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, Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic are all examples of Semitic languages. They 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 morphology 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. In contrast to other ancient civilizations, Hebrew Scripture referred to one God, the Lord God of Israel. Hebrew tradition, the Torah itself, as well as Jesus and the New Testament writers named Moses as the divinely inspired author of the Law, Torah, or Pentateuch, which comprise the first five books of Hebrew Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see the Book of Genesis). It is believed that Moses lived in the latter part of the second millennium BC, circa 1450-1200 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 manuscript 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 circa 1400-1250 BC in an effort to communicate with their diverse trading partners that encircled the Mediterranean Sea. It was the Phoenician alphabet that was widely received and readily adapted throughout the Mediterranean world and the Levant, as it was only 22 letters based on sound, as opposed to the myriad of symbols in cuneiform and hieroglyphics prevalent at the time. The Hebrew alphabet known as Ketav Ivri or Paleo-Hebrew was identical to the Phoenician Alphabet.
Biblical Hebrew contains 22 letters, as noted in Psalm 119, all of which are consonants. The alphabet and language remained pure until the Babylonian Exile in 587 BC, when, following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, spoken Hebrew came under the influence of other languages, particularly Aramaic. Aramaic became the prevailing language, or “lingua franca” of the entire Middle East from about 700 BC through the time of Christ. Because of the Dispersion of the people of Israel to Babylon and Egypt, knowledge of pre-exilic texts was dependent on oral tradition. 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, known as Ketav Ashuri. Tradition holds that Ezra adopted the Aramaic square script alphabet in place of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet during the post-exilic Restoration of Israel in the fifth century BC. As the Aramaic alphabet became the Hebrew alphabet, Hebrew papyri and parchments were then primarily written in Aramaic script. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet has persisted to the present day solely with the Samaritans. The Biblical Hebrew text available to us today is thus written in the Hebrew language with the adopted Imperial Aramaic alphabet.
Please note that the letter ו in Biblical Hebrew was known as waw and pronounced as w, as יהוה – Yahweh, and ויקרא – Wayiqra, the original Hebrew name for the Book of Leviticus, whereas in modern Hebrew ו is known as vav and pronounced as v.
Note that the guttural letters א and ע are generally silent in contemporary pronunciation, and assume the sound of their related vowel. In fact, the laryngeal א and the pharyngeal ע had been two of the most difficult letters to pronounce.
Hebrew is written from right to left. There are no capital letters in Hebrew. Letters stand alone in printing or writing. Observe that five letters, Kaf, Mem, Nun, Peh, and Tsade, have a final form when the letter occurs at the end of a word. For example, Peh at the beginning or middle of the word has the form of פ, but at the end of a word appears as ף.
Notice that in the pronunciation column, six letters (aleph, het, tet, ayin, tsade, and shin) do not convert directly into our alphabet, and have been given symbols for transliteration, which are sometimes employed in biblical or scholarly works. Please observe in the following chart the distinctions in the pronunciation and transliteration of the three forms of the letter shin: unpointed shin (as in original texts or modern unpointed contemporary script), shin with a dot over the right-hand corner, and shin with a dot over the left-hand corner.
In addition, three letters, Bet ב, Kaf כ, and Peh פ, vary in pronunciation depending on the presence of a dot. The point or dot within a letter, as seen in the three letters Bet, Kaf, and Peh, is known as a dagesh. The functions of a dagesh include: (a) to signal the doubling effect of a consonant, as in the letter p in יוֹם כִּפּוּר, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; or (b) to emphasize pronunciation, as the letter Bet with the dot is hard b, as in ball, whereas Bet without the dot is soft and becomes v, as in have. Note the pronunciations in the following chart:
Numbers one through ten have two forms – masculine and feminine, depending on the noun to which they refer. Number one אֶחָד may mean one or first, as in Genesis 1:5, the First Day. Sometime during the Maccabean period (the second century BC), the letters of the alphabet began to represent numbers, such as the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet began to signify numbers one through ten, as seen in the presentation of the Ten Commandments of God:
TIME OF MANUSCRIPT
Two characteristics of ancient Hebrew were the pure use of consonants, and the use of an epicene personal pronoun (a personal pronoun that does not distinguish for male and female) – the same word is used for both “he” and “she.” This use of an epicene personal pronoun הוא first appears in Genesis 2:11, occurs in Genesis 3:15, and appears 120 times throughout the Pentateuch of Moses in Hebrew Scripture, but not in the Prophets or Writings.
The only pre-exilic Biblical passage that has been discovered to date is the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26, which is found throughout the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. 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 is pre-exilic; the amulets are inscribed in the Paleo-Hebrew consonantal text. Of great importance, the Divine name YHWH was inscribed on the amulets!
Beginning in the pre-Exilic period, the following three consonants, ה hey, ן waw, י yod, were used at the end of a word to indicate final vowels. Beginning in the post-Exilic period, waw and yod were also used as vowel indicators within a word.
The oldest Biblical Hebrew manuscript in our possession came with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of writings from the Essenes, a monastic religious sect of Judaism that emerged near Qumran about 200 BC. 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 Manual of Discipline, also called the Community Rule, and a Commentary on Habakkuk. Soon thereafter, four more scrolls were uncovered – the Hymn Scroll, another partial scroll of Isaiah, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the War Scroll, an eschatological text that deals with the final battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. Together these seven comprise the seven original Dead Sea Scrolls now preserved in Jerusalem. Thus began the greatest discovery of ancient manuscripts of the twentieth century – nearly 900 scrolls were uncovered in 11 caves in Qumran. The Dead Sea Scrolls included portions of each book of the Pentateuch written in the pre-exilic Hebrew alphabet known as Ketav Ivri or Paleo-Hebrew, as well as scrolls written in the post-exilic Ketav Ashuri or Aramaic Square script, and even some written in both forms of script. These recently discovered scrolls of the Essenes were written purely in consonants.
During the ninth and tenth centuries AD, the Masoretes, Jewish scholars in Tiberias, Galilee, perfected a system of points or nikkud for vowel notation and added it to the received consonantal text. The vowel points were added to ensure proper interpretation and reading of Hebrew Scripture, and are known as the Masoretic or Tiberian vowel points. This point system was added without altering the spacing of the text.
All of these considerations help biblical scholars to date a particular Hebrew text. For instance, the presence of “pointed text” allows biblical scholars to date manuscripts to at least the latter part of the first millennium AD.
Vowels in Masoretic Hebrew Scripture are a combination of the historically long vowels, Hey, Waw, and Yod, and the Masoretic or Tiberian Vowel Points. Vowels are long or short in quality and quantity. Hey ה, Waw ו, and Yod י became known as “matres lectiones,” or “mothers of reading,” as they assisted in reading Scripture. The individual letter used as a vowel was known as a mater. Waw served as a vowel and was pronounced as long o or u, whereas Yod as a vowel was pronounced as long e or i. Hey served as a final long a. The Masoretic vowel points in conjunction with the mater helped to clarify and preserve the proper pronunciation, so that, for example, waw with a dot over it וֹ was pronounced as long o, and waw with a dot beside it וּ was pronounced as long u. The vowel points for Hey and Yod occur underneath the prior letter.
The Shewa ְ sign, a colon under the letter, is written in the absence of a distinct vowel sound, and may be vocal or silent. Shewa under the first letter of a word or syllable, or following a long vowel, is vocal, and becomes a semi-vowel, and is pronounced as half of a short e. Shewa under a letter that closes a syllable is silent. With the guttural letters aleph א, hey ה, het ח, and ayin ע, vocal shewa is combined with three vowel signs (Patah, Segol, and Qamets) to produce three hurried vowels known as the hateph vowels.
The following chart summarizes the Masoretic vowel points. Notice in the following chart that the majority of vowel points appear under the letter, except for long o when it occurs over and to the left of the letter. We recommend the reference textbooks below for an in-depth study of Biblical Hebrew.
With the Masoretic vowel points, the vowel follows the consonant in pronunciation, as, for example, לָ is pronounced la, לֻ is lu, and מִ is pronounced mi. As these are consonants that end with a vowel, these are examples of open syllables. Syllables are of two types in Hebrew: open and closed. A closed syllable is one that ends with a consonant, as בֵּנ is ben, the word for son; and סוּס is sūs, the word for horse.
This multiple form of vowel notation accounts for much of the variation in word formation in the Masoretic text. For example, Joshua in Judges 2:7 is spelled two different ways in the same sentence! The mater Shureq וּ is utilized for the vowel u in the first spelling, while the short vowel point Qibbuts ֻ is incorporated for the second spelling.
The following list of vocabulary words includes a first chart of personal pronouns, and a second chart of 50 words in Masoretic Hebrew pointed text, 25 of which are from the Books of Genesis and Exodus. Hebrew is quite distinctive in that it has two words for the first person singular pronoun. The third person feminine singular pronoun was written as הִוא in the Torah, and subsequently as הִיא. Hebrew words with the same root often have related meanings. For example, יָלַד means to give birth; יֶלֶד is a boy; יַלְדָה means girl; יְלָדִים is children or boys, and יַלְדוּת means childhood or youth. The accent is primarily on the last syllable. Nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine.
Biblical Hebrew verbs express either completed action known as the perfect tense or incomplete action known as the imperfect tense. The perfect tense generally expresses past action, and the imperfect tense generally expresses future action. However, when these verbs appear in narrative sequences, as in the Book of Genesis, they are converted by the waw-consecutive to the opposite tense. When the waw ו conjunctive is prefixed to the perfect, it changes its meaning to imperfect. Likewise, when the waw conjunctive is prefixed to the imperfect, it changes its meaning to the perfect. Note the difference in the following example: he will write becomes and he wrote by the waw-consecutive of narration.
A careful study of the pronunciation of the Hebrew words should give one an appreciation for the phonetics of Hebrew letters and vowels. Note that Yeshua, the true name of Jesus, appears throughout the Old Testament, for it means the Lord saves!
The following passage is Genesis 3:15 presented in Masoretic “pointed text.” We have preserved the ancient epicene personal pronoun הוא in a consonantal text, as one cannot know whether the pronoun in the original script referred to “woman” or “seed (offspring).” Remember Hebrew is written from right to left, so the English translation is best understood when read in a similar fashion. The links at the end offer more passages in Hebrew for your study.
1 Minto A. Genesis 1-11. Course Lectures and Texts, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2004.
2 Henson J. Biblical Hebrew. Course Lectures and Notes. University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, 2008.
3 Mansoor M. Biblical Hebrew – Step by Step, Volume One, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980, 24th Printing, 2007; Volume Two, Third Edition, 1984, 13th printing, 2002.
4 Ross A. Introducing Biblical Hebrew. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001.
5 Lambdin TO. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1971.
6 The Hebrew Bible. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Masoretic Text, Fifth Edition. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1997.
7 JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2000.
8 Rendsburg GA. A New Look at Pentateuchal HW’. Biblica 63:351-369, 1982.
9 Kohlenberger JR. NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1987.
10 Brown F. Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 2000.