Le Bé Hebrew, display and text

Scott-Martin Kosofsky's picture

Dear friends and colleagues,

On Wednesday, February 16th, my first e-book was published on the websites of Tablet Magazine and Nextbook Press. It's a small volume--a chapbook, really--of thirty-five poems by the greatest Jewish poet of Middle Ages, Yehuda Halevi. The poems appear both in Hebrew and in splendid new translations by Hillel Halkin, Halevi's biographer. Though many of you know Nextbook as an imprint of Random House/Schocken Books, it is, in fact, a privately funded non-profit publisher that's been the source of many of the brightest and best books on Jewish subjects in recent years.

This e-book is an auspicious event for me, as it marks the debut of the new Hebrew types I made with Matthew Carter, after originals by Guillaume Le Bé. These are the types (there's a display size [the "gros double canon"], which was rendered by Matthew, and a text size [the "texte"], which was rendered by me) that first appeared in Christophe Plantin's great Polyglot Bible, published between 1569 and 1572. The colophon tells a bit more about them. (Yes, e-books can have colophons, too!) These new fonts were the impetus for this publication, and in their honor, Nextbook also made a video, at my office, of me talking about the types and explaining something about how they were made. I warn you in advance that there some small errors, as the 5-minute video was spliced together from over an hour of talk, so the second clause of a sentence might have been said twenty minutes after the first. They also had a delightful visit with an original copy of Plantin's Bible at the Harvard Divinity School. (Unfortunately, we couldn't get access that day to the Houghton Library's copies, which are from the best part of the run, on the better paper.)

http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/58585/letters-lost-and-found/ The e-book link is below the movie, or:

An advance warning: the movie that's online now doesn't play on iPads or iPhones. They plan to change the format. The e-book is in PDF, so it will play on just about anything.

Types aside, the e-book has an interesting feature: the pages vary in depth to accommodate each of the poems, even the longest ones, on one page. I don't know if this is an altogether new idea--it seemed like an obvious path to me--but I've never seen it done before. I'm curious to know your reactions to it. For one thing, it places the book outside the realm of printing, though that wasn't my agenda. What I intended was to alleviate the disorientation one often feels in e-books, which, regardless of whether the pages are numbered or not, give no sense as to the page before or after--something that, in a paper book, we can grasp very easily. While this might not be a big issue in prose, it certainly is in poetry, especially in poems like Halevi's, which vary dramatically in length. It seems to me that, to get into the rhythm of a poem, one needs to know its extent. We're hoping the whole package, book and videos, will become an iPad app later this year.

One more thing: those of you in or around New York might be interested in a talk I'll be giving for the Type Directors Club, on March 10th, at 6:00 p.m. Cribbing a bit from Oliver Sacks (with whom I had the honor to work last year), I entitled it "Tales from the Borderlands of Typographic Experience." I plan to speak about my work in complex books with on-the-page commentaries and annotations, multiple languages (combining left-to-right with right-to-left), making special types to suit specific purposes, how all these things relate to the future of print and of electronic forms, and their relationship to the printed Talmud and glossed texts of the past. I'll show numerous drafts, breakouts, and final examples from Mahzor Lev Shalem, the forthcoming Reform mahzor (in progress), the new Halevi e-book, and more.

You can find information about the event here: http://tdc.org/ The event is being cosponsored by Nextbook/Tablet Magazine.

With all good wishes and Shabbat shalom,


gohebrew's picture

Raphael Freeman says:
Feb 17, 2011 at 9:06 AM
Interesting decision to shorten the lamed. The lamed was drawn high in many typefaces because it is created by a yod/vav on top which represents God. Therefore since God is always above us the lamed is tall and never bent.

Of course it makes it a nightmare to typeset with a tall lamed since it collides with the nikud on the line before.

Israel says:
Feb 20, 2011 at 8:54 AM

You made a good point about the top of the lamed being a special kind of yud, and representing G-d in kabbalah.

Actually, this is not diminished by shortening the height of the lammed, for the right upper part of the aleph too represents a yud, and G-d in kabballah.

The height of the lamed, like a lamdan or talmid chacham, stands tall and proud. For this reason, the height of the lamed is tall.

Historically, an alternative form of the lamed was invented, so typesetting with a tall lamed was possible. This was achieved by the “curled lamed”, where the ascending segment was wrapped to parallel the upper horizontal stroke.

This was first done successfully with the Romm family version of the classic Vilna font in the Talmud.

This posed a problem for Biblical diacritic text for upper taamim that needed to occupy that space. To address this, the lamed ascender was not bent or curled, but rather truncated. This is what Scott-Martin has done.

quadibloc's picture

Since the ascender on the Lamed was much higher than in many other Hebrew typefaces, shortening it to make the new face more practical to use does not strike me as an odd decision.

What I noticed, though, was that other details of the letter were changed in the outline shown in the video. But then, in general, it is normal for revivals to not necessarily be exact copies.

gohebrew's picture

In creating the revivals for the set of Romm family Vilnas and Rashis, I tried to create exact copies of thee typefaces. This was extremely hard to do, because the original artwork was but a handful or two points high, and smudged and blurred.

In my opinion, it is near impossible for an artist, a creative type designer, to stifle his or her creativity, and to be extremely subservient to the design that he or she is trying to revive.

The purpose in my case was to recreate the ancient Romm Talmud in the very same look-and-feel, so I could claim that ones great-grandfather studied the new revival edition. See www.GoTalmud.com for details.

Scott-Martin was aiming to do this with La Be. He wanted to create a rendition of La Be, very close to the original, so Hebrew poetry, prayer, and Scripture, would feel sacred like the La Be design expresses.

I think that he did a superb job.

William Berkson's picture

Lovely font and book. Thanks and congratulations!

I do wish you also had the original tall lamed, as an open type stylistic option. Might you do that in future versions?

Scott-Martin Kosofsky's picture

Thank you, everyone!

Bill, I did indeed keep the tall lamed, as well as the two variants of the elongated forms--everything that survives in the punches and mats. You'll notice that the largest change I made from the original was the design of the nikkud and taamim, which I believe wouldn't fly with modern readers of Hebrew texts. The task now is to convince a Bible publisher to allow the use of the elongated forms. Since the introduction of mechanical typesetting, readers of Hebrew have suffered with huge word spaces in justified texts, especially those set in short lines. Nowadays there are many readers who are unaware of elongated forms, except in calligraphy.

Israel, did the original cutting of Frank-Ruehl have elongated letters? I don't recall seeing them in the Berthold specimen. Perhaps that was the origin of the problem.

The very tall lamed didn't do much good for Plantin, as you can find many that became bent (they were cast as kerned letters, of course) under the pressure of the form lockup and the press. A long lamed in any font used with diacriticals runs the risk of bumping up against nikkud and taamim in the line above--a serious problem, in my view. I don't think my shortened lamed here is really all that short, anyway. Had I not mentioned it, I wonder if anyone would have remarked on it.

gohebrew's picture

>> Israel, did the original cutting of Frank-Ruehl have elongated letters?
>> I don't recall seeing them in the Berthold specimen.
>> Perhaps that was the origin of the problem.

No, Frank-Ruehl is a relative recent design. Mr. Frank designed it with a short ascender (ie. the lamed) and short descenders (ie. the kuf and the 4 final forms) clearing for practical purposes.

Prior to the lamed and the descenders were very long. This was done both in type and by scribes. The reason is unclear.

According to kabbalistic teaching these extremes did have significance.

When the very popular Vilna type was introduced and heavily used at the beginning of the 19th century, it became necessary to address the impracticality of the height of the lamed. So, a "curly" lamed was introduced in the middle of the century. Later, a truncated version, like you created, was used. At first, the top was simply broke off. After all, it was a long trip from Lithuania to Italy for one letter.

I believe Bodoni's students cut the Romm Vilna letters, as Frederick Goudy attests. I know that you contend that it's a load of bunk, from mouth of a drunken sailor.

Did Goudy know the salute, "l'chayim"?

Scott-Martin Kosofsky's picture

Hi Israel,

I was referring to the horizontally elongated (final) forms--the letters used for justification.

gohebrew's picture

Are you referring to the 8 or 9 wide letters?

Frank-Reuhl did not have it originally. What is its history? Where did it start, or why only these letters? Why not all the letters?

John Hudson's picture

Congratulations on the new ebook. I like the English translations: very direct and powerful as English verse, although I'm not able to judge how well they might reflect the character of the original.

Re. lamed: I have several books on Hebrew palaeography, and one of the things that has often struck me is how very tall the ascenders of lamed often were in manuscript.

gohebrew's picture

Lamed means learned.
Like the lulav onn the holiday of Sukkot is supposed by very tall, the learned Jewish person, not in science or math, is high above the rest. Hence, the lamed is very tall.

When Frank-Reuhl was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, the height of the lamed was shortened in most Hebrew typefaces from then on, for practical issues.

I think the lamed should have three heights: very tall, curled, and shortened or truncated. I regret that we didn't do that long ago and far away.

kids books's picture

thanks for sharing with us.
kids books online

RabbiMeirah's picture

thank you for this beautiful publication. I found your story of developing Le Be Hebrew font inspiring. I also look to the elegant forms of the past to inspire my current work.

Yaronimus-Maximus's picture

dear scott - i really appreciate your work on the le be typeface.
i think it helps developing the future hebrew typography by appreciating the past efforts.
i enjoyed watching the video very much.
kol hakavod!

Yaronimus-Maximus's picture

i agree with gohebrew - fonts with high lamed create big problems in typesetting. nowadays it's simple though, to use the shortened lamed as a default, AND add a hightened lamed glyph using the openype features. i love the fact that you chose to preserve the shape of the lamed, instead of bending (or "curling" like GOhebrew mentioned) the ascender backwards. bent lameds seems quite un-natural..

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