Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva

Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva (Hebrew: אותיות דרבי עקיבא, Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva) is a Midrash on the names of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Two versions or portions of the same are known to exist.

Version A of Alphabet

Version A, considered by Adolf Jellinek to be the older form, and by Bloch to be of a much more recent origin, introduces the various letters as contending with each other for the honor of forming the beginning of creation (bereshit). It is based upon Gen. R. i. and Cant. R. on v. 11, according to which Aleph (א) complained before God that Bet (ב) was preferred to it, but was assured that the Torah of Sinai, the object of creation, would begin with Aleph (אנכי = Anoki = I am); it, however, varies from the Midrash Rabbot. The letters, beginning with the last, Tav, and ending with Bet, all assert their claim to priority:

So all the rest complain, each having some claim, which is, however, at once refuted, until Beth (ב), the initial letter of berakah (ברכה = "blessing" and "praise"), is chosen. Whereupon Aleph (א) is asked by the Most High why it alone showed modesty in not complaining, and it is assured that it is the chief of all letters, denoting the oneness of God, and that it shall have its place at the beginning of the Sinaitic revelation. This competition is followed by a haggadic explanation of the form of the various letters and by interpretations of the different compositions of the alphabet: AT BSH, AḤS BṬ'A, and AL BM.

Version B of Alphabet

Version B is a compilation of allegoric and mystic Aggadahs suggested by the names of the various letters, the component consonants being used as acrostics (notarikon).

Critical estimate of versions

Both versions are given as a unit in the Amsterdam edition of 1708, as they probably originally belonged together. Version A shows more unity of plan, and, as Jellinek (B. H. vi. 40) has shown, is older. It is directly based upon, if not coeval with, Shab. 104a, according to which the school-children in the time of Joshua ben Levi (the beginning of the 3rd century) were taught in such mnemonic forms which at the same time suggested moral lessons. Jellinek even thinks that the Midrash was composed with the view of acquainting the children with the alphabet, while the Shabuot festival (Pentecost) furnished as themes God, Torah, Israel, and Moses.

On the other hand, version B (which H. Grätz, Monatsschrift, viii. 70 et seq., considered as being the original, and the Hebrew "Enoch," and the "Shi'ur Komah" as sections of it) shows no inner unity of plan, but is simply a compilation of haggadic passages taken at random from these and other kabalistic and midrashic works without any other connection than the external order of the letters of the alphabet, but also based on Shab. 104a. Jellinek has shown the time of its composition to be comparatively modern, as is evidenced by the Arabic form of the letters and other indications of Arabic life. It has, however, become especially valuable as the depository of these very cabalistic works, which had come near falling into oblivion on account of the gross anthropomorphic views of the Godhead expressed therein, which gave offense to the more enlightened minds of a later age. It was on this account that the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva was made an object of severe attack and ridicule by Solomon ben Jeroham, the Karaite, in the first half of the 10th century. Version A was likewise known to Judah Hadassi, the Karaite, in the 13th century (see Jellinek, B. H. iii., xvii. 5).

As to Rabbi Akiva's authorship, this is claimed by the writers of both versions, who begin their compositions with the words, "R. Akiva hath said." The justification for this pseudonymous title was found in the fact that, according to the Talmud (Men. 29b), Moses was told on Sinai that the ornamental crown of each letter of the Torah would be made the object of halakic interpretation by Rabbi Akiva, and that according to Gen. R. i., he and Rabbi Eliezer as youths already knew how to derive higher meaning from the double form of the letters .

In fact, there exists a third version, called Midrash de-Rabbi Akiva 'al ha-Taggin we-Ẓiyunim, a Midrash of Rabbi Akiva treating on the ornamentations of the letters of the alphabet with a view to finding in each of them some symbolic expression of God, Creation, the Torah, Israel, and the Jewish rites and ceremonies. This version is published in Jellinek's B. H. v. 31-33.

Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography

External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Kaufmann Kohler (1901–1906). "Akiba ben Joseph, Alphabet of". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. 

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