Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Designing the SBL Fonts: History & Challenges

The Hebrew script has some inherent readability problems, resulting from the easily confusable letters with similar forms and the difficulty of achieving rhythmic spacing due to the visual impact of uneven internal white space. These readability problems, particularly those arising from similarity of forms, have long been recognized by Jewish sofer scribes, whose many rules for correct letter formation focus on managing these problems to ensure that holy texts are correctly written, copied and read. However, the traditional sofrut technique of letter differentiation (adding small ornaments, taggin, to certain letters) is not an acceptable solution for a typical Hebrew printing type.

Unfortunately, the style of type used in the Biblia Hebraica Stutgarttensia and its predecessor (BHK) tends to exacerbate the readability problems of the Hebrew script, rather than seeking to improve them. This style of type is usually called Vilna, after the famous edition of the Talmud printed in types of this kind in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) by the Widow and Brothers Romm in the late 1800s. The acceptance of this as the definitive edition of the Talmud resulted in this style of type becoming the norm for religious publications. Its use in BHK and BHS have had a similar impact: for students of the Old Testament, the Vilna types, with all their imperfections, are typically the first exemplar of the Hebrew script.

In designing the new SBL Hebrew typeface, I knew from the start that I would need to move away from the Vilna style in order to improve readability, meet the technical goals of a font suitable for both printed and electronic documents, and achieve more historically authentic letterforms. The Vilna style, despite its association with standard texts of both Jewish and Christian scholarship, is something of an ahistorical oddity. It represents the marriage of the high contrast of the of the Ashkenazi manuscript tradition to the rationalist tendencies of late 18th and 19th century romantic typography (cf. the Latin types of Bodoni, the Didots, and Walbaum). The exaggerated contrast between the thick horizontal strokes and the thin vertical strokes is a feature of the Ashkenazi style, but the Vilna types emphasize this while abandoning other distinctive elements of this style, such as the rounded shin. The Vilna style exists uncomfortably, outside the two major strands of the manuscript tradition: the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic. It is worth noting that, apart from the slightly better Drogulin types of the same period, this style has not been further developed by type designers: its impact was widespread because of the important books it was used to print, but stylistically it was a dead end.

When I sat down to make my first sketches for the SBL Hebrew type, having first mulled the project over for a few weeks, I was already certain that a design in the Sephardic style had the best chance of meeting all the goals that had been raised in discussion with SBL and their partners. The Sephardic style is typically written with a less extreme pen angle than the Ashkenazi, resulting in a reduced contrast between thick and thin strokes, an oblique axis, and hence less fragmentary word shapes. Because the new type has to work well both in print and for onscreen reading, a lower contrast is essential: the high contrast of a design in the Vilna style performs very poorly in low resolution bitmap display. In the Sephardic style, there is generally a greater degree of distinction between potentially similar letters, e.g. samekh/final mem, vav/zayin, bet/kaf, and there is a greater possibility of emphasising distinctive features while remaining within the authentic traditions of the script. For example, an important aspect of the Sephardic style is the diagonal base of tet, samekh and shin, which is utilised in the new SBL type to avoid the potential confusion of samekh and final mem.

As of writing, all the Hebrew letters of the new type have been drawn and digitized, and the first test settings have been made. Inevitably, such tests reveal weaknesses and inconsistencies that need to be corrected. At this stage, the spacing of the letters is preliminary, as are the size and position of the first diacritics (dagesh and the shin dot). These initial settings also reveal, however, the main virtues of the design: clarity, openness and the easy dissimilation of letterforms.

Citation: Tiro Typeworks , John Hudson, " Designing the SBL Fonts: History & Challenges," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2005]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.