I have been thinking a lot about what the topic of the first post should be. Language? Culture? Maybe a personal story or a funny anecdote? Then it hit me – since it’s the first post I should write about the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It signifies beginnings and therefore it is the best place to start.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is called Alef. In Hebrew this name is written אל”ף and the apostrophes are there to mark it is not a word but a letter’s name. Here it how the letter itself is written in Modern Hebrew.
There is something very “Schrödingerian” about the nature of the letter Alef. When it is all by itself, without any vowel indicator or another letter, there is no way of telling how to pronounce it. It can be read as A, E, I, O or U, and next to other letters it can also serve a silent vowel indicator. So basically, it is both something and nothing at the same time, and it must rely on other elements of writing for it to have sound or some kind of phonetic value.
The vowel marking system of Hebrew is called Niqud. This name stems from the word Nequda (נְקוּדָּה) which means a dot or a point, and it is interesting to note that these are essentially dots (and very short lines) which serve the purpose of pointing out how to pronounce written words in Hebrew.
The origin of the name ‘Alef’ is not entirely clear. It is believed to have derived from the Hebrew word אָלוּף (Aluf). In modern Hebrew Aluf means ‘champion’ and it is also the rank equivalent to General in the Israeli military. To be a champion means to earn the first place, so this name is very fitting for the first letter of the alphabet. As for Aluf in the sense of General, it might also be related the number 1,000 which in Hebrew is written אֶלֶף (Elef). Not only do generals command thousands of people, but (ideally) they reach their position by being better than other men on and off the battlefield.
Speaking of fields, it is believed that in Ancient Hebrew the word Aluf didn’t refer to a person but instead meant a bull. There are two more commonly used words for bull or ox in Hebrew and they are פָּר (Par) and שׁוֹר (Shor) respectively. So the word Aluf quite possibly referred to an exceptionally fine specimen, perhaps even the leader of the herd – or the alpha if you will.
A fun fact unbeknown even to many Israelis, is that the names and the shapes of the Hebrew letters are based on ancient pictograms borrowed to represent sound. It is too long and complicated a topic to delve into in this post, and if you wish to know more about it, I highly recommend watching the series ‘Major Moments in the History of Writing’ by NativeLang on Youtube.
When you take a look at how the letter Alef was written in Ancient Hebrew and in Ancient Phoenician from which it has originated, the resemblance to an ox is undeniable. As a Chinese teacher from Israel, what I like to do is to compare the Hebrew letters with the Chinese character with the same meaning as the ancient pictogram.
Pretty cool, isn’t it? You can totally see the similarities not only between the Hebrew and Chinese Scripts, but also with the Latin Alphabet which has also developed from the Phoenician system.
The primal elements of the Hebrew letter Alef
I would be extremely remiss to speak about the word Aluf in the context of Ancient Hebrew without mentioning the primal Hebrew root א-ל (Alef-Lamed) from which it most likely derives.
Before we dive into the subject, let me give you a little background first. Nowadays, most Hebrew roots (AKA Shoresh in Hebrew) consist of three consonant letters, but some researchers believe this was not always the case. Many primal words in Hebrew, both nouns and verbs are based on two consonants. Take a look at words like אֵשׁ (Esh – fire), עֵץ (Ets – tree), דָּג (Dag – fish), בַּד (Bad – fabric), כַּף (Kaf – spoon), יָד (Yad – hand), שֵׁן (Shen – tooth), and verb such as חַי (Chai – live), מֵת (Met – die), רָץ (Rats – run), שָׁר (Shar – sing) or גָּר (Gar – inhabit). They all have only two (in some case even just one) pure consonant sound in their root.
It is also not rare to find Hebrew roots which share the first two letter along with a strong semantic connection. For instance, the root ח-ש-ב (think), ח-ש-ד (suspect), ח-ש-ק (desire) and ח-ש-ש (fear / afraid) all start with Chet and Shin. Therefore, it will not be far-fetched to assume they all derive from the primal root ח-ש which still exists, and it means to sense or to feel. Another good example can be found in the roots ד-ח-ה (reject), ד-ח-ף (push), ד-ח-ס (compress) and ד-ח-ק (cram in) which all start with Dalet and Chet.
If we follow this logic, the primal root of the word אָלוּף (Aluf) is א-ל (Alef-Lamed) which signifies power or force. It is also found in the root א-ל-מ (Alef-Lamed Mem) which is associated with violence, and in the root א-ל-צ (Alef-Lamed-Tsadi) from which we get the verb אִלֵץ (ilets) – to force or to compel.
The root א-ל (Alef-Lamed) also comprises one of the most fundamental words in Hebrew and Jewish vocabulary – the word אֵל (El) which means god. By the way, both the root א-ל and the word אֵל as a representation of the idea of force may very possibly have something to do with another strong and powerful animal – the ram. The Hebrew word for ram is אַיִל (A’il) and it was a common symbol of power and idol of worship among many ancient cultures in the region. A very similar connection can also be found between the word עֵז (Ez) which means goat and the word עָז (Az) which means fierce or intense.
The word אֵל (El) has somehow found its way into the name of one of the most powerful and probably the most iconic character of American Pop-Culture – Superman. While on earth he goes by the name of Clark Kent, on his home planet of Krypton he was named Kal-El. The authors of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were both Jewish, and therefore it is quite reasonable to assume they knew El was the Hebrew word for god and chose it for symbolic purposes. Whether or not they also knew the ancient relation to the concept of force is a different question.
By the way, did you know that in the movie Man of Steel, the actress who played Superman’s mother Lara was Israeli? Her name is Ayelet Zurer (איילת זורר) and funnily enough – her name can also be traced back to the same root of אֵל or El.
Speaking of the concept of force and the possession of supernatural powers by extraterrestrial beings, let’s talk about another super iconic Pop Culture phenomenon – Star Wars. The fact that the story of Star Wars is riddled with Judeo-Christian and Daoist undertones is not a great revelation by itself. I didn’t grow up religious and I am not much of a religious person now, but somehow having learned that the word ‘force’ can be regarded as an ancient way of saying god has made me see the trilogy in different light as an adult. At the very least, it is a really good example of how we like to tell ourselves the same story over and over again in different ways.
Not only that, but it has also helped me to better frame in my head one of the most interesting discussions of our time. For several years now, I have been following quite closely the series of conversations and debates between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson about the idea of God. If we substitute God with The Force from Star Wars, I believe a good way to describe their disagreement would be that Jordan Peterson is essentially talking about “The Force” as a very vague and illusive concept, while Sam Harris insists on taking the more linear approach and bring Midi-chlorians into the conversation.
By the way, the main reason I follow Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris has nothing to with God or religion. It is because I care a lot about Freedom of Speech. In fact, this is the main reason I decided to open this blog. On that note, let me share with you one last detail on the letter Alef before I sign off. Remember earlier in this article when I said that the shape and names of the Hebrew letters are based on ancient pictograms? Well, the third letter in the name of the letter Alef is Peh which means mouth.
This means that inside Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, we can see a god (אל) and a mouth (פ or ף). I believe this to be purely a coincidence, but if that’s not the perfect way to summarize the creation story from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, then I don’t know what is.
Speech has been with us since the beginning. It is the divine spark that gave birth to us as a species. It is the thing that defines us and enables us to create. It is the reason we thrive rather than just survive. It is our Force and our Superpower, and that is precisely why we need to champion it above anything else.
My religion is language.
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2 thoughts on “The powerful story behind the Hebrew letter Alef”
This was such a great article. So much to think about. I’m studying ancient Hebrew and this really gave me another perspective. I’m also looking forward to watching the video you recommended. I’ll also read your other posts. You’ve got a fan.
It makes me so happy to hear that! Thank you so much!
Welcome aboard and good luck with Ancient Hebrew!