GH B Vilna - Different Incarnations

gohebrew's picture

The classic Hebrew Typeface in the Jewish world for over a thousand years became known as the Vilna typeface. The most popular Vilna typeface was rhat of the Romm family printing press. Legend has it that Mr. Romm senior traveled to Italy, and commissioned the students of Bodoni to cut ancient drawings of this special letter form into the popular Hebrew typefaces, known as Vilna Romm.

Below are examples of Vilna typefaces, including Vilna Romm.

John Hudson's picture

for over a thousand years

You're overestimating quite a bit! Even presuming that you are referring to the style of writing and not to a 'typeface' per se, this is a relatively late and specifically Ashkenazi style. It's known as the Vilna style because of its association with the famous edition of the Talmud printed at Vilnius in the 1870s, which in Jewish historical terms is only yesterday.

piccic's picture

A belated "Merry Christmas" to you both, Scott and John! :-)

gohebrew's picture

Israel: for over a thousand years

John: You're overestimating quite a bit!


The classic style of writing used by Ashkenazic typesetters & printers, and earlier by scribes, is really very old. It may actually have Sephardic origins!

The Talmud discusses a 'square letter form' used for handwritten texts distributed in scroll form. In Rochester, NY I saw first hand manuscripts that featured the 'square letter form', which was very similar to the classic Vilna typeface. Also, we see in the Dead Sea Scrolls housed in Jerusalem and by the US Army, a very different square letter form was used by the Dead Sea Scroll scribes for the non-Biblical content, albeit not similar to the classic Vilna style.

This was at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), which houses one of the largest collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world. I believe Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in Manhattan, have larger collections. The largest is in Paris.

Frederick Goudy writes in one of his many books that the father of the Romm family, later the famous publishers of the classic and most popular version of the Talmud in Vilna, took ancient manuscripts (which he purchased at very great expense) to the students of Bodoni in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century. Hence, we see that the classic Vilna type design existed much before metal typefaces.

If these manuscripts were similar to what the Talmud describes as a 'square letter form', then over 1,000 year is not an exaggeration, but rather an understatement (for the content of the Talmud is over 2,000 years old - see - "The Talmud ... (c. 500 CE), [is] an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible".

There is an excellent index to the Soncino Talmud, published to this day by Judaica Press and You can look it up there.

John Hudson's picture

My understanding is that what the Talmud refers to as 'square letters' is a generic term for the Aramaic alphabet adopted by the Jews during the Babylonian exile, and is a term used to distinguish this script from the earlier Canaanite style that Solomon Birnbaum called Palaeo-Hebrew.

The style of the Vilna types are exactly what one would expect the students of Bodoni to produce in the early 19th Century, regardless of what one gave them as a model. They clearly display the characteristic stroke modulation patterns of a steel split nib pen, a writing implement that did not exist 1,000 years ago. These modulation patterns are the hallmark of all Bodoni's types regardless of script; one sees the same thing in his Greek, his Cyrillic, etc.. I have numerous books on mediaeval Hebrew palaeography, and there is nothing in them that resembles the characteristics of the Vilna style in this respect. The basic structure of the Hebrew letter shapes were certainly well established in the Middle Ages, but the particular character of the Vilna style must be seen as a 19th Century innovation based on contemporary European writing tools and practices.

gohebrew's picture

This is a crude example that I found of a Vilna-like style that was hand scribed.

The above is like the Stam font, and below is a Vilna-like design.

Yaronimus-Maximus's picture

Hi Israel, this is quite fascinating.
i'm writing an essay which deals amongst other, with the Drugulin (which is based on:) & the Vilna types.
what is the source of that legend you mentioned about Romm Senior?
can you please attach the original type sample of the Vilna Letters? i would be thankful, it would help me alot.

gohebrew's picture

The story is recorded in a book by Frederik Goudy. I read it in the early 90s, but no longer recall the title. I likely borrowed it from the RIT type library. The type sample of the Vilna Letters is found above in GH B Vilna-Romm Regular.

Yaronimus-Maximus's picture

fascinating. perhaps one day i will find this book.

david h's picture



Yaronimus-Maximus's picture

many thanks!

gohebrew's picture

johan123, I think a clone of Vilna-Romm was removed. Check.

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