ” letter is from the original Semitic language, which had 27 or 29 letters. This one letter was pronounced “DZ.” When the alphabet became 22 letters and this letter did not survive, this letter evolved into ז in Hebrew and ד in Aramaic. (This explains many issues that you should have always wondered about!)

As to לקמל, the “lamed” here is just a letter that introduces the direct object. קמל means “lice,” in Akkadian, Aramaic and Arabic. In Babylonian Aramaic, it underwent a metathesis and became קלמתא. For example, this word is used in Onkelos for כנים (lice) at Exodus 8:12-14. In the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 20b, Vilna edition), it appears as כלמי, but there is a note on the side of the page suggesting קלמי. See also in Jastrow, page 645, left column.

The comb was dug up at Tel Lachish by a joint team from Hebrew University and Southern Adventist University (Tennessee). The inscription was then deciphered by scholars from Ben Gurion University. The article on this find has been published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology: “A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish.” Anyone can access this article online as I did. (Volume 2, 2022, pages 76-119.)

The script on this inscription first runs from the right to left, but when the engraver reached the edge of the comb, he turned the comb 180 degrees and wrote the second row from left to right.

One side of the comb had six thick teeth. This side was used to untangle hair. The other side — with 14 fine teeth — was used to remove lice and their eggs.

Admittedly, the “resh” in שׂער is missing and is a hypothesis. Also, even though the shapes of the other letters are clearly seen via scientific methods; for many of them, it was still a question which of our known Canaanite-Hebrew letters each letter represented. The article discusses each letter and its precise shape.

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Some of the first pictures for alphabetic writing were inspired by the pictures used in Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as the drawing of a human head to serve as a “resh.” This is consistent with the hypothesis that Egypt or the Sinai area was where the alphabet was invented.

How did the alphabet (from Egypt, Sinai and Canaan) spread westward? The Phoenicians (northern Canaanites) traded with the Greeks. Scholars can determine that the Greeks were using this alphabet already by the 9th century BCE. But the Greeks had a problem with our alphabet. There were no vowels. Semitic languages did not need vowels, because the root consonants determined the essential meaning of the word. But the Greek language and the other non-Semitic languages were not structured in this way.

The Greeks found a way of adapting our alphabet to their language. The Greek language did not have all the 22 sounds that our ancient alphabet provided letters for. This freed up some letters to be used as vowels. They used the sign for “aleph” for their vowel “a,” the sign for “heh” for their vowel “e,” the sign for “chet” for their sound “ay,” and the sign for “yud” for their sound “ee.” They also had no use for the guttural sound represented by the “ayin.” This became their letter for the vowel “o.” (The original form of this letter was an “o” shape, like an eyeball.)

From Greece, the alphabet spread to Italy and then to all European languages.

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Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].

P.S. The fact that the Greeks did not understand the meanings of the names of the letters made it easier for them to give those letters new sounds!

P.S. My recent book, “Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy,” is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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