Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva
Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman
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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:
- First Tav (ת), as being the initial letter of Torah: it is told that it will be the mark on the forehead of the wicked (Ezek. ix. 4, Shab. 55a).
- Then Shin (ש), as the initial letter of Shem (שם = "the Name") and Shaddai (שדי = "Almighty"), puts in its claim: it is told that it is also the first letter of sheḳer (שקר = "falsehood").
- Resh (ר) as the initial letter of rosh (ראש, as in "the beginning of thy word is truth," Ps. cxix. 160) and of Raḥum (רחום = "the Merciful One") next makes its demands, but it is told that rosh or Resh also occurs in evil things (Num. xiv. 4, Dan. ii. 32, Heb.) and is the initial also of resh'a (רשעה = "wickedness").
- Next comes Ḳoph (ק), as the beginning of Ḳadosh (קדוש = "holy"), but it is also the first letter of Ḳelalah (קללה = "curse").
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
- Aleph (אלף = אמת למד פיך, "Thy mouth learned truth") suggests truth, praise of God, faithfulness (אמונה = emunah), or the creative Word of God (אמרה = imrah) or God Himself as Aleph, Prince and Prime of all existence; at this point chapters from mystic lore on Meṭaṭron-Enoch, etc., are inserted.
- Beth (here named after the Arabic form Ba) suggests house (בית = bayit), blessing (ברכה = berakah), contemplation (בינה = binah), which is prized as superior to the study of the Law.
- Gimel suggests gemilut ḥasadim (גמילות חסדים = benevolence), especially God's benevolence, and the rain (גשם = geshem) of God's mercy and His majesty (געווה = gaawah) in the heavens.
- Daled (Arabic, instead of the Hebrew form Daleth) suggests care for the poor (דל = dal).
- He (ה) recalls God's name, as does Waw (ו, see Shab. 104a)
- Zayin represents the key of sustenance (זן = zan) in God's hand (also Shab. 104a), and a chapter follows on Zerubbabel at the unlocking of the graves for the resurrection. Here follows a chapter on Hell and Paradise continued in Ḥeth (ח) = ḥeṭ = sin.
- Ṭeth suggests ṭiṭ (טיט), the clay of earth, and hence, resurrection
- Yod (יד = "the hand") suggests the reward of the righteous
- Kaph (כף = "hollow of the hand"—"palm"), the clapping of hands, and the congregation of Israel (keneset) led by Meṭaṭron to Eden.
- Lamed recalls leb (לב = "the heart")
- Mem recalls the mysteries of the merkabah (מרכבה = "the heavenly chariot") and God's kingdom (מלכות = malkut)
- Nun, ner, "the light (נר = ner) of God is the soul of man" (Prov. xx. 27, Heb.)
- Samekh, "God sustaineth (סומך = somekh) the falling" (Ps. cxlv. 14, Heb.), or Israel, the Sanctuary or the Torah, inasmuch as the word samek has several different meanings.
- Ayin (עין = "the eye") suggests the Torah as light for the eye
- Pe recalls peh (פה), the mouth, as man's holy organ of speech and praise
- Ẓade suggests Moses as Ẓaddiḳ (צדיק), the righteous
- Ḳoph also represents Moses as the one who circumvented the stratagems of Pharaoh
- Resh suggests God as the rosh (ראש), the head of all
- Shin recollects the breaking of the teeth (שן = shen) of the wicked (Ps. iii. 8, Heb.)
- Taw recollects the insatiable desire of man (תאווה = taawah) unless he devotes himself to the Torah, the Law.
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
- Bloch, in Winter and Wünsche's Jüd. Lit. iii. 225-232, where specimens in German are given.
- On the various editions see Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 519;
- S. Wiener, Bibliotheca Friedlandiana, p. 71;
- Imber, Letters of Rabbi Akiba; or, the Jewish Primer as it Was Used in the Public Schools Two Thousand Years Ago, in Report of U. S. Commissioner of Education, 1895–96, pp. 701–719, Washington, 1897.
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.