Overview of the Hebrew Alphabet
The Hebrew alphabet is called the alefbet in Hebrew because of the first two letters, aleph and bet. The Hebrew language, unlike English is written from right to left, not left to right.
It is no accident that the Hebrew word 'alef-bet' sounds so similar to the English 'alphabet'. The ancient Hebrew alphabet had close affinity to the Phoenician alphabet, which the ancient Greeks also used as the basis of their alphabet. The first two letters of the Hebrew and ancient Phoenician alphabet were aleph and bet, which in the ancient Greek alphabet were renamed alpha and beta, names which ulitmately gave rise to the English word alphabet.
Orthodox Jews, however, see God's hand in the distinctive square shape of Hebrew. They feel God created the world through the Hebrew language and alphabet. They believe its letters must therefore predate other scripts.
The Hebrew alphabet developed over time, and may have resembled early Aramaic. Eventually, around the 2nd century B.C.E., Jews adopted Ashuri (Assyrian) square letters. Thus modern readers of Hebrew can easily make out the words of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written about that time.
There are 22 basic letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and five special final forms (for the letters, kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzadik). Some letters are hardened by the insertion of a dot (vet becomes bet, khaf becomes kaf).
All letters are consonants, though the yud and vav are also used as vowels. Small points (nekudot) above or below letters tell readers what vowels to use. These are mainly used in the Tanach and in Siddurim (prayer books).
The square Hebrew letters have remained remarkably consistent since their origin. It is as easy to read Hebrew documents from ancient Yemen or medieval Germany, as it is to read the Israeli daily newspaper, "Ha'aretz". That said, there are other scripts in usage. Soferim (expert scribes) employ a special writing style known as sta"m in Torah scrolls, mezuzot (doorposts) and tefillin (phylacteries). These letters' upper points have crown-like marks. In addition, extra markings above and below the words indicate the trop, or tune for recitation. Talmudic commentaries employ the distinctive semi-cursive Rashi script (named after the famous rabbi). Modern cursive is used for handwriting.
The Hebrew alphabet is not only used for Hebrew. All types of Jewish languages use its lettering system, no matter their linguistic origins. Languages written using the Hebrew alphabet include Germanic Yiddish and Romantic Ladino (both Indo-European tongues), Aramaic and Judaeo-Arabic.
One disadvantage of Hebrew compared to its Semitic cousin, Arabic, is that even Hebrew cursive characters cannot link up. All the letters remain separate, making it hard to write very fast. However, Jews discovered that this problem turned into a benefit with the arrival of Hebrew printing. Suddenly, the Hebrew alphabet proved uniquely well suited to this new technology.
For years Jews lacked a separate number system, and instead used letters to signify numbers. Substituting numbers for letters led in turn to gematria, a method of deriving mystical insights into and new interpretations of holy texts.
The Hebrew alphabet is an amazingly adaptable system for conveying thought. More than that, it still inspires wonderful calligraphy, and there is an entire folklore devoted to explaining the spiritual significance of each letter.
Letters and sounds of the alefbet
Alef - silent
Bet - B
Vet - V
Gimmel - G
Dalet - D
Hey - H
Vav - V
Zayin - Z
Chet - Ch (as in ch when one clears the throat or the Scottish word loch, not as in chair)
Tet - T
Yud - Y
Kaf - K
Chaf - Ch (same as above)
Lamed - L
Mem - M
Nun - N
Samech - S
Ayin - silent
Peh - P
Feh - F
Tzadik - Ts
Koof - K
Resh - R
Shin - sh
Sin - S
Taf - T
Some of these letters have different versions, if they appear at the end of a word, such as kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzadik. When each of these are written at the end of a word, they are called sofit (meaning 'final'). So, we have kaf sofit (final kaf), mem sofit (final mem), nun sofit (final nun), peh sofit (final peh) and tzadik sofit (final tzadik). In each of these letters, with the exception of mem sofit, the letters have a long tail.
People who speak Hebrew fluently do not need vowels to read. However, those who are not fluent need vowels: a system of dots and dashes called nekudot (points) in order to read. The dots or dashes are written either above, below or inside the letter.
A dagesh is the word given to the dot that sometimes appears inside a letter which does not necessarily affect the way we pronounce it. With the letters bet, kaf and peh, the dot tells us that these letters should be said with their hard sounds, for example: bet with a dagesh says vet; kaf with a dagesh says chaf; peh with a dagesh says feh. Taf also has a soft sound (in Ashkenazi pronunciation), thus it is pronounced as 's' when there is no dagesh present.
Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a 'v' is sometimes a vowel pronounced 'oo' (u) or 'oh' (o). When it is pronounced 'oo', pointed texts have a dagesh. When it is pronounced 'oh', pointed texts have a dot on top. Shin is pronounced 'sh' when it has a dot over the right branch and 's' when it has a dot over the left branch.