Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Dictionaries generally lists two separate roots of the form אלף ('alep), which may not be two at all but rather one, to do with splitting the ground and producing a great harvest:
The verb אלף ('alep) means to learn, but occurs a mere four times in the Bible (Job 15:5, 33:33, 35:11 and Proverbs 22:25). Since learning was to the Hebrews what snow is to Eskimos, the nuances or learning are described by a broad array of verbs, and our verb אלף ('alep) could be expected to describe a very special aspect of it. What that aspect might be isn't obvious, but it seems to us here at Abarim Publications that it may resemble oxen whose natural enthusiasms are curbed, who willingly settle together in synchronicity under a single yoke and end up drawing straight lines in the field. This is the verb that describes the natural emergence of language (and law) within a cooling society, i.e. a society in which individuals become less hot-headed and begin to build diplomatic relations with neighbors. See our article on the Greek equivalent βους (bous) for a more detailed look at this process.
From this verb come:
- The masculine noun אלף ('elep), meaning cattle. This word only occurs in plural (Deuteronomy 7:13, 28:4-51, Psalm 8:7, Isaiah 30:24). Most striking is the assertion of Proverbs 14:4: "Where no oxen (אלפים, 'elepim) are, the manger is clean, but much revenue comes by the strength of a bull (שור, shor, bull)". Note that this word אלפים ('elepim) is identical to the plural noun meaning thousands (see below).
- The adjective אלוף ('allup), meaning tame, peaceful or friendly: of a lamb: Jeremiah 11:19, "like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter"; used substantially ("friendlies") probably describing cattle: Psalm 144:14 (but see Galatians 6:2); of human friends: Psalm 55:15, "a man like myself, my companion, my peaceful familiar"; Proverbs 16:28, "A slanderer separates intimate friends" (also see Proverbs 17:9, and note Paul's ostensible use of the word συζυγος, suzugos, yoke-fellow, in Philippians 4:3); Proverbs 2:17, Jeremiah 3:4, 13:21, Micah 7:5.
The verb אלף ('alep) is identical to אלף ('alep), to learn, and means to produce thousands. It occurs only in Psalm 144:13, which speaks of producing thousands of the צאן (so'n), flock. Although this word for flock commonly denotes smaller ruminants like sheep and goats, the signature collective behavior that marks a herd of cows is obviously the same as that which marks a flock of sheep. It's really the same verb.
The noun אלף ('elep) is one and the same, and always denotes any herd animal whose individual identity derives from social synchronicity (and that covers most humans, most bovines and most sheep and goats). From our one and only root אלף ('lp) further derive:
- The noun אלף ('elep), meaning thousand. Since Hebrew has no numerals, this word denotes the number 1,000, which in practical reality means "a whole lot" rather than an arithmetically precise amount of 1 more than 999. Like the identical noun אלף ('elep), meaning cattle, this word meaning thousand occurs mostly in plural: אלפים ('elepim), meaning thousands. This noun occurs in such ringing statements as: "...showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Exodus 20:6), and "who keeps lovingkindness for thousands" (Exodus 34:7). As in for instance Exodus 18:21, this word often denotes thousands of people who are directed by one leader, who is called שר (sar), from the root שרר (sharar), meaning to concentrate power. This word is clearly reminiscent of the noun שור (shor), meaning bull (see above).
- The noun אלוף ('allup) — which is spelled identically to the adjective אלוף ('allup), friendly (see above) — means chief or leader of thousands (Genesis 36:15, Exodus 15:15, Zechariah 12:5-6).