by Fr. ABSV—June 2005 e.v.
For those who enter the Golden Dawn without prior exposure to the Hebrew language, the memorization of these 22 letters upon which the Qabalistic tradition of Western mysticism and magick rests may seem a most insurmountable chore. Coupled with the apparently foreign names and spheres of the Qabalistic Sephiroth, the Neophyte might be half-ready to throw up her hands in defeat. Perhaps Hebrew “is all Greek” to her, but the Neophyte need only rest assured that many have encountered this challenge before her, and in divers ways and paths they have climbed their way through what may seem now like an impossible task but, by and by, becomes as if second nature. In the hopes of helping the Neophyte find her way through this morass, I would like to offer the method by which I learned the Hebrew alephbet–for I too had no prior knowledge of these letters before encountering them in magick.
My mnemonic for learning the Hebrew letters consisted of two parts:
- Comparing (and contrasting) the Hebrew alephbet with the English alphabet.
- Knowing the Hebrew letters’ attributions to the Tarot trumps.
The second was particularly useful for me only because I had been working with the Tarot years before I had to learn any Hebrew letters. But as that is harder to generalize–and in any case, the Initiate will be learning all Tarot-Hebrew correspondences in the Fourth Knowledge Lecture–I would like to focus on the former method. Regardless of what method one uses, I believe that the knack to memorizing any hefty amount of knowledge–and this, it goes without saying, is something worth keeping in mind for future knowledge lectures, rituals, prayers, invocations, ad nauseam–is to divide it into clusters, study each independently, and then synthesize the entirety of that knowledge at the end.
Let us first write out the Hebrew alephbet in its proper order: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Heh, Vau, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod, Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nu, Samekh, Ayin, Peh, Tzaddi, Qoph, Resh, Shin, Tau.
And let us hold in our minds the letters of the English alphabet.
We should have no problem learning the first four Hebrew letters: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth. One need only sing, “A, B, C, D,” (with C for Gimel) or if familiar with Greek to recall its first four letters: “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta.” Now if we search the Hebrew letters for the next cluster resembling the English alphabet, we see that it is Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nu–which is simply “K, L, M, N.” Go down a little further and the next–and last–cluster that resembles English is Peh, (Tzaddi), Qoph, Resh, Shin, Tau–which is simply “P, Q, R, S, T” with an easily memorized exception.
Now we have split up the Hebrew alephbet into five clusters as follows:
1. Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth – sim. “A, B, C, D”
*2. Heh, Vau, Zayin, Cheth, Teth, Yod
3. Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nun – sim. “K, L, M, N”
*4. Samekh, Ayin
5. Peh, Tzaddi, Qoph, Resh, Shin, Tau – sim. “P, –, Q, R, S, T”
The two clusters with asterisks are those on which the Neophyte should focus her attention, for as we now see, she is already familiar with clusters 1, 3, and 5 by merit of her knowledge of English. Now our major work is to memorize what goes in between these three clusters, and we have a few tricks up our sleeves for this task as well.
Cluster 2: If we are to continue with our comparisons, the English letters that should be clustered here are E, F, G, H, I, and J. Already one can see some similarities to the Hebrew letters. Heh simply sounds like “E” to me, and F and V(au) are not too far off from each other in quality. Zayin, Cheth, and Teth might be a little strange, but I and J, when tied together, do in fact correlate to Yod. Play around with this cluster. It will likely be the hardest to memorize, but as we can see, it is not so hard once we have set it apart and focused on it independently.
Cluster 4: This poses little to no challenge, as there are only two letters to memorize. In fact, there is only one English letter that is “supposed to” go here between N (Nun) and P (Peh), and that is the letter O. Though Samekh does not sound at all like O, it certainly does look like it when written. (I have always thought of Samekh as a backwards Sigma, or Sigma as a backwards Samekh, depending on how Greek or Hebrew I may feel that day.) And Ayin, incidentally, is a silent pseudo-vowel much as O is a real vowel.
All this information should help us in learning the order of the Hebrew letters. Everything else can fall into place after this. Once we have the right order, we can go down the list with the appropriate numerations: 1, 2, 3, … , 10, 20, 30, … , 100, 200, … , etc. The system, to wit, is: 1 through 9, in increments of 1; then 10 through 90, in increments of 10; then 100 through 400 (to end at Tau), in increments of 100; the five final letters (Kaph, Mem, Nu, Peh, Tzaddi) continue onto 500, 600, 700, 800, and 900 respectively, thus completing the system so that it ends right before 1000.
As for memorizing what the letters mean, this is easiest after we learn how to write them. (Tzaddi sure looks like a Fish Hook, for instance, and who cannot understand that Vau means Nail?) And, of course, to learn how to write these letters, there is likely no better way than to practice, practice, practice. While waiting for the bus or seated before your television, write them over and over again. This practice should require the least thought but perhaps the most time and effort.
In fact, learning to write the Hebrew letters will take us about eighty percent of the way in memorizing all we need to know concerning the Hebrew alephbet, at least for the Neophyte grade and at least for Hermetic Qabalah. For it is possible that the only true way to learn is to become so familiar with the relevant material that it is fully impressed into your psyche, as would riding a bike or breathing. And that, in my humble opinion, is one of the goals for which we should aim when we are dealing with these symbols, these so-called holy letters of the Western Mystery Tradition. Rest assured that they will be surfacing repeatedly, only until the day when we no longer have need for any mnemonics or guides whatsoever.