Hebrew mystery

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[This is a guest post by Adam Levine]

A friend noticed this plaque while attending a wedding in New England:

The Hebrew on the plaque, בךקכהץ זםגקל, is pure gibberish. Most notably, two final forms of letters (ך and ם) written in the middle of words. This led to an epic late-night Facebook discussion as a team of highly Hebrew-literate sleuths struggled to figure out the meaning of the phrase. All sorts of theories were considered: Was it an acronym for the names of the donors or some other phrase? Was it the result of a computer issue, such as a phonetic Hebrew keyboard (for English speakers) vs. the standard Hebrew keyboard? None of these theories seemed to add up.

An inquiry to the venue produced the following reply: "[NAME REDACTED] was responsible for this plaque. The hebrew translates to bestowing kindness unto others. Mystery solved! 🙂"

Several people then began to notice some similarities between the mystery phrase and גמילות חסדים, gemilut hasadim, which has the intended meaning. The numbers of letters in each word are the same (6 and 5), and the two קs in the gibberish are in the same positions as the two יs in the suggested phrase. Moreover, many of the letters in the gibberish are nearby in alphabetical order to the corresponding letters in the suggested phrase, but with some inconsistencies: ב and ג are one letter apart, while ך (the final form of כ) is two off from מ. However, the letters ק and י are nowhere near each other in the alphabet. It was suggested that the letter י (which in most printed fonts is written with a serif on top) could easily have been mistaken for a ר, which is indeed one letter after ק, but this still didn't answer the main question: How did this happen?

The solution comes from looking at the alphabet. Hebrew uses dots in certain letters to distinguish between stops and fricatives – e.g. בּ bet vs. ב vet. These dots are not usually written by native speakers who can infer them from context, but non-native speakers frequently think of בּ and ב as separate letters (particularly those who learned the alphabet from this song). If we write out one version of the alphabet with the dotted/undotted letters treated as separate, and another one with the pairs treated as one, we have the following:

dotted letters
dotted letters
א א 1
ב 2
ג ב 3
ד ג 4
ה ד 5
ו ה 6
ז ו 7
ח ז 8
ט ח 9
י ט 10
כ י 11
ך 12
ל כ 13
מ ך 14
ם ךּ 15
נ ל 16
ן מ 17
ס ם 18
ע נ 19
פ ן 20
ף ס 21
צ ע 22
ץ 23
ק פ 24
ר ף 25
ש צ 26
ת ץ 27
ק 28
ר 29
שׁ 30
ת 33

Most of the pairs of letters then line up perfectly! Specifically, each letter of גמילות חסדים in the first column ends up in the same row as the corresponding letter of בךקכהץ זםגקל, as highlighted in yellow. However, there are a few exceptions, highlighted in red. One letter (the final ם) should match up with ךּ by this rule, but instead it became ל, which is only off by one row. However, the ק/י issue discussed above remained mysterious, and the suggestion of first replacing י by ר fails to solve it. This, it turns out, was a red herring. A much better answer is that י could also be easily mistaken for an apostrophe, which is used in modern Hebrew in conjunction with certain letters to denote various non-native phonemes. If we add the apostrophe as an additional letter of the alphabet right after ת, we see that it lines up perfectly with ק in line 28, as required.

But why? We decided it would be rude to press the venue too hard on this question, but there is one likely explanation. Many (human) printers use a system of numbers for writing Hebrew letters on invitations, cards, and presumably plaques. For instance, if a customer wanted to get the word גמילות, they would give the printer a sequence of numbers corresponding to the letters – e.g. 3, 14, 10, 12, 6, 27 using the first column of our chart, reading right to left. This is intended to avoid mixups, which are likely when neither the customer nor the printer know Hebrew well. In this case, it seems that the customer probably encrypted the phrase using the first column, and the printer decrypted the sequence of numbers using the second column, leading to the gibberish. The issue of ךּ vs. ל can then easily be explained as a transcription error, particularly since 15 and 16 look and sound quite similar.

Mystery solved!


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    This brings to mind an anecdote from a sermon the late Rabbi Daniel Silver gave sometime in the late 1950s. The sermon was about Maimonides's levels of charity. As with a Letterman Top Ten list, the rabbi discussed the levels from number 8 up. When he got to number 2, "Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other," he said that he frequently visited the local Jewish-sponsored home for the aged, where there was a beautiful chased silver donation box in the lobby with that Maimonides quote engraved on it (I don't recall whether he said it was in English or Hebrew). Immediately below the box was a plaque: "Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Simon Cohen."

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    The one time I have had occasion to be involved with the commissioning of a gravestone, it had some Hebrew text on it, and the folks we were dealing with gave us a mock-up (equivalent of printer's proof) before any actual carving into the stone was done and said emphatically (I think multiple times) something like "look, neither we nor the guys doing the actual carving know any Hebrew – if you can't read Hebrew yourself please please please have this reviewed by a rabbi or other literate person before telling us to go ahead." (One also sees around NYC gravestones with Cyrillic, hanzi, etc., so hopefully similar warnings are given.)

  3. Yuval said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 9:00 am

    Well, at least they got the right-to-left part right.

    (I'm contemplating making this post my new browser default landing page.)

  4. Kate Davids said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    What a lovely gesture, the linguistics of such cultures always fascinated me.

  5. Jonathan said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 11:36 am

    With all that encoding and decoding they made a regular Caesar cipher salad of it.

  6. Penelope McCalla said,

    September 29, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    Now this English speaker doesn't feel so foolish attempting to learn a little Hebrew on my own. Thnx for the article. Thoroughly enjoyed

  7. Jeff said,

    September 30, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

    The cornerstone of Kesher Israel in DC looks strange. Turns out that they wanted to name the shul כתר ישראל (Keter Israel) , but the stone carver was one number off and the stone actually reads כשר – Kosher Israel. They could not afford to have it redone so they added a crooked leg to the כף and made it a קוף.

  8. Kasey Chang said,

    October 1, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    There is a small pedestrian walkway in Mid-Levels, Hong Kong called Rednaxela Terrace, or 列拿士地台. Historians are divided on whether it was a mis-written "Alexander" Terrace, named for the then landowner, or it was named after abolitionist Robert Alexander Young, who had used Rednaxela as a nom de plume.

  9. Danny said,

    October 2, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    I'm curious about your story about the DC Kesher Israel; there's nothing about that in the official history (https://www.kesher.org/kesher-history.html), and there's a similar story with a different explanation about the cornerstone of Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, PA (http://seforim.blogspot.com/2016/02/keser-vs-kesher-whats-in-name.html) where the name change clearly represented the unique pronunciation of the founders.

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