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, as Hebrew literacy declined, particularly after the Romans expelled the Jews from Israel, the rabbis recognized the need for aids to pronunciation, so they developed a system of dots and dashes called nikkudim (points). These dots and dashes are written above, below or inside the letter, in ways that do not alter the spacing of the line. Text containing these markings is referred to as "pointed" text.

Most nikkudim are used to indicate vowels. The table at right illustrates the vowel points, along with their pronunciations. Pronunciations are approximate; I have heard quite a bit of variation in vowel pronunciation.

Vowel points are shown in blue. The letter Alef, shown in red, is used to illustrate the position of the points relative to the consonants. The letters shown in purple are technically consonants and would appear in unpointed texts, but they function as vowels in this context.


There are a few other nikkudim, illustrated and explained below.

The dot that appears in the center of some letters is called a dagesh. With most letters, the dagesh does not significantly affect pronunciation. With the letters Bet, Kaf and Pe, however, the dagesh indicates that the letter should be pronounced with its hard sound (the first sound) rather than the soft sound (the second sound).

Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a "v," is sometimes a vowel pronounced "oo" (u) or "oh" (o). When it is pronounced "oo", pointed texts have a dagesh. When it is pronounced "oh", pointed texts have a dot on top.

Shin is pronounced "sh" when it has a dot over the right branch and "s" when it has a dot over the left branch.

Pointed TextTo the left is an example of pointed text. Nikkudim are shown in blue. This line would be pronounced (in Sephardic pronunciation, which is what most people use today): V'ahavtah l'reyahkhah kamokhah. (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18).

Ashkenazic Pronunciation: Historically, Ashkenazic Jews pronounced some Hebrew sounds differently than Sephardic Jews. The Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew is increasingly becoming the norm, because it is the pronunciation used in Israel. However, you will still hear Ashkenazic pronunciations in many (but not all) Orthodox communities and among older Jews in all Jewish communities.

There are three particularly significant differences: the vowel pronounced as "aw" in Ashkenazic is pronounced as "ah" in Sephardic; the vowel sometimes pronounced as "oy" in Ashkenazic is pronounced as "oh" in Sephardic. Lastly, the consonent Tav, whichis always pronounced as "t" in Sephardic, differs in Ashkenazic pronunciation - Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an "s" when it does not have a dagesh.

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 the page on calligraphy.

Modern Script There 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 Script Another 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 numbers 15 and 16, which if rendered as 10+5 or 10+6 would be a name of God, so they are normally written Tet-Vav (9+6) and Tet-Zayin (9+7). The order of the letters is irrelevant to their value; letters are simply added to determine the total numerical value. The number 11 could be written as Yod-Alef, Alef-Yod, Heh-Vav, Dalet-Dalet-Gimmel or many other combinations of letters.

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 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.

It has been pointed 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. In Hebrew numerals, the position of the letter/digit is irrelevant; the letters are simply added up to determine the value. To say that Vav-Vav-Vav is six hundred and sixty-six would be like saying that the Roman numeral III is one hundred and eleven. 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 known basis in Jewish thought).

Hebrew Fonts and Word Processors

If you use MS Internet Explorer version 5 or AOL version 5, you can download Hebrew support for your browser from the Windows Update center on Microsoft's website, http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/. Very few sites are using this Hebrew support at this time, but they may in the future. Microsoft's Hebrew support includes Hebrew versions of various standard fonts, such as Times New Roman and Arial, as well as a few new Hebrew fonts, such as Rod and Miriam. These fonts map in very strange ways and are not keyboard-accessible; however, you can set up shortcut keys in MS Word for Windows at Insert | Symbol.

If you have AOL, there are also Hebrew fonts that can be downloaded from AOL. Some of these have intuitive keyboard mappings, so you can for example type the letter H and get the letter Heh in these fonts. To find fonts on AOL, go to Keyword: File Search, select Shareware, and search for the term "hebrew font." You may also want to check out the Download area in AOL's Jewish Community (Keyword: Jewish Community). The big alefbet at the top of the page uses a font I downloaded from AOL years ago (it's just called Hebrew; I don't know if it's still there). Many of these Hebrew fonts have the same high-ASCII mappings as the Snuit fonts (which is good, because that's what most websites with Hebrew use), but some of them have intuitive keyboard mappings (a = Alef; b = Bet, g = Gimmel, etc.).

Copyright 5756-5761 (1995-2001), Tracey R Rich


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