Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav
By Jeff A. Benner
Is it necessary to learn the Hebrew vowel pointings? Answer
Where did the Hebrew vowel pointings come from? Answer
How do you write Hebrew numbers? Answer
When were the final five letters added to the Hebrew alphabet? Answer
In your learn Hebrew lessons it is the letter "Vav" while in others I noticed it as "waw". Answer
Can the definition of a Hebrew word be determined by the pictures of the Hebrew letters? Answer
What does the letter "hey" mean when it is added to a word? Answer
Can the vowel pointings (the nikkudot) change the meaning of a word? Answer
Being there is no "E" in the Hebrew alphabet, why are the words El and Elohiym written with an "E?" Answer
Is it necessary to learn the Hebrew vowel pointings?
The vowel pointings (called nikkudot or nikkud in the singular) were invented about 1000 years ago and were never in the original writings. Their main function is to help standardize pronunciation. But since Hebrew words are solely dependent on the consonants the vowel pointings are not necessary. In fact the Hebrew language today does not even use the vowel pointings except in grammar books, children’s books and the Bible. There are times when the vowel pointings do help with translation but only in a minor way. For instance if you see the Hebrew word hey-lamed-kaph (HLK) it could mean "he walked" (third person masculine singular, perfect tense) and would be pronounced halakh. But it could also be the participle meaning "walking" and be pronounced holeykh. But, the context will also aid in determining if it is halakh or holeykh. So, the vowel pointings help but are not necessary. This is similar to our word "play," which can be a verb or a noun. You don't know until it is in a sentence like "I am going to play Moses in the play." The first use is a verb while the second is a noun. The only other problem that can arise when the vowel sounds are ignored is that you will not know how to pronounce words. This is not a problem if you are only going to read and translate the text but you would not be able to read it out loud.
Where did the Hebrew vowel pointings come from?
Hebrew is written with 22 letters. Of these 22, 4 were originally served as vowels and consonants, such as our "Y" which can be a consonant as in "Yellow" or a vowel, as in "Fly." The aleph, hey, vav (archaically waw) and yud were these vowel/consonants, but not all words had these "vowels" and the vowel sounds were often "understood" and remembered by memory. Around 700 CE (AD) the Masorites, wanting to standardize Hebrew pronunciation, added dots and dashes (called nikkudot or nikkud in the singular) above and below the consonants to form vowels. Also at this time all 22 letters became consonants alone and no longer stood for vowels. The nikkudot are only used in Modern Hebrew for beginning Hebrew grammar books, Bibles, Siddurim (prayer books) and obscure words where the pronunciation is probably not known by most readers. Magazines, books, newspapers, signs, etc. will not use the nikkudot as the words can be recognized by their consonants only. You can see how easy it is for one fluent in the language by looking at the following sentence in English without the vowels.
In Ancient/Biblical Hebrew word meanings were more generalized. One Hebrew word can have a wide meaning. In Modern Hebrew more precise meanings of a word are made by adding different nikkudot to separate out the different meanings. For instance the Hebrew word "AYL" originally meant "a strong one" and is spelled with three letters; aleph-yud-lamed. In order to divide out more precise meanings of the word, different nikkudot have been added. The word "ayil" is a ram (strong one of the flock), "ayal" is a stag (strong one of the forest) and "eyal" is strength.
How do you write Hebrew numbers?
In Modern Hebrew numbers are written using the Hebrew alphabet. For example; the number 1 is written with the first letter aleph. The tenth letter, yud, is 10. The eleveth letter, kaph, is 20. Therefore the number 17 is written as yud-zayin (using the Hebrew letters of course). Below are the numbers represented by the alphabet.
When were the final five letters added to the Hebrew alphabet?
To answer this question a little history of the Hebrew alphabet is needed. Originally Hebrew was written with pictographs, what has become known as Paleo-Hebrew. When Israel was taken into Babylonian captivity they adopted the Aramaic script for most of their writing. This Aramaic script is actually the origin of the Modern Hebrew script used today. Technically the Hebrew alphabet used today is not Hebrew, it is Aramaic. When Israel adopted the Aramaic script it included the five final letters, called sofit in Hebrew, as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. When Aramaic began using these final letters appears to be a mystery.
In your learn Hebrew lessons it is the letter "Vav" while in others I noticed it as "waw".
In the Modern Hebrew alphabet the 6th letter is the vav and has a "v" sound. But, evidence suggests that in ancient times this letter had a "w" sound and was called the waw instead of the vav. In Arabic, a related language to Hebrew, this letter is called a waw and has a "w" sound. This letter was also used in ancient times to represent the vowel sounds "ow" and "uw." These two sounds are closely related to the sound "w" also suggesting an original "w" sound. This is similar to the letter Yud which can be the consonant "y" or the vowel "iy."
Can the definition of a Hebrew word be determined by the pictures of the Hebrew letters?
Based on my research, I am convinced that the original Hebrew letters were pictures, each with a specific meaning. It is also very apparent that when you combine these letters to form words, the pictures are related to the meaning of the words. However, because of the distance between our time and culture and theirs, it is very difficult to know exactly what these letters meant and even more so, their combinations. Therefore, the interpretations of these words, based on the letters alone, are very subjective.
What does the letter "hey" mean when it is added to a word?
The letter ה (hey) may be added to a word for seven different reasons.
Can the vowel pointings (the nikkudot) change the meaning of a word?
In Genesis 7:7 is the word וַיָּבֹא (vai'ya'vo), which means "and he came." The verb is the verb בוא (B.W.A) meaning "to come." This verb form is the Qal (simple) form.
Being there is no "E" in the Hebrew alphabet, why are the words El and Elohiym written with an "E?"
Four of the Hebrew letters in the Hebrew alphabet are called Matres Lectionis. They are the aleph, hey, vav and yud. These letters were used as a consonant and a vowel. The Aleph had an "a" or "e" sound. The Hey an "h" or "e" sound. The vav a "w" (or as some believe, a "v"), "o" or "u" sound. The yud had a "y" or "ee" sound. Because of all the various ways these letters can be pronounced it has caused some confusion to the pronunciation of some words.