Dead Sea Scrolls decoder remembered as grande dame of Semitic paleography
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AppreciationYardeni saw things that others cannot see

Dead Sea Scrolls decoder remembered as grande dame of Semitic paleography

Ada Yardeni, who died this month at 81, combined practical knowledge of calligraphy with scholarly insights on the development of Hebrew to become a world-renowned forgery expert

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Expert paleographer Ada Yardeni lecturing at Jerusalem's Yad Ben Zvi Institute, August 2016. (Matthew Morgenstern)
Expert paleographer Ada Yardeni lecturing at Jerusalem's Yad Ben Zvi Institute, August 2016. (Matthew Morgenstern)

The woman who intimately knew the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls, foremost paleographer Dr. Ada Yardeni, died in Jerusalem on June 29, 2018, following a brief battle against pancreatic cancer.

“Dr. Ada Yardeni was one of the greatest researchers in Semitic paleography and epigraphy, and her decipherment and illumination of the Dead Sea scrolls (as well as of many other texts) are fundamental and enduring,” wrote Hebrew University Bible and Talmud Prof. Menahem Kister in announcing Yardeni’s death to faculty this week.

Widowed young, Yardeni is survived by two daughters and an impressively vast corpus of popular and academic work. Yardeni has author credit for 59 articles and nine books, and calligraphed several children’s books in the 1960s. Among her numerous publications, the best known is 1991’s “The Book of Hebrew Script,” a definitive introduction to the origin and evolution of the Hebrew Script.

A new book on the history and development of the Hebrew alphabet will be published posthumously in the coming months by Israeli publishing house Carta, said a colleague, Hebrew University Classics Prof. Hannah M. Cotton-Paltiel.

Trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, early in her career she worked as a graphic designer. This foundation in the arts paved the way for her later scholarly work as a paleographer of ancient Semitic scripts. She deciphered some of the most important ancient primary sources found in Israel. Among her most well-known texts are the Ketef Hinnom Priestly Benediction (the earliest material evidence for any part of the Hebrew Bible), as well as extensive work on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Cover of ‘The Book of Hebrew Script’ by Dr. Ada Yardeni. (courtesy)

Never shy in stating her opinion, Yardeni was also involved in the validation of many of the more contentious ancient artifacts to surface in the past several decades. After being drafted by Biblical Archaeology Review founding editor Hershel Shanks, she authenticated the Israel Museum’s controversial 1.5-inch ivory pomegranate, possibly the only artifact from Solomon’s Temple, and the James Ossuary, considered by some as historical evidence of Jesus. Both were at the center of heated legal battles.

Leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Prof. Emanuel Tov worked closely with Yardeni for almost 40 years. Up until recently, as editor of several critical editions publicizing scholarship on the scrolls, Tov said he looked to Yardeni to authenticate and decipher scrolls’ inscriptions for his work.

Yardeni was “definitely one of the three best paleographers of the Dead Sea Scrolls and maybe one of the best Hebrew paleographers for all [historical] periods,” said Tov this week.

Tov told The Times of Israel that Yardeni’s background in graphic arts gave her a decided advantage in reading ancient scripts.

“She was the only one who combined the practical knowledge of a calligraphist with the scholarly insights of the knowledge of the development of the writing in all the various Hebrew scripts,” he said. “She was the only one who really knew exactly how the movement and the strokes of the scripts went, which was a tremendous benefit in analyzing the scripts and helping others in analyzing their scrolls.”

A young Ada Yardeni (courtesy)

Personal friend Cotton-Paltiel told The Times of Israel that unlike many of today’s scholars, Yardeni worked directly from primary sources.

Most scholars, she said, develop theories based on documents in which texts are deciphered by others. “Ada mainly worked on the primary documents herself and gave us the material to work on.”

Prof. Esther Chazon, director of the Hebrew University’s The Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, echoed Cotton-Paltiel and told The Times of Israel that Yardeni “was a superb paleographer who generously gave of her time and expertise with fellow colleagues to advance scholarship. She leaves a rich legacy, and shall be sorely missed.”

Life and legacy

Yardeni was born July 29, 1937, the daughter of a secular German-born pianist mother, Isla Goldman, and a religious scholar of early Hebrew liturgical poetry, Dr. Menachem Zulay, born in Galicia. Her father died suddenly when Yardeni was 17, but she lived off and on with her mother until Isla’s death in her late 90s.

Yardeni was raised in the Rehavia neighborhood, in a house of scholarship and art. Herself a multimedia visual artist, friends say that Yardeni’s Jerusalem home’s walls were bursting with her colorful paintings.

“In her flat, decorated with her own paintings, there was not one blank space left, and there were probably more pictures under beds and in storage,” said friend Cotton-Paltiel.

A template for the ‘Ada’ Hebrew font developed by Dr. Ada Yardeni. (Bezalel catalogue)

In 1960, Yardeni received a Diploma of Graphic Arts from Bezalel. Subsequently, Yardeni worked with Eliyahu Koren of Koren publishers on a new edition of the Hebrew Bible. There, she said in a 2017 interview in an online Hebrew-language design and typography blog, that under Koren’s strict tutelage she had an apprenticeship of sorts in fonts and letter-making.

It is during the 1960s that Yardeni began to design her own Hebrew font, which she eponymously named “Ada.” Eventually, she created others, which she called “Academia,” “Dafna” and “Hagit,” after her two daughters, and “Raphael” after a grandson.

Expert paleographer Ada Yardeni with daughters Dafna and Hagit, after whom she named Hebrew fonts. (Matthew Morgenstern)

By 1976, Yardeni completed a BA in Hebrew language from the Hebrew University. An MA and PhD in Semitic Languages and Palaeography followed in 1983 and 1991.

As her career and reputation blossomed, she was increasingly called upon to authenticate sometimes questionable objects. Two were connected with an accused and acquitted forger, antiquities dealer Oded Golan: the Jehoash Tablet and the James Ossuary.

The Jehoash tablet, purportedly discovered near the Temple Mount, recounts a Temple renovation by a king of Jerusalem in the 9th century BCE. The 1st century limestone ossuary bears the Aramaic inscription Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”).

The 'James ossuary,' one of the pieces at the center of Golan's forgery trial, had been hailed by some scholars as the first physical proof for the existence of Jesus (photo credit: AP Photo/Biblical Archaeology Review)
The ‘James ossuary,’ one of the pieces at the center of Golan’s forgery trial, had been hailed by some scholars as the first physical proof for the existence of Jesus (photo credit: AP Photo/Biblical Archaeology Review)

In a June 2018 Biblical Archaeology Review article, Yardeni wrote, “I never doubted the authenticity of the so-called James Ossuary, whereas the strange handling concerning the Jehoash Tablet made me suspicious even before I saw it. Even today, I am not sure of its authenticity…”

Friend Cotton-Paltiel said Yardeni was drivenby the need to make the truth known when she gave her expert opinions.

“What she knew, she knew,” said Cotton-Paltiel. “In a case of a dispute about biblical objects, she was quite able to say, ‘I don’t know.’ She was reluctant to indulge in speculations or seek fame and glory.”

The Jehoash tablet was one of the famous artifacts Oded Golan was accused, and acquitted, of forging. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Jehoash tablet was one of the famous artifacts Oded Golan was accused, and acquitted, of forging. (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Indeed, much of her career was spent in countless hours accurately drawing inscriptions and deciphering them. From a trove of some 2,000 ancient ostracon to crumbling Dead Sea Scrolls, it was difficult, often thankless, work.

“For 15 years, I worked on deciphering the handwriting and letters of the many documents written in fluent handwriting, among them the Bar-Kochba Letters and documents from the Babatha Archive. I copied the texts from the originals and pored over it letter by letter, and I traced the structure and form. In that time, there were no machines, computers or Photoshop like today, which allow you to enlarge the letters,” said Yardeni in a 2017 interview for a Hebrew-language design and typography online magazine.

It was exactly this willingness to work harder than others that saw Yardeni garner her expertise.

“Her dealing with the mundane, and the amount of texts she processed, allowed her to see things that others cannot see. No one has been able to obtain that level of sophistication… She edited hundreds and hundreds of documents in Hebrew and Aramaic,” said Prof. Matthew Morgenstern, head of the Department of Hebrew Language and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University.

Morgenstern recalled working with Yardeni when he was a young masters student in the 1990s. Then, and today, he sensed that Yardeni felt her talent was often abused , mostly by male scholars who took credit for her insights.

Prof. Matthew Morgenstern, head of the Department of Hebrew Language and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University. (Hodayah Sundick-Morgenstern)

“Ada had this remarkable talent, but sometimes seemed frustrated at the fact that other people exploited it,” said Morgenstern.

Others saw her absence from the limelight as generosity to other academics.

“It was selfless work,” said Cotton-Paltiel, explaining that in academia, normally the one who publish theories based on the primary material gets the credit. “But their work would be impossible without people like Ada.”

Likewise, although a world-renowned expert, Yardeni was not on the faculty of any one institution.

“She liked the idea of being an independent scholar and doing what she wanted. She was not after money or recognition — the latter came in time,” said Cotton-Paltiel. “She was a free scholar, which is so rare in our times.”

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