ʾALEF (Heb. א; אָלֶף), first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; its numerical value is 1. It is a plosive laryngal consonant, pronounced according to the vowel it carries. The earliest clear representation of the ʾalef is to be found in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions of c. 1500 B.C.E. This acrophonic pictograph of an ox-head (ʾalp)
develops through the Proto-Arabic
and South Arabic
into the Ethiopic
on the one hand, and through the Proto-Canaanite
into the tenth–ninth centuries B.C.E. classical Phoenician ʾalef
on the other hand. The Ugaritic consonantal cuneiform script of the 14th century B.C.E. has three ʾalef signs:
(ʾu). About 800 B.C.E. the Greeks borrowed the Phoenician ʾalef and used it as a vowel (alpha). They altered its stance and turned it into
, a shape which was adopted by Latin, among other scripts. While the Phoenician ʾalef underwent its own evolution (
– fifth century B.C.E.,
– Neo-Punic), the Hebrew and the Aramaic scripts, which derived from Phoenician, developed it as follows: in seventh century B.C.E. Hebrew, along with the cursive forms
there existed a formal one:
. The latter survived in the Paleo-Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls and its variations occur on Jewish coins as
and in late Samaritan as
. The development of the Aramaic cursive ʾalef in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. was
; and in the fifth century B.C.E., it reached its classical form. The latter is the ancestor of the first letters of many alphabets which developed from
the third century B.C.E. onward. They include: Nabatean:
. The last form, which occurs in the first century C.E. documents found near the Dead Sea, indicates the date when the Arabic ʾalif was fixed. The Palmyrene
turned into the Syriac
(Estrangela), but in other Syriac systems it is a vertical stroke resembling the Arabic. The Jewish (square Hebrew) ʾalef preserved the shape of its Aramaic ancestor. Although there is a tendency to curve the left leg – as in Nabatean and Palmyrene, e.g., the Nash Papyrus – the straight-legged ʾalef
prevails. The Jewish cursive forms of the time of the Herodian dynasty
disappeared apparently after the period of Bar Kokhba. The Jewish formal ʾalef did not change its basic shape during the following period. In the cursive styles of the various Jewish local systems the left leg became the main stroke –
; so it is in the Ashkenazic cursive from which stems the modern cursive ʾalef
. See *Alphabet, Hebrew.
Alef in Aggadah and Folklore
The alef is more personified than any of the other Hebrew letters. Praised is its humility, which is reflected in the fact that it did not ask God to be the means of creation nor that the Bible be started with it (the Bible begins with the second letter of the alphabet bet). The alef was rewarded by starting the Decalogue (אָנֹכִי, Anokhi; "I") and by denoting the highest number, אֶלֶף (elef, "thousand"). The three letters (א, ל, ף) which constitute the alef have been interpreted according to different homiletic means such as the
אֶפְתַּח לְשׁוֹן פֶּה (eftahleshon peh; "I shall open the tongue (and) mouth") which is the opening phrase of God's proclamation: "I shall open the tongue (and) mouth of all people to praise Me, or to study, and teach" (Midrash Alfa Beta de-Rabbi Akiva in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 3 (19382), 12–14; cf. the use of the root אלף in Job 33:33). Since alef is the initial letter of God's name at the time of Creation (אֱלֹהִים, Elohim in Gen. 1:1) and of the three words alluding to His Ineffable Name (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה in Ex. 3:14), it is fundamental in Hebrew inscriptions in
magic. Similarly, the letter "A" is to be found at the end of the European magic-formulistic inscriptions belonging to the "abracadabra" type. The expression "from alef to tav" (Shab. 55a and Av. Zar 4a) corresponding to that of "Alpha and Omega" (Rev. 1:8 and 22:13) denotes complete integration.
F. Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magic (19252); Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 24; D. Neuman, Motif-index to the Talmudic-Midrashic Literature (1954), 311, no. D 1273. 4; S. Thompson, Index of Folk-Literature, 2 (19562), 162, no. D 1273. 6.
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