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The Hebrew alphabet is actually an abjad rather than a "true" Western-style alphabet, in that every letter represents a consonant, and vowels, if they're indicated at all, require diacritics.

This leads to uncertainties in how to pronounce words. Why did G-d use an abjad rather than an alphabet in which to give us the Torah?

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    Title doesn't really match question. – Shmuel May 22 '14 at 6:19
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    @mevaqesh The last sentence makes it explicitly about Judaism. I.e. "what do the rabbis say about this" rather than "what do scholars/linguists say about this". – Scimonster Aug 21 '16 at 13:21
  • @Scimonster for that reason I wrote "primarily". Nevertheless, that does not make it more on topic than Why is the knee joint so poorly designed? Why did God make it this way. That does not seem on topic to me based on my best interpretation of the FAQ. I don't think asking what rabbis say about something makes it on topic. E.g. Why doesn't Ray go back to Jakku? What do rabbis say about this?. – mevaqesh Aug 21 '16 at 14:05
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs in the Linguistics stackexchange site. No one here knows the answer, any more than we could say why Polish words have so many consonants. – Bruce James Jun 9 '17 at 19:22
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    @BruceJames if you want answers based on linguistics research, you can ask this question, leaving God out of it, on Linguistics.SE. Here, the question is clearly asking what Jewish tradition has to say about God's intention in creating this language, which Linguistics.SE won't provide, but Mi Yodeya will (and has). I'm re-opening. – Isaac Moses Jun 15 '17 at 1:35
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An academic reason would be that indeed Hebrew (and other related languages) don't need vowels for disambiguation as much as, say, English. Most Hebrew words are built out of triliteral consonantal roots, so that words with the same consonants are (usually) related, differing only in how they're inflected for different parts of speech, number, tense and so forth. Contrast with English, where the vowels play a much more important part in the etymology of words, and taking them out indeed causes a great deal of ambiguity (which is why "disemvoweling" is effective for trollish comments).

Also, classical Hebrew has a CV(C) syllable structure, meaning that a word can't begin with a vowel sound. (Most Jews don't pronounce the letter א, but properly speaking, it is supposed to be a glottal stop.) By contrast, an English syllable can begin with anywhere from zero to three consonants, so there's much greater potential for confusion.


A more classical Jewish approach, as YDK pointed out, is that this very ambiguity allows us to derive multiple layers of meaning from the written text. In the case of G-d's name mentioned in the original (linked and closed) question, it can in fact be written with many different sets of vowel signs, each of which symbolizes some particular way in which He relates to us and we to Him. In other cases, details of Jewish law or thought are arrived at by contrasting the way in which a word is actually vocalized (called in the Talmud mikra) with other possible ways that the same series of consonants could be pronounced (called masores).

  • But what with foreign words like for example names of real people? How can a jew know how to pronounce name of people he never heard of? For example name of germany chancellor Angela Merkel would be written in hebrew as מרכל. Possible pronounciations are for example Markel, Markal, Marakal or even Marchal (because dagesh marks are commonly not used). There is quite large space for ambiguity. Such writing system seems very impractical for me. – truthseeker Oct 1 '11 at 19:31
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    @truthseeker, no reason you can't put in the vowel markings in such cases. (Even for native Hebrew words, this is sometimes done for disambiguation.) But we're talking here primarily about the Hebrew alphabet as it is used to write the Bible and other sacred writings; I guarantee you Ms. Merkel's name doesn't appear in them. (And after all, even fully alphabetic languages sometimes have the same problem too. Would you know how to pronounce "Recep Tayyip Erdogan" properly based on the spelling, if you don't know Turkish?) – Alex Oct 2 '11 at 1:47
  • אליה וקוץ בה - it can be interpreted in many ways, you're saying, so it may be misread in the same ways. Why did G-d write a script that is pretty much useless/unreadable? Did you notice that פרמשולש can be read as פרים שלשה or פר משולש. Keep in mind that the original scrolls didn't have spaces either. – Al Berko May 20 at 16:39
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Rabbeinu Bachye on "lo sechanem" (Vaeschanan, 7:2) gives multiple ways of reading the prohibition based on fiddling with the vowels. He gives this flexibility for multiple versions as the reason for the Torah not including vowels. See R. Bachye also Behaalos'cha 11:15.

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