Q&A: What are the Hebrew equivalents of NATO radio alphabet’s “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” etc.?

It’s known as the alef-bet tzlili (sound-based alphabet), and is as follows:

  • AlefAlef א אָלֶף
  • BetBoaz ב בֹּעַז
  • GimmelGimmel ג גִּימֶל
  • DaletDavid ד דָּוִד
  • HehHagar ה הגר
  • VavVav וָו
  • ZayinZe’ev ז זְאֵב
  • ḤetHavvah ח חַוָּה
  • TetTiaḥ ט טִיחַ
  • YodYonah י יוֹנָה
  • KafKarmel כ כַּרְמֶל
  • LamedLeah ל לֵאָה
  • MemMoshe מ מֹשֶׁה
  • NunNesher נ נֶשֶׁר
  • SamekhSamekh ס סָמֶךְ
  • AyinAyin ע עַיִן
  • PehPesel פ פֶּסֶל
  • TzadiTzipor צ צִפּוֹר
  • QufQoraḥ ק קוֹרַח
  • ReshRuth ר רוּת
  • ShinShamir ש שָׁמִיר
  • TavTelem ת תֶּלֶם

English avoids redundancies that occur in Hebrew like “I had a dream” instead of “I dreamed a dream”. What are other phrases in Hebrew that are technically “mistranslated” into English to avoid similar redundancies?

The Academy of the Hebrew Language has fallen into the mindset that everything must have its own dedicated verb. Thus, one can’t just simply put on a shoe (na’al), but ‘shoe’ it on (lin’ol); similarly, a sock (gerev) one must ligrov it—and so on.

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Q&A: In Genesis 15:6, what nuance, if any, does the Hiphil/causative form of “believed” (וְהֶאֱמִין) indicate about the nature of Abram’s response to the divine promise of innumerable descendants?

It indicates the overcoming of natural scepticism. 

There is no plain-vanilla—i.e., pa’al—version of the root a-m-n. In other words, there is no verb le-émon לֶאֱמוֹן. Belief is something that needs to be applied to oneself—the default mode is disbelief. (As they say in Missouri—’Show me.’)

Similarly, there is no verb for ‘going far’: when one simply goes, one holekh—but when one goes far, one marḥiq lekhet—lit. ‘make distance going’.

So when Abraham is persuaded that God will do all that He is promising, he is actively overruling his natural scepticism, to make himself believe.


Q&A: Why do Hebrew and Aramaic sound so similar?

Actually, they sound very different—about as different as French from Italian, and for similar reasons.

In Hebrew, most words are stressed on the last syllable, whereas in Aramaic, it is the penultimate one. This is evident in the oft-recited Kaddish (mourning) prayer, which is perhaps the most commonly recited Aramaic text in Jewish prayers:

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Q&A: Why is God’s name written in old Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls?

[continued question, by Alfredo Torres:]

At circa 500 BCE Jews return to Judea from Babylon with a new Assyrian/Aramaic alphabet. Almost five centuries latter, at the time of the second temple destruction, Jews still use old/paleo Hebrew for G’d’s name—not only in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in almost all archaeological findings that includes letter/words (sarcophagus/coins/seals/pottery/masonry/ I am looking for the historical finding like Josefus Flavius saying “The people thought Assyrian/Aramaic Hebrew was artificial/foreign/less sacred”)

Answer: The use of Assyrian script for Hebrew had been a contentious issue for centuries. The educated Judean elite who had been exiled to Babylon, and their descendants who returned to the Holy Land, had grown accustomed to using its language (Aramaic), and its script (Assyrian) when writing Hebrew (it was the same alphabet, but in different forms). But how could one justify writing in a script other than the one that was used in the Ten Commandments and throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, until their fall? It was a conundrum that remained unresolved until the times of the Gemara (200–600 CE), when, in Tractate Sanhedrin 21:2, a typically Talmudic interpretation and justification was provided:

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Q&A: How different was Hebrew from Akkadian?

Hebrew was a Canaanite dialect. Akkadian was the language of Mesopotamian peoples (Babylonians and Assyrians) that went through several stages until it finally died out towards the Common Era.

Being closer to the original Proto-Semitic language that gave birth to all Semitic languages, Akkadian only featured four vowels (a, e, i , u); had a strong preference for /sh/ instead of /s/; and tended to end nouns with the vowel u.

In Canaanite dialects, the end u in nouns was dropped; the hard k became pharyngeal in some instances (like ch in loch, or Bach); the hard b also softened in some cases, to /v/; and—due, perhaps, to influences by non-Semitic, Indo-European nations, such as the Hittites and Grecian Sea People invaders—a vowel shift occurred that introduced all five basic vowels (a, e, i, o, u) into the language. As a result, words that had the same consonantal root as Akkadian, usually sounded quite different. Thus:

  • akal [food] in Akkadian > okhel in Canaanite
  • libbu [heart] > lev
  • shipru [missive, letter] > sepher
  • mahiru [price] > meḥir
  • shataru [bill] > shtar

In addition, many words changed in meaning—e.g.:

  • siklu [wise man] > sekhel [wisdom]
  • emutu [family, society] > amit [colleague]
  • mazzaztum [star position] > mazal [luck, fortune]

The end result is that the Akkadian and Hebrew/Canaanite were not mutually intelligible in speech, but partially intelligible in writing, if the same script was used (such as the Canaanite script, which was ultimately adopted by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians). In that regard, the relationship is very similar to that between Arabic and Hebrew, today.


“The SimHebrew Bible” is out

Four years after the start of conversion from Square Hebrew to SimHebrew and compilation, and twenty years after the start of the SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew) project, The SimHebrew Bible: The Hebrew Bible in Simulated Hebrew – with English Guide is finally out.

Fig. 1: The book’s front cover.

As evident from my prolonged silence on this blog in recent years, work on this project—one chapter a day—came at the expense of my usual blogposting, in my spare time and in the wee hours of the night.

In the end, given the scope and complexity of the project, this first major application of SimHebrew was a joint collaboration with Bob MacDonald – a retired software developer, composer, Hebrew Bible translator, and author of the Dust blog, and Seeing the Psalter, The Song in the Night, and other books on the Hebrew Bible – whose automated convertor engine (based on the SimHebrew algorithm) complemented my semi-manual efforts, and served as a quality control. His conversion was based on the pointed Leningrad Codex, while mine was based on the unpointed ktiv malé (‘full spelling’) which I ‘semi pointed’ manually (to distinguish between consonantal vav (ו), ḥolam malé (וֹ) and shuruq (וּ), and converted by my in-house convertor app. The final SimHebrew manuscript is therefore a blended and resolved version of the two, to ease reading.

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Cantillations—SimHebrew style

In light of his continued integration of SimHebrew in his system of Hebrew representation, I asked my friend Bob MacDonald if he found SimHebrew more amenable than phonetic or scholastic rendition in combination with Hebrew téamim (cantillation marks). In reply, he told me that there are several problems with it—e.g., the dots of the i could be confused with a revia mark—and of course, the font would cause problems for some technical environments.

He then followed this up with an interesting blog post on the topic, including his improvised method of representing téamim, and the issues of using the actual ones.

But in light of the SimHebrew approach of adapting standard ASCII characters instead of the traditional characters which require higher, double-byte Unicode encodings that are not available in many contexts (much like Square Hebrew itself), I wondered if it isn’t possible to use standard signs to stand in for the official téamim. This is something that has been at the back of my mind to check out at some point, so now was as good an opportunity as ever.

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The SimHebrew Bible (MacDonald version)

If I have rather quiet on the Autumn Light front in recent months, it’s because I’ve been hard at work on the SimHebrew Bible, and other projects.

My friend Bob MacDonald, retired computing developer and musician, who has done an extraordinary amount of work in translating the Hebrew Bible and setting it to music (based on the original cantillation values), appears to have taken to SimHebrew, and in a matter of days has created his own Square Hebrew-SimHebrew Convertor to rival my own, and with it, has produced SimHebrew versions of the Book of Psalms, The Twelve [minor prophets], Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis, and the five scrolls.

‘Tis a thing of beauty—illustrating the concision and gem-like simplicity of the original Hebrew, revealing the word stems, preserving the distinctions between aleph and ayin, ḥet and khaph, tet and tav, etc. that are lost in phonetic transcription, but without the jumble of eye-glazing diacritics that characterize scholarly transliteration. It’s humbling that he rustled up a converter in a few days that took me and my programmer son and another programmer several months and tweaks to get to the same point. Although the project is currently viewable by invitation only, you can see an example in Bob’s post yesterday at https://meafar.blogspot.com.

Unlike my own SimHebrew Bible, which is based on a ‘full spelling’ (ktiv malé) of the Masoretic text, the Macdonald SimHebrew Bible uses the traditional deficient spelling (ktiv ḥaser) version, as used in the Leningrad Codex. I, too, did so initially, but halfway through the Book of Genesis, I realised that since the SimHebrew Bible is aimed primarily at a non-Hebrew-reading readership, it’s best to used the ‘full spelling’ version, as it helps the reader distinguish the presence of /o/, /i/, and /u/ vowels in the text, which is often not readily apparent in the deficient spelling version. Ultimately, however, both the full and the deficient spelling variations of the SimHebrew Bible will be required, so MacDonald’s endeavour is very welcome.