The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Akiba ben Joseph, Alphabet of
The title of a Midrash on the names of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Two versions or portions of the same exist: Version A, considered by Jellinek to be the older form, by Bloch thought 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. and Cant. R. on 5:11, according to which Aleph complained before God that Bet was preferred to it, but was assured that the Torah of Sinai, the object of creation, would begin with Aleph (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, as being the initial letter of Torah: it is told that it will be the mark on the forehead of the wicked (Ezekiel 9:4, Shab. 55a). Then Shin, as the initial letter of Shem ("the Name") and Shaddai ("Almighty"), puts in its claim: it is told that it is also the first letter of sheḲer ("falsehood"). Resh as the initial letter of rosh ("the beginning of thy word is truth," Psalms 119:160) and of Raḥum ("the Merciful One") next makes its demands; but it is told that rosh or Resh also occurs in evil things (Numbers 14:4, Daniel 2:32, Heb.) and is the initial also of resh'a ("wickedness"). Next comes ḳoph, as the beginning of Ḳadosh ("holy"); but it is also the first letter of Ḳelalah ("curse"). So all the rest complain; each having some claim, which is, however, at once refuted, until Beth, the initial letter of berakah ("blessing" and "praise"), is chosen. Whereupon Aleph 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 Haggadahs suggested by the names of the various letters, the component consonants being used as acrostics (notarikon). Thus Aleph (, "Thy mouth learned truth") suggests truth, praise of God, faithfulness (emunah), or the creative Word of God (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. Bet (here named after the Arabic form Be) suggests house (bayit), blessing (berakah), contemplation (binah), which is prized as superior to the study of the Law. Gimel suggests gemilut ḥasadim (benevolence), especially God's benevolence, and the rain (geshem) of God's mercy and His majesty (gaawah) in the heavens. Daled (Arabic, instead of the Hebrew form Dalet) suggests care for the poor (dal). He recalls God's name, so does Vaw (see Shab. 104a), Zayin the key of sustenance (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 Ḥet = ḥeṭ = sin; Ṭet suggests ṭiṭ, the clay of earth, and hence, resurrection; Yod ("the hand") suggests the reward of the righteous; Kaph ("hollow of the hand"—"palm"), the clapping of hands, and the congregation of Israel (keneset) led by Meṭaṭron to Eden. Lamed recalls leb ("the heart"); Mem, the mysteries of the merkabah ("the heavenly chariot") and God's kingdom (malkut); Nun, ner, "the light (ner) of God is the soul of man" (Proverbs 20:27, Heb.); Samek, "God sustaineth (somek) the falling" (Psalms 145:14, Heb.), or Israel, the Sanctuary or the Torah, inasmuch as the word samek has several different meanings. Ayin ("the eye") suggests the Torah as light for the eye; Pe recalls peh, the mouth, as man's holy organ of speech and praise; Ẓade suggests Moses as ẒaddiḲ, the righteous; ḳoph, also Moses as the one who circumvented the stratagems of Pharaoh. Resh suggests God as the rosh, the head of all; Shin, the breaking of the teeth (shen) of the wicked (Psalms 3:8, Heb.) and Tav the insatiable desire of man (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." 6:40) 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 b. Levi (the beginning of the third 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 Shabu'ot festival (Pentecost) furnished as themes God, Torah, Israel, and Moses. On the other hand, version B (which Grätz, "Monatsschrift," 8:70 et seq., considered as being the original, and the Hebrew "Enoch," and the "Shi'ur ḳomah" 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 cabalistic 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 R. Akiba was made an object of severe attack and ridicule by Solomon ben Jeroham, the Karaite, in the first half of the tenth century. Version A was likewise known to Judah Hadassi, the Karaite, in the thirteenth century (see Jellinek, "B. H." , 17:5).
As to Akiba's authorship, this is claimed by the writers of both versions, who begin their compositions with the words, "R. Akiba 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 Akiba ben Joseph, and that according to Gen. R. , he and R. 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-R. Akiba 'al ha-Taggin we-Ẓiyunim, a Midrash of R. Akiba 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." 5:31-33.
- Bloch, in Winter and Wünsche's Jüd. Lit. 3:225-232, 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.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Akiba ben Joseph, Alphabet of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/a/akiba-ben-joseph-alphabet-of.html. 1901.