A quick lesson in Hebrew spelling

It has been determined by McKay, Bar-Natan, Bar-Hillel and Kalai that the flexibility of Hebrew spelling is one of the most likely factors behind the success of the Great Rabbis Experiment published by Witztum, Rips and Rosenberg (WRR).

It is difficult for non-Hebrew speakers to appreciate the full extent of this phenomenon, so a recent coincidental observation of Professor Bar-Natan may help.

One of the famous rabbis used by WRR was Rabbi Haim Abulafia (1660-1744).  There is a synagogue of Rabbi Abulafia in Tiberias.  Here are some photographs of the side of the building and its main entrance.

Abulafia synagogue, Tiberias

The extraordinary thing about this image is that four different spellings of the name "Abulafia" can be seen:

Which of those spellings is correct?  The answer is "all of them".  It is simply a property of the Hebrew language that multiple legal variations abound.

Which of those spellings did WRR use?

Given the wide range of possible spellings to choose from, it is even more instructive to see which of them was used by WRR in their experiment.  Here it is:
In other words, they used none of the above spellings but a completely different one!

WRR's explanation is as follows: they did not choose the spelling themselves, but asked an expert Professor Shlomo Havlin to choose for them.  Havlin later explained his choice as the "original Arabic form of the name".  The only comment we will make on that is to note that Havlin did not see the need to avoid the Hebrew spellings in his own professional writings.  Why just here?

Another puzzle

The large grey sign contains a very brief biography of Rabbi Abulafia.  Amongst other things, it states that he died on the 7th of Nissan.  Turning to WRR's data again, we find the 6th of Nissan.  We don't know if there is any good historical evidence for the 7th, but the lesson here is that even the theoretically objective parts of WRR's data can sometimes be questioned.

Final remarks

None of the spelling variations above make any difference to WRR's experiment. Our purpose was merely to illustrate the issue of spelling flexibility in an entertaining fashion. Such spelling issues were of prime importance in the case of some of the other rabbis, however.

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Creator: Brendan McKay, bdm@cs.anu.edu.au.