There are those who think that the Hebrew alphabet is a branch of linguistics, while others consider it an offshoot of mathematics with mystical implications.

The latter contend that we must somehow account for the fact that each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value – from 1 to 400. Based on this fact, a system of calculating the numerical value of Hebrew words and searching for other words or phrases of equal value was developed; according to this methodology, known as "gematria" (numerology), two words whose letters have equivalent numerical values are not only related but have hidden meanings or oracular powers – even if they have no etymolygical connection. How do we know for example that two people in love make up a new, mystical unity? Just look at the numerical value of love, (ahavah), 1+5+2+5=13, which is the same as that of one,(ehad), 1+8+4=13.
( Learn more about gematria).

Linguists too, when dealing with Hebrew letters, often wax mathematical. Avraham Even-Shoshan, in his Concordance to the Bible, takes pains to point out, for example, that the letter (alef) appears in the Tanakh (Bible) exactly 27,057 times.

Even-Shoshan points out that, in 19 words, the Torah records an alef where none is appropriate and that, in 26 words, an alef that should be present is missing. He also indicates that there is one letter alef in the Tanakh that is smaller than all the rest and one alef that is bigger. Surely there is meaning, however shrouded in mystery, in these phenomena.

Today, small letters are called (otiot shel tal u-matar), letters for dew and rain, because the Prayer for Rain (known in Hebrew as Tefillat Tal u-matar) in the prayerbook is indicated by small letters. On the other hand, letters appearing in any book in large print are referred to in Hebrew as (otiot shel kiddush levanah), letters for sanctifying the new moon. This is because the blessing for the Sanctification of the Moon is recited outdoors by moonlight, and the print in the prayerbook is therefore always large.

However succulent these numerical tidbits may be, it is as vocabulary items that Hebrew letters are truly fascinating. The English word "alphabet" comes (by way of Greece) from the first two Hebrew letters, and (alef, bet) and the word "camel" comes from the third letter (gimel), because that's what the letter supposedly looked like. Continuing into the letter (dalet), the Hebrew word for "to alphabetize" is (le-avged), after the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The Hebrew word for letter itself is, (ot), a word with a myriad of fascinating connotations and usages. Firstly, the noun (ot), letter, gives us the verb (iyet), to spell. Interestingly, the word representing letter begins with the first letter of the alphabet, (alef), and concludes with the last letter (tav). According to a medieval midrashic work, (otiot de-rabi akiva), the letter (het) alludes to its homonym, (het), sin. The letter (samekh) teaches that we are permitted (lismokh), to rely on, the merits of our ancestors.

How do we know that truth stands on a solid foundation and that falsehood totters and will eventually fall to the ground? The very shape of the letters tells us. If we compare the letters of (emet), truth, and (sheker), falsehood, we see (with a little good will) that, where the letters meet the line, truth stands on two legs while the letters of falsehood stand on only one. Those who don't see the difference here are reminded that in Hebrew there are not only (otiot defus), printed letters, but also (otiot ketav), written letters.

The Hebrew alphabet has other quirks as well. Five Hebrew letters (khaf, mem, nun, peh, tsadi), have special forms when they come at the end of a word: called (otiot sofiot). In addition, there are seven "prefix letters," (otiot ha-shimush), that are added on to the beginnings of words. These are indicated by the mnemonic device (moshe ve-calev), after Moses and the "good spy" Caleb. That Jewish tradition holds the letter and the printed word in high esteem is expressed most succinctly by the proverbial Hebrew expression (otiot mahkimot). "Letters will make you wise." You can count on it.



Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. His most recent book is Hebrewspeak: An Insider's Guide to the Way Jews Think (Jason Aronson, 1995).
You can visit his site at:

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