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Hebrew Alphabet

Letters of Alefbet
Vowels and Points
Styles of Writing
Transliteration
Numerical Values

Hebrew Alphabet

Level: Basic

The Hebrew and Yiddish languages use a different alphabet than English. The picture below illustrates the Hebrew alphabet, in Hebrew alphabetical order. Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English, so Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Tav is the last. The Hebrew alphabet is often called the "alefbet," because of its first two letters.

Letters of the Alefbet

Hebrew Alefbet

If you are familiar with Greek, you will no doubt notice substantial similarities in letter names and in the order of the alphabet.

The "Kh" and the "Ch" are pronounced as in German or Scottish, a throat clearing noise, not as the "ch" in "chair."

Note that there are two versions of some letters. Kaf, Mem, Nun, Pe and Tzade all are written differently when they appear at the end of a word than when they appear in the beginning or middle of the word. The version used at the end of a word is referred to as Final Kaf, Final Mem, etc. The version of the letter on the left is the final version. In all cases except Final Mem, the final version has a long tail.

Vowels and Points

Like most early Semitic alphabetic writing systems, the alefbet has no vowels. People who are fluent in the language do not need vowels to read Hebrew, and most things written in Hebrew in Israel are written without vowels. However, the rabbis realized the need for aids to pronunciation, so they developed a system of dots and dashes known as points. These dots and dashes are written above or below the letter, in ways that do not alter the spacing of the line. Text containing these markings is referred to as "pointed" text. Below is an example of pointed text. For emphasis, I have drawn the points in the illustration in blue and somewhat larger than they would ordinarily be written.
The line of text at right would be pronounced (in Sephardic pronunciation, which what most people today use): V'ahavta l'rayahkhah kamokha. (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18). Pointed Text

Note that some Hebrew letters have two pronunciations. Bet, Kaf, and Pe have a "hard" sound (the first sound) and a "soft" sound (the second sound). In pointed texts, these letters have dots in the center when they are to be pronounced with the hard sound. See the example of pointed text above. In Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation used by many Orthodox Jews and by older Jews), Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an "s" when it does not have a dot. Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a "v," is sometimes a vowel pronounced "oo" or "oh." When it is pronounced "oo", pointed texts have a dot in the middle. When it is pronounced "oh", pointed texts have a dot on top. See the example of pointed text above. Shin is pronounced "sh" when it has a dot over the right branch and "s" when it has a dot over the left branch. Other letters do not change pronunciation.

Styles of Writing

The style of writing illustrated above is the one most commonly seen in Hebrew books. It is referred to as block print or sometimes Assyrian text.

For sacred documents, such as torah scrolls or the scrolls inside tefillin and mezuzot, there is a special writing style with "crowns" (crows-foot-like marks coming up from the upper points) on many of the letters. This style of writing is known as STA"M (an abbreviation for "Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot," which is where you will see that style of writing. For more information about the STA"M alphabet, including illustrations and relevant rules, see Hebrew Alphabet used in writing STA"M.

Modern ScriptThere is another style used for handwriting, in much the same way that cursive is used for the Roman (English) alphabet. This modern script style is illustrated at right.

Rashi ScriptAnother style is used in certain texts to distinguish the body of the text from commentary upon the text. This style is known as Rashi Script, in honor of Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Torah and the Talmud. The alefbet at left is an example of Rashi Script

Transliteration

The process of writing Hebrew words in the Roman (English) alphabet is known as transliteration. Transliteration is more an art than a science, and opinions on the correct way to transliterate words vary widely. This is why the Jewish festival of lights (in Hebrew, Chet-Nun-Kaf-He) is spelled Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanuka, and many other interesting ways. Each spelling has a legitimate phonetic and orthographic basis; none is right or wrong.

Numerical Values

Each letter in the alefbet has a numerical value. These values can be used to write numbers, as the Romans used some of their letters (I, V, X, L, C, M) to represent numbers. Alef through Yod have the values 1 through 10. Yod through Qof have the values 10 through 100, counting by 10s. Qof through Tav have the values 100 through 400, counting by 100s. Final letters have the same value as their non-final counterparts. The number 11 would be rendered Yod-Alef, the number 12 would be Yod-Bet, the number 21 would be Kaf-Alef, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Resh-He) has the numerical value 611, etc. The only significant oddity in this pattern is the number 15, which if rendered as 10+5 would be a name of G-d, so it is normally written Tet-Vav (9+6).

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is entirely devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

I recently received an email pointing out that the numerical value of Vav (often transliterated as W) is 6, and therefore WWW has the numerical value of 666! It's an amusing notion, but Hebrew numbers just don't work that way. The numerical value of Vav-Vav-Vav in Hebrew would be 6+6+6=18, so WWW is equivalent to life! (It is also worth noting that the significance of the number 666 is a part of Christian numerology, and has no basis that I know of in Jewish thought).


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