Hebrew Alphabet

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The Hebrew Alphabet

- On the meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet -

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 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 - read our review - 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."

As told by Joel M. Hoffman, the Hebrews were the first to incorporate vowels in their written text, 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 waw (waw), yod (yod) and he (heh), and to give an example: the word dod is either the word dod, meaning beloved (and the waw is a vowel), or it is the word dud, meaning jar (and the waw is again a vowel), or it is the word dawid, which is the name David (and the waw 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 YHWH - 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 El (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 elim; elim, gods. With the addition of the letter he, creating the word Elohim, 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.
Something similar occured when the name of patriarch Abram (Abram) was expanded with the heh into Abraham Abraham, and the name of matriarch Sarai (Sarai) was expanded with the heh to Sarah (Sarah).
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:

  • The alphabet was compiled long before the Torah was written. The monothestic 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 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 Tim 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 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 secret information, you may want to have a look at Matthew 13:24-30.

Letter Name Hebrew Meaning (TWOTOT index) Post-Biblical
Numerical Value
Aleph aleph The root alap ('alap 108) is rare and means to learn or teach but perhaps not in a very good way (Prov 22:25, Job 15:5, 33:33, 35:11). The identical word alep ('alep 109) means to produce thousands (Ps 144:13 only). Derivation aleph (108a) means oxen (the connection lies perhaps in guidance/ couple). Many suggest that the letter reminds of the head of an ox. 1
Beth bayit The word bayit(bayit 241) 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
Gimel gamal The verb gamal(gamal 360) means to deal, or recompense in the sense of benefitting from. Derivation gamal (gamal 360d) means camel. It is said that the letter reminds of a camel's neck. 3
Daleth delet From root dala(dala 431), draw (water). The word delet (delet 431e) 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: dal (dal 431a), door; dala (dala 431b), door; dali (dali 431c), bucket; daliyot (daliyot 431d), branch, bough.
Because a door in Bible times hinged in the upper corner, it is said that the letter daleth reminds of that.
He he or he The spelling and thus the meaning of this word is uncertain. Klein spells he(he 461), meaning lo! behold! Fuerst holds to he, and thinks it's a part of the name for heth; letter 8. As prefix this letter serves as the definite particle, the, which is used far less than our word the, and specifically when an emphasis or reference to a previous statement is made. 5
Waw waw The word waw(waw 520) 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 waw reminds of a hook or peg. 6
Zayin zayin Meaning debated. The word zayin 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 zwz (zwz 535) of ziz (ziz 523a), moving things (like animals) and mezuza (mezuza 535b), doorpost. Root zww (zww 536)yields ziz (ziz 536a) abundance, fullness.
Another word of interest is zun (zun 539), to feed.
Heth het 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. 8
Teth teth Klein derives from twh (twh 794), 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
Yod yad One of two regular words for hand (the other being the 11th letter). yad (yad 844) 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. 10
Kaph kap One of two regular words for hand (the other being the 10th letter). kap (kap 1022a) 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. 20
Lamed lamad The verb lamad(lamad 1116) means learn or teach. Derivative talmid (talmid 1116c) means scholar (hence Talmud), and derivative lamad means oxgoad. 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 Paul's learning rather than coercion. 30
Mem mayim mayim (mayim 1188) means waters in the sense of a larger body (sea, ocean). It is suggested that the letter mem looks like a wave. 40
Nun nun The verb nun means propagate, increase. Derivative nun 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: daga(daga 401) 50
Samekh samak The verb samak (samak 1514) means lean upon, support, uphold. It is the verb that is used in the phrase "laying on of hands." 60
Ayin ayin The word ayin (ayin 1612) means eye in all regular senses, but also as means of expression (knowledge, character, etc). The word ayin (ayin 1613) 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 prosessed. All have to do with cleansing or purification. 70
Pe peh The word peh(peh 1738) 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. 80
Tsadhe tsadeh Klein derives from the verb sud (sud 1885), to hunt, and states that tsadeh means fish hook (no Biblical occurrence). Another name for this letter is saddiq (saddiq 1879c), just, righteous. 90
Qoph qwp This word occurs in Scriptures only as tequpa (tequpa 2001a), meaning a coming around, or circuit of space or time. Klein reports that the root verb qwp (qwp 2001) 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 naqap (naqap 1416), go around, compass. An amusing other use of this name is as qop (qop 2000), meaning ape (1 Ki 10:22); probably a loan word. 100
Resh rosh The very common word rosh (rosh 2097) 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 reshit (reshit 2097e), first, beginning, best, it is the first word of the Bible: breshit, Breshit; In the beginning.
The word rosh is also used to indicate a certain plant (called head) that yields poison: (rosh 2098), gall, venom. TWOTOT and BDB note that this usage is always figurative: Deut 32:32, Ps 69:21.
A third usage of this word is resh (resh 2138a), poverty, from the root rush (rush 2138), be poor.

shen As derivation from the verb shanan (shanan 2422), sharpen, the word shen (shen 2422a) 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 (Deut 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 (Ex 21:24). The letter thanks its name perhaps to its looking like a row of teeth. 300
Taw taw taw (taw 2496a) means mark, and its verb tawa (tawa 2496), scribble, limit, is probably derived from the noun. TWOTOT 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 taawa(ta'awa 2496b) means boundary (that which is marked). The verb tawa is used only once in the meaning of pain or wound (tawa 2497) in Ps 78:41. 400

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