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From the Greek letters alpha and beta, those based on the Hebrew aleph and bet. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 basic letters, five having special final forms. Through the use of points, or dots, the sounds of the following letters are changed: bet, kaf, pe, shin, tav. In Sephardic pronunciation, the tav is not changed by the dot.

According to the authorities, the Hebrew alphabet came into being around 1500 B.C.E. Before that, the Egyptians used hieroglyphics, or picture writing, to express ideas or objects. Then some of the hieroglyphics were adapted into 22 sound symbols; the earliest examples of such a script come from inscriptions found in the Sinai peninsula. It is thought, however, that the first true alphabet was developed in Palestine. The Semitic alphabets were quite similar to one another, the Phoenician being closest to the Hebrew. The Phoenicians, mostly seafaring merchants, carried this script to many lands just before the 9th century B.C.E. Various peoples took this alphabet and altered it to suit their own language. According to tradition, the Greeks received this Hebrew-Canaanite alphabet from Cadmus, the Phoenician who was considered the Greek kadmi, Hebrew for “Easterner.” Like Hebrew, the oldest Greek inscriptions were written from right to left, using the 22 Hebrew letters in original order and with their original names, though these had no meaning in the Greek language. All European alphabets can be traced to this common origin. North of Canaan, in the territories that formerly belonged to Assyria, the alphabetic script developed a cursive and square form. Following the rapid diffusion of the Aramaic language, this square script, too, came into general use. According to tradition, the Jews came in contact with this “Assyrian” or Aramaic script during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E.; over time they adopted it, and still use it today. The old Hebrew script was still being copied on the Maccabean as well as the Bar Kokhba coins.

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