About

Imagine a Latin text—e.g. the first verse of the Latin Vulgate Bible:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
Most of us don’t know Latin, but at least we can read it, and guess at the meaning of some words—or look them up.

Now imagine the same text, but in a non-Roman script, such as traditional Square Hebrew:

אין פרינקיפיו קריאביט דאוס קאלום את תראם תרא אאוטם אראט אינאניס את ואקוא את טנבראה סוּפר פאקיאם אבּיסי את ספיריטוּס דאי פרבּאטור סוּפר אקואס.

If you’re not a fluent Hebrew reader, this is an order of magnitude more difficult, isn’t it? Possibly enough to put you off even trying to deciphering it.

The SimHebrew Bible is the product of this realisation. It is a simulation of the Hebrew Bible in Roman characters, to make it accessible to people who would like to read the Hebrew Bible in the original, but cannot read traditional (“Square”) Hebrew script (or do so with difficulty). Thanks to this simulation, anyone who familiar with the Roman alphabet can see the actual language of the Hebrew Bible, in terms of its spelling, word roots, linguistic patterns, etc.  This provides insights into the biblical text that are not possible in translations (however good), in conventional quasi-phonetic transliteration, or even in linguistic transliteration.

I embarked on this project in June 2017—the culmination, and first serious application, of my SimHebrew development project, which I’ve worked on (on and off) for the past eighteen years.With the completion of the Book of Genesis, I feel more confident about seeing the project through.

Note: For an illustration of the deficiencies of phonetic transliteration, see the poem Modern-Day Ecclesiastes

As its name suggests, SimHebrew is a simulation of the Hebrew script, using standard English characters, without diacritics, or special characters.* It does so by mapping each Square Hebrew character to a single Roman character**—essentially “reverse-engineering” the original Canaanite/Hebrew-to-Greek-to-Roman mapping.  This one-to-one mapping allows the distinctive spelling of Hebrew words to be replicated in the Roman characters, such that conversion to and from Hebrew is (possibly uniquely) can be carried out by computer, with a full-fidelity.

If arranged by Roman alphabetic order (for ease of reference by non-Hebrew readers), the mapping goes as follows:

mipui_abc_abybri.png
The mapping of SimHebrew to Square Hebrew, in Roman alphabetical order

In most instances, the mapping is straightforward (e.g. b, g, d, h, r, z). In some cases, it involves a restoration of the original phonetic function of the letter—e.g.

  • a > alpha > aleph
  • i > iota > iod
  • q > qoppa > quph
  • t > tau > tav

pullquote_reverse_engineering.png

In the case of “orphaned” Hebrew characters—i.e., those that were dropped from the Greek and/or Roman lineup when the Canaanite alphabet was adopted—a new mapping has been created, by using the Roman character that is  graphically most like the modern Hebrew character (e.g., c/ç for כ ; y for ע; f for ף ; x for צ ; w for ש). Although the resulting transcription deviates from traditional phonetic or linguistic conventions, these purely serendipitous graphic similarities makes SimHebrew comparatively easy for any fluent Hebrew reader to master and read (and facilitates the mastering of Square Hebrew, for non-Hebrew readers).

mipui_ab_clamr_creative_commons3
The mapping of SimHebrew to Square Hebrew, in Hebrew alphabetical order (from right to left)

The SimHebrew Bible is therefore a direct and faithful rendition of the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, chapter by chapter, produced one chapter a day (on average)—including verse numbering by means of Hebrew letters, parashah markers, etc. It is unvocalized—i.e. lacks the dots and dashes with the exception of the Hebrew holam malé and shuruq variations of the letter vav, which are rendered as the letters o and u, respectively.


What can one learn from a SimHebrew rendition of the Hebrew Bible?

1. The workings of Hebrew, and vocabulary

SimHebrew illustrates how biblical Hebrew works—its use of prefixes and suffixes for prepositions, possessive forms; the use of letters for numbering of chapters and verses; its implicit vowelling; the three-letter word roots; etc.—as well as providing a direct insight into Hebrew vocabulary, such as the names of God, the Hebrew for day, night, land, water, light, etc.

By way of demonstration, here are the first five verses of the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1:

brawit_a_1_5.png

Note:

  • [1] The Hebrew word for the Book of Genesis—and for its first three words in English—In the beginning—is brawit (pron. bereshit), meaning “At [the] start”—from the word raw (rosh) meaning “head” or “top”.
  • [2] Chapters and verses are numbered by Hebrew letters: a (aleph) is 1, b (bet) is 2, g (gimmel) is 3, etc. (For more on this, see the SimHebrew FAQ)
  • [3] alhim (elohim) means God. You’ll see it a lot—as well as the Lord’s name.
  • [4] In Hebrew, the words and and the are prefixes: v () and h (ha, sometimes ), respectively. Thus, vharx is veha’aretz = “and the earth”. Occasionally (according to certain Hebrew grammatical rules), the v becomes a u, but means the same thing.

[5] Most vowels are implicit, but some—as in alhim, thu vbhu (tohu vavohu = formless, unordered), ruk (ru’aḥ = spirit, wind), aor (or = light),  ‘tob (tov = good), mim (maïm = water, waters)—are explicitly represented by the letters o, u, or i, respectively.

[6] The marker {p} marks the end of a parashah, or section of text. These markers represent the original division of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish tradition, which are often out of sync with the division into chapters and verses, which are not part of the Masoretic tradition.

2. The brevity of biblical Hebrew

SimHebrew also neatly demonstrates the brevity of Hebrew compared to English or other European languages. I Kings 20 provides a telling (and not too unusual) example: the English Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off (sixteen words) is only four words in Hebrew: al-ithll kgr cmptk (phonetically: al yithalal ḥoger kimephate’aḥ):

simhebrew_bible_brevity2.png
I Kings 20:7–11 provides a typical illustration of the brevity of Hebrew compared to English. 

3. Poetic features of the Hebrew

Poetic features of the Hebrew are often lost in translation. A classic example is the first half of Ecclesiastes 7:1. In English (KJV), it is:

1 A good name is better than precious ointment

But in Hebrew, it is

a ‘tob wm | mwmn ‘tob

(phon.: tov shem mishemen tov), which clearly reveals the alliteration and the symmetrical structure of the phrase.

or Isaiah 5:7, which in English is:

[…] and he looked for judgment, but behold—oppression; for righteousness, but behold—a cry

but in Hebrew clearly shows the wordplay:

viqv lmwp’t vhnh mwpk; lxdqh vhnh xyqh

In due course, I hope to add such commentary to the texts—they provide a tremendous introduction to Hebrew to non-native speakers—but my first priority is to complete the transcription task itself.


Can I ask you questions about the text?

I’d be happy to answer queries, if they don’t overwhelm me in number or in scope. However, first check out the Frequently Asked Questions list over time.


About the author

Orr-Stav-BMYEA

Jonathan Orr-Stav is a bilingual Hebrew-English translator (third generation of an Israeli family of translators and editors), with a background in computer-aided-design, computer applications training, and usability. In the late 1990s, he also served as the technical documentation specialist for a text-mining firm, where the issue of text mining Hebrew was a major challenge.

SimHebrew (in Hebrew, כלאמ”ר = כתב לא מרובע)—including a two-way, computerised SimHebrew-Square Hebrew converter—is the culmination of eighteen years of development and testing, in an effort to enable the representation of Hebrew texts in computerised and electronic contexts where the traditional Square Hebrew script is either unavailable or problematic.

The SimHebrew Bible is a work in progress (at the time of writing, most of the Book of Genesis is complete), and both a proof-of-concept and first major application of this new technology.


Footnotes:

* The ç for kaph sophit is optional.

** Technically speaking, the mapping of tet is not to one character, but two— ‘t. This in part is because there is no other plausible candidate, and partly as a reflection of history: in the original Canaanite Hebrew alphabet, the tet was a graphic variation of the tav—a tav surrounded by a circle.

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