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Hebrew words, just like words in other languages, can be divided into syllables. All syllables in Biblical Hebrew must start with a consonant, but may close with either a consonant or a vowel. For students beginning Biblical Hebrew, it is important to divide words into syllables to aid pronunciation. Each syllable must include only one full vowel, either long or short. The number of full vowels in a word dictates the number of syllables. Syllables may either be open or closed, and the basic rules governing each type of syllable are presented below.

Open Syllables

        i.            Open syllables either end in a long vowel (לָקַט) or a short one (שֶׁמֶשׁ).

      ii.            Usually, open syllables have long vowels, unless they have an accent.  In the word יָלַד the open syllable is non-accent bearing, and so has a long vowel. In יֶלֶד however, the first syllable is accented and so it takes a short vowel.

Closed Syllables

        i.            Closed syllables end in a consonant and may contain either a long vowel, as in עִיר, or a short vowel, as in עַל.[1]

      ii.            Short vowels usually appear in closed syllables unless they are accent bearing; consequently, the second syllable in קָצִיר is long because it bears the accent.

    iii.            Closed and unaccented syllables must have short vowels, as with the first syllable inהִשְׁחִית .

     iv.            Syllables preceding a dagesh forte are always closed, as in חַנּוּן / xan-nūn. Dagesh forte in a letter represents a doubling, thus the first of the doubled letters closes the preceding syllable.

General Observations

        i.            Neither the vocal shewa nor the reduced vowel, together with a consonant, can bear the status of a full syllable, and usually attach themselves to the proceeding syllable.[2] The word for God, אֱלֹהִים, thus consists of two syllables הִיםאֱלֹ (´ ĕlohîm). Similarly, the word כְּלִי (kelî) is considered mono-syllabic because the initial shewa forms part of the following syllable.

      ii.            Aleph never closes a syllable, thus בָּא is considered an open syllable because it ends with an aleph.


[1] Even though the ayin is silent, it is still considered a consonant and not a vowel.

[2] There is a degree of debate surrounding this issue, and indeed the whole issue of syllabification in Biblical Hebrew; a full discussion of the subject can be found in JM §27-28.