The Meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet
— And a Survey per Hebrew Letter —
The Hebrew alphabet is not simply a collection of abstract linguistic elements, like the English alphabet is. All Hebrew letters have names and identities, and in post-Biblical times were even rendered numerical value. All letters of the Hebrew alphabet alternate with some others during the history of the language, but as we look at the meaning of personal names in the Bible, we usually don't see more than waws turning into yods and vice versa, or hes and alephs do the same, and occasionally shins and sameks. Some letters have a different, longer (final) form when they occur at the end of a word.
The formation of the proto-Canaanite alphabet (around Abraham's time; the 19th century BC) was an incredible leap in understanding language. Before the alphabet, words or phrases were represented wholly, as little pictures, and the idea that all the many words consisted of a minute group of smaller 'atoms' was brilliant. The Hebrew alphabet is among the oldest in the world, and it was either derived of, or equal to the original Phoenician alphabet (even the word alphabet comes from the first two Hebrew letters: aleph and beth). In his wonderful book In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel Hoffman Ph.D. even states that "...most of the reading and writing that goes on in the world today can be traced back to the Hebrews' experiment with vowels."
The Hebrew Alphabet and the Power of the Vowels
The Hebrews were the first to incorporate vowels in their written text (not to be confused with the vowel pointing of the medieval Masoretes), and by doing this the previously esoteric art of writing and reading became available to the masses. The seemingly casual command to 'write' something on doors or foreheads included the invention of a writing system that could be learned by everybody. A very big deal, and resulting in the most powerful tool of data preservation up to this common age. Hebrew theology is by far the most influential ever, and this is in part due to the Hebrew invention of vowel notation. This power (this theology) contrasted others by use of the vowel notation, using symbols that were already used and until then only represented consonants: the letters ו (waw), י (yod) and ה (heh), and to give an example: the word דוד is either the word dod, meaning beloved (and the ו is a vowel), or it is the word dud, meaning jar (and the ו is again a vowel), or it is the word dawid, which is the name David (and the ו is a consonant).
These letters became markers for both the Hebrew identity and the Hebrew religion, including the various names for God. One of these names is the famous Tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH) which actually exists only of vowels, and is utterly exceptional in many ways, including the fact that it can not be pronounced.
The word אל (El) was the name of the prominent Canaanite god, whose name was either derived of or became the common word for god in general. The plural of this word is אלים; elim, gods. With the addition of the letter ה, creating the word אלהים, the Hebrews not only stated essential monotheism (by naming a single God after the plural word "gods") but also marked their God as theirs: Elohim is the singular pantheon of the vowel-people.
Since the formation of the alphabet is such a feat and also because in those days nothing at all was without meaning, many people expect that the arrangement of the letters have meaning. Why was the aleph made the first letter? Why beth second? These are intriguing questions and (try a Google search for "Hebrew alphabet meaning") many project the most complicated (if not far-fetched) spiritual journeys upon the alphabet. But before such an attempt is made, the following should be taken into consideration:
Hold these thoughts (before reading meaning in the Hebrew Alphabet)
- The alphabet was compiled long before the Torah was written. The monotheistic idea had hardly surfaced (Abraham was a monotheist but no mark on history remains), and monotheistic theology did not exist.
- Although the Bible recognizes the Hebrew alphabet (see psalm 119), there is no Biblical indication that the formation of the alphabet was inspired by God, or that any possible meaning is truthful. The fact that the alphabet is used in the Bible does not per definition mean that it co-holds the status of infallibility (see our article on 2 Timothy 3:16).
- It is very well possible that the alphabet grew slowly; that letters really are nothing but abstract notations that received their name afterwards because they resembled familiar items.
- It is evenly well possible that the letters existed but without an arrangement. They may very well have existed like marbles in a bag.
- Perhaps the existence of the various letters was agreed upon long before any formal order. There may even have been more than one order commonly accepted, and only one form survived. The Book of Lamentations, for instance, features a few acrostic poems that follow more than one order of letters.
- Perhaps the alphabet is not simply an abstract order, but an already spoken word that was discovered to be the mother of all words; a magic word that held all letters and only once. Perhaps it's a name. Perhaps an incantation...
- We simply don't know why the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were arranged like this. Any meaning that is 'found' is conjecture and says more about the enthusiasm of the explorer than about the alphabet.
- God is typically not in the habit of hiding information. The alphabet is like a painter's pallet and any arrangement of paints before they are arranged into a painting may be cute to know but is fully irrelevant to the actual painting. The saying 'to worship the ground someone walks on' may indicate veneration in English, it certainly does not in the Biblical arena.
The Bible is clear about it: any information you need is openly addressed in the narrative surface of the Bible. Any phenomenon that emerges at manipulating the letters or words beyond their function in the story, is either contrary to the narrative and surely hasn't been put there by God, or it is conform the narrative and you could have learned it from simply reading Scriptures at much less trouble. In a text as large as the Bible anything can be found if one wants it bad enough, especially if there are no limitations in methods and mechanisms used. 'Finding' something in the Bible is no proof that it actually exists, especially within the Bible's intended message (read our article on Truth and Patterns). And if you're wondering how the perfect Word of God may or may not contain subliminal information, you may want to have a look at Matthew 13:24-30.
The Hebrew Alphabet per Character
|Letter||Name||Meaning Post-Biblical Numerical Value|
|א||Aleph||אלף||The root אלף ('alap) is rare and means to learn or teach but perhaps not in a very good way (Proverbs 22:25, Job 15:5, 33:33, 35:11). The identical word אלף ('alep) means to produce thousands (Psalm 144:13 only). Derivation אלף means oxen (the connection lies perhaps in guidance or to team up). Many suggest that the letter reminds of the head of an ox.||1|
|ב||Beth||בית||The word בית (bayit) means house in the sense of a building, but also household; wife and children. This word also serves to mean House Of The Lord, or Temple. As preposition the letter means 'in'. As such it is the first letter of the Bible. The first word of the Bible comes from the name of the 20th letter: rosh.||2|
|ג||Gimel||גמל||The verb גמל (gamal) means to deal, or recompense in the sense of benefitting from. Derivation גמל (gamal) means camel. It is said that the letter reminds of a camel's neck.||3|
|ד||Daleth||דלת||From root דלה (dala), draw (water). The word דלת (delet) specifically denotes a swinging door of a building. Since doors most commonly opened inward, this 'thing-you-draw' is named after a going out of a house, or letting someone else in.|
Other derivations are: דל (dal), door; דלה (dala), door; דלי (dali), bucket; דליות (daliyot), branch, bough.
Because a door in Bible times hinged in the upper corner, it is said that the letter daleth reminds of that.
|The spelling and thus the meaning of this word is uncertain. Klein spells הא (he), meaning lo! behold! Fuerst holds to הי, and thinks it's a part of the name for heth; letter 8.|
As prefix this letter serves as the definite particle ה (he), meaning "the" but which is used far less than our word the, and specifically when an emphasis or reference to a previous statement is made.
|ו||Waw||וו||The word וו (waw) means hook or peg, and is strictly reserved for the hooks/ pegs that kept the curtains of the tabernacle in place. It is said that the shape of the letter ו (waw) reminds of a hook or peg.||6|
|ז||Zayin||זין||Meaning debated. The word זין does not occur in Scriptures. Klein suggests that the form of the zayin represents a hand weapon, and explains that zyn means arm, ornament, to arm, to adorn (no references to Scriptures). Fuerst goes after the assumed root זוז (zwz) of the verb זיז (ziz), moving things (like animals) and מזוזה (mezuza), Mezuzah or doorpost. The identical root זוז (zwz) yields זיז (ziz), meaning abundance, fullness.|
Another word of interest is זון (zun), to feed.
|ח||Heth||חית||Meaning again unknown. According to Fuerst it means fence in, destroy. Fuerst also thinks it has to do with a fence, but it could equally possible be the symbol of stacking stones. Note that the ת (taw) in pre-Biblical Hebrew often became the ה (he) in Biblical times, which brings to mind the verb חיה (haya), meaning to live. The derived noun חיות (hayyut) means "of livelihood".||8|
|ט||Teth||טית||The origin of the teth is a bit of a mystery. Klein derives from טות (twh), spin, and renders teth to knot, knot together, to twist into each other, to interweave. The letter teth indeed looks like a little vortex or spiral.||9|
|י||Yod||יד||One of two regular words for hand (for the other see the 11th letter). The noun יד (yad) denotes the hand, typically not as outstretched, but rather as holding something or being a fist. The word is synonymous with power or might; to fall in one's hands. It's typical that the alphabet's smallest letter came to mean power, but perhaps it's shape reminded of a little fist. As postfix, this letter י (yod) forms a possessive, and as prefix it creates a third person singular imperfect.||10|
|Kaph||כף||One of two regular words for hand (the other being the 10th letter). The noun כף (kap) denotes the hand as outstretched, asking and weak. The word basically encompasses anything that is hollow or outstretched in order to receive something: dish, plate, etc. The letter kap is written ך when it occurs at the end of a word, and כ when it occurs at the beginning or half-way a word.|
As a prefix, the letter כ (kaph) expresses comparision ("like" as in the name Mi-ka-el, what's God like?), and as postfix it governs pronouns of the second person singular. Note the graceful transition between the self-oriented fist of the letter yod and the other-oriented open-hand of the letter kaph.
|ל||Lamed||למד||The verb למד (lamad) means learn or teach. Derivative תלמיד (talmid) means scholar (hence Talmud), and derivative מלמד means ox goad. The letter lamed is said to look like such a device, and when Jesus says to Saul, "it is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14) He may hint at Saul's learning rather than coercion.||30|
|Mem||מים||מים (mayim) means waters in the sense of a larger body (sea, ocean). It is suggested that the letter mem looks like a wave.|
The letter mem is written ם when it occurs at the end of a word, and מ when it occurs at the beginning or half-way a word.
|Nun||נון||The verb נון (nun) means propagate, increase. Derivative נין means offspring, posterity. The letter is often said to mean and resemble a fish, but the word nun is not used as such in the Bible. In stead, the word for fish comes from another verb which means multiply, increase: דגה (daga).|
The letter nun is written ן when it occurs at the end of a word, and נ when it occurs at the beginning or half-way a word.
|ס||Samekh||סמך||The verb סמך (samak) means lean upon, support, uphold. It is the verb that is used in the phrase "laying on of hands."||60|
|ע||Ayin||עין||The word עין (ayin) means eye in all regular senses, but also as means of expression (knowledge, character, etc). The word עין (ayin) means spring or fountain. The eye is one of four bodily "fountains," the other three being mouth, skin and urethra (and only the mouth is not supposed to produce water outwardly). Transpiration releases the body of excessive heat; urine evaluates toxins, and the eye produces water commonly when grief or pain is processed. All have to do with cleansing or purification.||70|
|Pe||פה||The word פה (peh) means mouth, but is often synonymous with speech. With a little good will one may recognize a face with a mouth in the shape of this letter.|
The letter peh is written ף when it occurs at the end of a word, and ף when it occurs at the beginning or half-way a word.
|Klein derives from the verb צוד (sud), to hunt, and states that צדי means fish hook (no Biblical occurrence). Another name for this letter is צדיק (saddiq), just, righteous, from the verb צדק (sadeq), to be just or righteous.|
The letter tsadhe is written ץ when it occurs at the end of a word, and צ when it occurs at the beginning or half-way a word.
|ק||Qoph||קוף||This word occurs in Scriptures only as תקופה (tequpa), meaning a coming around, or circuit of space or time. Klein reports that the root verb קוף (qwp) covers a circular motion and that it also serves to denote the ear of an axe or needle, or the back of the head. BDB relates it to נקף (naqap), go around, compass. An amusing other use of this name is as קוף (qop), meaning ape (1 Kings 10:22); probably a loan word.||100|
|ר||Resh||ראשׁ||The very common word ראשׁ (rosh) basically means head, but is used to indicate whatever leads or comes first: captain, summit, cap stone. Preceded by the particle beth and in the form ראשׁית (reshit), first, beginning, best, it is the first word of the Bible: בראשׁית Breshit, "in the beginning".|
The word ראשׁ is also used to indicate a certain plant (called head) that yields poison: (rosh), gall, venom. HAW and BDB note that this usage is always figurative: Deuteronomy 32:32, Psalm 69:21.
A third usage of this word is ראשׁ (resh), poverty, from the root רושׁ (rush), be poor.
|שׁן||As derivation from the verb שׁנן (shanan), sharpen, the word שׁן (shen) means tooth or ivory. Both the verb and the noun are used primarily in a literal sense: sharpening of swords and arrows, but sometimes figuratively: the sharpening of one's tongue (saying sharp, mean words) or the sharpening of one's mind (Deuteronomy 6:7). The noun is famous for its part in the lex talionis, the law of retaliation; a soul or a soul, an eye for an eye (16th letter), a tooth for a tooth (21st letter), a hand for a hand (10th letter), a foot for a foot, a branding for a branding, a stripe for a stripe (Exodus 21:24). The letter thanks its name perhaps to its looking like a row of teeth.||300|
|ת||Taw||תו||תו (taw) means mark, and its verb תוה (tawa), scribble, limit, is probably derived from the noun. HAW suggests that the more ancient form of this letter looked like an X, a shape which lends itself easily as a general mark. The word תאוה (ta'awa) means boundary (that which is marked). The verb תוה (tawa) is used only once in the meaning of pain or wound (Psalm 78:41).||400|