Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)By Jeff A. Benner
What are the ס, the letter samehh, and פ, the letter pey (but sometimes ף, the final pey) that appear at the end of some sentences in Hebrew Bibles?
Below is Genesis 49:4, as it appears in the BibleWorks Bible program, which includes the ף at the end of the sentence.
And below is Genesis 49:7, as it appears in the BibleWorks Bible program, which includes the ס at the end of the sentence.
The ף and ס are respectively called the petuhhah (open) and setumah (closed) and were not included in Biblical scrolls, codices and books, well not exactly, let me explain.
Below is Genesis 49:4-7 from the Leningrad Codex.
In this text are two different paragraph breaks. One is open, the petuhhah, and is always started at the beginning of a new line. The other is closed, the setumah, and never begins at the beginning of a line. In order to preserve the locations of the paragraphs, Bibles, especially electronic Bibles, will note their locations with the ס and ף, the final pey.
Why do some people write the word "God" as "G-d" and "Lord" as "L-rd"?
The practice of replacing a vowel in the words "God" and "Lord" with a "-" comes from the Jewish tradition of not writing out the names of God where there is a chance that the paper (or computer file) will be discarded (or deleted). This is derived from the command "Thou shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain." It is their belief that if you write out the name and then discard it you are taking his name in vain. Any book, such as a Bible or Prayer Book, that does spell out the name of God, cannot be discarded but instead must be buried.
What is the pronunciation of the name "YHWH" (the LORD)?
The Hebrew name for God is a four letter word spelled with four Hebrew letters, yud, hey, vav, hey and transliterated into English as YHVH. There are three problems when trying to find the pronunciation of this name. First, Modern Hebrew pronunciation is slightly different than modern ancient Hebrew pronunciation. We do not know for certain how Ancient Hebrew was pronounced. For example the letter vav is pronounced with a "v" in modern Hebrew but was more likly pronounced with a "w" hence the often seen transliteration YHWH.Secondly, each of these letters were used as a consonant or a vowel in Ancient Hebrew. For instance, the letter vav (waw) could be a "W," "O" or "U." Thirdly, vowels are frequently used in Hebrew words but not written. For example, the word MLK could be pronounced melek (king, a noun) or malak (to reign, a verb). If the letters in the name were used as consonants we do not know what vowel sounds were associated with name.
Is the Hebrew word for God in the plural meaning more than one?
The Hebrew word translated as "God" is elohiym. It is the plural form of elo'ah. While elohiym is plural. this does not mean that it is more than one. In Hebrew, a plural word may indicate quality as well as quantity. As an example, the Hebrew word ets is a tree. If there are two trees this would be written as etsiym meaning trees, qualitatively large. A large tree such as a Redwood could also be written etsiym, qualitatively large. As elohiym is plural, it can be translated as "gods" (quantity) or a very large and powerful "god" (quality). The creator of the heavens and the earth is far above any other god and is therefore elohiym, not just an eloah. The context the word is used will help to determine if the plural is qualitative or quantitative. If the plural noun is the subject of a verb, the verb will indicate if the subject is singular or more than one. For instance in Genesis 1:1 the verb bara (created) identifies the subject of the verb as masculine singular. The next word is elohiym (the subject of the verb) and is understood as a singular qualitatively large noun, God and not gods.
What is the Hebrew word for "God?"
There are three words in Hebrew that are translated as "God." The word "El" (aleph-lamed) is a common Hebrew word that literally means "powerful one" and is used in the Bible for anything with power such as a god (Ex 34:14), a mountain (Ps 36:6) and God (Gen 14:18). The word "elo'ah" (aleph-lamed-vav-hey) is also translated as God but more literally means "one who yokes to another." The root of this word is alah (aleph-lamed-hey) and means an oath in the sense of being a "binding yoke" (Gen 26:28). The third word is elohiym (aleph-lamed-hey-yud-mem) and is the plural form of the word elo'ah (see Previous FAQ).
Should women wear tsiytsiyt (fringes)?"
The Hebrew text literally says the "sons of Israel" are to wear the tziytsiyt. However, in Hebrew, when you are speaking to a group of people of mixed gender, you always use the masculine form. So "sons of Israel" could mean "all male children of Israel" or it could mean "all male and female children of Israel." Usually the context will help to determine if the author meant one or the other, but in the case of the tziytziyt, there is nothing in the context to determine which is meant. So I advise people to follow the teachings of their leader and group, in order to maintain harmony, or if the person is not part of a congregation, or is part of a congregation that does not observes the wearing of tziytziyt, then this would be between them and God.
Is God a he?
In English we use masculine (he), feminine (she) and neuter (it). But, in Hebrew all things are either masculine or feminine, there is no neuter. So, we may say "it is a tree" in Hebrew it would be "hu ets" (he is a tree). All things in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine. God is neither male nor female but he is both. This may sound contradictory but the Hebrew mind often seems contradictory from our perspective of western thought. In Genesis it states that God created both male and female in his image, I do not believe this is speaking in physcial terms but in character. The male received half of God's character while the female received the other half, hence marriage is the bringing together of the two to make a whole. Since God has the character or quality of both male and female it is grammatically mandated that it be identified in the masculine form for the following reason. The Hebrew word for boy is yeled, the Hebrew word for boys is yelediym. The Hebrew word for girl is yal'dah and the Hebrew word for girls is yeledot. But if the group of children are boys and girls you always use the masculine yelediym. The masculine form always takes over if the group is of both masculine and feminine.
Where did the word "Hebrew" come from and what does it mean?
The word Hebrew can refer to the language or people but in the Hebrew language, the Hebrew language is called "eevriyt", a Hebrew person is called an "eevriy" (singular) and the Hebrew people are called "eevriym" (plural). All of these words come from the root "avar" meaning "to cross over." One of Abraham's ancestors was Eber (pronounced "ever" in Hebrew) and the descendents of Eber/Ever are called eevriym (the plural form of the name Eber/Ever). So, Abraham is an eevriy, one descended from Eber. You will also notice that in English we say "Hebrew" which is supposed to be a transliteration of "eevriy," but where did the "H" come from as there is no "H" in eevriy? Most likely, the name Hebrew is derived from the people called the Habiru who may or may not be the Hebrews of the Bible.
Is Strong's dictionary and concordance a good resource for studying Hebrew words?
One of the best tools written to begin learning about Hebrew is Strong's dictionary. Many concordances and some Bibles are keyed to this resource. Using Psalm 51:1 as an example - Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me, the word "right" is listed in Strong's dictionary as number 3559 and we find that the Hebrew word is "kun" which means to be firm or stable. This provides a deeper understanding of the verse than from the English alone. However, it must be understood that Strong's dictionary has many limitations which, if not known, can cause some problems. In Deuteronomy 15:6 we find the words "lend" and "borrow" and when we look both of these words up in Strong's we find that they are both the same Hebrew word - avat. How can the same Hebrew word be translated as lend and as borrow? What cannot be determined through Strong's is some of the nuances of Hebrew words. The Hebrew word avat literally means "to give a pledge" and is translated as borrow but when written in the causative form it would literally be translated as "cause to give a pledge" or "to lend."
How do you write Hebrew numbers?
In Modern Hebrew numbers are written using the Hebrew alphabet. For example; the number 1 is written with the first letter aleph. The tenth letter, yud, is 10. The eleveth letter, kaph, is 20. Therefore the number 17 is written as yud-zayin (using the Hebrew letters of course). Below are the numbers represented by the alphabet.
Where did the Hebrew vowel pointings come from?
Hebrew is written with 22 letters. Of these 22, 4 were originally vowel/consonants such as our "Y" which can be a consonant as in "Yellow" or a vowel, as in "Fly." The aleph, hey, vav (archaically waw) and yud were these vowel/consonants but, not all words had these "vowels" and the vowel sounds were often "understood" and remembered by memory. Around 700 CE (AD) the Masorites, wanting to standardize Hebrew pronunciation, added dots and dashes (called nikkudot or nikkud in the singular) above and below the consonants to form vowels. Also at this time all 22 letters became consonants alone and no longer stood for vowels. The nikkudot are only used in Modern Hebrew for beginning Hebrew grammar books, Bibles, Sidduriym (prayer books) and obscure words where the pronuciation is probably not known by most readers. Magazines, books, newspapers, signs, etc. will not use the nikkudot as the words can be recognized by their consonants only. You can see how easy it is for one fluent in the language by looking at the following sentence in English without the vowels.
In Ancient/Biblical Hebrew word meanings were more generalized. One Hebrew word can have a wide meaning. In Modern Hebrew more precise meanings of a word are made by adding different nikkudot to separate out the different meanings. For instance the Hebrew word "AYL" originally meant "a strong one" and is spelled with three letters; aleph-yud-lamed. In order to divide out more precise meanings of the word, different nikkudot have been added. The word "ayil" is a ram (strong one of the flock), "ayal" is a stag (strong one of the forest) and "eyal" is strength.
Is it necessary to learn the Hebrew vowel pointings?
The vowel pointings (called nikkudot or nikkud in the singular) were invented about 1000 years ago and were never in the original writings. There main function is to help standardize pronunciation. But since Hebrew words are solely dependent on the consonants the vowel pointings are not necessary. In fact the Hebrew language today does not even use the vowel pointings except in grammar books, childrens books and the Bible. There are times when the vowel pointings do help with translation but only in a minor way. For instance if you see the Hebrew word hey-lamed-kaph (HLK) it could mean "he walked" (third person masculine singular, perfect tense) and would be pronounced halakh. But it could also be the participle meaning "walking" and be pronounced holeykh. But, the context will also aid in determining if it is halakh or holeykh. So, the vowel pointings help but are not necessary. This is similar to our word "play," which can be a verb or a noun. You don't know until it is in a sentence like "I am going to play Moses in the play." The first use is a verb while the second is a noun. The only other problem that can arise when the vowel sounds are ignored is that you will not know how to pronounce words. This is not a problem if you are only going to read and translate the text but you would not be able to read it out loud.
Why is Hebrew written from right to left?
Most ancient writing was done with a hammer and chisel in stone. The chisel was held in the left hand and the hammer in the right. From this position it is natural to write from right to left. When ink came into use, it was usually written from left to right to prevent the hand from smearing the ink. It was actually common to write Hebrew, as well as other languages, in either direction. The direction the letter faced informed the reader which direction to read it. At some unknown point in time, the actual direction became standardized. The Hebrews and other Semites continued with the original right to left, while the Greeks and other Europeans adopted the new left to right method.
When did Hebrew cease to be spoken?
Hebrew has been spoken in one form or another from the beginning. As we and others believe, Hebrew was the first language of Adam as well as Noah and his descendents. Noah had three sons, of which Shem continued the Hebrew language. When the nation of Israel entered the land of Israel after the exodus from Egypt (about 1500 BCE), they spoke Hebrew. When Israel was taken into Babylonian captivity (about 570 BCE) they continued to speak Hebrew (as we see in the book of Daniel). When Israel returned to the land of Israel (about 500 BCE) they continued to speak in Hebrew. Hebrew continued to be spoken during the 1st century CE (AD) as can be attested by many letters and documents found during the time. In 135 CE the Jewish revolt against Rome was defeated and Jews were expulsed from the land and dispersed around the world. At this point most Jews adopted the language of the country they resided in, but Hebrew continued to be spoken in the synagogues. In the late 1800's Eliezer Ben Yehuda began a resurrection of the Hebrew language as a common language for Jews which found its fulfillment in 1948 when Israel once again became a nation with Hebrew as its national language and is spoken there to this day.
Was Hebrew a common language in Israel in the first century CE?
One of the best arguments for proving that Hebrew was a commonly used language in Israel during the first century CE (AD) is through the evidence discovered in the archeological record. Letters from Shimon Ben Kosba (Simon Bar Kockba) have been discovered in the dead sea region and were written during the second Jewish revolt of 130-135 CE. These letters are written in Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek. What is also interesting about these letters is that they use contractions, which can only come from a spoken language. We consistently use contractions such as "I'm" for "I am" or "wouldn't" for "would not". One of these contractions is the word tashmayim, the contracted form of "et hashamayim" (the heavens).
Did Moses Speak and write Hebrew or Aramaic?
Abraham, the ancestor of Moses, did come from "Chaldee" where the Chaldeean language (or "Aramaic") was spoken. Both Aramaic and Hebrew are practically identical. They used the same script and the same root words. While Aramaic and Hebrew have some slight differences today, 3,500 years ago, the time of Abraham, the two languages were most likely identical.
Abraham is called a Hebrew because his ancestor's name was Eber (see the geneology of Abraham in the Bible). The Hebrew spelling for Eber and Hebrew are identitcal except that Hebrew ends with a yud basically meaning "descendent of Eber." Moses of course is descended from Abraham through Isaac-Jacob-Levi-Kohath-Amram. Moses would have spoken the same language as his family which is descended from the Hebrew Abraham.
The next question is what script Moses would have used to write. It is true that he did not use the square script used today or in the first century CE. At the time of Moses a more pictographic script (similar to Egyptian Hieroglyphics) was used. You can see some examples of this Early Semitic/Hebrew script on our site.
There is no record of Moses existing outside of the Bible but this does not mean that he was not a historical figure. It has been purported that many Biblical characters never really existed until they were discovered in the archeological record. Some examples of this are King David and the Temple (which some scholars had stated that neither had actually existed). This was until they were found in ancient writings recently discovered. King David is mentioned in the Tell Dan Inscription and the Temple is mentioned in the House of Yahweh inscription. Maybe an ancient inscription mentioning Moses will one day be found as well.
Is the Hebrew word "Torah" encoded in all five books of the Torah?
The "Bible Codes" is a theory that special words and phrases have been "encoded" in the Biblical text proving a divine authorship of the Bible. While it is not our position to accept or deny this theory, there are some very interesting "codes" present in the text, either by accident or by design. One of the most famous is the word תורה (Torah) found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Beginning with the first ת (T) in Genesis and counting every 50 letters you find the word Torah spelled out. The same is true in Exodus. However in the book of Numbers the word Torah is written backwards, the same is true for deuteronomy except in this case the sequence begins in verse 5 and at an interval of 49 letters instead of 50. The Torah sequence is not found in Leviticus but instead the Hebrew word יהוה (YHWH/Yahweh) is found at intervals of seven. It has been proposed that this code shows the Torah pointing to Yahweh;
To see the Hebrew text and the sequences Click Here.
Is there a gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 2?
The idea of the "Gap theory" is derived from the Hebrew wording of the beginning of verse 2 which could be translated as "and the earth became empty." With this wording some have proposed that something happened between verse 1 and verse 2 - the gap. In other words, God created the heavens and the earth (verse 1) and then there was a long span of time and the heavens and earth slipped into chaos (verse 2). I however, do not agree with this interpretation as I translate verse 1 and 2 as "in the summit Elohiym fattened (filled) the sky and the land because the land was empty and unfilled." From this interpretation of the Hebrew Genesis 1:1 is not about the "creation" (A greek abstract concept) but about God filling up the sky and the land (verse 1) because it was empty and in confusion (verse 2). Also recognize that this "filling" is what much of chapter one is about, filling the sky, water and land with the sun, moon, stars, fish, birds, plants, animals and man.
What is the best Translation of the Bible?
This is probably the most common question we are asked. There really is no "best" translation just different kinds. Some translations attempt to translate each word accurately while others look to translate the meaning of a verse. There are also different translations from different religious groups. In many cases a Jewish translation is going to read very differently from a Christian translation. There are also some very good Messianic translations available as well. What we recommend is to compare three or more different translations from the three different religious groups. If each of the various translations appear to agree on how a verse should be translated then you can be pretty sure that it is a fair translation. However, if one or more have conflicting translations (and in some cases add or subtract complete phrases) then further investigation is warranted as there appears to be some religious or translational bias affecting how the verse is being translated.
Do I need to know Hebrew to be able to read the Bible correctly?
Whenever a literary work is translated from one language to another a lot of the content will be, as the old saying goes, "lost in the translation." There is no argument that reading any work in its original language will provide a better understanding of that text. For instance, to really understand the works of Martin Luther it is best to read it in German and the works of Plato in Greek. This also applies to the Hebrew text of the Bible. As an example, the Hebrew word shalom is translated as peace but this does not convey the true meaning of the Hebrew which is to be whole or complete. Another aspect that is often overlooked is the cultural perspective of words. For instance the word rain means one thing to a farmer but something very different for a person on vacation. The Ancient Hebrews lived in a nomadic culture which views the world very differently from the way we do in our modern western culture.
Are there two different creation stories in Genesis one and two?
What many are noticing about the sequence of events in creation is a very genuine question and often overlooked by many people. Many attempt to put the creation story into a chronological timeline. As Western Greco-Roman thinkers, this is very natural for us as we think in the sense of time, past present and future. The Hebrews did not think this way, time was irrelevent to them, they instead focused on action, no matter what the sequence of events were. The verb tenses in English and Hebrew will demonstrate this difference. While our verbs are all time based, past present and future, all hebrew verbs are action based; completed or incomplete action.
The days of creation do not follow a chronological order, in fact you will also notice that God separates light and darkness in day one, but in day 4 we read that he separates light and darkness again. Days 1 and 4 are actually the same day, where God separates light and darkness and fills the light with the sun and the darkness with the moon. Day 2 and 5 are the same, God separates water from sky and fills them with the fish and the birds. Day 3 and 6 are the same where the land is separated from the water and is filled with plants, animals and man. This does not imply that the world was created in three days for the text clearly states that it was created in six days, this is simply a poetic view of creation and not meant to be a scientific chronology of events.
The whole creation story is actually one story told several different times. Genesis 1:1-3 is one creation story and is repeated again through the rest of chapter one. Chapter two begins another account of the same story. This is common Hebrew poetry where one idea is expressed in two or more different ways. This type of poetry is found throughout the Bible.
More on the poetry of Genesis Chapter One.
Did God create evil?
The Hebrew word for evil in Isaiah 45:7 is "ra" and literally means "bad" and is used consistently as the opposite of "good" (tov in Hebrew). While this sounds odd to most christians, God did create bad as well as good. Our western perspective of good and bad is not the same as the eastern/Hebrew perspective. We see everything as good or bad, we desire good and reject bad. The eastern mind sees both as positive or negative. If your whole life was filled with good, you would never know it as you can only know good if it is contrasted with bad. If you love ice cream and were able to eat ice cream your whole life never tasting anything else, you would not know ice cream tasted good because you have never tasted anything bad. All things have a negative and a positive without and one cannot exist without the other. We usually see light as good and darkness as bad. But if I filled your room with pure light you would be blind, and if I filled your room with pure darkness you would again be blind. In order to see, you must have a balance between light and darkness. In order to have a healthy life you must have a balance between good and bad.
Does the English translation of the Bible accurately reflect the Hebrew?
The Hebrews think differently than we do. One of the major differences is that we commonly think in abstract thoughts while the Hebrews commonly think in concrete thoughts. An abstract thought is a word that has no basis in something that can be seen, heard, smelled, felt or tasted. A concrete thought has a basis on something that can be perceived by the above listed five senses.
To demonstrate the differences we will look at two words from the English translation; "create" and "believe."
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). The word "create" is usually understood as "to make something out of nothing." This concept is abstract and therefore a foreign concept to the ancient Hebrews. Just a few verses later we can easily see that this idea is wrong. In Genesis 1:26 it states that God "created" man but, according to Genesis 2:7 God did not "make man out of nothing" because it states that he "formed" the man out of the ground.
The Hebrew word translated as "create" is "bara." The more concrete understanding of this word can be found in 1 Samuel 2.29. "Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?' " The word "fattening" is the same word "bara" as found in Genesis 1:1. The word "bara" means "to fatten up" or "to fill up" and is the authors intent in Genesis chapter one as this is what the chapter is about. God filled the light and darkness (separated out on day one) with the sun and the moon (filled on day four). He filled the water and the sky (separated out on day two) with the fish and the birds (filled on day five). He filled the land (separated out of the water on day three) with animals (filled on day six). Also notice the parallels, a Hebrew form of poetry; 1=4, 2=5 and 3=6.
A more Hebraic translation of Genesis 1:1 would be "In the beginning God filled the skies and the land."
"And Abraham believed God" (Genesis 15:6). The word "believe" implies the meaning of "to know something to be true" and this verse is usually understood as "And Abraham knew God would do what he said he will do." This interpretation conveys the idea that God is the one with the responsibility to perform something while Abraham is simply an observer. The Hebrew word translated as "believe" is "aman" and can better be understood from the following verse. "I will drive him like a peg into a firm place, he will be a seat of honor for the house of his father." (Isaiah 22:23). In this sentence the word "firm," a place of support, is the Hebrew word "aman" and would be better translated as "support" instead of "believe."
If my friend is running for Mayor and I say "I believe him," I am implying that I know he will do what he says. But, if I say "I support him," I am now saying that I will do something to help him. Looking at our original verse from an Hebraic point of view we can now read it as "And Abraham supported God." This now shifts the responsibility to perform something from God to Abraham.
As you can see, the English words used to translate the Hebrew can often bring about a wrong interpretation of the verse. Hence, it is necessary to view words from their Hebraic perspective rather than from our own western perspective.
What are the Hebrew names for the books of the Torah (Pentetuch)?
Most people are familiar with the common names of the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These names were given from the Greek language based on what the book is about. Genesis means "origins," Exodus means "coming out," Leviticus means "Levites," Numbers means "numbering," and Deuteronomy means "second law." The Hebrew names for these use the first word (or first major word) of that book. They are Bereshiyt meaning "in the beginning," Shemot meaning "names," Vayikra meaning "and he called," Bemindvar meaning "in the wilderness" and Devariym meaning "words."
Has archeology proven the existence of Biblical Characters?
Many ancient inscriptions have been discovered that identify many of the key figures in the Biblical text. The Tell Dan Insciption mentions King David, the Temple ostraca mentions the Temple of YHWH and the seal of Baruch, the scribe of Jeremiah has also been found.
Which book of the Bible is the oldest book?
The books of the Bible are not arranged in a chronological order. The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are, by tradition, believed to be written by Moses and are usually believed to be the oldest books of the Bible. But this is not the case. The book of Job is the oldest book, some even believing it was originally written before the flood. The most compelling evidence for the antiquity of the book of job is its use of Hebrew words. In many cases the more ancient, concrete meaning of a word is found in the book of Job. As an example the Hebrew word "pachad" is used to mean fear or awe, an abstract concept, but is used in its concrete form only in Job 4:14 - "dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake."
Who wrote the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible)?
No where in scripture does it say that Moses wrote the entire Torah, this is only a tradition. However, Joshua (Joshua 8:34,35) and Yeshua (John 5:46) did confirm that he did write at least in part, but we are not told specifically what he did write. Therefore, we can prove from the text that Moses did write at least portions of the Torah.
Are there multiple authors of the Torah?
We all speak and write differently and the styles of writing can be compared to determine the authors of different texts.
As an example from English, one might say "I talked to mom," while another person might say "I spoke to my mother." We can
easily see that these are from two different people. We frequently see the same thing in the Torah. For instance, in Numbers 21:16 we read אמר יהוה למשה (amar yhwh l'mosheh) which means "Yahweh said to Moses." But in Exodus 4:30 we find the phrase דבר יהוה אל משה (diber yhwh el mosheh) which means "Yahweh spoke unto Moses." These differences in writing style are found throughout the text. In fact, we can even see the writing of one person throughout the text that is intermixed with the styles of writing from another person.This is the result of what is called the "Redactor." This person took the different writings from different people and mixed them together to create one account.
Where did the name "Jew" come from?
Yehudah (Latinized as Judah) was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and anyone descended from Yehudah was a Yehudiy.