A Deep Study of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet


The first letter in the Hebrew Aleph Bet is aleph. Aleph is silent. It has a numeric value of one. It alludes to the deepest mysteries, the ones that are ineffable. It is formed by two yuds divided by a diagonal vav. (Yud is the tenth letter of the aleph bet and the first letter in the tetragramaton, YHWH and vav is the sixth letter.) The “upper” yud represents the hidden aspect of YHWH, what the Kabbalists call Ain Sof, the Unknowable or the Ineffable. The “lower” yud represents the revealed of YHWH such as compassion, mercy and love. It also includes the wonders of the natural world.

The two yuds are divided and also linked by a diagonal vav. Vav represents both humanity and connection. The association with humanity comes from Adam being created on the sixth day of creation. Vav when added to the front of a Hebrew means “and”. Two vavs together spell the word “hook”.

The silent aleph teaches us that the hidden and revealed aspects (represented by the upper and lower yuds) of YHWH are linked through humanity. When the vav is upright is symbolizes a person standing tall and proud. On an angle as it is in the aleph the vav symbolizes a person bent in humility because of the sacred role linking these two aspects of the Divine.

The two yuds also represent the paradoxical quality of our relationship with God, at once immanent and transcendent; near and far; revealed and hidden. The aleph also evokes, but keeps hidden the ultimate mystery: How did Oneness become a plurality? The Jewish answer is that it is a silent mystery.

Bet is the second letter. It has the numeric value of two. The architecture of the bet is very important. It is constructed of three vavs in the shape of a house with only one opening on the left side. If one lived in this “house” the top, bottom and right side vavs would block any view. Everything behind those “walls” would be unseen, mysterious and hidden.

This is important because the Torah begins with a letter only open on its left side. Bet alludes to the essential mystical paradox hinted by the silent aleph. How did One (aleph), the unity of the Universe that was only God, who has no beginning or end, divide into two (bet), a world of plurality? The vavs on the top, right side and bottom symbolize our inability to penetrate this mystery. What we do know are the concrete images of nature and the narratives that flow out of that first bet with which the Torah begins.

Hebrew Letter: Gimel

Gimel is the third letter and as such has the numeric value of 3. The Talmud describes the gimel metaphorically as a rich person pursing a person in need, or in Hebrew daled. Not accidentally, the immediate next letter in the aleph-bet is also called daled. Hence the letter gimel is chasing the daled.

The Talmud also suggests the shape of the letter evokes an image of a camel, which in Hebrew is gamal. (gimel, mem, lamed). The letter implies a walking animal's head, neck, and forelegs. Gamal/camel also shares the same consonants that spell the name of the letter gimel and words associated in Hebrew for nursing, weaning, giving and benevolence.

Hebrew Letter:  Daled

One interpretation of the daled suggests it represents an open door.  This is in part because the Hebrew word for door is delet.  (The T and D sounds are made in the identical way so they are often seen as interchangeable.)  The shape also has the appearance of an open.

In Jewish thought the open door represents opportunity and choice, in other words, free  will.  We learn this indirectly from Exodus 21:6. It says that if a Hebrew slave asks to remain in servitude to serve his master after the term of his enslavement has ended the master is commanded to pierce his ear upon a door post, and this he remains a slave forever.  The person unwilling to embrace free will, that is pass through the doorway of choice, is in effect a slave.

Daled is also related to the word dalut, which means impoverish.  The person unwilling to pass through the door into a world of opportunity and choices is indeed spiritually impoverish.  

Choose one of the four major points on the compass rose and follow it out the door in pursuit of your dreams!

Hebrew Letter: Hey

Hey is the fifth letter. It has the numeric value of 5.

In ancient Hebrew the Hey was originally a picture of a person with arms extended upward as if to say "hey, here I am" or "aha, now I get it" In fact, the original meaning of the letter was behold, look, breath, sigh, reveal and revelation.

Hey is one of the three letters that functions as both consonant and vowel, thus enabling us to actually read and make sense of the Torah. Heyis also two of the four letters that make up tetragrammaton, YHVH. I'll say more about this a few letters from now.

When Hey a prefixed to words it usually means "the" and therefore marks something definitive or specific within a sentence. Affixed to the end of a noun it often indicates to go in the direction of the noun. For example, tzafonah means to go north and kadimah means to go forward. The letter Hey seems to express definitiveness, as if to say, "hey, pay attention to me I know what I'm talking about" or "follow me, I now where to go".

Hebrew Letter: Vav

Vav is the sixth letter. It has the numeric value of 6. 

Vav is one of my two favorite letters. The simple unassuming vav is part of two different vowels, cholom ֹ(וֹ)and shuruk (וּ) and it is also a consonant. Since Adam was created on the sixth day and the vav nominally looks like an upright person it also symbolically represents a person.

When vav is added to the front of a noun it means "and". But when it is added to a verb in the future tense it converts the verb into the past tense form. Confusing? Yes, but figuring this out was critical to helping us learn how to read and translate the Torah without vowels.

Vav is spelled vav vav. In addition to meaning the name of the sixth letter it also spells the Hebrew word for hook (the kind from which you might hang curtains). In general, all but six columns in the Torah begin with the letter vav. One mystical explanation for this is that it metaphorically teaches us the way to really glean meaning from Torah is to "slide" open the "curtain" hanging from the vavs represented by the words on the parchment.

Finally, vav is one of the letters in the tetragrammaton, yod-hey-vav-hey. In addition, the vav itself is really just an elongated yod, the tenth letter of the aleph-bet and another letter in the tetragrammaton. Interpreted mystically, this means that God/divinity/holiness is within or a part of each and everyone of us.


Hebrew Letter:  Zayin

Zayin is the seventh letter.  It has the numeric value of 7 and on account of this it is closely associated with Shabbat, the seventh day of the week. The word zayin (not to be confused with Zion which is spelled with the letter tzadi) means sharp weapon.

The letters comprising the word zayin are the root letters for the word mazon, which means food and sustenance and the word hazanah, which means nourishment.   This raises the question what, if any connection there is between a weapon and food.

A some what literal suggestion is that war (weapon) is sometimes needed to safe guard or acquire food.  I prefer a more metaphorical connection.  The best weapon to sustain and nourish good health is the food we eat.  Similarly the best "weapon" for preventing conflict is sharing food with others.  Perhaps this is the deep truth that the root letters of the Hebrew word for war, milchama/מלחמה, spell the word for bread, lechem/ל.ח.מ

Moreover, there is also a spiritual dimension to the  Zayin that pertains to our over well being and that is its association with Shabbat.  When we protect/defend/safe guard the concept of Shabbat,  it nourishes our soul no less than food nourishes our body.

Hebrew Letter:  Chet

Chet is the eigth letter.  It has the numeric value of 8.  Chet is one of my three favorite letters. It is also one that is very familiar to a lot of people because it, plus the letter yod, are worn together on a necklace because together they spell the word for life.

Yod has the numeric value of 10:  8 (chet) +10 (yod) = 18.  Hence, the number 18 is associated with life in Judaism.  Interestingly, the letters that spell  the name of the letter, (chet), also equals 18:  8 (chet) + 9 (tet) + 1 (aleph). 

The reason I like this letter is because inherent in both its meaning and its numeric connection to the word for life is a very important and powerful lesson.  Chet, besides the name of the eighth letter also originally meant "to miss the mark", though more often it gets translated as sin.  There are two things that only the living can do.  The Tanakh specifically mentions that only the living can praise God.  (See Isaiah 38:19 and Psalm 115:17).  It is also true that only the living can make mistakes, i.e. **miss the mark**.  As Alexander Pope wrote in, _An Essay on Criticism_, "to err is human...". 

To truly be alive we need to fail and make mistakes.  When we live so cautiously as to rarely error we are not truly living.  We deny ourselves important and meaningful learning opportunities. We deprive ourselves of a wide range of emotional experiences.  Sadly, we also limit our capacity for empathy with others.  This is why I like the letter chet. Now go out there and make mistakes!