Paleo Hebrew decorate image

I take the first step into this blog post with a bit of trepidation. I intend to broach a subject that Hebrew teachers generally avoid, given its controversial nature. In fact, one of Krashen’s hypotheses about the Natural Approach to second-language acquisition is that language teachers must do what they can to lower the “affective filter” (pp. 37–39), which would block students from connecting emotionally with the language and would discourage them from taking independent strides toward putting themselves into positions for receiving comprehensible input and discovering optimal input materials for themselves. It is my hope that I won’t be putting up any blocks for those who sincerely wish to find their way into acquiring and learning Hebrew in whatever form.

I do, however, feel compelled to offer a voice against some of the wild things that are becoming so popular on the internet and are contrary to everything scientific and evidentiary. There are two odd theories in particular: Edenics, the theory that all world languages have descended from Hebrew in some way; and, some popular idea that words in Hebrew derive their “real meaning” from meanings given to their composite letters. I will not confront Edenics at this time, but those interested may read these two answers on the Linguistics subsection of Stack Exchange (here and here) to receive great responses on Edenics. I want to offer some direction to those who are convinced by the second theory.

The Problem

On the website Hebrew4Christians, they give a set of theoretical meanings for each letter of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. For example, they say that aleph (א) means “ox, strength, leader.” Similarly, bet (ב) means “house.” So, some argue, the word “father,” which is composed of aleph and bet (אב) in Hebrew, means “leader of the household.” This is how they think Hebrew words derive their meanings. You can see here that one who proposes this way of thinking actually interprets the Tetragrammaton (the name of the God of Israel) in the following flippant manner:

OK, so, what is the pictograph meaning of the Tetragrammaton? Yod Heh Vav Heh. Well, it’s worship. Yod. Heh. Praise. Vav. A nail or a hook. And then praise again. Breath. Is that some kind of message about Jesus being nailed to the cross? I have no idea. I’ll look into it and get back to you. Bye.

It should be clear that יהוה‎ (יהוה), the name of God, does not mean “hand praise nail praise,” and that it has nothing to do with Jesus. The name of God, according to all sources, emerged from the verbal root הוה “to be.” There is some argument about whether it means “he is” or “he causes to be,” but all agree that it is somehow related to that root. Using some made-up “pictograph meaning” leads to false conclusions. Taking the above example of the word “father,” what happens when we change the letters around? In the order בא‎ (בא), these letters mean “he came” or “he is coming,” yet it’s composed of the same consonants. Does “house” and “leader” suddenly mean “he came” when the letters are moved around?

How about when we consider the root of the verb “to come,” which is בוא‎ (בוא) “house” and “nail” and “leader/strong”? Does “to come” suddenly have a secret pictographic meaning of “house nail strong”? This is absurd. The entire theory leads to absurdity, and it only takes on significance when you attribute all of the letters with Christian meanings, such that lamed means “shepherd” (to call to mind Jesus being the “good shepherd”), and vav means “nail” (to call to mind Jesus being nailed to the cross), and tav means “cross” (with obvious meaning), etc. The entire alphabet is arranged so that the most common letters will allow us to interpret any word through pictographs to represent something about the Christian gospel message—and this is not what the alphabet was invented for. This is so very wrong.

How’d We Get the Alphabet?

Writing developed after speech. As a corollary, humanity first had speech—consisting of sounds (phonemes) strung together into words and syntactic structures—and only later went about trying to figure out how to put these things into writing. The first writing systems were indeed pictographic or iconographic (like what we see in the Egyptian hieroglyph system). Hebrew was never written in this way. So, where did it come from?

Language came long before writing. When it came time to begin to write down what we say, the inventers of the alphabet first identified the sounds that they heard in the language. Once they identified the sounds, they assigned each sound a word from the language that began with the sound that they heard. When they heard “b,” they arbitrarily assigned the word בית‎ (בַּ֫יִת báyiṯ) “house” and then drew a symbol that would remind them of the word báyiṯ so that they would remember to read it as the sound “b” that begins the word. They paired up all of the sounds with words in this way, and the words were arbitrarily chosen. They could have been anything. Instead of báyiṯ, for example, they could have chosen ברך‎ (בֶּ֫רֶךְ béreḵ) “knee” or בן‎ (בֵּן bēn) “son,” or any other word that starts with the sound /b/ (represented by ב—the letter bet). The only qualifying limitation was probably the ability to choose a concrete symbol that would indicate the word. It would have been harder to draw a pictograph to represent the knee than it is to draw one that represents a house. The pictograms are all concrete images that are easily distinguishable.

The letter itself does not bear the meaning of the pictogram. It is a mistake to say that a letter means something. There is no meaning in a letter. The word chosen certainly has meaning, but the name and picture were just chosen to make a visual reminder of the first sound of the word. At a later point, the shapes of the letters changed as memory became fixed on the shape of the letters, rather than on pictograms, bringing us to abjads and alphabets.

A list of the shapes of the letters at various periods can be found here on Wikipedia. The name of the letter does not play into how a word is understood. Words have meaning because of how they are used, not because of theoretical meanings of specific letters in the words. Attempting to derive meaning from the alphabet rather than how words are used is not a worthy pursuit.

Final Examples

Let’s take another example of a Hebrew word. The word חלם‎ (חָלַם ḥālam) means “he dreamed.” According to the page linked above, we would derive meaning from fence-wall-separation (ח chet), staff/goad/control (ל lamed), and water-chaos (מ mem). We might cleverly combine these meanings to get the idea that dreams are formed from chaos that are controlled by the limitation of our imaginations while we sleep. However, the same root letters are used for לחם‎ (לֶ֫חֶם léḥem) “bread.” Both are made up of these root letters, and both are primitive roots in Hebrew. How do we get “bread” from “separation, control, chaos”? Why would we think that these meanings should be put together to create these words? Indeed, the same roots are used for the word מלח‎ (מֶ֫לַח mélaḥ) “salt” and מלח‎ (מַלָּח mallāḥ) “sailor.” Do these four words—which all come from some combination of the root letters chet (ח), lamed (ל), and mem (מ)—really come from the combination of “separation,” “control,” and “chaos”? Does this even make sense?

Another example would be the word groups שבת‎ (שַׁבָּת šabbāṯ) “sabbath” and בשת‎ (בֹּ֫שֶׁת bṓšeṯ) “shame”—being supposedly derived from “destroy,” “house,” and “sign”—and נגף‎ (נֶ֫גֶף néḡep̄) “affliction” and גפן‎ (גֶּ֫פֶן gép̄en) “vine”—both of which are supposedly derived from the meanings of “camel/pride,” “word,” and “activity/life.” This could be carried out throughout the language. It makes absolutely no sense to try to get meaning from the individual root letters used within a word.

This just goes to show the strangeness of this theory. It doesn’t fit all words, so it is really useless.

One would think that if I simply gave you a word in English, you could combine three of the shapes and give me the word (or something similar to it) in Hebrew. You should at least be able to work out the combination of root letters, even if you cannot get them in the right order. So, if I give you the word “family,” you might consider that it would be combined of “house” (ב bet), “separation” (ח chet), and “life” (נ nun). These letters come together to create בחן‎ (בָּחַן bāḥan) “to put to the test”—which has no connection to “house-separation-life.” The real word for “family” is משפחה‎ (מִשְׁפָּחָה mišpāḥâ). You could never derive משפחה from a list of letter meanings. This theory has no predictive power. It is completely anecdotal, and it doesn’t fit many of the real words from the Hebrew language. It is powerless to give any kind of real sense to words, and it should be abandoned as a theory.

11 thoughts on “Hebrew Pictographic Meanings?

  1. It appears that the names given to the symbols do not apply for every word which they form. Could the names given to the symbols be just for recalling the letters? That is is everyone at liberty to give a name to each of the 22 letters of the alephbet?
    halam and lehom mean dream and bread respectively. Bahan means to put to rest. You can meet Jeff Berner to explain these words with meeting attached to the symbols. Send many words with the same roots to him and see how it goes.

    • Hebrew words should be expressed in one of three ways:

      1. Unicode that displays Hebrew (לֶ֫חֶם [Standard] or לחם [Paleo]);
      2. Academic transcription (léḥem); or,
      3. Beta code (LEXEM).

      Since “halam,” “lehom,” and “bahan” are none of these three, they are too sloppy for me to respond to. By “sloppy,” I mean that I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to in Hebrew letters. I cannot argue against “lehom” because I don’t even know what you’re trying to spell. I don’t know if you are thinking להום,‎ לכום,‎ לחום,‎ or some other combination, even not having a vav. Your transliteration is not clear, so I cannot even take the first step in rebutting your statements.

      I don’t know who Jeff Berner is. I really don’t feel like getting tangled up with another internet quack, though. My statements are clear, and I don’t think I should invest my time in investigating every person in the world that someone things has credentials.

      As it is, I provided several examples of words for which this theory is proven absurd. Why should I chase my tail and seek out confirmation bias for a bad theory?

  2. His name is not Jeff Berner, his name is “Jeff Benner” and he is the author of the “Ancient Hebrew Lexicon” which is in my opinion, a very informative Lexicon on Ancient Hebrew. Anyone that is familiar with Ancient Hebrew would know, that it did indeed begin as a “pictograhic ” language which has over time migrated into a “letter-form” language. This has turned the original pictographic Ancient (paleo) Hebrew into a very subjective language, especially when you add in the Masoretic vowel pointing. This has made the language subjected to all sorts of fake and incorrect man-made complicated meanings.

    Anyone interested in how Hebrew did begin, and who is interested into finding correct meanings, should get Benner’s book. The fact is, if you ignore the Ancient form of the Hebrew Language, you will never really get the original meaning of what you are told is the “approvesd” definition of the ancient word. Modern Hebrew is nothing but Yiddish, which is an amelgamated language using Hebrew “letters” with a dozen other language words all melted together. It is not related at all to Biblical Hebrew.

    • John-William:

      Anyone that is familiar with Ancient Hebrew would know, that it did indeed begin as a “pictograhic ” language which has over time migrated into a “letter-form” language.

      Whether “Benner” or “Berner,” I’m sure you’ll find that the exact opposite is true. Anyone who knows biblical Hebrew and can read the Bible for him- or herself knows that pictograms are nonsense. This is not part of the Hebrew language. Do you yourself know Hebrew? Really? Can you pick up a copy of the Hebrew Bible, read it to me, and tell me what it means?

      Any chance that you might do this for me? Use your pictograms to explain Genesis 13 to me. I read today from Genesis 1 to 16, and I was thinking about chapter 13 should be included in a class that I’ll soon be offering on readings in the Hebrew Bible. I’d love to see how you bring meaning to the text from this nonsensical approach to “reading.” Go ahead and start at verse 1 and tell me what it means. Here’s the first verse:

      וַיַּעַל֩ אַבְרָ֨ם מִמִּצְרַ֜יִם ה֠וּא וְאִשְׁתּ֧וֹ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה׃

      Or, if you like in Paleo Hebrew:

      ויעל אברם ממצרים הוא ואשתו וכל אשר לו ולוט עמו הנגבה

      Tell me from the beginning of the verse to its end what it means in pictograms and how that is connected with what the verse says in its plain meaning. If you cannot do this, please stop posting nonsense comments to my blog.

      • Benyamina says:

        I do read, speak and understand Hebrew. I have read Benner’s work and find it interesting and aligning with what I know from my conservative jewish upbringing with an Israeli cantor for a father, and was taught Torah in my Israeli hebrew school as history and not allegory or spirituality.

        That said, I am not educated in ancient linguistics, but I do know that Yiddish and Hebrew are so different from each other that my parents deliberately didn’t teach me the former, while I was fluent in the latter, so that they could talk in front of me without me understanding. The two languages use the same alphabet but so do English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc. Yiddish also uses different pronunciations.

        • John-William:

          Modern Hebrew is nothing but Yiddish, which is an amelgamated language using Hebrew “letters” with a dozen other language words all melted together. It is not related at all to Biblical Hebrew.

          Yiddish is based on old German with a vocabulary stock (not grammar) of about 30% Hebrew, IIRC. It isn’t similar to Hebrew in any way. Again, only someone who doesn’t know Hebrew would make an odd claim like this.

  3. Stacy Richardson says:

    Attempting to derive meaning from the alphabet rather than how words are used is not a worthy pursuit, you stated. That would be correct with most other languages. But the words of the scriptures are not merely letters, but they are said to be life. They are active and go forth to accomplish a work and do not return void. They were used to speak creation into being. The way that you handle the Hebrew and words from scripture are not honorable to YHWH nor does it offer up praise in any form to Him. It is almost blasphemous. You may can read fluent Hebrew, but spiritually, you speak as one who is daft. You cannot understand spiritual things, such as the letters of scripture, with the carnal mind. When looking at the words, you cannot attribute the one word meaning of the letters and make it say something based on that one word or picture. The letters have multiple connotations attached to them. Just looking at BEN, which is son. Its a Bet (house, family, in), Nun (seed, continue, heir). The house of the seed clearly shows that to be in the house or family is to be an heir, or if a son, then the seed continues. That is why we were made sons, and if sons, then heirs (Hebrews 1). Also look at Noah, which is Nun (seed, continue, heir) and Chet (wall, fence, separate, divide). YHWH separated, or fenced off the seed (continued the human race) from the sinful ones he destroyed. His name, when listed said HE WOULD COMFORT HIS PEOPLE FROM THE TOIL OF OUR HANDS (the curse) Gen 5:29. The word COMFORT (or REST) used in this verse is the word NACHAM, which is actually the word Noah, with an ending letter Mem (water, chaos, blood, also representing birth). It’s obvious that when water (Mem) is added to Noah (Nun, Chet) it brought forth rest for the curse that was given to Adam. When the flood receded, an olive branch was brought back by the dove showing that the ground brought forth without toiling by man. The curse had been lifted because the earth was baptized with mighty chaos and was reborn. Also, you’re looking at the name YHWH all wrong, attributing incorrect meanings to the letters that don’t apply. However, you can pray about that and YHWH will give you discernment on it. Finally, there are so many, many, many examples that it’s a ludicrous statement to flippantly say this process is absurd. It’s important to read the scriptures as they were written, I fully agre, and to understand the words in context, but if you’re not looking closely at the actions of the letters, I’m afraid that you are barely scratching the surface in your understanding of who Messiah really is, and the actual, literal work that He did. He IS the Word, the active Word. The letters show the action of the words, and when the letters are changed around, they change their action. Messiah was in the beginning (Rosh) in the house (Bet) of creation. BERESHIT! BE-RESH-IT. The Head (Resh) is in the middle of the House (Bet). He is the Head (Resh) of creation, was in the beginning of creation, the first born of all creation, Col. 1:15-19, John 1. You cannot explain this away, even if you really do not like it. It’s there and it’s not going to go away, my friend.

  4. Thomas Bahra says:

    From what I’ve seen, people who teach to derive meaning from the letters would be done backwards. You put Hand > Praise > Nail > Praise. It would be backwards. Praise > Nail > Praise > Hand. I haven’t come across anyone so far that teaches it anyway other than that. I apologize if I sound rude, it’s not intended. Shalom.

    • I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You should put it into the order from Hebrew, which starts with yod (hand). Why would you read Hebrew words backwards? Rude or not, I don’t really understand what it means.

  5. Very interesting read. It is clear that you are a person who has taken much time to study the Hebrew language. As a person that is just beginning to scratch the surface of the language, i would ask you this question: Are the meanings that people derive from the Pictographs, paleo or even modern Hebrew letters purely coincidence?

    In my limited experience, these hidden meanings always seem to reveal some incredible things that just seem too good to be true. Even the Hebrew number system that is connected to its alephbet will bring moments of unbridled inspiration and depth; and rabbit holes that seem never ending.

    In any case, your blog has made me shift me thinking drastically; and i plan to take the study of the language A LOT more seriously. I greatly appreciate the time and effort you have taken to study this out, and present a fantastic piece on why we should be careful with using this sacred and divine language flippantly.

    I look forward to your reply!

    • Shalom, Nate. I’m not sure how to reply. ☺ It’s obviously the case that Hebrew shouldn’t be approached flippantly! Yes, the “meanings” that are derived are purely coincidence and have nothing to do with how the language works at all. Hebrew is no different from other Semitic languages, and I’m not aware of weird acrobatics like these being performed for meanings of words in Arabic or Syriac. It is only certain words that are pulled from the language to demonstrate this nonsense. Why not do it for every word? It’s extremely easy to show how selective this theory is. I’m always happy to hear of people taking their first steps into the Hebrew language. Have you looked at Aleph with Beth on YouTube?

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