Friday, November 6, 2009
The Letter Hey
Hey, the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is a soft and gentle sounding letter. It sounds similar to the “h” in English, much like a breath gently released.
The letter hey is one of the three letters that make up the name of God (along with yud and vav). In fact, a solitary hey is one way of abbreviating the word “Hashem,” literally “the name,” which is used as a stand-in for God’s ineffable name. Physically, the hey can be viewed as a person covered by a protective shield, symbolic of how God protects each soul.
While the hey has a mild and unobtrusive sound, it is a letter of great, yet contradictory, power in Hebrew grammar. First and foremost, the hey as a prefix represents the definite article in Hebrew. While kelev means dog, ha’kelev means the dog. The inclusion, or exclusion, of the definite article can alter the meaning of a sentence. For instance, “I dislike neighbors” versus “I dislike the neighbors.”
However, in Hebrew grammar, the hey as a prefix on the first word of a sentence can also be indicative of a question--quite the opposite from the role of a definitive article! Thus, depending on context and vocal inflection, one might read, “Ha’eesh halach la’sif'riya” as “The man went to the library” or Did the man go to the library?”
Bibliographical acknowledgment: The Wisdom In The Hebrew Alphabet: The Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. By Rabbi Michael L. Munk. Published by Mesorah Publications, 1983.