December 9, 2023
December 9, 2023

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Unusual Pe Preceding Ayin Order in the Acrostics of the Book of Eichah

The first four chapters of the book of Eichah are alphabetical acrostics. Surprisingly, in the acrostics in Chapters 2, 3 and 4, the verses that begin with pe precede the verses that begin with ayin. The Soncino commentary to Eichah remarks: “This unusual order has never been satisfactorily explained.” In light of the archaeological discoveries of recent decades, it is time to provide this explanation.

We are really dealing with two separate problems: 1) why does pe precede ayin in Chapters 2, 3, and 4?, and 2) why is there a difference in the order between Chapter 1 and Chapters 2, 3, and 4? We can perhaps answer the second question based on the Dead Sea Scrolls text of the first chapter: the pe verse precedes the ayin verse here. Perhaps this Dead Sea text reflects the original text of the first chapter.

Returning to our first question, the relevant archaeological discoveries of recent decades from the Land of Israel are as follows:

In 1976, a potsherd was discovered at Izbet Sartah, in Western Samaria, dating to about 1200 B.C.E. The potsherd had five lines of Hebrew writing on it, one of which was an abecedary (= an inscription of the letters of the alphabet in order). In this abecedary, the pe preceded the ayin. There is a scholarly consensus that Izbet Sartah was an Israelite settlement in this period.

During excavations in 1975-76 in the northeast Sinai, a jar fragment was discovered that included three Hebrew abecedaries in which the pe preceded the ayin. The site dates to approximately 800 B.C.E.

In 2005, a Hebrew abecedary inscribed on a stone was discovered at Tel Zayit, a site north of Lachish. The stone had been used in the construction of a wall belonging to a 10th-century B.C.E. structure. This abecedary also followed the order of pe preceding ayin. Most probably, Tel Zayit was part of the area of the tribe of Judah in the 10th century B.C.E.

In recent years, another finding with three Hebrew abecedaries with pe preceding ayin has come to light. The writing can be dated to the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E. Supposedly, it was found in the debris of the Temple Mount.

The abecedaries mentioned above are the only ones that have been discovered in ancient Israel that date from the period of the Judges and the First Temple and that span the letters ayin and pe. Pe precedes ayin in every one! As we have seen, these abecedaries come from different regions in ancient Israel, not merely from one limited area. All of this suggests that pe preceding ayin was the original order in ancient Israel!

Now it is time to apply our findings to the book of Tehillim, which includes many acrostics, such as in Chapter 34.

In Chapter 34 (le-David be-shanoto), verses 17 and 18 have troubled Biblical commentators throughout the ages. In verse 17, we are told:

The face (pnei) of the Lord is against those who do evil,

to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

Yet immediately following this, at verse 18, we are told without explanation:

They cried (tza’aku) and the Lord heard, and delivered them

from all their troubles.

Why should God listen to and save the evildoers, when we have just been told that He wants to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth?

However, if we make the assumption that pe preceded ayin here, the ones whom God listens to and saves are not the evildoers, but the righteous:

34:17 The face (pnei) of the Lord is against those who do evil,

to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

34:16 The eyes (einei) of the Lord are toward the righteous,

and his ears to their cry.

34: 18 They cried (tza’aku) and the Lord heard, and delivered them

from all their troubles.

In the pe-ayin order, the problem disappears and the sequence of verses makes perfect sense!

As Orthodox Jews, we do not want to get into the habit of suggesting textual changes and re-ordering verses. Nevertheless, in this case, the Daat Mikra commentary on Tehillim, published by Mosad Harav Kook is willing to consider the possibility of the above re-ordering. See Vol. 1, pp. 189-90, n. 9.

If we accept this proposed re-ordering of the ayin and pe verses in Chapter 34, the next step is to analyze the alphabetical acrostics in the rest of Tehillim. In addition to Chapter 34, alphabetical acrostics are found in Tehillim at Chapters 9-10 (one long acrostic, many letters missing), 25, 37, 111, 112, 119 (every letter eight times), and 145. Were all of these originally pe-ayin? Or perhaps only the ones in the first book (Chapters 1-41), as perhaps the first book is the oldest section? When and why did the original pe-ayin order of the alphabet later change to ayin-pe? Is there any evidence that Mishlei 31:10-31 (Eshet Chayil) was originally composed in the pe-ayin order?

Space limitation does not permit me to continue the analysis and go into these topics here. But I have addressed them all in my book “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015), pp. 207-230. I hope that I have intrigued you enough to pursue this topic further! (See also my article in the July-Aug. 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review: “Can Archaeology Help Date the Psalms?”)

Finally, I will note that the Talmud includes a comment on the unusual order of pe preceding ayin in Eichah. The suggestion is made, at Sanhedrin 104b, that it alludes to the sin of the meraglim: she-amru be-fihem mah she-lo rau be-eineihem., i.e., they spoke falsehood about the Land of Israel. But as we have seen, the archaeological discoveries of recent decades show that pe preceding ayin was a global phenomenom in ancient Israel. It was not just an Eichah-related detail.

Mitchell First

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy,” is available at and at the Judaica House in Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected].



Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles