THE ALPHABET OF BIBLICAL HEBREW

This page is an introduction to the alphabet of Hebrew Scripture. Hebrew is a Semitic language. The word Semitic comes from the name Shem, named in Genesis (6:10) as the son of Noah , whose descendants lived in the Middle East. Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic are Northwest Semitic languages, and Arabic is Southwest Semitic. All are examples of Semitic languages, which have similar characteristics, such as the presence of guttural letters formed in the pharynx or larynx; a consonantal system with three -letter word roots to connote meaning; and changes in the form or morpho logy of the word root through the addition of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes to determine the precise sense and function of the word. Hebrew was the original language of the Israelites. Hebrew tradition, the Torah itself, as well as Jesus and the New Testament writers name Moses as the divinely inspired author of the Pentateuch (see Genesis and Genesis 3:15). It is believed that Moses lived in the latter part of the second millenium BC (1500-1200 BC). Archeology has yet to discover the precise time that Moses lived and led his people during the Exodus from Egypt, or the actual script utilized by Moses to write the Torah. Furthermore, no original manuscr ipt by the author of any biblical book has yet been discovered! Phoenicia (now Lebanon) was a peaceful sea-faring nation expert in navigation and trade that developed their alphabet around 1400 BC in an effort to communicate with their diverse trading partners that encircled the

when. as opposed to the myriad of symbols in cuneiform and hieroglyphics prevalent at the time. known as Ketav Ashuri. It was the Phoenician alphabet that was widely received throughout the Mediterranean world. as noted in Psalm 119. following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon. The alphabet and language remained pure until the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Tradition holds that Ezra adopted the Aramaic square alphabet in place of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet during the post-exilic Restoration of Israel in the fifth . This occasionally gave rise to an ambiguity of interpretation for a text written purely in consonants. The Hebrew language adopted the square script alphabet of Imperial Aramaic.Mediterranean Sea. Aramaic became the prevailing language. The Hebrew alphabet known as Ketav Ivri or Paleo-Hebrew was nearly identical to the Phoenician alphabet that follows: Biblical Hebrew contains 22 letters. Because of the Dispersion of the people of Israel to Babylon and Egypt. all of which are consonants. spoken Hebrew came under the influence of other languages. knowledge of pre-exilic texts was dependent on oral tradition. particularly Aramaic. or "lingua franca" of the entire Middle East from about 700 BC to 700 AD. as it was only 22 letters based on sound.

Hebrew papyri and parchments were then primarily written in Aramaic script. Aramaic does persist in the liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Chaldean. the Aramaic language was largely replaced by Arabic with the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD. . The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet has persisted to the present day solely with the Samaritans. especially among the Assyrians and Chaldeans. Jesus and his Apostles spoke Aramaic. The Biblical Hebrew text available to us today is thus written in the Hebrew language with the adopted Aramaic alphabet. Maronite. As the Aramaic alphabet became the Hebrew alphabet. and Syriac Churches. However. and remains a spoken language among scattered villages throughout the Middle East.century BC.

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and shin) do not convert directly into our alphabet.Please note that the letter in Biblical Hebrew was known as waw and pronounced as w. Nun. Notice that in the pronunciation column. as in ball. In fact. Note the pronunciations in the following chart: . Please observe in the following chart the distinctions in the pronunciation and transliteration of t he three forms of the letter shin: unpointed shin (as in original texts or modern unpointed contemporary script). have a final form when the letter occurs at the end of a word. Letters stand alone in printing or writing. and Tsade. Kaf. the original Hebrew name for the Book of Leviticus. Kaf. whereas Bet without the dot is soft and becomes v. as in have. and Peh . tsade. six letters (aleph. and assume the sound of their related vowel. the laryngeal and the pharyngeal had been two of the most difficult letters to pronounce. as in the letter p in . Peh at the beginning or middle of the word has the form of . or (b) to emphasize pronunciation. as seen in the three letters Bet. and have been given symbols for transliteration. whereas in modern Hebrew is known as vav and pronounced as v. There are no capital letters in Hebrew. shin with a dot over the right-hand corner. Kaf . as Yahweh. ayin. het. vary in pronunciation depending on the presence of a dot. Observe that five letters. which are sometimes employed in biblical or scholarly works. is known as a dagesh. The point or dot within a letter. Yom Kippur. Bet . The functions of a dagesh include: (a) to signal the doubling effect of a consonant. as the letter Bet with the dot is hard b. and Wayiqra. three letters. and Peh. For example. Peh. In addition. tet. the Day of Atonement. but at the end of a word appears as . Note that the guttural letters and are generally silent in contemporary pronunciation. Mem. and shin with a dot over the lefthand corner. Hebrew is written from right to left.

depending on the noun to which they refer. Number one may mean one or first.masculine and feminine. the First Day. Sometime during the Maccabean period (the second century BC). the letters of the alphabet began to represent numbers. as seen in the presentation of the Ten Commandments: TIME OF MANUSCRIPT .Numbers one through ten have two forms . as in Genesis 1:5. such as the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet began to signify numbers one through ten.

the Genesis Apocryphon. an eschatological text that deals with the final battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness.Two characteristics of ancient Hebrew were the pure use of consonants. the amulets are inscribed in the PaleoHebrew consonantal text. waw. Two silver amulets with the Priestly Blessing were uncovered in a burial chamber on the western slope of the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem in 1979. This archeological find has been dated from about 600 BC. and a Commentary on Habakkuk.nearly 900 scrolls were uncovered in 11 caves in Qumran. a monastic religious sect of Judaism that lived near Qumran about 200 BC. The oldest Biblical Hebrew manuscript in our possession came with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. and is pre-exilic. the Masoretes. Of great importance. occurs in Genesis 3:15. the Divine name YHWH was inscribed on the amulets! Beginning in the pre-Exilic period. but not in the Prophets or Writings. Jewish scholars in . Thus began the greatest discovery of ancient manuscripts of the twentieth century . as well as scrolls written in the post-exilic Ketav Ashuri or Aramaic Square script. four more scrolls were uncovered . and the War Scroll.the same word is used for both "he" and "she. a collection of writings from the Essenes. Together these seven comprise the seven original Dead Sea Scrolls now preserved in Jerusalem. In 1947 a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed ed -Dhib accidentally discovered three scrolls in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea: a complete scroll of the Book of Isaiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls included portions of each book of the Pentateuch written in the pre-exilic Hebrew alphabet known as Ketav Ivri or PaleoHebrew. the following three consonants. The only pre-exilic Biblical passage that has been discovered to date is the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.the Hymn Scroll. also called the Community Rule. yod were used at the end of a word to indicate final vowels. hey. the Manual of Discipline." This use of an epicene personal pronoun first appears in Genesis 2:11. and appears 120 times throughout the Pentateuch of Moses in Hebrew Scripture. waw and yod were also used as vowel indicators within a word. During the ninth and tenth centuries AD. and even some written in both forms of script. and the use of an epicene personal pronoun (a personal pronoun that does not distinguish for male and female) . another partial scroll of Isaiah. Beginning in the post-Exilic period. Soon thereafter. which is found throughout the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. These recently discovered scrolls of the Essenes were written purely in consonants.

VOWELS Vowels in Masoretic Hebrew Scripture are a combination of the historically long vowels. so that. Galilee." or "mothers of reading. We recommend the three reference textbooks below for an in-depth study of Biblical Hebrew. except for long o when it occurs over and to the left of the letter.Tiberias. The individual letter used as a vowel was known as a mater. Hey . Hey served as a final long a. All of these considerations help biblical scholars to date a particular Hebrew text. The vowel points for Hey and Yod occur underneath the prior letter. waw with a dot over it was pronounced long o. Shewa under a letter that closes a syllable is silent. Hey. For instance. and is pronounced as a half of a short e. and may be vocal or silent. The following chart summarizes the Masoretic vowel points. Vowels are long or short in quality and quantity. Waw . Waw served as a vowel and was pronounced as long o or u. for example. and Qamets) to produce three hurried vowels known as the hateph vowels. Notice in the following chart that the majority o f vowel points appear under the letter. This point system was added without altering the spacing of the text. and the Masoretic or Tiberian Vowel Points. is vocal. Segol. The Masoretic vowel points in conjunction with the mater helped to clarify and preserve the proper pronunciation. The Shewa sign. the presence of "pointed text" allows biblical scholars to date manuscripts to at least the latter part of the first millennium AD. is written in the absence of a distinct vowel sound. and Yod became known as "matres lectiones. Waw. and Yod. whereas Yod as a vowel was pronounced as long e or i. and becomes a semi-vowel. a colon under the letter. hey . and are known as the Masoretic or Tiberian vowel points." as they assisted in reading Scripture. vocal shewa is combined with three vowel signs (Patah. The vowel points were added to ensure proper interpretation and reading of Hebrew Scripture. and ayin . het . perfected a system of points or nikkud for vowel notation and added it to the received consonantal text. and waw with a dot beside it was pronounced long u. . or following a long vowel. With the guttural letters aleph . Shewa under the first letter of a word or syllable.

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the son of Nun. For example. Joshua. the vowel follows the consonant in pronunciation. and is pronounced mi. is lu. the word for horse. Note the verbs: to create in the . while the short vowel point Qibbuts is incorporated for the second spelling. means to give birth.With the Masoretic vowel points. as. For example. and means childhood or youth. and subsequently as . This multiple form of vowel notation accounts for much of the variation in word formation in the Masoretic text. is spelled two different ways in the same sentence! The mater Shureq is utilized for the vowel u in the first spelling. Hebrew words with the same root often have related meanings. the word for son. is children or boys. is boy. The third person feminine singular pronoun was written as in the Pentateuch. VOCABULARY The following list of vocabulary words includes the personal pronouns and a chart of 40 words in Masoretic pointed text. in Judges 2:7. As these are consonants that end with a vowel. Hebrew is quite distinctive in that it has two words for the first person singular pronoun. as is ben. for example. is pronounced la. Nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine. these are examples of open syllables. A closed syllable is one that ends with a consonant. means girl. primarily from the Books of Genesis and Exodus. Accent is primarily on the last syllable. and is s s. Syllables are of two types in Hebrew: open and closed.

perfect tense representing completed action. appears throughout the Old Testament. for it means the Lord saves! . and to call in the waw-consecutive tense of narration. to write in the imperfect tense of discourse. A careful study of the pronunciation of the Hebrew words should give one an appreciation for the phonetics of Hebrew letters and vowels. the true name of Jesus. Note that Yeshua.

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2 Mansoor M. as one cannot know whether the pronoun in the original script referred to "woman" or "seed (offspring). 2002. 2004. so the English translation is best understood when read in similar fashion. Baker Book House." Remember Hebrew is written from right to left. 1984. 2007. Michigan. Baker Book House. Volume One." We have preserved the ancient epicene personal pronoun in consonantal text. Michigan. 13th printing. Biblical Hebrew . Grand Rapids.SCRIPTURE READING The following passage is Genesis 3:15 presented in Masoretic "pointed text. Ohio. 1980. Grand Rapids. References 1 Minto A. Course Lectures and Texts. 24th Printing. Franciscan University.Step by Step. Steubenville. 3 Ross A. Introducing Biblical Hebrew. The links at the end offer more passages in Hebrew for your study. Volume Two. 2001. Genesis 1-11. . Volumes I and ll. Third Edition.

7 Pentateuch. 2000. Upper Saddle River. Masoretic Text. NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament. 9 Kohlenberger JR. Biblica 63:351-369. Peabody. 5 The Hebrew Bible. Massachusetts. 1997. Ireland. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The Bible Book of Genesis Genesis 1:1-5 Creation Genesis 3:15 . 6 JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. 1987. Fifth Edition.4 Lambdin TO. A New Look at Pentateuchal HW'. Michigan. Hendrickson Publishers. Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Brown. Driver. Jewish Publication Society. Navarre RSV Bible. New Jersey. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. Four Courts Press. 8 Rendsburg GA. 1982. 1999. Grand Rapids. Dublin. Prentice-Hall. 10 Brown F. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft. Philadelphia. 2000. 1971. Zondervan.

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