When talking about shapes, the Gemara often uses Greek gamma (e.g., Peshachim 8b). Why doesn't it use reish, dalet or chaf sofit instead?

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    I'd guess if we knew what these four letters commonly looked like back then it would be apparent somehow why they chose that one
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 2:08
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    This opens up the big question as to why the Sages used foreign words at all -- Sanhedrin, prozbul and many others. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 2:25
  • Maybe it has to do with the language of that discipline, since they are referring to a shape and geometry which is a Greek subject they use that terminology
    – sam
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 3:06
  • @maurice see my answer below Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:15
  • Precise letter forms from Talmudic-era Babylonia can be seen on incantation bowls, as upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/66/IncantationBowl.jpg
    – Argon
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 15:32

2 Answers 2


According to Rabeinu Manoach (a 13th century Rishon) in his Sefer Menucha on Suka 4:2:2 it's because the letters of the Alef-Bet are too holy to be used to describe mundane things such as shapes.

כתב הרב היו לה שתי דפנות זו בצד זו כמין גאם כלומר גימ"ל יונית שהיא עשויה כדל"ת שלנו. ומה שאמרו רבותינו כמין גאם ולא אמרו כמין דל"ת שלא רצו לתאר לאותיות הקדש שום דבר של חול וזה מהפלגת הגדולים קדושת התורה וכבודה:‏

As to why (ancient) Greek and not any other alphabet? I think that's because of the Bracha that Yefet ben Noach received:

יַפְתְּ אֱ-לֹקים לְיֶפֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי שֵׁם, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל שֵׁם נֶאֱמָרִין בִּלְשׁוֹנוֹתָיו שֶׁל יֶפֶת,

That the language of Yefet shall be found in the learning houses of Shem.

This idea is found in multiple places in classic sources, like the Medrash Rabba that I pasted, and in Megila 9b

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    Are you sure this is exhaustive in the Talmud? I seriously doubt it. see sefaria.org.il/…
    – Al Berko
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 16:16
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    @AlBerko all four sources in your search refer to tefillin, where the intention is not there for a mere shape similar to a dalet, but to have an actual dalet knotted on the tefillin.
    – Harel13
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 4:37
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    @AlBerko - I don't understand your comment. Your link describes 4 cases of the Daled on the Tefillin knot. Hardly "describing mundane shapes"... ??? Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 13:13
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    @DannySchoemann while I agree with your point, the Talmud definitely uses Greek letters in "holy"-ish contexts - sukkah, anointing oil, etc... Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 13:39
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    @רבותמחשבות - Correct. Seems there an aversion to treating them as "shapes". They are Holy Letters, not mere "shapes". Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 14:01

This forum discussion adds one possible answer:

The Mishnah in Shekalim 3:2 brings the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael that some things in the Beit Hamikdash had Greek letters written on them. Tiferet Yisrael explains that at that time, the Jews may have been more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew. Thus, if the original sources listed above were from a time period where many Jews were very familiar with the Greek alphabet, the Mishnah/Talmud would certainly use those "Greek letter" examples rather than to something more Jewish ("Hebrew letters"), which would be less understood.


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    Even if this did apply to your average Jew, it seems hard to say that it would apply to someone learning Mishnah or Talmud?
    – MichoelR
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 14:39

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