The second impression that will strike his notice is how different in appearance the letters are from those to which he is accustomed, whether in English or any other European language. There is a special reason for this difference. Our letters are arbitrary signs of the sounds which we want to produce, but in Hebrew every letter was meant to be a little picture in itself, and the picture was a representation of the letter wanted, it was the first letter of the word which that picture was called. D, for instance, was called Daleth, Daleth means Door, and the first letter of the word was the picture of a door ; and to make the alphabet still easier for the child to learn, all these pictures were taken from objects familiar to everybody, such as parts of the body, or parts of a house, or tools found in a house.
When our grandfathers were taught their alphabet in the nursery they were told that
A was an Archer who shot at a frog,
B was a Butcher who kept a Bull-dog, etc.,
and many a time must their young minds have wondered why A should be an Archer any more than an Apple or Adder. In the Hebrew nursery the system was better devised, for each letter was a picture of the thing itself ; thus to make a rhyme of it
Aleph was an ox, and here is its head,
Beth is the house where we all go to bed,
Gimel is a camel and this its profile,
Daleth the door which you pass for your meal.
Whilst He is the window you see in the wall.
Vav is the tent peg, important though small,
[Zayin is a Sword to attack and repel,
Heth is the Fence behind which we can dwell.
Teth is a Serpent, deceptive and cunning,
Yod is a Fist clenched tight and demanding.
Kaph is a Hand stretched out and inviting.
Lamed is an Ox Goad to get the beast moving.
Mem is the Water sustaining our life,
Nun is the Fish being cooked by the wife.
Samek is a Prop to prevent the wall sagging.
Ayin is an Eye to get in God's light,
Peh is a Mouth uttering words of delight,
Tzadi is a Hook for the clothes to be hanging.
Qoph shows the Head as the child runs away,
Resh is hid Head as he runs up to play.
Shin is a Tooth designed for impaction,
Tau is the Crossroads, the place of decision. -- Addition on the Hebrew alphabet by : Arthur Eedle ]
And it is not hard to imagine the interest of the young Hebrew beginning his alphabet in this way without tears, and watching his teacher as he bent his hand in one way to represent the letter Yod, in another way the letter Caph, whilst his hand was passed over the back of his head to feel the picture of the letter Qoph, and if he had ever suffered from toothache the letter SHin must have been only too lifelike a reminder of the fangs of an extracted tooth. Each letter was the picture of an object the child was acquainted with, and it is a curious fact that his mind was accustomed to the sign of the Cross, trained, as it were, to see in it the fulfilment of the Law, for Tau, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, as seen in seals of the fifth century B.C., took the shape of a cross, and differed in form from the Tau of later use. It was like an unconscious prophecy teaching him before he even learned to read that the Law was a Schoolmaster which as its final effort should lead him to Christ.
In saying that Tau, or the letter " T " in later use, differed in shape from that which was used before, it must be mentioned that there have been more editions than one of the Hebrew alphabet. In English, for instance, the letter " S " up to comparatively recent times had a different shape, something like the letter "f " with central bar omitted, from that which it was given at the end of a word. In the same way with Hebrew the shapes of the letters have considerably changed in the course of time, only instead of one or two letters being different, as in English, every letter was different. Generally speaking the differences are all grouped under two heads. What are called the Samaritan characters were in use from the earliest times up to the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and after that they gradually died out. The square Aramaean characters, as they are called, which are now in- variably used, came into vogue in the fifth or fourth century B.C. The point is worth bearing in mind, for there are certain passages in the Bibles where mistakes made by the copyists in writing out manuscripts were due to a similarity of letters, not in the Hebrew letters now used, but in those which were formerly used. In another chapter instances are given where lamedh aleph, making up the Hebrew word 16, " not," were confused with lamedh vav 16 " to him." This was because the letter Aleph was in shape like that of the letter Vav in the old Samaritan character, though the distinction between the two is unmistakable in the more modern square character.
First impressions are said to go a long way, and if the student who wishes to learn Hebrew will keep in mind these two impressions which struck him so forcibly the first time he opened a Hebrew book, they will prove the very clues that are needed for arriving at the genius of the language.
The Romance Of The Hebrew Language
By The Rev. William H. Saulez, M.A., B.D. Rector Of Ninfield
Longmans, Green, And Co.