one-page Hebrew dictionary.






sh (S)



pull, touch;

pour out;

stand out;


negate, melt;

flood, plenty, send; lift;

excellent, shine;


with, if;

joy, freedom; breath, human

shout; pain

support; analyze


contrast; differ;




hateful, destroy

side; push






people; sound

root; orderly; put down;




certify, measure; serve







p (ph)


roll, scrape,

alive, joy, think;

open up,

spray, throw,

sound, disgust,


open; spread; puff;

feed, help;

pile up, high;

bind, link, one;

solve; freedom; do;



cut, part; lack;

explode; wild; zero;




surprise, beauty







k (kh)

b (bh)


poke, arise, forward


split; divide, choose;

press, crush;

cut off, spoil

tool, write,

alone; wild, perish;

lavish; grief

collect, voice


pour out, good news


acquire, enclose





so, as;

master, father;




slave, child; cattle;




build, visit, in











spin, travel, pour,


stretch out,


doubt, split; suffer;

flame, spiritual, Gd;

flatten, empty,



go, to,


lay out,

close, forbid;

teach, born;

wide, long, go


arrange, symbol

tongue, slander




lock up, wear;

light; teach



no, night, disappear


the most boring field in the world.

Language is a field that is sure to get a hostile yawn from the most intellectual audiences.  They may run to their book-club and read a novel a week for fun, but the idea of reading anything about language, or hearing about language, or discussing language, turns them off like a light bulb.  

            And let’s face it:  They may come by their hostility fairly.  English classes in school tend to be picky versions of etiquette classes, with enough ‘Do not…’s to occupy the secret police of a totalitarian dictatorship.  Foreign language classes are even worse, with endless memorization of conversations and conjugations.  Even foreign language teachers seem not to be interested in foreign languages (other than perhaps their own).

            But language just happens to reveal truths about human history and even human psychology that simply cannot be seen through other fields.

Nowhere is the historical importance of language more true than with Biblical Hebrew, largely because the Canaanite alphabet is at the basis of all alphabets, anywhere in the world, including not only the Greek and Roman alphabets (the latter includes the “English” alphabet), but even the Devanagari alphabet of India, the Arabic alphabet, and others. What I call the “Canaanite” alphabet is traditionally called “Old Hebrew” or “Phoenician”:  It was used in the time of kings David and Solomon, and is implied by the Hebrew Bible to have been used in the writing of the Ten Commandments, but it was also the writing system that Northern Canaanites (whom the Greeks called “Phoenicians”) created for the Greek language.  (We know that it was a Semite who created the Greek alphabet because only a Semite would have heard q as a separate sound in European languages:  This letter quickly dropped out of Greek, but not before it was borrowed in the Roman alphabet, where it has stayed, as a relict of no particular value — except to show that the Greek alphabet was invented by a Semite hearing Greek, and not by a Greek seeing Canaanite writing.

            The order of letters in the “English” alphabet (a version of the Roman alphabet) is largely the same as in Hebrew (a later form of the Canaanite), showing that a teaching method sometimes still used today, the “alphabet song,” is a three-thousand-year-old teaching method — not a testament to pedagogical innovation, or even to its success!

            The Canaanite alphabet had an additional feature:  The letter-names were often paired by topic, so you had pairs like ayin—pé “eye—mouth” and resh—shin “head—tooth,” which was a further help to the pedagogical relevance of the alphabet order.  The names of the Canaanite and Hebrew letters are themselves of enduring interest, as we will see below.

            The Greek letter-names were all meaningless mispronunciations of Canaanite words, and thus lost the meaningfulness of the order (while preserving the order in teaching, again characteristic of the history of pedagogy).  So Greek kappa is a mispronounced kaf “spoon, ” Greek gamma is a mispronounced gamal from which the English word camel is derived, and Greek beta is a mispronounced bet “house,” from which we get names for places (including synagogues) like Beth-El “house of God,” Beth Jacob “House of Jacob.”


Qabalah (qabalah, Jewish mysticism) is another field that produces an immediate hostile reaction among many:  Many transfer their hostility to Hhasidism over to qabalah, since Hhasidism was founded on basic insights and texts of qabalah. Once regarded as so dangerous that only pious male Jews over age 40 should study it (it was then that the word cabal was taken from its name), it has more recently exploded into the paperback market, with dozens of books aimed at the “psychological self-help” audience.  Indeed, even secularists will be able to accept the many qabalistic suggestions for self-help, perhaps including even study and mediation on such qabalistic concepts as the “Tree of Life.”  (I am using unconventional but more correct spellings — qabalah for kabbalah or cabalah, and hhasidism for chasidism — because we will be looking cloesly at Hebrew letters:  q is the same letter that shows that the Greek alphabet was invented by a Semite;  hh is a better representetation for the sounds of Hhanukah and hhutspah than the German spellings ch, which is easily misinterpreted as in chaos or chair.   These were both originally pronounced deep in the the throat.)

            Qabalah  itself means “receiving” (the same word is used in Modern Hebrew for “receipt”), and refers to the way in which an individual can “receive” this tradition — or the tradition can “receive” the individual!  It is not a widely used term in qabalistic literature:  Other terms like hhokhmah nisteret “wisdom [which is] hidden”) are used — where terms are used at all.  A major claim of qabalah is that there exists a Higher World (’olam elyon) or Spiritual World (’olam ruhhani, from ruahh “spirit”) above or behind the physical world.  (Notice how the adjective follows the noun in all three Hebrew phrases quoted, just as in English body beautiful or court martial or attorney general, and as in French and Spanish.) 

            Modern science with its atoms, Big Bang, strings, and worm-holes fits better into this kind of universe with a Higher, Spiritual World — like Plato’s World of Ideal Forms — than into the materialistic world of Bertrand Russell or Karl Marx, although modern science and Plato both lack the primarily moral focus that qabalah shares with the rest of Judaism. 

            Qabalah anticipates the left- vs. right-brain insight of modern cognitive psychology, with its understanding of hhokhmah “Wisdom” (implying an embracing, synthesizing insight) vs. binah “Discernment” (implying the making of distinctions, thus an analytic kind of insight).  Qabalah emphasizes that true “Knowledge,” da’at, requires merging these two complementary kinds of thought-process.  (The qabalistic triad hhokhmah—binah—da’at has given its abbreviation, hhabad, to the outreach movement of Lubavitch Hhasidism.)

            This triad is dominated by keter “crown,” emphasizing the unified (“monistic”) nature of the universe in the view of qabalah and Judaism.  Keter is as close as humans can come to conceiving of God:  Above the level of keter, in qabalah, only such terms as en sof “infinity” (literally “absence-of end”) can be used to discuss God.






































            In the “Tree of Life,” a parallel triad consists of hhesed “Lovingkindness” and din “Judgment,” as combining in tiph’eret “splendor.”  Again the therapeutic concept is the importance of balance in one’s personality.























            The “levels” of the Tree of Life are called sphirot (singular sphirah), which sounds like the Greek word for “sphere,” but is based on the Hebrew root s-p-r “to count; to recount.”  This root is of crucial importance in Judaism, as can be seen in the importance of such words derived from this root as sepher torah “Book of Teaching,” sopher “scribe” (originally a writer of Torah scrolls, but now meaning any sort of “writer”), not to mention mispar “number” and sphirah “Era.”  The first work of qabalah, the sepher yetsirah “Book of Creation,” begins with the idea that God created the universe with three “books” (spharim):  text (sepher), number (sphar), and communication (sipur).























            Anyone who has heard of qabalah has heard of gematriyah, the qabalistic interpretation of words based on the numerical values of their letters.  The most famous example is the identification of “18” with “life” in Jewish tradition, based on the values of the letters:  yud = 10 and hhet = 8, spelling hhay “alive, life.”

            In qabalah, there is also a huge literature on the “wisdom” or “meaning” of the Hebrew letters:  a few old and new books in Hebrew, and even more in English, even at your local bookstore.  In fact, the qabalistic view is that God used the Hebrew alphabet as the “atoms” or “building blocks” of the Universe, as the sepher yetsirah puts it:   God engraved 32 mystic paths of Wisdom — the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet plus that ten digits.  (Zero is the tenth digit.  It was then being introduced to the Western world.  The first recorded use of a zero in Europe was apparently in Hebrew.)

            Qabalists often contrast other languages, in which the words are “arbitrary” (there is no reason that pan must be a flat cooking utensil in English, while meaning “bread” in French) with Hebrew, in which each word is (supposedly) more appropriate to its reference — partly because, in the qabalistic view, the letters (that is, the Hebrew consonants) have individual meanings. 

            As a linguist, I am unable to give great credence to the concept that God used Hebrew letters as atoms with which to build the universe.  After all, the Hebrew language and alphabet are specific points in the middle of two long historical chains, these points occurring a mere three thousand years ago, long after the world, and even humans, came into being.  But, also as a linguist, I was amazed to find that the qabalistic insight of Hebrew letters having individual meanings is remarkably true!   We will be looking at this insight closely — even as a way in which non-specialists might be able to “get into” the Hebrew that is behind Judaism, in the Bible and prayer-book.



knowledge of Hebrew.

This conversation can often be heard in the Jewish community:


Do you read Hebrew? —Yes.

But do you understand what you read? —No.


But this conversation is actually nonsensical.  Do you read Turkish?  If the conversation made sense, then you would have to say, “Yes, I read Turkish” — because it’s written in the same alphabet as English:  If by “read” you mean pronouncing words, as in the conversation above, then of course you can “read Turkish” (like the Turkish jailer in the movie Midnight Express, a Hollywood actor who just read the script without knowing what it meant). 

            Many in the Jewish community learn the Hebrew alphabet well enough, but never get beyond the letters.  The term for that is “functionally illiterate”!  So the above conversation ought to be: Have you studied Hebrew? —Yes.  I went to Hebrew school for four years, and I’m functionally illiterate!

            There is even a joke about a rabbi boasting how he got rid of mice in the synagogue:  “I made them bné-mitzvah, and they have never been in synagogue since!”  But what about those who do come back?  A visitor to an American synagogue (from Mars, or even from Israel) might be impressed by the fluency of services in Hebrew — especially in the daily minyan, where a hundred pages are pronounced in the blink of an eye.  But a vocabulary test would reveal that few of these fluent pray-ers know very much — or anything at all — of what they are saying.  Even the facing translation has not impinged on the consciousness of most synagogue-goers, over many years of attendance. 

            But any literature works best in the original, and the Hebrew Bible is no exception.  While parts of it may “sound good” in English translation, its meaning can only be appreciated in the original. Is there any hope for the ordinary, busy Jewish adult (not to mention the child, pre- or post-bar-mitzvah) to learn the meanings of Hebrew words, when their focus seems to be limited to letters?   Or are we forever condemned to mumbling words that we don’t understand?

            What about American Jews with an interest in Israel?  The typical conversation course may not even give you enough speaking ability to overcome the desire of Israelis to be helpful and practice their English.  And the oleh hhadash to Israel finds soon enough that even conversational abilities help little when trying to read a newspaper.  Reading the Hebrew Bible, with its three-thousand-year-old Hebrew, may in some ways be harder if you can converse in Modern Hebrew.

            But, as it happens, gaining some insight into the original meaning of the Hebrew Bible does not require you to be a Hebrew scholar or een a fluent speaker:  The main vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible is small.  Knowledge of a few dozen words can start you off recognizing a lot, and elementary study of Hebrew three-consonant “roots” can reveal deep meaning relationships clearly.  The vocabulary has not changed much more than English from the time of Shakespeare to our time — but, even more important, the most important three-consonant “roots” have changed little from Ancient to Modern Hebrew.

            But is there any hope for the American Jew, reared on Hebrew letters as the main psychological focus and thinking of Hebrew vocabulary as a vast wilderness, to ever reach the Promised Land of actually comprehending written Hebrew; that is, of actually learning a sufficient number of three-consonant roots to get around?



Indeed there is hope ... through qabalah!  As it happens, the three-consonant “roots” can be grouped for convenient learning … by their “key-consonant” — usually the first letter of the root.

            When I plowed through a Hebrew dictionary some 25 years ago, in my own “crash program” to learn vocabulary as an oleh hhadash in Israel, I couldn’t help noticing (long before ever studying qabalah) that many words beginning with the same letter had similar meanings. 

            It would be some 20 years before I would be able to turn this insight into techniques that would actually make Hebrew easier for American learners, as my attempts to write a short vocabulary for Hebrew students some ten years ago brought me back to the insight of “key-letters.” 

            Traditional Hebrew grammar is built on the insight of “triliteral” (three-consonant) roots as the basis of Hebrew words, and some innovators over the ages have talked about these triliteral roots coming from “biliteral roots,” but here I was coming to an idea of “uniliteral roots” — individual meaningful consonants.

            Let’s take an example:  p-r-q is a triliteral root meaning unload (cargo) or take apart (a structure), for which some grammarians further claim a biliteral basis p-r- with a similar meaning, as also in p-r-r crumble.  I was now proposing a “uniliteral” ultimate root, p- meaning open up, disperse. 

            This “uniliteral” root can also be found in p-t-hh open, p-z-r disperse, p-r-h fruitful, p-n-h to face, and also the nouns peh mouth, pnim interior, panim face.  (The face is what you “open up” to other people.) 

            I have simiarly devised an entire key-letter system for all of Hebrew.  The system is somewhat complex — although of course a lot less complex than a whole dictionary!  In fact, I’ve written a “one-page dictionary” of Hebrew that effectively lists thousands of words — but only their meanings, by initial letter, not their whole spelling.  (The initial letter is what is most likely to be on the tip of the tongue anyway!)  The core of the system is simply a set of meanings for the key-letters:  16 letters of the Hebrew alphabet are key-letters, each with a few basic meanings;  in fact, even these few basic meanings are related to each other.  The system must be practiced with many roots, and not just memorized;  but its core is fairly sustem:  two or three related meaning per key-letter.

            Perhaps some parts of the key-letter system can be presented in a form that will be useful to the “ordinary busy adults” mentioned above (such as readers of the present article). 

            The easiest key-letter is no doubt pé:  It means, as noted above, open up, disperse — as in verbs like patahh, paqahh, panah, pashat, pizer, parats, potsets meaning open, open one’s eyes, turn towards, stretch out, disperse, break through, explode;  as well as nouns like peh, pnim, and panim mouth, inside, face, as mentioned.   The letter’s name means mouth, and it looks like a “talking mouth.” 

            Some words beginning with p extend opening up metaphorically, such as for something wonderful or surprising, like pe’er, pele’, peta’, pit’om luxury, wonder, surprise, suddenly.



Even with context, I can’t guarantee that you will be able to guess the exact meaning of a new root, but you’re better off than in English, where you can rarely make any guess at all for the meaning of a new root out of context (although of course you can guess the meaning of a new word if it consists of familiar roots).  In fact, anyone could easily try out this generalization about p by looking through a prayer-book, Bible, or dictionary that provides Hebrew text and facing translation. Just keep in mind that, in theory, the p (or any letter) must usually be initial for it to qualify as a key-letter.  (And, of course, here as everywhere in language, there are always complications and exceptions;  on the other hand, in many words the is not initial, but is nevertheless the key-letter, because it is preceded only by prefixes — or non-key-letters.)

            Even if you don’t know much Hebrew, you may be able at least to guess which is the English translation of the p-word, and this may be a fun way to sort out which word in the original text is equivalent to which word in its translation.  This is a good way to force yourself to look at the other side of the page, and in this way confront the meanings of the prayers!  (It is actually also how I began to study Hebrew, with the Hertz Pentateuch, in my mid-twenties — knowing nothing but the alphabet.  Now, admittedly quite a bit older, I have given lectures in Hebrew at professional conferences, and published scholarly articles in Hebrew.)

            Perhaps the second best key-letter is kaf, whose name means shovel, spoon, palm of hand, and which looks like a spoon ready to “scoop something up.”  In its meanings, it generally has something to do with enclosing.  So we have not only the word kaf itself, but also kol, kolel, kavash, koahh, kele’, kluv, meaning all, include, conquer, strength, jail, cage; and also words for various kinds of handling, such as kli, katav, kibes meaning instrument, write, do laundry. 

            Like p, k has a single main meaning, although the “branches” (its sub-meanings) may sometimes be hard to follow;  for example, one major branch is the meaning so, correct (kohen, kasher, kakh, ken priest, suitable, so, yes). 

            But both letters can be very useful even with as little definition as provided here.  As they used to say about Levi’s rye bread:  “Try it, you’ll like it!”

            It’s probably best to work with these two letters for a while, for best results:  You want to know the basic meanings “in your heart,” and not have to carry them around on a card.  But just for future reference, let me exemplify a few of the other key-letters (reviewing p and k as well) that are especially useful, although they have main “branches” that vary quite a bit.









open up, wonderful



enclose, handle






close, complete, arrange, secret



spirit, teach, medicine



roll, pile up, big



gather, receive, buy



Bind, alive


As an example of how the system might work at its most powerful, imagine seeing a Hebrew sentence in which you don’t know the verb:  The teacher X-ed the window.  Guessing just from context, X might mean open or close.  There’s no way to choose between these dramatically different meanings.  But if you pay attention to their initial letter, you might be able to guess:  If X begins with p, then it means open (patahh), and if it begins with s then it means close (sagar).

            On a more abstract level, X in another sentence The teacher X-ed the text, if it begins with p, would similarly probably mean interpret (peresh), and if it begins with s, it would mean summarize (sikem):  Interpreting “opens up” the text, whereas summarizing “closes it up.”  This sort of metaphor is basic to Hebrew, and characteristically interesting, revealing the interesting thought patterns of the (subconscious) “inventors” of Hebrew of thousands of years ago.

            Spanish may have more “cognates” than Hebrew, like revolución and fútbol, which make Spanish easier to read and learn, of course.  But cognates are really just “too easy” to reveal anything interesting about Spanish.  Hebrew key-letters offer a deeper fun, the fun of seeing how an interesting kind of image-making is behind the most basic Hebrew words.  This sort of metaphoric connection is behind the root-structure of Hebrew as well — but it becomes deeper as you dive into the depths of key-letters:  It may be strange and hard to try to remember the connection between the easy word kelev dog and the hard word kluv cage — but this second word is more easily learned alongside kele’ prison, especially in relation to the key-letter k meaning enclose.

            The system is open (patuahh!) enough that, even if you learn all of the above, you will still see surprises.  (There are always irregularities in language.)  But can you relate the following Hebrew words, familiar through English, to their key-letter meanings: golem, rabbi, seder, kipur, qibutz?   (The last is often spelled kibbutz in English, but qibutz is a better transliteration.)  Of the Hebrew words semel and pa’ar, which of them means gap, and which means symbol?  (Hint:  a symbol is like a summary.)  You always have to ignore prefixes, so that torah and moreh both come from the same root;  what is its key-letter meaning?   Of the Hebrew words pele’ and sod, which of them means secret, and which means miracle?

            Can you explain the meanings of the words from qabalah mentioned earlier:  qabalah receiving, ruahh spirit, en-sof infinity (from sof end), keter crown, hhokhmah wisdom and hhesed lovingkindness, din judgment and da’at knowledge, and tipheret splendor (ti- is a prefix, so the key letter is p)?  How about the various words from the root s-p-r?  (How many of these meanings can you remember?)


English key-letters.

By the way, English is not completely bereft of key-letters:  Among the more reliable are:  p, which begins many words for points, poking, etc.;  b, which begins many words for bulges and bumps;  and g, which begins many words for abundance, including abundant light (grand, good, God; glare, glimmer) — although usually with a bad connotation (garbage, gunk, gloom).  The reader can no doubt think of many examples of English words that fit these concepts — and many others that don’t fit!  I doubt that the system has enough value to justify it for foreign learners of English:  It is too diffuse, with too many exceptions. 

            In Hebrew, too, the system as a whole is fairly complex — probably only 14 of the 16 key-letters are worth learning, and most of them have two main meanings, with complex branches.  Just to prevent future frustration, I might even now mention that the last five of the letters listed above have additional meanings, as shown here with an example for each:




spin, confuse

sov spin



stretch out, wide

rehhov street




ger stranger



chop off

qatsar short




hhaval  too bad!


But even with these complications in the Hebrew system, there are far fewer irregularities than in English, and therefore far greater opportunity to use it for vocabulary learning:  Even though guessing the meanings of new words is often difficult, at least the initial letter will support the meaning, thus helping the memory.  And sooner or later, anyone can be not only reading newspapers, but understanding the depths and uniqueness of this suprisingly exotic and interesting language that has had such influence on the world, and is so crucial to our understanding of our own heritage. 

            In fact, some deeper connections are reflected in these complications.  For example, the letter s means both spin and close:  Are these two very different meanings really connected?  Or is it just the usual complexity of language, as in the two opposite meanings of English oversight?   In fact, Jewish culture connects these two different concepts, spin and close, in obvious ways:  The sepher torah spins throughout the year, but is the most characteristic Jewish symbol of a complete teaching.  The wedding-ring is a similar spinning symbol of completion. 

            In any case, however, even these complications leave the system of Hebrew key-letter meanings quite a bit simpler than the wide variety of interpretations and homilies to be found in the qabalistic literature on the “wisdom of Hebrew letters.”  In fact, I have concluded that my linguistic system represents the literal (pshat) level of interpretation, where the qabalistic literature hovers on the other three accepted levels of interpretation (drash, remez, sod — moral interpretation, allegorical interpretation, and mystic secret).  This is nor a surprising conclusion, since the field of linguistics is itself mostly concerned with the literal meaning of language, including the Hebrew Bible, with other levels being left to rabbis and qabalists.


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