The Hebrew alphabet is called the alefbet in Hebrew because of the first two letters, alef and bet. The Hebrew language, unlike English, is written from right to left, not left to right.
It is no accident that the Hebrew word ‘alef-bet‘ sounds so similar to the English ‘alphabet’. The ancient Hebrew alphabet had close affinity to the Phoenician alphabet, which the ancient Greeks also used as the basis of their alphabet. The first two letters of the Hebrew and ancient Phoenician alphabet were aleph and bet, which in the ancient Greek alphabet were renamed alpha and beta, names which ultimately gave rise to the English word alphabet.
Orthodox Jews, however, see God’s hand in the distinctive shape of Hebrew. They feel God created the world through the Hebrew language and alphabet. They believe its letters must therefore predate other scripts.
The Hebrew alphabet developed over time, and may have resembled early Aramaic. Eventually, around the 2nd century B.C.E., Jews adopted Ashuri (Assyrian) square letters. Thus modern readers of Hebrew can easily make out the words of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written about that time.
There are 22 basic letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and five special final forms (for the letters kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzade). Some letters are hardened by the insertion of a dot (vet becomes bet, khaf becomes kaf).
All letters are consonants, though the yud and vav are also used as vowels. Small points (nekudot) above or below letters tell readers what vowels to use. These are mainly used in the Tanach and in the siddur (prayer book).
The square Hebrew letters have remained remarkably consistent since their origin. It is as easy to read Hebrew documents from ancient Yemen or medieval Germany, as it is to read the Israeli daily newspaper, “Ha’aretz”. That said, there are other scripts in usage. Soferim (expert scribes) employ a special writing style known as sta’m in Torah scrolls, mezuzot and tefillin (phylacteries). These letters’ upper points have crown-like decorations. In addition, extra markings above and below the words indicate the trop, or tune for recitation. Talmudic commentaries employ the distinctive semi-cursive Rashi script (named after the famous rabbi). When writing by hand, Hebrew is written in a form of the alefbet known as cursive (see our page ‘Overview of the Hebrew Alphabet‘ to compare this with the square or block characters normally used when not writing by hand).
The Hebrew alphabet is not only used for Hebrew. All types of Jewish languages use its lettering system, no matter their linguistic origins. Languages written using the Hebrew alphabet include Germanic Yiddish and Romantic Ladino (both Indo-European tongues), Aramaic and Judaeo-Arabic.
One disadvantage of Hebrew compared to its Semitic cousin, Arabic, is that even Hebrew cursive characters cannot link up. All the letters remain separate, making it hard to write very fast. However, Jews discovered that this problem turned into a benefit with the arrival of Hebrew printing. Suddenly, the Hebrew alphabet proved uniquely well suited to this new technology.
For years Jews lacked a separate number system, and instead used letters to signify numbers. Substituting numbers for letters led in turn to gematria, a method of deriving mystical insights into and new interpretations of holy texts.
The Hebrew alphabet is an amazingly adaptable system for conveying thought. More than that, it still inspires wonderful calligraphy, and there is an entire folklore devoted to explaining the spiritual significance of each letter.
Letters and sounds of the alefbet
Alef – silent
Bet – B
Vet – V
Gimmel – G
Dalet – D
Hey – H
Vav – V
Zayin – Z
Chet – Ch (as in ch when one clears the throat or the Scottish word loch, not as in chair)
Tet – T
Yud – Y
Kaf – K
Chaf – Ch (same as for chet, above)
Lamed – L
Mem – M
Nun – N
Samech – S
Ayin – silent
Peh – P
Feh – F
Koof – K
Resh – R
Shin – sh
Sin – S
Taf – T
Some of these letters have different versions used if they appear at the end of a word, such as kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzade. When each of these are written at the end of a word, they are called sofit (meaning ‘final’). So, we have kaf sofit (final kaf), mem sofit (final mem), nun sofit (final nun), peh sofit (final peh) and tzade sofit (final tzade). In each of these letters, with the exception of mem sofit, the letters have a long tail.
People who speak Hebrew fluently do not need vowels to read. However, those who are not fluent need vowels: a system of dots and dashes called nekudot (points) was developed to guide readers as to which vowels to add in between the consonants. The dots or dashes are written either above, below or inside the letter.
A dagesh is the name given to the dot that sometimes appears inside a letter for grammatical reasons (the dagesh affects the pronunciation of some letters but not of others). With the letters bet, kaf and peh, the dagesh tells us that these letters should be said with their hard sounds, for example: bet with a dagesh is pronounced vet; kaf without a dagesh is pronounced chaf; peh without a dagesh is pronounced feh. Taf also has a soft sound in Ashkenazi pronunciation, thus it is pronounced as ‘s’ by Ashkenazi Jews when there is no dagesh present.
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 (i.e. texts in which the vowels are written) have a dot next to it (not to be mistaken for a dagesh). When it is pronounced ‘oh’, pointed texts have a dot on top. (And just to make things really challenging, sometimes the letter vav can take a dagesh, in which case it is still pronounced like the English letter ‘v’ – this looks identical to when it is pronounced ‘oo’, so you have to work out how to pronounce the letter from the context). Shin is pronounced ‘sh’ when it has a dot over the right branch and ‘s’ when it has a dot over the left branch.