Cursive Hebrew (Hebrew: כתב רהוט, ktav rahut, lit. “flowing writing”) is a style of Hebrew hand writing that is used for writing Modern Hebrew, especially for everyday writing in Israel. This is because it is faster to write than the traditional Hebrew script. The exact time of origin of the cursive script is unknown but the modern script is based most upon Ashkenazi (Central European) Hebrew cursive.
The brief inscriptions daubed in red ink upon the walls of the catacombs of Venosa are probably the oldest examples of cursive script. Still longer texts in a cursive alphabet are furnished by the clay bowls found in Babylonia and bearing exorcisms against magical influences and evil spirits. These bowls date from the seventh or eighth century, and some of the letters are written in a form that is very antiquated (Figure 3, column 1). Somewhat less of a cursive nature is the manuscript, which dates from the eighth century. Columns 2-14 exhibit cursive scripts of various countries and centuries. The differences visible in the square alphabets are much more apparent. For instance, the Sephardic rounds off still more, and, as in Arabic, there is a tendency to run the lower lines to the left, whereas the Ashkenazic script appears cramped and disjointed. Instead of the little ornaments at the upper ends of the stems, in the letters a more or less weak flourish of the line appears. For the rest the cursive of the Codices remains fairly true to the square text. Documents of a private nature were certainly written in a much more running hand, as the sample from one of the oldest Arabic letters written with Hebrew letters (possibly the tenth century) clearly shows in the papyrus, in "Führer durch die Ausstellung," Table XIX., Vienna, 1894, (compare Figure 3, column 4). But since the preservation of such letters were not held to be of importance, material of this nature from the earlier times is very scarce, and as a consequence the development of the script is very hard to follow. The last two columns of Figure 3 exhibit the German cursive script of a later date. The next to the last is taken from a manuscript of Elias Levita. The accompanying specimen presents Sephardic script. In this flowing cursive alphabet the ligatures appear more often. They occur especially in letters which have a sharp turn to the left (ג, ז, כ, נ, צ, ח), and above all in נ, whose great open bow offers ample space for another letter (see Figure 2).
The following are the successive stages in the development of each letter: Aleph is separated into two parts, the first being written as , and the perpendicular stroke placed at the left . By the turn of the 20th century, German cursive had these two elements separated, thus ׀c, and the acute angle was rounded. It received also an abbreviated form connected with the favorite old ligature , and it is to this ligature of Aleph and Lamed that the contracted Oriental Aleph owes its origin (Figure 3, column 7). In writing Bet, the lower part necessitated an interruption, and to overcome this obstacle it was made , and, with the total omission of the whole lower line, . In Gimel, the left-hand stroke is lengthened more and more. Dalet had its stroke put on obliquely to distinguish it from Resh; however, since in rapid writing it easily assumed a form similar in appearance to ר, ד in analogy with ב was later changed to . A transformation very similar to this took place in the cases of final Kaph and of ḳ;oph (see columns 2, 5, 11, 14), except that ḳ;oph opened out a trifle more than Kaph. The lower part of Zayin was bent sharply to the right and received a little hook at the bottom. The left-hand stroke of Ṭet was lengthened. Lamed gradually lost its semicircle until (as in both the Nabatæan-Arabic and Syriacsystems) by the turn of the 20th century, it became a simple stroke, which was bent sharply toward the right. In the modern script today the lamed has regained its semicircle. Final Mem branches out at the bottom, and in its latest stage is drawn out either to the left or straight down. In Samek the same development also took place, but it afterward became again a simple circle. In order to write 'Ayin without removing the pen from the surface, its two strokes were joined with a curl. The two Pe's spread out in a marked flourish. As to Ẓade the right-hand head is made longer, at first only to a small degree, but later on to a considerable extent. In the beginning Shin develops similarly to the same letter in the Nabatæan, but afterward the central stroke is lengthened upward, like the right arm of Ẓade, and finally it is joined with the left stroke, and the first stroke is left off altogether. The letters ה, ד, ח, ן, נ, ר, ת, have undergone little modification: they have been rounded out and simplified by the omission of the heads.
This table shows the development of Hebrew cursive writing from examples of Hebrew from Eastern forms including Babylonian (7th century), Egypt (12th century), Constantinople (1506), 10th century, Spanish (1480), Spanish (10th century), Provençal (10th century), Italian (10th century), and examples of Hebrew from Western forms including Greek (1375), Italian (1451), Italian (10th century), German (10th century), and German (Ashkenazi) (1900). This table was published from 1901–1906, showing the latest German (Ashkenazi) cursive forms of Hebrew (1900), which bears the most similarity to the modern Hebrew cursive script (see below). For references in the "History" section above to column numbers, the column number for this table are at the bottom of it, numbered 1 through 14.
Figure 3: "Cursive Writing" (courtesy Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906).
The modern script is most directly based on the German and Polish (Ashkenazi) Hebrew of the late 19th and early 20th century. From the historic table above of a sample of the German (Ashkenazi) form found in 1900, the most obvious differences are with Bet, Gimmel, Kuf, and Final tsadi. Kuf looks directly like previous German (Ashkenazi) forms, and Final tsadi has one less loop (the two-loop form is used by some for final peh). The letter Chet is also never found to be triangular in the modern script.
The forms shown in the table below are somewhat different compared to the ones in the image at the top of this article, which shows a more standard forming of the letters.
Note: Final forms are to the left of the initial and medial forms.