The "normal" mode that one would expect in an alphabetical acrostic would be 22 verses each beginning with letters of the alphabet running consecutively from aleph to vav in the conventional order. Surprisingly, we find in Scripture only two occurrences that meet these criteria: Proverbs 31:10-31 and Lamentations 1.

Nahum 1 and Psalms 9-10 have acrostics so mutilated and truncated that the traces of an alphabetic "order" go unnoticed by most readers. As for Lamentations 2 and 4, each consists of 22 verses; however, they have the peculiarity of transposing the ayin () and the peh (). Lamentations 3 has 66 verses constituting a triple acrostic with the same curious transposition.

In Psalms 37, the successive letters head each alternate verse instead of each consecutive verse, while in Psalms 111 and 112 they head each half-verse. The acrostic art reaches its ultimate expression is Psalms 119 (the longest chapter in the Bible), which consists of 22 stanzas, each with 8 verses for each consecutive letter of the alphabet.

Psalms 145, which is recited in our prayers thrice daily, more frequently than others, comes close to fitting the "normal" mode except for its lack of a nun () verse. (Incidentally, the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Psalms Scroll do have such a verse. The Scroll reads ).

This article, however, will focus on the two remaining biblical acrostics which have, so far, been unmentioned: Psalms 25 and 34. These two psalms share an interesting peculiarity. Each has an acrostic with the vav () verse omitted and with a peh () heading the final verse. This raises two questions: (1) Why do they omit the vav? (2) Why do they conclude with a peh verse?

As for the first question, the omission of the vav is quite understandable as there is a paucity in Hebrew of basic words beginning with this letter. Excluding proper names (such as Vashti, Vaizatha, etc.), one would be hard put to find even three words in biblical Hebrew that begin with the letter vav. All the acrostics in the Hebrew Bible and almost all in our liturgy (and they are numerous) use the vav with some artificiality – usually a conjunctive vav or a vav consecutive. There are just hardly any basic words beginning with that letter.

As for the second question, regarding the supernumerary peh, this writer, after searching the literature without finding any satisfactory explanation, proposes the following solution. The key to solving this puzzle is to be found in the fascinating phenomenon of ATBaSH (), which is a code where the first letter of the alphabet is represented by the last, the second letter by the second to the last, and so on. (This is very much the same as if one were to devise a code in which A=Z, B=Y, etc., and then name the code AZBY.)

This ATBaSH device is to be found in the Book of Jeremiah where in 25:26 and 51:41 the word Sheshach is an ATBaSH cryptogram for Babel, and 51:1 Lebkamai is an ATBaSH cryptogram for Kasdim (Chaldea). It appears that the psalmist (or psalmists) of chapters 25 and 34, having omitted the vav, now compensate for this omission by concluding with a peh — which is, of course, a vav in the language of ATBaSH!

There still remains the question: Why did the psalmist place the peh at the end of the acrostic, instead of the beginning of verse six, replacing by the method of ATBaSH the letter vav? The answer seems to me that this would constitute a violation to the integrity of the Hebrew alphabet, much more so than the omission of a letter.


This article was reprinted with permission of the Jewish Bible Quarterly, P.O.B. 29002, Jerusalem. Israel.;
Saul Leeman, a retired rabbi residing in Providence, R.I., was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also received a doctorate in Hebrew Letters.

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