Devorah Learns Masorah

Discover the wisdom of the Torah one letter at a time

Aleph Bet

A Brief History of the Aleph Bet: Ancient to Modern

The Aleph Bet is simply the Hebrew ABC’s.

We read Hebrew from Right to Left (Alef, Bet, Gimel…)

Aleph Bet with letter names and pronunciations, courtesy of The Jewish Virtual Library

I once thought these letters were simple.

Now, after some investment of time, I’ve learned that the truth is more interesting, multifaceted, ancient, compelling, and complex than is commonly realized.

Let’s begin at the beginning…

Part One: א

Hebrew Letters as Pictures

  • Did you know that all Hebrew letters began as pictograms? A pictogram is a picture that represents a word or an idea by illustration.
    • For example, the first letter of the Aleph Bet, Aleph, is originally a pictogram of the head of an Ox.
    • Another example, the tenth letter, Yud, began life as a pictogram of a human hand, or “Yad”.

  • Scholars disagree on some of the original pictogram meanings of the Aleph Bet (as they are more that three thousand years old).
    • Take a look at the chart above, first at the Early, Middle, and Late forms of the Ancient Aleph Bet
      • What does each image, or pictogram, remind you of?
      • What do you think each picture means?

[ EXTRA: Notice that the chart above contains the languages Greek and Latin

  • Did you know that Hebrew is older than both Greek and Latin? Yes, these two languages, including English, evolved after the Hebrew language.
    • Look at the Greek and Latin Alphabets, and then back at the Hebrew Aleph Bet.
    • Are there any letters that are similar to your eye between all three alphabets? ]

Did you ever notice that our word “alphabet” comes from the Hebrew letters Aleph-Bet?

Paleo Hebrew

This early Hebrew writing is called “Paleo Hebrew“: Paleo is a word that means ancient: something that is very old, from a long time ago.

The chart below shows the Pictograph of each Hebrew letter, its name, the shape of how the letters look today (in Modern Hebrew).

The chart also shows which letter we use to represent each Hebrew letter in English.

Proto Hebrew: The Code of Ancient Israel

Another name for the old form of the Aleph Bet is Proto Hebrew“. Proto simply means ‘first’ or ‘earliest form’ of something, which makes sense because this is the earliest form of the Hebrew letters.

Proto Hebrew is the language that the Jewish people used to write on coins, on artwork, and on scrolls in the days of Ancient Israel.

Want to learn this secret code?

Few people can read it today without a key, but you can crack the code with the help of the charts above!

Mysterious Biblical Seal found in Russia! Top Find of 2015 ...
Seal with Roaring Lion, discovered in Megiddo, Israel. Can you decode the Proto Hebrew writing?


Hebrew Letters as Symbols

Here is another chart. It contains a lot of information, but let’s just focus on two rows: “Paleo” and “Symbolic Meaning”.

  • “Paleo”: Every letter is also symbol. This means they carry meaning. This is called symbolism.
  • “Symbolic Meaning”: The Hebrew letters communicate ideas, both when they are written alone and especially when they are grouped together into words.
  • Each letter has a sound and is pronounced a certain way (except for two letters, Aleph and Ayin, which are sometimes silent), but whether it is pronounced or not, every letter carries many meanings. Literal, figurative, pictorial, symbolic, spiritual, and more!
  • EXTRA CREDIT: Compare the meanings given to the letters in these two charts of Ancient Hebrew.
    • Do the meanings always agree? If not, in which letters are they different?
    • Which of the symbols of the Aleph Bet speak to you?
  • (Note: Hebrew is always written and read from Right to Left, but in this chart The Aleph Bet was written from Left to Right: Probably because it was designed for English readers who read from Left to Right!)

Part Two: בּ

Modern Hebrew

Isn’t this a beautiful group of letters?

As you can see, Hebrew letters look different today in Modern Hebrew than they did in the Proto Hebrew of Ancient Israel. But even though the shapes of the letters have changed a bit, the letters themselves, and their symbolic meanings, are the same.

  • Modern Hebrew letters look different from Ancient Hebrew letters, but the letters all mean the same thing, and sound pretty much the same way, as they always did (with a few exceptions).
  • Different groups of Jewish people pronounce Hebrew letters slightly differently, as is the same with every language that has speakers living in different places.
    • For example, the last letter of the Aleph Bet, Taf, is pronounced “Taf” with a hard T sound by most Israelis and Sephardi Jews, but is pronounced “Saf” with a soft S sound by many Ashkenazi American Jews.

Hebrew Letters are also Numbers

Did you know that every Hebrew letter also represents a number? This are called Numerals, or having a Numerical Value in English. In Judaism, this is called “Gematria“.

Here is how it works:

  • Aleph – Tet represent One through Nine (Single Digits)
  • Yud – Tzadi represent Ten through Ninety (Double Digits)
  • Kuf – Taf represent One Hundred through Four Hundred (Triple Digits)
  • All higher numbers are created with combinations of these
    • For example, the Jewish Calendar Year is represented by Letters:
      • Hei (5, symbolizing 5,000 in this case) plus Tav (400) plus Shin (300) plus Pei (80) plus Alef (1), for a total of:
      • Five Thousand, Seven Hundred, and Eighty One: 5781 / or 2021 in the Gregorian Calendar

  • EXTRA CREDIT: It might be fun to try some simple mathematics using the Symbols of the Aleph Bet!
    • Try these word problems (hint: there may be more than one way to answer these) :
      • What is the numerical value of a person raising up both arms?
      • How much is the letter for the two front teeth worth?
      • What is One Ox Head plus Two Eyes?
      • What number would you get if you took Two Feet and walked them through One Door?
      • What is the numerical value of One Head, One Mouth, Two Eyes, Two Hands, Two feet, and Twenty Four Teeth?
      • Can you predict what the Hebrew Letters for Next Year will be? (Hint: 5782)

Variations and Final Letter Forms

Some Hebrew letters of the Aleph Bet have different forms when they come at the end of a word. These are: Kaf, Mem, Nun, Pei, and Tzadi. These are called Final Forms.

Other letters sometimes have a dot inside them to tell us whether to pronounce them one way or another. For example, Bet has a dot, and Vet (the same letter) does not:

Part Three: ג

Torah Scroll Hebrew

My secret: This is my favorite form of Hebrew! Torah Scroll Hebrew has to be written by hand by a very learned Scribe on a parchment scroll for it to be Kosher.

  • Some letters have Crowns (see the three little lines with dots?) called Tagin – others do not
    • Guess what? There are exceptions to every single rule. Sometimes, we do find crowns on the other letters, but these are in very old scrolls…

  • Remember how five of the letters have Final Forms? Those are the five longer letters on the last row of the image above
  • NOTE: There are many, many different styles of Torah Scroll Hebrew: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemeni, and many variations in between. Plus, every scribe has a slightly unique handwriting. So, no two Torah scrolls ever look exactly alike…

Extraordinary Torah Letters: Otiot Meshunot

One of the coolest things about Torah scrolls, every and any Torah scroll, is that it will have some letters inside of them which are different from all the others.

  • Sometimes, these letters are much larger than the others (the very first letter in the Torah is a BIG BET!)Beresheet_Torah Scroll Vilna, Lithuania c.1750-70
  • Sometimes they are smaller (The little Aleph in the word VAYIKRA)


    These Inverted Nuns are like brackets or parenthesis: They separate the verse into it’s own individual “book”!

One of my favorite letters is where one letter wraps inside of itself to make a double letter! (The DOUBLE PEI!!)

Peh Lefufah (Doubled) and Usual Peh. With thanks to Tziporah Thompson for creating the image.

I have even seen a triple letter wrapped up three times like a very special Chanukah gift! (The TRIPLE Pei!!!)

  • These letters are called Otiot Meshunot, or “Extraordinary Letters“, and they are not just for decoration.
    • In fact, the Rabbis and Sages have taught many lessons connected to these letters.
    • It is up to us to notice them, to learn what they mean, to internalize (that means understand in a deep way) their lessons about how to live a good life according to the Torah
    • It is also up to us to share the letters with other friends who may not have ever seen a Hebrew letter before in their whole lives.

Part Four: ד

The Art of Hebrew Letters

    • Jewish Art has a long and very interesting history with many, many beautiful artworks to see.
      • One category of Jewish art includes Micrography, or miniature Hebrew writing in patterns. This form of art appears on Hebrew manuscripts, which are books that were copied by hand, kind of like a Torah Scroll.
        • Here is one of my favorite pages, from a manuscript called The Leningrad Codex:
Leningrad Codex
  • Can you follow one line of Hebrew with your finger?
  • How many shapes and decorations can you name in this Micrographic page?

Did you know that sometimes, Micrography even has People and Animals in it??

Did you know that the tiny words in Hebrew on these pages are actually MASORAH?

Guess what? Very few people on planet Earth have the time or interest to look at these beautiful pages or the patience to read these tiny letters. But if we work together (and get ourselves a very good magnifying glass!) then we can discover what the Masoretes (the scribes who wrote the Masorah) wrote down in picture form for us to enjoy and read and think about so many years ago…

  • How many animals can you count in the page above? What Hebrew letter would that number be?
  • Are any of theses animals those you could find in the Zoo? Do any of them seem like they might have lept onto the page from the Jewish Artist’s Imagination?

Hebrew Calligraphy

Modern Hebrew is a living language that contains all the history we just learned within it.


Here is a calligraphic brush painting of a single, standing Aleph

Modern Hebrew was actually brought back to life as a spoken language less than 100 years ago with the establishment of the State of Israel, through the extraordinary efforts of a man named Eliezer ben Yehudah.

  • Many artists train to create beautiful works of art out of Hebrew Letters, whether for decoration or for a special occasion, like the Ketubah for a Jewish wedding.

Gorgeous Ketubah Designs from Traditional Jewish Weddings ...

Here is a picture of a Kallah (a Jewish bride) signing her painted Ketubah (marriage contract)

  • There are many Jewish artists working today, and certain artists are pushing the envelope of the Aleph Bet even further than ever before.

Cursive Aleph Bet

Jewish Artists may use the block letters of the Aleph Bet or they might use the forms of the Cursive Aleph Bet.

Hebrew Cursive script is very old. It is much easier and faster to write by hand than Hebrew block letters.

In the chart above, the blue letters are block script and the red letters are cursive script (plus the final forms of the five letters in smaller script).

Cursive Hebrew - Letter

Here is another example of Hebrew cursive script. Everyone’s handwriting is slightly different, but you can see how elegant Hebrew script can be!

Abstract Hebrew Calligraphy

The Hebrew Calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski takes inspiration from the free flowing forms of Japanese and Chinese calligraphic letters and has created his own style of curvilinear, Abstract Hebrew Calligraphy.

Here are a few of Pludwinski’s artworks:

Wild Aleph Bet

Wild Aleph Bet (with quote from Rebbe Nachman – Man must renew himself constantly) by Izzy Pludwinski


Shalom: Blessing for the Home by Izzy Pludwinski


Renewal by Izzy Pludwinski


“Shiviti” Meditation Column of Abstract Hebrew Calligraphy by Izzy Pludwinski


As we’ve learned, the Aleph Bet has a long and layered history.

Once we have learned our letters, we are free to read what other have written and created, whether that means the Torah itself, the Dead Sea Scrolls (from more than two thousand years ago), a wise comment on a book of the Torah from one hundred years ago, or a Rosh HaShanah card that we will receive this year.

And when we have our letters, we are able to create, too!

Whether with a single letter, a single word, or a whole group of words; a painting, a drawing, a shape or a whole book of pictures made out of letters… the sky is the limit. We can write to each other and for one another.


Bet !


%d bloggers like this: