The Hebrew Alphabet —On the meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet—

Meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet.
09/24/2006 04:57 PM
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—On the meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet—
See below for a treatment
per letter.
The Hebrew alphabet is not simply a collection of abstract linguistic
elements, like the English alphabet is. All Hebrew letters have names and
identities, and in post-Biblical times were even rendered numerical value.
All letters alternate with some others during the history of the language,
but in the name chase, we usually don't see more than waws turning into
yods and vice versa, or hes and alephs do the same, and occasionally shins
and sameks. Some letters have a different, longer (final) form when they
occur at the end of a word.
The formation of the proto-Canaanite alphabet (around Abraham's time; the
19th century BC) was an incredible leap in understanding language. Before
the alphabet, words or phrases were represented wholly, as little pictures,
and the idea that all the many words consisted of a minute group of smaller
'atoms' was brilliant. The Hebrew alphabet is among the oldest in the
world, and it was either derived of, or equal to the original Phoenician
alphabet (even the word alphabet comes from the first two Hebrew letters:
aleph and beth). In his wonderful book In the Beginning - A Short History
of the Hebrew Language (see ad to the right), Joel Hoffman Ph.D. even
states that "...most of the reading and writing that goes on in the world
today can be traced back to the Hebrews' experiment with vowels."
In the Beginning
Joel Hoffman
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As told by Joel M. Hoffman, the Hebrews were the first to
incorporate vowels in their written text, and by doing this the
previously esoteric art of writing and reading became available
to the masses. The seemingly casual command to 'write'
something on doors or foreheads included the invention of a
writing system that could be learned by everybody. A very big
deal, and resulting in the most powerful tool of data
preservation up to this common age. Hebrew theology is by far
the most influential ever, and this is in part due to the Hebrew
invention of vowel notation. This power (this theology)
contrasted others by use of the vowel notation, using symbols
that were already used and until then only represented
consonants: the letters (waw), (yod) and (heh), and to
give an example: the word
is either the word dod, meaning
beloved (and the is a vowel), or it is the word dud, meaning
jar (and the is again a vowel), or it is the word dawid, which
is the name David (and the is a consonant).
These letters became markers for both the Hebrew identity and
the Hebrew religion, including the various names for God. One
of these names is the famous Tetragrammaton
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Meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet.
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of these names is the famous Tetragrammaton
—• YHWH—which actually exists only of vowels, and is
utterly exceptional in many ways, including the fact that it can
not be pronounced.
The word
(El) was the name of the prominent Canaanite
god, whose name was either derived of or became the common
word for god in general. The plural of this word is
; elim,
gods. With the addition of the letter , creating the word
, the Hebrews not only stated essential monotheism (by
naming a single God after the plural word "gods") but also
marked their God as theirs:• Elohim is the singular pantheon of
the vowel-people.
Something similar occured when the name of patriarch Abram (
) was expanded with the heh into• Abraham
,
and the name of matriarch Sarai (
) was expanded with the
heh to• Sarah (
).
Since the formation of the alphabet is such a feat and also because in those
days nothing at all was without meaning, many people expect that the
arrangement of the letters have meaning. Why was the aleph made the first
letter? Why beth second? These are intriguing questions and (try a Google
search for "Hebrew alphabet meaning") many project the most complicated
(if not far-fetched) spiritual journeys upon the alphabet. But before such an
attempt is made, the following should be taken into consideration:
The alphabet was compiled long before the Torah was written. The
monothestic idea had hardly surfaced (Abraham was a monotheist
but no mark on history remains), and monotheistic theology did not
exist.
Although the Bible recognizes the alphabet (see psalm 119), there is
no Biblical indication that the formation of the alphabet was inspired
by God, or that any possible meaning is truthful.
It is very well possible that the alphabet grew slowly; that letters
really are nothing but abstract notations that received their name
afterwards because they resembled familiar items.
It is evenly well possible that the letters existed but without an
arrangement. They may very well have existed like marbles in a bag.
Perhaps the existence of the various letters was agreed upon long
before any formal order. There may even have been more than one
orders commonly accepted, and only one form survived. The Book
of Lamentations, for instance, features a few acrostic poems that
follow more than one order of letters.
Perhaps the alphabet is not simply an abstract order, but an already
spoken word that was discovered to be the mother of all words; a
magic word that held all letters and only once. Perhaps it's a name.
Perhaps an incantation...
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We simply don't know why the letters were arranged like this. Any
meaning that is 'found' is conjecture and says more about the
enthusiasm of the explorer than about the alphabet.
God is typically not in the habit of hiding information. The alphabet
is like a painter's pallet and any arrangement of paints before they
are arranged into a painting may be cute to know but is fully
irrelevant to the actual painting. The saying 'to worship the ground
someone walks on' may indicate veneration in English, it certainly
does not in the Biblical arena.
The Bible is clear about it: any information you need is openly
addressed in the narrative surface of the Bible. Any phenomenon that
emerges at manipulating the letters or words beyond their function in
the story, is either contrary to the narrative and surely hasn't been put
there by God, or it is conform the narrative and you could have
learned it from simply reading Scriptures at much less trouble. In a
text as large as the Bible anything can be found if one wants it bad
enough, especially if there are no limitations in methods and
mechanisms used. 'Finding' something in the Bible is no proof that it
actually exists, especially within the Bible's intended message. And if
you're wondering how the perfect Word of God may or may not
contain secret information, you may want to have a look at Matthew
13:24-30.
Letter
Name
Hebrew Meaning (TWOTOT index)
Post-Biblical
Numerical
Value
Aleph
The root
('alap 108) is rare and means to learn or teach but perhaps not in a very 1
good way (Prov 22:25, Job 15:5, 33:33, 35:11). The identical word
('alep 109)
means to produce thousands (Ps 144:13 only). Derivation
(108a) means oxen (the
connection lies perhaps in guidance/ couple). Many suggest that the letter reminds of
the head of an ox.
Beth
The word
(bayit 241) means house in the sense of a building, but also household; 2
wife and children. This word also serves to mean House Of The Lord, or Temple. As
preposition the letter means 'in'. As such it is the first letter of the Bible. The first word
of the Bible comes from the name of the 20th letter: rosh.
Gimel
The verb
(gamal 360) means to deal, or recompense in the sense of benefitting
from. Derivation
(gamal 360d) means camel. It is said that the letter reminds of a
camel's neck.
Daleth
4
From root
(dala 431), draw (water). The word
(delet 431e) specifically
denotes a swinging door of a building. Since doors most commonly opened inward,
this 'thing-you-draw' is named after a going out of a house, or letting someone else in.
Other derivations are:
(dal 431a), door;
(dala 431b), door;
(dali 431c),
bucket;
(daliyot 431d), branch, bough.
Because a door in Bible times hinged in the upper corner, it is said that the letter daleth
reminds of that.
He
or
3
The spelling and thus the meaning of this word is uncertain. Klein spells
(he 461), 5
meaning lo! behold! Fuerst holds to , and thinks it's a part of the name for heth; letter
8. As prefix this letter serves as the definite particle, the, which is used far less than our
word the, and specifically when an emphasis or reference to a previous statement is
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Meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet.
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word the, and specifically when an emphasis or reference to a previous statement is
made.
Waw
The word (waw 520) means hook or peg, and is strictly reserved for the hooks/ pegs
that kept the curtains of the tabernacle in place. It is said that the shape of the letter
waw reminds of a hook or peg.
Zayin
Meaning debated. The word
does not occur in Scriptures. Klein suggests that the
7
form of the zayin represents a hand weapon, and explains that zyn means arm,
ornament, to arm, to adorn (no references to Scriptures). Fuerst goes after the assumed
root
(zwz 535) of
(ziz 523a), moving things (like animals) and
(mezuza
535b), doorpost. Root
(zww 536)yields
(ziz 536a) abundance, fullness.
Another word of interest is
(zun 539), to feed.
Heth
Meaning again unknown. According to Fuerst it means fence in, destroy. Fuerst also
8
thinks it has to do with a fence, but it could equally possible be the symbol of stacking
stones.
Teth
Klein derives from
(twh 794), spin, and renders teth to knot, knot together, to
twist into each other, to interweave. The letter teth indeed looks like a little vortex or
spiral.
9
Yod
One of two regular words for hand (the other being the 11th letter). (yad 844)
denotes the hand, typically not as outstretched, but rather as holding something or
being a fist. The word is synonymous with power or might; to fall in one's hands. It's
typical that the alphabet's smallest letter came to mean power, but perhaps it's shape
reminded of a little fist.
10
Kaph
One of two regular words for hand (the other being the 10th letter).
(kap 1022a)
denotes the hand as outstretched, asking and weak. The word basically encompasses
anything that is hollow or outstretched in order to receive something: dish, plate, etc.
20
500
Lamed
The verb
(lamad 1116) means learn or teach. Derivative
(talmid 1116c)
means scholar (hence Talmud), and derivative
means oxgoad. The letter lamed
is said to look like such a device, and when Jesus says to Saul, "it is hard for you to
kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14) He may hint at Paul's learning rather than
coercion.
30
Mem
(mayim 1188) means waters in the sense of a larger body (sea, ocean). It is
suggested that the letter mem looks like a wave.
40
600
Nun
The verb
means propagate, increase. Derivative
means offspring, posterity. The 50
letter is often said to mean and resemble a fish, but the word nun is not used as such in 700
the Bible. In stead, the word for fish comes from another verb which means multiply,
increase:
(daga 401)
Samekh
The verb
(samak 1514) means lean upon, support, uphold. It is the verb that is
used in the phrase "laying on of hands."
60
Ayin
The word
(ayin 1612) means eye in all regular senses, but also as means of
expression (knowledge, character, etc). The word
(ayin 1613) means spring or
fountain. The eye is one of four bodily "fountains," the other three being mouth, skin
and urethra (and only the mouth is not supposed to produce water outwardly).
Transpiration releases the body of excessive heat; urine evaluates toxins, and the eye
produces water commonly when grief or pain is prosessed. All have to do with
cleansing or purification.
70
Pe
The word
(peh 1738) means mouth, but is often synonymous with speech. With a
little good will one may recognize a face with a mouth in the shape of this letter.
80
800
Tsadhe
Klein derives from the verb
(sud 1885), to hunt, and states that
means fish
hook (no Biblical occurrence). Another name for this letter is
(saddiq 1879c),
just, righteous.
90
900
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Meaning of the Hebrew Alphabet.
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Qoph
This word occurs in Scriptures only as
(tequpa 2001a), meaning a coming
100
around, or circuit of space or time. Klein reports that the root verb
(qwp 2001)
covers a circular motion and that it also serves to denote the ear of an axe or needle, or
the back of the head. BDB relates it to
(naqap 1416), go around, compass. An
amusing other use of this name is as
(qop 2000), meaning ape (1 Ki 10:22);
probably a loan word.
Resh
The very common word
(rosh 2097) basically means head, but is used to indicate 200
whatever leads or comes first: captain, summit, cap stone. Preceded by the particle beth
and in the form
(reshit 2097e), first, beginning, best, it is the first word of the
Bible:
, Breshit; In the beginning.
The word
is also used to indicate a certain plant (called head) that yields poison:
(rosh 2098), gall, venom. TWOTOT and BDB note that this usage is always figurative:
Deut 32:32, Ps 69:21.
A third usage of this word is
(resh 2138a), poverty, from the root
(rush
2138), be poor.
Sin
300
As derivation from the verb
(shanan 2422), sharpen, the word
(shen 2422a)
means tooth or ivory. Both the verb and the noun are used primarily in a literal sense:
sharpening of swords and arrows, but sometimes figuratively: the sharpening of one's
tongue (saying sharp, mean words) or the sharpening of one's mind (Deut 6:7). The
noun is famous for its part in the lex talionis, the law of retaliation; a soul or a soul, an
eye for an eye (16th letter), a tooth for a tooth (21st letter), a hand for a hand (10th
letter), a foot for a foot, a branding for a branding, a stripe for a stripe (Ex 21:24). The
letter thanks its name perhaps to its looking like a row of teeth.
Shin
Taw
(taw 2496a) means mark, and its verb
(tawa 2496), scribble, limit, is probably
derived from the noun. TWOTOT suggests that the more ancient form of this letter
looked like an X, a shape which lends itself easily as a general mark. The word
(ta'awa 2496b) means boundary (that which is marked). The verb
is used only
once in the meaning of pain or wound (tawa 2497) in Ps 78:41.
400
•••
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