Hebrew Font Issues

I am pretty good at getting my Hebrew fonts to play nice on my computer. I use Mellel for wordprocessing most of the time. Scrivener does a decent job handling the mix of R->L and L->R text that I create. I’ve come to accept (after a great deal of weeping and gnashing followed by much counseling) that unless I am willing to shell out hundreds and hundreds of dollars for the Middle East version of Adobe’s Creative Suite, I will have to use workarounds for Hebrew in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Now, if someone wanted to send me a version of ME CS4 to review…

What I’m perplexed by is the sometimes funky way that Firefox (3.5.5) and OS X (10.6.1) render the SBL Hebrew font vowel pointing. I’ve got the font loaded on my computer. I’ve got my various preferences set correctly (at least I am pretty sure I do). Nevertheless, things like John Hobbins’ blog often do not look the way they should. Here’s a link to a recent post, and here’s what I’m seeing (this is a screen capture):

SBL Hebrew font sample

Last year, when I was first trying to track down the problem, I received this answer to my post on the Fontlab forum (remember, this was posted 5/2008, hence the references to Firefox 3 as beta):

This is a limitation of Firefox 2. The font rendering technology cannot deal with the font, and so it ignores the font (Microsoft Office does the same thing). Firefox 2 will almost assuredly never support fonts like SBL Hebrew. Firefox 3, of which there is a publicly available beta, does support the font, and it will display the page you linked in SBL Hebrew.
Like Safari, however, even Firefox 3 does not position the vowels and diacritics correctly. This has to do with the technologies that OS X uses to render text. The older technology, ATSUI, does not provide support for complex layouts of OpenType fonts like SBL Hebrew, so one is left with the garbled mess that you now see. There is however, a newer technology called Core Text that does the layouts correctly. You can see the advantages of this API, which does support OpenType layout tables, in TextEdit. If you paste (or type) Hebrew text with SBL Hebrew in it, the layout is generally correct. The major drawback of Core Text is that it is very new and only available in Leopard. As such, it will be quite some time before it is widely implemented. There is some discussion about implementing it in Firefox here , but I would guess it will be a while.

The frustrating thing is that Safari WILL display the font and pointing correctly, so it CAN be done! Even on my iPhone (which, to date, cannot handle SBL Hebrew), I can view John Hobbins’ post with vowel pointing correctly lining up.

What about it, Mac users? What are you experiencing? Will Firefox ever support fonts like SBL Hebrew correctly? What is your browser of choice?

PC users: can you see John’s Hebrew texts in SBL Hebrew with the vowels in correct alignment? What browser are you using?

My other source of frustration is was with WordPress. Not the online blog site, but the program itself. I use WordPress for my blog on a private server. Somewhere in the past I could type unicode for Hebrew and Greek and it would display just fine. Then, more recently, when I typed in Hebrew text, the Hebrew showed up fine in the “New Post” creation window, until I saved the draft or published it, then *POOF* the Hebrew would disappear and be replaced with question marks. Some of my commenters have experienced this problem too. I think I have finally found the solution!! I’m posting the instructions here for others who might be having trouble.
Andre Oboler suggested the following:

If your blog displays question marks instead of Hebrew characters, you may need to tweak WordPress a little bit.
In the root directory of your blog installation, there’s a file called wp-config.php.
Open it in a text editor and replace “define(‘DB_CHARSET’, ‘utf8’);” with “define(‘DB_CHARSET’, ”);”. That should do the trick.

And the proof…

‏שִׁיר לַמַּעֲלוֹת אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי׃
עֶזְרִי מֵעִם יְהוָה עֹשֵׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ׃
אַל־יִתֵּן לַמּוֹט רַגְלֶךָ אַל־יָנוּם שֹׁמְרֶךָ׃
הִנֵּה לֹא־יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
יְהוָה שֹׁמְרֶךָ יְהוָה צִלְּךָ עַל־יַד יְמִינֶךָ׃
יוֹמָם הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לֹא־יַכֶּכָּה וְיָרֵחַ בַּלָּיְלָה׃
יְהוָה יִשְׁמָרְךָ מִכָּל־רָע יִשְׁמֹר אֶת־נַפְשֶׁךָ׃
יְהוָה יִשְׁמָר־צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם׃

So now, comments can include Hebrew, Greek, and other “complex” fonts that were previously being stripped out!

13 thoughts on “Hebrew Font Issues

  1. Pingback: links for 2009-11-09 | GFMorris.com

  2. Ze'ev Clementson

    Hi Karyn,

    I find that Safari is a better bet for Hebrew fonts on Macs than Firefox is. A good test page is this one:
    You can change to a different font here:
    and then look again at the test page (since the pages are XML documents and not HTML pages, your Back/Forward browser buttons won’t work, so you’ll have to have them in separate tabs or use the Back button on the XML pages).

    Unfortunately, even the latest version of Safari on the Mac doesn’t display Hebrew fonts (particularly cantillation marks) as well as IE on Windows. I have a write-up on my blog here:

    As a registered Apple developer, I submitted a bug report to Apple about Hebrew font support back in April of this year. The bug report is still open and I have not been notified by Apple that any work has been done on this (despite a follow-up by me). It would be useful if others could also contact Apple and ask for the Hebrew font support to be fixed/improved. If you want to mention my bug report (so that the technical support person who takes the call can perhaps bump it up in priority), the Apple Problem ID is 6755867.

    – Ze’ev

  3. Tomer Cohen

    I don’t think that removing the db character set definition from WordPress should do anything good other than using the default encoding from your database, which may cause some problems if you’ll ever migrate your website to another server.

    I know that WordPress can deal well with Hebrew with it default installation, even when you don’t use the Hebrew locale on it.

  4. Karyn Post author

    Hi Tomer. Thanks for stopping by.

    You said, “I know that WordPress can deal well with Hebrew with it default installation, even when you don’t use the Hebrew locale on it.” This was not true in my case. Prior to doing the change indicated in the post, when I tried to use Hebrew or when commenters tried to insert a Hebrew word into a comment, WordPress would replace the text with question marks. After changing that one piece of code as mentioned above, I am able to include Hebrew with no problem. You are right that there are a few issues with previous posts that must be hand-fixed (because WordPress was thinking that UTF-8 encoding was happening and stored special characters in the database incorrectly). I’m happy to go back and change those issues on a case-by-case situation so that the Hebrew encoding works properly now.

  5. Andrew Vogel

    I use Google Chrome on Windows Vista and it displays it correctly. Besides that advance, you may find it having other significant advantages over Firefox and IE :). Notably it is faster at rendering pages, faster running JavaScript, runs tabs in separate processes (more stable), and sandboxes all code (more secure).

  6. andre

    Hi Karyn, great blog. I’m trying to figure out how to add vowels using the Ezra font on Mac with Hebrew Qwerty keyboard input. Would you mind sending some pointers? I haven’t found anything online.. my email is

    areis74 at gmail.com


  7. Karyn Post author

    Hi Andre,

    Make sure that you have the Unicode version of the Ezra font. It is known as Ezra SIL.
    Go here for all the documentation and downloads for that font.

    Since Ezra SIL is a unicode font, the mapping is the same as any other Hebrew unicode font. So, if you use the Hebrew Qwerty keyboard, the vowels and letters are all in the same place. What you want to find is a keyboard map for Hebrew Qwerty so you know which keys to use on your English keyboard to get the Hebrew. You can find read a little about that here.

    The OBSOLETE version of Ezra is SIL Ezra. This is a “legacy” font (non-Unicode), and you can read about it here.


  8. Jack

    I’ve been experiencing the same sorts of problems in OSX. Evidently MacOS’s text layout engine doesn’t natively support more complex typesetting features (as you’ve noted). Mellel and others use their own layout engine, that’s why they work so well. You’ll notice that SOME more advanced features work in things like text-edit (vowels line up, but don’t react to contextual clues, etc.), but Firefox (and for me, safari) still don’t display correctly (though I am still running Leopard, I can’t speak to 10.6).

    I have been pulling my hair out for the last two years trying to come up with a way to get vowels to display properly in anything other than Mellel. I would REALLY appreciate it if Apple would incorporate this into one of their updates. Until then, any Hebrew that I write with vowels is being done in Mellel.

  9. Gary Levine

    Just a question regarding Hebrew fonts for the MAC.
    I have assembled hundreds of Hebrew fonts for Windows over the years. Can some/all/any of them be transferred to use on my MAC. If not, where are good sources — free or paid — for Hebrew fonts for the MAC?

  10. ani

    I am trying to install Hebrew Qwerty fonts in my lap top, Windows 7. Since the option of ASDF or QWERTY doesn’t exist I tried installing a software I had for Windows XP, but it doesn’t work. How else can I install it? Thank you!

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