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Hebrew Alphabet — AlefBeit

Number of Hebrew letters

At the more obvious and literal level, there are of course precisely twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, beginning with Alef (ℵ), and ending with Tav. It may be of interest that it is precisely the common opening (A) and the various endings of the three alphabets of the educated European from earlier times - namely the common (vulgar) Latin (A-Z), the philosophical-scientific Greek (A-O), and the spiritual Hebrew (A-T), that combined formed that most wonderful word 'AZΩTh'.

Arranged sequentially in standard order, the Hebrew letters are:

Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet, Heh, Vav, Zain, Heth, Tet, Yod, Kaf, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samek, Ayin, Peh, Tzadi, Kof, Resh, Shin, Tav.

I the above sequence, I have bolded the three mother letters and italicised the seven double letters.

Each of these has three aspects of central importance also mentioned in the Sefer Yetzirah: their shape or image; their voiced sound; and their number value.

Mother, Double, and Single letters

Hebrew letters, in addition to also being used as numerals, have long been divided into three sections. Some of these divisions are made on linguistic grounds (or, rather, phonetic). For example, the letter Bet has two vocalisations, corresponding to our 'B' and 'V'. Both of these are bilabial — the sound arises from the two lips — one being plosive (B), the other fricative (V).

There are seven such letters that have a plosive and fricative form (Cf green arrows below). One of these, Resh, tending to have 'lost' its plosive aspect. As its plosive form is used in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Old Testament), it nonetheless remains a sacred letter.

Of the remaining letters, three have been designated mother letters (Cf red arrows below), reasons for which are only suggested by various exegesis (my own suggestion follows below). This leaves twelve letters to be deemed 'single'.

Letters of the Hebrew Alphabet:

AlefBeit

AlefBeit showing mother and double letters, plosive and fricatives letters, and final forms

Some interesting characteristic of showing all the possible letter-form is that we can easily see not only that there are twenty-two, but that these are increased in number to twenty-seven when we consider their final form (ie, if the letter occurs at the end of a word, it changes shape to the from below the dotted line), and a total of thirty-six letter-images arises when we list all their dageshed (the plosive dot) renditions.

Mother letters and the Golden Mean

It should perhaps first be called to mind that sounds (or words) arise by the admixture of letters, and that these form something akin to 'posts' between which sounds emerge. Placing the sequence of letters on a line and considering the spaces between, the Golden Mean of the spaces beginning between Alef and Beit and ending between Shin and Tav occurs between Mem and Nun.

Below I have marked the Golden Mean with fine green lines. Letters being read right-to-left, we can see how the three Mother Letters 'mark' the three parts of the sequence. Interestingly, these letters also correspond to the Fibonacci numbers (ordinal in this case) 1st, 13th and 21st.

Hebrew letters showing Golden Mean

Hebrew letters as numbers and the AIK BKR

There are two important numerical aspects related to Hebrew letters. One if these is their ordinal value. This refers to the value of each letter's relative position in the sequence. For example, Peh is 17th letter.

The other is the cardinal value of the letter. Ie, its value when the letter is used as number. In this case, Peh (to use the same example) has a value of 80.

The Nine Chambers (so called due to its nine cells) or 'AIK BKR', named after the first six letters in these chambers (remembering that Hebrew is read right-to-left) easily shows the cardinal value of each letter and its relation to others.

For the sake of clarity, the mother letters are here depicted red, and the double letters are each shown in their plosive form with the dagesh (or central dot).


Shin • Lamed • Gimel

ShinLamedGimel

300 • 030 • 003



Resh • Kaf • Beit

ReshKafBet

200 • 020 • 002


Kof • Yod • Alef

KofYodAlef

100 • 010 • 001


Mem (final) • Samek • Vav

Mem finalSamekVav

600 • 060 • 006



Kaf (final) • Nun • Heh

Kaf finalNunHeh

500 • 050 • 005



Tav • Mem • Dalet

TavMemDalet

400 • 040 • 004



Tzadi (final) • Tzadi • Tet

Tzadi finalTzadiTet

900 • 090 • 009



Peh (final) • Peh • Heth

Peh finalPehHeth

800 • 080 • 008



Nun (final) • Ayin • Zain

Nun finalAyinZain

700 • 070 • 007


AIK BKR - Table of Nine Chambers

These two numerical methods can at times lead to some confusion. Is Kaf eleven or twenty? This is, however, in practise not as confusing as may at first appear. The value of the letter is in every case taken as its cardinal value (Kaf is 20), and its ordinal shows its (in this case eleventh) place or position relative the other letters.

Sacred script (STaM) form of Hebrew letters

 

As for alphabets generally, a variety of fonts or type-faces exist. With Hebrew, sacred text such as the Torah are to be handwritten, with each letter following quite precise form. Admittedly, these developed over time, though based on both tradition and esoteric lore. The letters, written in black on white parchment, look approximately as shown on the left.

Please note that letters that have a final form are included here, so if unfamiliar with the Alefbeit, compare these to the letters in the above section. Many of the letters, written in this manner, reflect the combination of two or more letters.

I personally especially find this form appealing when looking at possible iconic similarities between a letter and a tarot trump — which I also show on the Noblet page.

AUM, the sound of creation, and the mother letters

One of the absolute delights in working with the letters is in carefully observing their action within the human body. Here I would also recommend that some work be done with Eurythmy, for the results can be astounding.

With simply the mother letters, what one observes is that it begins with the opening of the throat (Alef as about to sound forth), vibrates through the whole cavity of the mouth until one closes the lips and allows the bilabial to alter the sound from oral cavity to nasal (Mem), ready for the new influx of spirit to re-enter the lungs with an inhaling (Shin). This process perculates through the whole alefbeit (Hebrew alphabet), and is reminiscent of the 'OM' (or AUM) sound of creation.

om - sound of creationOM - as Alef Mem Shin

 

recommended book

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh The Alef Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters

for other Kabalah pages on this site

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