Decades ago, I noticed that in the acrostics in the book of Eichah, the letter pe preceded the letter ayin in chapters 2, 3, and 4. This got me interested in the history of the alphabet. I then discovered that several abecedaries (=lists of the letters in order) in ancient Israel from the early Biblical period came to light in recent decades and that pe preceded ayin in every one of them! Some examples are the Izbet Sartah abecedary (1200 BCE) and the Tel Zayit abecedary (1000 BCE). It now seems that pe preceding ayin was the dominant or even the exclusive order in ancient Israel in early Biblical times. Interestingly, both of these abecedaries include another unusual order: chet preceding zayin. (Unlike pe-ayin, we do not have evidence in the Bible for this unusual order.)
This all leads to the following questions: Was there an original planned order of the alphabet? If so, what was its rationale?
Before we begin to answer, we must point out that the way the Hebrew letters look today is not the way they looked in early Biblical times. There are many charts available that show how the letters looked in early Biblical times. (This earlier stage is called: “Old Hebrew” or “ Ktav Ivri.” One such chart with the shapes is found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:675.) When you look at the shapes of the letters in Old Hebrew, you see that the original aleph looks like an ox’s head (aleph means ox several times in Tanach), kaf looks like the palm of a hand, yod looks like a hand or arm, ayin looks like an eyeball, pe looks like a mouth, and shin looks like a tooth.
Also, we cannot be confident that today we really know the original names of the letters. Most likely, the names of the letters were already established in the several centuries before 1000 B.C.E., while our earliest sources for the names of the letters come from approximately 1000 years later. (The earliest source with the names of the letters is the Septuagint, a source from around 200 B.C.E.) Also, scholars have observed that some of the names, such as zayin and nun, sound like Aramaic, not Hebrew, raising the possibility that these were not the original names.
One scholar who has devoted much time to studying all of these issues is Prof. Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University. A recent book, “Origins of the Alphabet” (2015) (edited by C. Rico and C. Attucci) includes an article by him on this subject. I will now summarize his theory of the order of the letters. (Admittedly, his theory is very conjectural.) He believes that the letters aleph through vav reflect the homestead: ox, house, camel, door, human and hook on the door; zayin through tet reflect the field (he thinks that zayin was originally zayit; the name of the parallel Greek letter is zeta); yod through lamed reflect the hand (lamed is an ox goad, see Judges 3:31, which can be viewed as an extension of the arm); mem through samech reflect water (mayim is water; he has explanations for the subsequent two letters as well); ayin through tav reflect the head. Admittedly, he has to conjecture for the difficult letters: tzadi and quf. As to tav, it is a mark on the forehead. See Ezekiel 9:4.
One thing he likes about his theory is that the pairs zayin and chet, and ayin and pe, are each within the same group. That we find the order of these letters switched in some of the ancient sources is therefore not so troublesome. Either way they are within the same group!
The following is a list of the acrostics in the Nach: Mishlei 31:10-31 (Eshet Chayil), Eichah chapters 1 through 4, and in Tehillim: chapters 9-10 (the acrostic spans two chapters), 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119 and 145. Of course, 145 (Ashrei) has no nun verse. Some of the other acrostics in Tehillim are missing letters as well. That will be the subject of another column. There are no acrostics in the Torah.
If anyone is interested further in Biblical acrostics, the pe-ayin order, and the ramifications of the pe-ayin order for the book of Tehillim, see my article in Biblical Archaeology Review, July-Aug 2012, and my book “Esther Unmasked,” pp. 207-230. (The pe-ayin order also has ramifications for gematria!)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.