June 11, 2024
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How I Solved the Mystery of the Pei-Ayin Order in Eichah: A 30-Year Saga

I always wanted to tell this story of the many individuals in our community who helped me solve this mystery so that I was eventually able to have my article published in Biblical Archaeology Review.

The book of Eichah has five chapters. The first four are acrostics. The first chapter is in the regular order. But in chapters 2, 3 and 4, the pei verse precedes the ayin verse. This raises two issues: why the unusual order in chapters 2, 3 and 4 and why the inconsistency within this short book. The Soncino commentary (1946) had commented: “This unusual order has never been satisfactorily explained.”

Let me also mention the other Biblical acrostics: Mishlei 31 (Eshet Chayil) and ones in Tehillim: chapters 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145. There is also an acrostic that runs through chapters 9 and 10.

I probably knew about the Eichah problem before 1980. One day in 1980, I was in a store on the Lower East Side to buy an edition of Rav Hirsch. On a whim, I also bought “The Text of the Old Testament.” At the end of the book, it had a picture of a find from 1976 in ancient Israel from 1200 B.C.E. Here someone had written the alphabet and had put the pei before the ayin. This was very intriguing. Of course many scholars thought that the inscription was just a scribal exercise and the order was an error.

The above book also referred me to a 1978 article in BAR about this find. There I learned that the earliest Greek manuscripts of Mishlei chapter 31 also followed the pei-ayin order. (I.e., they translated the פיה verse before the עוז verse.) These manuscripts are very old, from the fourth century C.E. The above book also mentioned that Tehillim 9-10 followed the pei-ayin order but I did not understand what this meant at that time.

Around the year 2000, I asked Mordy Friedman (son of Tom and Marsha), who was studying in Yeshiva University, to see what he could find. He came back with two profound insights. He told me that in the Dead Sea text of Eichah, even chapter 1 had the pei-ayin order. He also showed me an article by a scholar that explained how the pei-ayin order made better sense in Tehillim 34 (Le-David be-shanoto). I then checked Daat Mikra. Daat Mikra took this rearrangement suggestion very seriously. (It is the righteous of verse 16 that God answers in verse 18, not the evildoers of verse 17! The original order was surely 17-פ, followed by 16-ע.)

I decided to give a shiur in Beth Aaron on this topic and present the Dead Sea Scroll find and the new insight into the order of Psalm 34. On the Friday before I was going to give this shiur, I happened to meet Rabbi Richie Wolpoe on the 167 bus. He reminded me that the acrostics in chapter 119 have every letter eight times. This meant that it was extremely unlikely for those to have been originally pei-ayin and later switched. I began to realize that perhaps the solution was to distinguish between the acrostics in the first book of Tehillim (chapters 1-41) and the acrostics in the fifth book (chapters 107-150). There are many clues in the fifth book that this book is post-exilic. See, e.g., the reference at 126:1 to “shivat tziyon” and at 137:1 to “al naharot bavel.”

When I gave the shiur I mentioned that chapter 37 lacked a verse for ayin. I joked that the author could not decide what order to use. But after I gave the shiur, Sam Borodach pointed out to me that there seemed to be something wrong with the text of chapter 37, as the samech verse was too long. This implied that there must have been an ayin verse here once. Based on Sam’s comment, I realized that a scribe who was used to the ayin-pei order probably got confused by the pei-ayin order in what he was copying and this led him to accidentally leave some words out.

A few years later, in 2005, Allen Friedman showed me an article in the New York Times that talked about a new discovery at a site in Israel called Tel Zayit. The article said that this was someone writing the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in the 10th century B.C.E. and he “put the F before O.” I don’t know how everyone else understood this article, but I realized this was another pei-ayin find. (There are a few other finds in ancient Israel from recent decades with the pei-ayin order. In fact, every single such find from before the exilic period has the pei-ayin order.)

At some point I read more about chapters 9 and 10 of Tehillim. There is an acrostic here with 15 of the 22 letters. It is missing all the letters from mem through tzade. But many scholars believe that the words פיהו (10:7 and (עיניו (10:8 were once the first words of pei and ayin verses in the pei-ayin order.

I now could suggest that chapters 9-10, 34 and 37 were originally written in the pei-ayin order. It took another two years, but eventually I came up with an explanation of why chapter 25 was probably in the pei-ayin order originally as well.

Now all could be explained. When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, not only did the shape of their letters change, they also began to use the ayin-pei order. (This order already existed in the ancient Near East. It is found in Ugaritic inscriptions from the 13th century B.C.E. and in an eighth-century B.C.E. inscription from northeastern Syria. It is also reflected in our English-Latin alphabet today: O precedes P. “Ayin” originally had the shape of an eyeball.)

Tehillim 111, 112, 119 and 145, and by implication the entire fifth book of Tehillim, were all authored after the Babylonian exile. Although Bava Batra 14b attributes the book of Tehillim to David and others who lived earlier than him, there are traditional sources that include Ezra as one of the 10 authors of Tehillim. See Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:4 and Kohelet Rabbah 7:19.

Thereafter, Shawn Zelig Aster pointed me to the writings of a scholar (Avi Hurvitz) who showed that the language of the fourth and fifths book of Tehillim differed from the earlier books and was post-exilic.

I gave a shiur in Beth Aaron around 2010 with my new conclusions. Dr. Azriel Haimowitz enjoyed it so much that he suggested that I send it to Biblical Archaeology Review magazine. They accepted my unsolicited article and it was published in July 2012.

So I started off three decades earlier reading a 1978 article in BAR. I never imagined that I would have my own BAR article on this topic!


The Talmud has an explanation for the pei-ayin order in Eichah (at San. 104b.) It gives an explanation related to the meraglim. But, as we have seen, the pei-ayin order is a ubiquitous one, not limited to the book of Eichah.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Anyone interested in this topic must read my long article in my “Esther Unmasked” book (Kodesh Press, 2015). (The article in BAR was too short but it does have the photos that my book lacks.)

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