- This article is about the language. For the people, see Israelites.
Hebrew (Hebrew: עברית ivrit) is one of the holy languages of Judaism. The Hebrew of the scriptures and prayer is known as Biblical Hebrew, in contrast with the modern, revived form, called Modern Hebrew, which now has over 6 million speakers, and is one of two official languages of the State of Israel. Both forms are written in the Hebrew abjad, which, opposite of the Latin alphabet, reads from right to left.
The Hebrew language has many pronunciations, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite, Sanaani, Tiberian, and Mizrahi. These pronunciations are the result of influence from surrounding culture and languages of each form. They have also affected the languages each Jewish group uses.
The Hebrew abjad
The Hebrew abjad is called the "aleph-bet", to refer to the first two letters. This is the precedent for referring to the Greek alphabet as "alphabetos" (after the first two letters of the Greek alphabet), and for referring to any writing system with no vowels (mainly a Semitic alphabet) as an "abjad", after the first four letters of the Arabic abjad (with vowels inserted).
There are five forms of the Hebrew abjad: K'tav Ashuri (Assyrian script, the form for mezuzot, Torah scrolls, and tefillin, as well as the most common form), cursive Hebrew (a form of Ashuri used for writing), Rashi (a script devised by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), printed or square (a more modern form of Ashuri), and K'tav Ivri (the oldest form of the Hebrew alphabet, used on ancient coins from the time of the first Beit haMikdash). Different forms are used for different settings, languages, and time periods; for example, Rashi script is used for Rabbinical commentaries, as well as for Judeo-Spanish. Ashuri, the form used most often by Jews, is descended from the Aramaic abjad (which the Jews in ancient times switched to), while a script similar to K'tav Ivri has survived as the script of the Samaritans, and, for a while, as the script used for the Tetragrammaton.
All forms of the Hebrew abjad derive from the Phoenician abjad, which is the ancestor of most alphabetical systems today. Phoenician and Hebrew are both written right-to-left, and both have no written vowels. However, as literacy and understanding of Hebrew began to decline, rabbis devised a system of dots and dashes, called nikkud, that denoted vowels (as well as different pronunciations of consonants). Today, there is a tendency to spell out words without nikkud points, and replace vowels with matres lectionis (ו for [u] and י for [i]), and for the consonantal sounds of these letters, they are doubled. This is called K'tiv hasar nikkud (writing without nikkud) or, colloquially, K'tiv maleh (full spelling). A similar spelling system is used in Yiddish.
Hebrew letters were also used as numbers. This system of using letters as numbers is similar to the numerical systems of the Romans, Greeks, and various other cultures. People attach meaning to numbers that spell out existing Hebrew words; subsequently, donations to charity groups are usually given in denominations of 18, because the word חי has the numerical value of 18. The numbers for 15 and 16 are טו and טז, rather than the expected forms, because the expected forms would come out as names for G-d. Every word has a numerical value; for example, תורה (Torah) has a numerical value of 611. Gematria is a discipline of Jewish mysticism that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in Hebrew words, based on their values. Gematria is not used for other languages that use this alphabet.
Hebrew in Judaism
Hebrew, being one of the liturgical languages of Judaism, is very important to Judaism. It is the original language of the scriptures, and traditional synagogues have services in Hebrew. Since Hebrew was the original language of Judaism, most of the key concepts are expressed in Hebrew.