Home    Topics    Contact    Support

Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav


By Jeff A. Benner

Does the term Paleo-Hebrew refer to all forms of Hebrew prior to Modern Hebrew? Answer

A Name="nikkud">Is it necessary to learn the Hebrew vowel pointings? Answer

Where did the Hebrew vowel pointings come from? Answer

How do you write Hebrew numbers? Answer

When were the final five letters added to the Hebrew alphabet? Answer

In your learn Hebrew lessons it is the letter "Vav" while in others I noticed it as "waw". Answer

Can the definition of a Hebrew word be determined by the pictures of the Hebrew letters? Answer

What does the letter "hey" mean when it is added to a word? Answer

Can the vowel pointings (the nikkudot) change the meaning of a word? Answer

Being there is no "E" in the Hebrew alphabet, why are the words El and Elohiym written with an "E?" Answer


As the word Paleo means "ancient," technically this is correct as all ancient forms of writing could be called Paleo. However, the term Paleo-Hebrew is specifically used to identify the form of Hebrew used between about 800 BC and 100 AD. The pictographic form used before this is often called the Siniatic script, pictographic script or early Hebrew.


<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. Their 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, children’s 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.


Where did the Hebrew vowel pointings come from?

Hebrew is written with 22 letters. Of these 22, 4 were originally served as vowels and 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, Siddurim (prayer books) and obscure words where the pronunciation 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.

n th bgnng Gd crtd th hvns nd th rth.

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.


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.

1 - aleph
2 - beyt
3 - gimel
4 - dalet
5 - hey
6 - vav
7 - zayin
8 - chet
9 - tet
10 - yud
20 - kaph
30 - lamed
40 - mem
50 - nun
60 - samech
70 - ayin
80 - pey
90 - tsade
100 - quf
200 - resh
300 - shin
400 - tav

When were the final five letters added to the Hebrew alphabet?

To answer this question a little history of the Hebrew alphabet is needed. Originally Hebrew was written with pictographs, what has become known as Paleo-Hebrew. When Israel was taken into Babylonian captivity they adopted the Aramaic script for most of their writing. This Aramaic script is actually the origin of the Modern Hebrew script used today. Technically the Hebrew alphabet used today is not Hebrew, it is Aramaic. When Israel adopted the Aramaic script it included the five final letters, called sofit in Hebrew, as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Aramaic began using these final letters appears to be a mystery.


In your learn Hebrew lessons it is the letter "Vav" while in others I noticed it as "waw".

In the Modern Hebrew alphabet the 6th letter is the vav and has a "v" sound. But, evidence suggests that in ancient times this letter had a "w" sound and was called the waw instead of the vav. In Arabic, a related language to Hebrew, this letter is called a waw and has a "w" sound. This letter was also used in ancient times to represent the vowel sounds "ow" and "uw." These two sounds are closely related to the sound "w" also suggesting an original "w" sound. This is similar to the letter Yud which can be the consonant "y" or the vowel "iy."


Can the definition of a Hebrew word be determined by the pictures of the Hebrew letters?

Based on my research, I am convinced that the original Hebrew letters were pictures, each with a specific meaning. It is also very apparent that when you combine these letters to form words, the pictures are related to the meaning of the words. However, because of the distance between our time and culture and theirs, it is very difficult to know exactly what these letters meant and even more so, their combinations. Therefore, the interpretations of these words, based on the letters alone, are very subjective.

While I have found looking at the meanings of the letters in a word helpful (and even a lot of fun), I do not advocated getting a definition of a word based solely on the letters themselves, but instead by examining the definition of the word from Lexicons and the context of how it is used in the text.


What does the letter "hey" mean when it is added to a word?

The letter ה (hey) may be added to a word for seven different reasons.

  1. The most common use of the letter hey is when it is prefixed to a word and is called the “definite article” and is used similarly to our English word “the.” This prefix is used twice in Genesis 1:1 where the phrase hashamayim v’et ha’arets is translated as “the skies and the land.”
  2. The letter hey is also prefixed to a word to identify a question and is called the “interrogative hey.” In Exodus 16:4 is the verb ha-yey-leykh. The verb yey-leykh would be translated as “he will walk,” but ha-yey-leykh would be translated as “will he walk?”
  3. The letter hey is frequently used as a suffix for the singular feminine pronoun (her). The Hebrew word yadey means “hands,” but the word yadeyah, as found in Genesis 16:9, means “her hands.”
  4. Another use of the letter hey as a suffix is the “directional hey” and is used to identify direction. The Hebrew noun erets means “land,” but the word artsah, as found in Exodus 4:3, means “unto the land.”
  5. The “paragogic hey” expresses additional emphasis, or some change in the sense, of a word. The Hebrew verb v’eylekh means “and I will walk,” but v’eylekhah, as found in Genesis 30:25, means “that I may walk.”
  6. Another common use of the letter hey is to make a masculine noun feminine. An example of this can be found in Exodus 21:29 where we have the phrase iysh ‘o iyshah. The word iysh means “man,” but the word iyshah means “woman.”
  7. When the letter hey is suffixed to a verb, it identifies the subject of the verb as feminine singular. While the verb amar means “he said,” the word am’rah, as found in Genesis 16:13, means “she said.”


Can the vowel pointings (the nikkudot) change the meaning of a word?

In Genesis 7:7 is the word וַיָּבֹא (vai'ya'vo), which means "and he came." The verb is the verb בוא (B.W.A) meaning "to come." This verb form is the Qal (simple) form.

In Genesis 2:19 is the word וַיָּבֵא (vai'ya'vey). Notice that this verb is spelled exactly the same except for the different final vowel. This is again the verb בוא (B.W.A) meaning "to come," but this is the hiphil (caustaive) form and means "and he caused to come" or "and he brought."

As I am sure you are aware of, the vowel pointings were invented about 1000 years ago by the Masorites and prior to this invention, Hebrew was only written with consonants. There are many times in the Dead Sea Scrolls where the letters Vav and Yud are used, but in the Masortic text they are removed and replaced with vowel pointings. A good example of this is the word Elohiym, which in the Masoretic text is written as אֱלֹהִים (note the hholam, the dot after the lamed), but in the Dead Sea Scrolls as אלוהים (Note the letter vav after lamed). I cannot prove this, but I believe the ancient spelling of the two verb forms I discussed above, were ויבוא (vai'ya'vo) and ויביא (vai'ya'vey).


Being there is no "E" in the Hebrew alphabet, why are the words El and Elohiym written with an "E?"

Four of the Hebrew letters in the Hebrew alphabet are called Matres Lectionis. They are the aleph, hey, vav and yud. These letters were used as a consonant and a vowel. The Aleph had an "a" or "e" sound. The Hey an "h" or "e" sound. The vav a "w" (or as some believe, a "v"), "o" or "u" sound. The yud had a "y" or "ee" sound. Because of all the various ways these letters can be pronounced it has caused some confusion to the pronunciation of some words.

In regards to what I have stated above, all of these pronunciations have been gleaned from how the Hebrew was transliterated into the Greek Septuagint 2,000 years ago, and how the Hebrews pronounced words based on the Masoretic Hebrew text of the Bible of 1,000 years ago.

Coming back to our original question, it is interesting to note that in the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet the Hebrew letter hey was a backwards "E" and is the origin of our letter "E."


If you would like to be notified of new articles from this website...
Join the Mail List

Search the AHRC Website

Web Ancient-Hebrew.Org