I don't know if there is another post about this issue, but forgive me if there is.

Here is my question. I recently read somewhere that there are letters that can be interchanged for various reasons. For example, the letter Beis can be changed for the similar-sounding letter Vav. The same I think applies to Aleph and Heh. Is this true, and if so, when would this be an appropriate thing to do? Would it apply to situations where one is working on a Remez (hidden issue), or for Gematria purposes, or something else perhaps?

Does anyone know?

Thanks a lot.

  • Changing letters is sure to change the meaning in nearly every single case. – Double AA Feb 23 '17 at 23:31
  • 4
    Can you provide some context about where you heard this and if any examples of reasons to switch letters were given there? Without that, it's hard to tell what you mean by "appropriate". – WAF Feb 24 '17 at 1:18
  • Rav Hirsch points out words where the "switch" is used to teach a lesson about similar meanings where the different letters cause the different meanings. – sabbahillel Feb 24 '17 at 13:23
  • semi-relevant: check out the two variant ways of spelling hefker in Peah 6:1 and the Bartenura's comment on it where he says that the פ and the ב are interchangeable. – PopularIsn'tRight Nov 30 '17 at 20:15

There is more than one answer to this question. But here's one, albeit a long one.

According to the Sefer Yetzirah (02:03), the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be grouped in five categories according to the part of the mouth used to form them. Rashi often seems to support a theory something like this one, as do the sages and other commentators, frequently suggesting letter-exchanges consistent with the categories of the Sefer Yetzirah in dozens of places. Some of these are sorted into categories below.

In my opinion a natural but doubtful assumption of the modern reader is that these rabbis were doing some sort of etymology. That is, a modern reader might take word similarities as evidence that at some earlier time the language was different and developed gradually into the language we know. But attributing that assumption to the rabbis seems unjustified. Some of these examples below are more naturalistic, comparing words similar in both meaning and sound as someone might do in any language; but that does not point clearly to an earlier state of the language. And some examples feel more Masoretic, comparing words that do not seem obviously related, apparently intended in a different spirit or predicated on the belief that Hebrew, and in particular the Hebrew of scriptures, is special. So that's a theoretical problem that's hard to deal with.

I use ArtScroll books a lot, and these notes reflect two ArtScroll-isms. First, I use the pound symbol to indicate footnotes in ArtScroll, either the note itself or the place in the body where the note is indicated. Second, I use the longer page numbers of ArtScroll gemara, where 24b2 means the standard page 24b, but page 2 of ArtScrolls printing of that page. If you're not using ArtScroll editions, or if you're using an ArtScroll edition inconsistent in these details, then just ignore the #3-style elements and the digit following the letter in page numbers; the rest of the citation might still be accurate.

In order to illustrate the system I wanted to divide examples by category. But in fact, when the system is itself the point of discussion, examples may be drawn from all categories. For example when the Ramban {TN-Gen-41:47 Ramban} wants to explain this system, he presents many examples of various substitutions, diverse but consistent with the categories. Koomtza and Goomatz mean "pit" although one is spelled with a Koof and one a Gimmel; Mazeg and Mascha mean "mixed", although Zayin-Gimmel and Samech-Chaf; Kana and Gana mean "garden" although one Chaf and one Gimmel; Vayisachroo and Vayisgeroo mean "they closed" although one Chaf and one Gimmel; Mechurasam and Megoiroisayich refer to dwellings although one Chaf and one Gimmel; Koiva and Choiva mean "helmet" although one Koof and one Chaf; Tikein means "establish," and Tachshit means "ornament," whether spelled Koof or Chaf; and Vayatziku and Vayatigu mean "to set or assign" although spelled Koof or Gimmel.

Now. The categories.

1. Letters of the Throat: Aleph, Hei, Ches, Ayin

  • Aleph & Hei: The comments of the Ba'al Ha Turim on Koof-Reish-(Aleph or Hei) might belong at {TN-Ex-05:03 BHT+} (Aleph) where ArtScroll printed them, or at {TN-Ex-03:18} (Hei). ArtScroll notes that either word can mean "Happened or happened upon."
  • Aleph & Ayin: {TN-Num-14:44 Rashi #4} They were "intransigent" (Vayapilu, with Ayin), related to "Darkness" (Oifel, with Aleph)
  • Aleph & Ayin: The gemara {TB-Megillah-24b2 #15} remarks that people who confuse Aleph and Ayin should not lead prayers. Rashi notes that when the gemara {TB-Berachos-32a} comments that R' Eliezer Ben Ya'akov read one of these letters as the other, it means that he did this for the purpose of exposition.
  • Aleph & Ayin: {TB-Chullin-060b3 #29} They are called Avim (with an Aleph) because they desired (with an Ayin) many goods.
  • Aleph & Ayin: (Aleph or Ayin)-Lamed (for El or Al) Al {TN-Gen-37:35 Rashi}; {TN-Ex-40:03 Ramban}; {TN-Num-14:14}; {TB-Berachos-31b4 to 32a1}. Ayin-Lamed where Aleph-Lamed expected {TN-2 Kings-22:08}
  • Hei & Ches: Hespit (with Hei) construed {TB-Berachos-57a1 #4} as Chasu Pedavitu (with Ches)
  • Hei & Ches: "Holy" (with Hei) construed as "Deconsecrate" (with Ches) {TB-Berachos-35a1 #13}, {TB-Shabbos-105a1 #5}
  • Hei & Ches: {TB-Pesachim-004a Rashi}, {TB-Megillah-12a3 etc}, {TB-Megillah-15a2 #23}, {TB-Sanhedrin-039b2 #19}
  • Hei & Ches {TN-Gen-06:16 Rashi}, {TN-Num-05:19 Rashi #9}, {TN-Num-26:13 Rashi #2}
  • Hei & Ches {TB-Avodah Zarah-19a4 #41} Hevel (with Hei, 'vanity') & Chevel (with Ches, 'bundles') Hei & Ches, Shin & Sin {TB-Sanhedrin-070a4 #44}, {TN-Psalms-104:15} Ches & Ayin {TN-Deut-02:23 Ramban}, cf. Rashbam here. Five or six examples. {MI-Demai-03:02 ArtScroll p95}

2. Letters of the Palate: Gimmel, Yud, Kaf, Chaf, Koof.

  • Gimmel & Kaf: Loi Seileich Rachil="You shall not go about spying" {TN-Lev-19:16 Rashi}, although Rachil is spelled with a Chaf, is related to expressions of Rageil (with a Gimmel) such as Hoilchim Lerageil {TN-Judges-18:14} or Loi Rageil Al Lashoinoi {TN-Psalms-15:03}.
  • Gimmel & Kaf: {TN-Isaiah-19:04 Rashi sv V'sikarti} Gimmel & Kaf & Koof: {TN-Ex-28:31 Ramban #89}. Migbas and Mikbas mean "hat," although one is spelled with a Gimmel and one with a Koof.
  • {TN-Psalms-63:12 Metzudas Tsion sv Yisochar}
  • {TN-Malachi-03:03 Metzudas Tsion sv V'zikat}

3. Letters of the Tongue: Dalet, Tes, Lamed, Nun, Tav.

  • Dalet & Lamed: Vayintsloo ("so they emptied") Egypt {TN-Ex-12:36} explained: they made Egypt a Metsudah ("a trap") {TB-Berachos-09b1 #10 Tos}, although Tsadi is followed by Lamed in Vayintsloo and by Dalet in Metsudah. Cf. {TB-Pesachim-0119a Tos sv Kimetsudah}
  • Tes & Tav: {TN-Ex-32:15 Rashi}
  • Lamed & Nun: {TN-Gen-25:04 Rashi sv Ooletushim}, {TB-Chagigah-12b Rashi sv Aliyas agalim}
  • Lamed & Nun: Avel for Aven {TN-1 Samuel-06:18 Rashi}, Nishkan for Lishkan {TN-Nehemiah-13:07}
  • Lamed and Nun: Letushim are so-called because they are Netushim = "scattered," and Lamed and Nun interchange {TN-Gen-25:03 Rashi}.

4. Letters of the Teeth: Zayin, Samech, Tzadi, Reish, Sin.

  • Zayin & Samech: {TN-Ex-28:28 Ramban} relates Yud-Zayin-Ches here to Yud-Samech-Ches of {TN-Proverbs-15:25}; Ayin-Lamed-Zayin {TN-Psalms-149:05} to Ayin-Lamed-Samech {TN-Proverbs-07:18}; Nun-Sav-Tzadi {TN-Deut-12:03} to Nun-Sav-Samech {TN-Job-30:13}; and Nun-Samech-Ches {TN-2 Kings-11:06} to Nun-Zayin-Ches {TN-Psalms-109:18 to 19}, {TN-Isaiah-23:10}
  • Zayin & Tzadi: Rashi explains {TN-Lev-13:37 Rashi sv V'seior shochoir} the word Tzadi-Hei-Vav-Veis (of the previous passage) in terms of Zayin-Hei-Vav-Veis; Cf. {TB-Sotah-36b4 sv V'yafozu}.
  • Zayin & Tzadi: {TN-Gen-49:24 #6} relates Vayafoizu (with Zayin) to Vayafotzu (with Tzadi). In the note here Artscroll lists many more examples.
  • Samech & Tzadi: Isstinas with a Samech connected to Tsinas with Tzadi. Such substitutions are common. {ZZ-Introduction to the Mishnah Berachos 02:06 = 16b} Samech & Tzadi: The Ramban {TN-Gen-39:20 Ramban #64} compares Samech-Hei-Reish ("round chamber" of the present verse) to Tzadi-Hei-Reish ("window" of Gen-6:16).
  • Samech & Shin: ArtScroll compares Shin-Ches-Tes to Samech-Ches-Tes {TN-Gen-41:08}
  • Samech & Sin: {TB-Megillah-13a2 #21}, {TB-Yevamos-121b3 #24}
  • Samech & Sin: {TN-Ex-19:04 Rashi}, {TN-Deut-33:03 Rashi #7}, and Onkelos on both verses, compare Yud-Sin-Aleph to Yud-Samech-Ayin.
  • Samech & Sin: {TN-Gen-24:33 Rashi & Targum Yonasan}, {TN-Gen-30:14 Rashi}; {TN-Ex-25:05 Rashi}, {TB-Shabbos-028}; {TN-Ex-25:31}; {TN-Ex-31:10 Rashi} compares a Hebrew word (with Sin) to an Aram word (with Samech); {TN-Lev-26:13 BHT}; {ME-Gen-02:21 Rabbah 17:06}; {TN-Deut-32:15 Rashi} Samech & Sin: {TN-Isaiah-55:13} = {TB-Megillah-10b4} Samech & Sin: {TN-Ex-35:12 Rashi #4}, {TN-Deut-26:19 BHT+}, {TN-Deut-32:02 Rashi #5}, {TN-Deut-32:15 Rashi}, {TN-Deut-33:03 Rashi #7}, {TN-Ezra-04:05 Rashi}
  • Samech & Sin: Connection in "Satan," see {TN-Lev-26:13 BHT+}
  • Samech & Sin: {TN-Lev-02:14 Rashi #13} compares Geres (with Sin) to words with Samech at {TN-Lamentations-03:16}, {TN-Psalms-119:20}. ArtScroll further compares Seitim with Sin {TN-Hosea-05:02} or Samech {TN-Psalms-101:03}, Mikas with Sin {TN-Psalms-06:08} or Samech {TN-Job-17:07}, Soichrim with Sin {TN-TN-2 Chronicles-24:12} or Samech {TN-Ezra-04:05}. Samech & Sin: Basar (flesh) is explained as an acronym. The second letter is explained first as Sruchah (foul), then as Sheol (grave). Basar has a Sin; Sruchah Samech; Sheol Shin.
  • Samech & Sin: Ches-Reish-Samech to Ches-Reish-Sin {TN-Deut-28:27 Rashi}
  • Samech & Sin: Geres {TB-Avodah Zarah-19a3}
  • Samech & Sin: Reish-Mem-(Samech or Sin), {TN-Gen-01:24 Ramban}
  • Samech & Sin: {TN-Gen-26:20 Rashi #1}, {TB-Bava Metzia-14a sv Asikin}
  • Samech in mnemonic recalls a word actually spelled Sin {TB-Pesachim-42b2 #26}
  • Tzadi & Sin: Sin-Fei-Nun connected to Tzadi-Fei-Nun {TN-Deut-33:19 Rashi}
  • Tzadi & Sin: {TN-Ex-25:29 Ramban} suggests Kesavos (with Sin) is connected to Ketzavos (with Tzadi), interchanging like Shok & Tzok
  • Tzadi & Sin: Tzadi-Ches-Koof to Sin-Ches-Koof {TN-Gen-17:17 Ramban}, {TN-Gen-18:15 Ramban}, {TN-Lev-26:43 BHT}
  • Shin & Sin, Hei & Ches: {TB-Sanhedrin-070a4 #44}, {TN-Psalms-104:15} Sin {TN-Num-11:08 Rashi}.
  • Samech & Sin: (Lev-2:14 Rashi #13) compares Geres ("pulverized," with Sin, (Lev-2:14)) to Gorsa ("shattered," with Samech, (Psalms-119:20), cf. (Lamentations-3:16)). ArtScroll further compares Seitim="wayward" with Sin (Hosea-5:02) or Samech (Psalms-101:03), Mikas="from anger" with Sin (Psalms-6:08) or Samech (Job-17:07), Soichrim="they hired" with Sin (TN-2 Chronicles-24:12) or Samech (Ezra-4:05). See also (Avodah Zarah-19a3).

5. Letters of the Lips: Beis, Veis, Vav, Mem, Pei, Fei.

  • Beis & Pei: {TN-Daniel-11:24 Rashi sv Yivzor}; {TB-Menachos-027b Rashi sv L'miutei derech meshofash}
  • Veis and Fey: Hevkeir with a Veis equals Hefker with a Fey. {TB-Eduyos-Mishnah 3 6a7 #1}
  • Veis and Vav {TN-Gen-30:20 Ramban}, bringing many examples Veis and Fei {TN-Ex-15:10 Ramban}; {TN-Lev-19:20 Ramban}; {TN-Deut-07:12 Ramban (at end)}. {TN-Psalms-68:31 Rashi & Radak sv Bizar} Also associated in grammar, cf. {TN-Ex-23:25 BHT+ #164}.
  • Thanks so much for your amazing and detailed answer. However, I do have one more question for now, if that's okay with you. The question is, how about cases where the letter is a key vowel. For example, the word "Ohr", meaning "light", is spelled Aleph Vav Reish. The vav is pronounced "oh". Is it really acceptable to instead spell it Aleph Veis Reish, which would sound like "Ohver"....? – Reuben Bakst Apr 6 '17 at 2:27
  • I’m not sure what you mean when you describe a substitution as “acceptable.” I think that we could legitimately suggest further connections between words as they actually appear in scriptures, even if we were the first to make the particular comparison. We're not innovating the spelling, just explaining the spelling we encounter. But if the word Ohr normally contains a Vav and never a Veis, what would be the purpose in innovating the spelling? That would simply be a misspelling, wouldn’t it? – Chaim Apr 7 '17 at 17:50
  • You're also asking whether Vav is special in that it has two sounds, and only one of them seems to put it in Category 5, Letters of the Lips. I don't know whether that makes a difference. I don't see any relevant citations in my original answer, but perhaps over Pesach I'll find a chance to look around for some. – Chaim Apr 7 '17 at 17:56
  • I gave this question some attention. I didn't really get anywhere, but maybe my comments can still contribute in some small way to the Great Conversation. I thought about words containing a Vav that is sometimes a consonant and sometimes a vowel. For example the word Gavan ("color") is supposedly the same word in the expressions Ki Hai Gavna ("like that") and Kegoin ("for example"). And the word Maves ("death") is like the word Moos ("die"). If we could find such a word in which the Vav was replaced, perhaps a Rishoin could be found commenting on the interchangeability of such a Vav. – Chaim Apr 14 '17 at 16:58
  • I checked dictionaries for words like these. But my grammar is so poor that I could think of no systematic way to search. I could not anticipate all letters that might join in the words I was confabulating. So I just thrashed around a while. Fooling around with Gavan ("color"), for example, I found that Kaf-Vav-Nun ("clasp, fasten") resembles Gimmel-Vav-Nun ("make cheese"). I imagine that at some point in the cheese-making process you press, clasp or fasten something, so maybe that's an example of the general point. But it doesn't involve a substitution for Vav, the question of the moment. – Chaim Apr 14 '17 at 17:00

When the letters אהו״י are used as matres lectionis to indicate long vowels, and are not pronounced. Since א and ה are both used to indicate long a, they are sometimes interchanged in rabbinic manuscripts and other early texts.

In the letters from the Judaean desert, one finds the name Bar-Kosiba variously spelled as כוסבא and כוסבה. The Dead Sea Scrolls have וגבורא instead of וּגְבוּרָ֖ה at Isaiah 36:5. The name ʿAqiva is found as עקיבה and עקיבא in rabbinic literature.

The weakening of gutturals אהח״ע has also allowed for interchange of these letters. ואתה appears instead of וְעַתָּה֙ (Isaiah 5:5) in the Dead Sea Scrolls. וחתהזק appears instead of והתחזק in the Bar-Kokhba documents. Some rabbinic documents have the form אדיין instead of עדיין.

Interchange of letters that are similar phonologically also appears. Even in the Second Temple Period, one finds interchange of שׁ and ס. The Dead Sea Scrolls have סלמותמה for Genesis 37:34 where the Masoretic text has שִׂמְלֹתָ֔יו.

The rabbinic tradition has interchange between labials ו (in Eretz Israel), פ (in Babylon), and ב. For example, one finds both יוונה and יבנה. Nasals נ and מ interchange: מרום vs. מרון. Other similar examples of interchanges are found as well.

It should be noted that while these interchanges exist, they are often "erroneous" or nonstandard spellings, based on the local pronunciation.

  • Thanks so much for your amazing and detailed answer. However, I do have one more question for now, if that's okay with you. The question is, how about cases where the letter is a key vowel. For example, the word "Ohr", meaning "light", is spelled Aleph Vav Reish. The vav is pronounced "oh". Is it really acceptable to instead spell it Aleph Veis Reish, which would sound like "Ohver"....? – Reuben Bakst Apr 6 '17 at 2:27
  • @ReubenBakst The phenomenon is phonologically motivated, so I imagine it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a situation like this in ancient sources (and certainly not today). – Argon Apr 7 '17 at 2:30

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