Hebrew uses a different alphabet than English
Hebrew is written right-to-left
The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels, but pronunciation aids are often added
There are several styles of Hebrew writing
Hebrew letters have numerical values
Writing in Hebrew may require a special word processor and fonts
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
Table 1: The Hebrew Alphabet
If this sounds like Greek to you, you're not far off! Many letters in the Greek
alphabet have similar names and occur in the same order (though they don't look
anything alike!): Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta ... Zeta ... Theta, Iota, Kappa,
Lambda, Mu, Nu ... Pi ... Rho, Sigma Tau.
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, Pei and Tzadei
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.
See and hear the letters in a
quick reading of the
letters or a
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 nikkud (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.
Table 2: Vowel Points
Table 2: Vowel Points
Most nikkud are used to indicate vowels. Table 2 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 nikkud, illustrated in Table 3.
Table 3: Other Nikkud
The dot that appears in the center of some letters is called a dagesh. It can
appear in just about any letter in Hebrew. With most letters, the dagesh does
not significantly affect pronunciation of the letter; it simply marks a split
between syllables, where the letter is pronounced both at the end of the first
syllable and the beginning of the second. With the letters Beit, Kaf and Pei,
however, the dagesh indicates that the letter should be pronounced with its
hard sound (b, k, p) rather than its soft sound (v, kh, f). See Table 3. In
Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation
used by many Orthodox Jews and by many older
Jews), Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an "s" when it does not
have a dagesh.
Shin is pronounced "sh" when it has a dot over the right branch and "s" when it
has a dot over the left branch.
Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a "v," is sometimes a vowel pronounced
"oo" as in "food" (transliterated "oo" or "u") or "oh" as in "Oh!"
(transliterated "o"). When it is pronounced "oo," pointed texts have a dagesh
(though sometimes, Vav with a dagesh is pronounced "v"). When it is pronounced
"oh," pointed texts have a dot on top (though sometimes, Vav with a dot on top
is pronounced "vo").
Illustration 1: Pointed Text
Illustration 1 is an example of pointed text. Nikkud are shown in blue for
emphasis (they would normally be the same color as the consonants). In
Sephardic pronunciation (which is what most
people use today), this line would be pronounced: V'ahavtah l'reyahkhah
kamokhah. (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18).
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, square script or sometimes Assyrian script.
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 acronym 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
Alphabet used in writing STA"M.
Table 4: Hebrew Cursive Font
There is another style commonly used when writing Hebrew by hand, often
referred to as Hebrew cursive or Hebrew manuscript. Table 4 shows the complete
Hebrew alphabet in a font that emulates Hebrew cursive.
Table 5: Rashi Script
Another style is used in certain texts, particularly the
Talmud, 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. Rashi himself did not use this script; it
is only named in his honor. Table 5 shows the complete Hebrew alphabet in a
Rashi Script font.
K'tav Ivri: Ancient Hebrew Script
As mentioned above, the Hebrew alphabet that we use today is referred to as
Assyrian Script (in Hebrew, K'tav Ashuri). But there was once another way of
writing the alphabet that the rabbis called K'tav
Ivri, which means "Hebrew Script." Many examples of this ancient way of writing
the Hebrew alphabet has been found by archaeologists: on coins and other
artifacts. It is quite similar to the ancient Phoenician writing. An example of
this script is seen at Scripts of
the Hebrew Language, side-by-side with other styles of Hebrew writing that
were discussed above.
The rabbis of the Talmudic period were well aware
of this ancient K'tav Ivri, and they raised the question whether the
Torah was originally given in K'tav Ivri or K'tav
Ashuri. A variety of opinions are expressed in the Talmud at Sanhedrin 21c-22a:
one opinion states that the Torah was originally given in K'tav Ivri, but was
changed to K'tav Ashuri in the days of Ezra, after the Babylonian Exile (the
Babylonians, and consequently the Jews in exile, used K'tav Ashuri). Another
opinion says that the Torah was written in K'tav Ashuri, but that holy script
was denied the people when they sinned and was replaced with another one; when
the people repented, the K'tav Ashuri was restored. A third opinion states that
the Torah was always in K'tav Ashuri.
The general consensus is that the Torah was given in K'tav Ashuri, because the
Talmud makes other references that don't make sense in K'tav Ivri. The Talmud
talks about final forms of letters in the original Torah, but K'tav Ivri
doesn't have final forms. It talks about the center of the Samekh and the Final
Mem miraculously floating when the Ten Commandments
were carved all the way through the tablets, but there is no Final Mem in K'tav
Ivri, and neither Samekh nor Mem would have a floating center in K'tav Ivri as
they do in K'tav Ashuri.
All authorities maintain that today, the only holy script is K'tav Ashuri. Any
mezuzot must be written in K'tav Ashuri, and
specifically in a style of K'tav Ashuri known as STA"M, discussed
K'tav Ivri is understood to be in the nature of a font, like Rashi script,
rather than in the nature of a different alphabet, like Greek, Cyrillic or
Roman. The names of the letters, the order of the letters, and the
numerical value of the letters are apparently the same
in both K'tav Ashuri and K'tav Ivri; thus, any religious significance that
would be found in the numerical value of words or the sequence of the alphabet
is the same in both scripts. The only difference is the appearance.
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,
Cheit-Nun-Kaf-Hei) is spelled Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanuka, and many other
interesting ways. Each spelling has a legitimate phonetic and orthographic
basis; none is right or wrong.
Table 6: Values of Hebrew Letters
Table 6: Values of Hebrew Letters
Each letter in the alefbet has a numerical value. These values can be used as
numerals, similar to the way Romans used some of their letters (I, V, X, L, C,
D, M) as numerals. Table 6 shows each letter with its corresponding numerical
value. Note that final letters have the same value as their non-final
The numerical value of a word is determined by adding up the values of each
letter. The order of the letters is irrelevant to their value: the number 11
could be written as Yod-Alef, Alef-Yod, Hei-Vav, Dalet-Dalet-Gimel or many
other ways. Ordinarily, however, numbers are written with the fewest possible
letters and with the largest numeral first (that is, to the right). The number
11 would be written Yod-Alef (with the Yod on the right, because Hebrew is
written right-to-left), the number 12 would be Yod-Beit, the number 21 would be
Kaf-Alef, the number 611 would be Tav-Reish-Yod-Alef, etc. The only significant
exception to this pattern is the numbers 15 and 16, which if rendered as 10+5
or 10+6 would be a name of G-d, so they are
normally written Teit-Vav (9+6) and Teit-Zayin (9+7).
Because every letter of the alphabet has a numerical value, every word also has
a numerical value. For example, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Reish-Hei) has the
numerical value 611 (400+6+200+5). 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 or living. Donations to Jewish charities are
routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.
Some have suggested that the final forms of the letters Kaf, Mem, Nun, Pei and
Tzadei have the numerical values of 500, 600, 700, 800 and 900, providing a
numerical system that could easily render numbers up to 1000. However, there
does not appear to be any basis for that interpretation in Jewish tradition. A
cursory glance at any Jewish tombstone will show that these letters are not
normally used that way: the year 5766 (2005-2006) is written
Tav-Shin-Samekh-Vav (400+300+60+6; the 5000 is assumed), not Final
Nun-Samekh-Vav (700+60+6). Indeed, writing it in that way would look absurd to
anyone familiar with Hebrew, because a final letter should never appear at the
beginning of a word! But even where numerology is used only to determine the
numerical values of words, you will not find examples in Jewish tradition of
final letters being given different values. For example, in traditional
sources, the numerical value of one name of G-d
that ends in Final Mem is 86, not 646.
I have received several e-mails pointing out that the numerical value of Vav
(often transliterated as W) is 6, and therefore WWW has the numerical value of
666! The Internet, they say, is the number of the beast! 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 basis that I know of
in Jewish thought).
While we're on the subject of bad numbers, it is worth noting that the number
13 is not a bad number in Jewish tradition or numerology. Normally written as
Yod-Gimel, 13 is the numerical value of the word ahava (love,
Alef-Hei-Beit-Hei) and of echad (one, as in the daily prayer declaration,
G-d is One!, Alef-Cheit-Dalet). Thirteen is the age
of responsibility, when a boy becomes bar
mitzvah. We call upon G-d's mercy by reciting his Thirteen Attributes of
Mercy, found in Exodus 34:6-7. Rambam summed up
Jewish beliefs in Thirteen Principles.
Hebrew Fonts and Word Processors
Many fonts have a built-in Hebrew character set. Current versions of Windows
should have the Hebrew characters built into their fonts; if not, your browser
may be able to automatically download fonts for viewing Hebrew on the web
simply by viewing a Hebrew web page. In Windows, you can see these characters
using the Windows Character Map tool. Persuading your computer to type these
characters, however, can be a bit of a trick!
This page displays some standard fonts that should
include Hebrew characters, so you can see if your browser supports them. If you
do not already have Hebrew web fonts installed, your browser should give you an
opportunity to download them.
you type Hebrew, if you have Hebrew support. The results of that script can be
copied and pasted into your word processor, if it supports Hebrew characters.
Depending on your word processor, you may need to reverse the results for them
to appear properly. The page can reverse them for you. Feel free to download
that page and use it on your own computer. The scripts you need to run it are
all in the file.
If you are serious about writing a significant amount of text in Hebrew, you
will need a proper Hebrew word processor. I have used
Davka Software. DavkaWriter comes with many
attractive Hebrew fonts including both consonants and vowels that will map to
your keyboard in an intuitive phonetic way or in the standard Israeli keyboard
format. It is very easy to switch between Hebrew and English within a document.
DavkaWriter even comes with little stickers to put on the keys of your keyboard
so you can learn their keyboard mappings, and an onscreen display shows you
their keyboard mappings. Davka also has a lot of fonts available, as well as a
lot of other Hebrew and Judaic software. For mobile devices, there are a number
of apps, many of them free, that will allow you to type Hebrew characters.
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