Hebrew Alphabet: Letters of the Alefbet

Level: Basic

The Hebrew and Yiddish languages use a different alphabet than English. The picture below illustrates the Hebrew alphabet, in Hebrew alphabetical order. Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English, so Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Tav is the last. The Hebrew alphabet is often called the "alefbet," because of its first two letters.

Letters of the Alefbet

Final Chaf
 Final Nun
 Final Mem
 Final Tsadee
 Final Fay

If you are familiar with Greek, you will no doubt notice substantial similarities in letter names and in the order of the alphabet.

The "Kh" and the "Ch" are pronounced as in German or Scottish, a throat clearing noise, not as the "ch" in "chair."

Note that there are two versions of some letters. Kaf, Mem, Nun, Pe and Tzade all are written differently when they appear at the end of a word than when they appear in the beginning or middle of the word. The version used at the end of a word is referred to as Final Kaf, Final Mem, etc. The version of the letter on the left is the final version. In all cases except Final Mem, the final version has a long tail.

Like most early Semitic alphabetic writing systems, the alefbet has no vowels. People who are fluent in the language do not need vowels to read Hebrew, and most things written in Hebrew in Israel are written without vowels.

However, as Hebrew literacy declined, particularly after the Romans expelled the Jews from Israel, the rabbis recognized the need for aids to pronunciation, so they developed a system of dots and dashes called nikkud (points). These dots and dashes are written above, below or inside the letter, in ways that do not alter the spacing of the line. Text containing these markings is referred to as "pointed" text

Most nikkud are used to indicate vowels. The table at right illustrates the vowel points, along with their pronunciations.


Pronunciations are approximate; I have heard quite a bit of variation in vowel pronunciation. Vowel points are shown in blue. The letter Alef, shown in red, is used to illustrate the position of the points relative to the consonents.

The letters shown in purple are technically consonents and would appear in unpointed texts, but they function as vowels in this context.

There are a few other nikkud, illustrated and explained below.

The dot that appears in the center of some letters is called a dagesh. It can appear in just about any letter in Hebrew. With most letters, the dagesh does not significantly affect pronunciation of the letter; it simply marks a split between syllables, where the letter is pronounced both at the end of the first syllable and the beginning of the second. With the letters Bet, Kaf and Pe, however, the dagesh indicates that the letter should be pronounced with its hard sound rather than its soft sound. See the table above. In Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation used by many Orthodox Jews and by many older Jews), Tav also has a soft sound, and is pronounced as an "s" when it does not have a dagesh.

Vav, usually a consonant pronounced as a "v," is sometimes a vowel pronounced "oo" (u) or "oh" (o). When it is pronounced "oo" as in "food", pointed texts have a dagesh. When it is pronounced "oh" as in "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.

At right is an example of pointed text. Nikkud are shown in blue. This line would be pronounced (in Sephardic pronunciation, which is what most people use today): V'ahavtah l'reyahkhah kamokhah. (And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18).