ACROSTICS (and Alphabetizing Compositions). A literary style in which successive or alternating verses, or clusters of verses, begin with the letters of the alphabet in sequence.
Biblical literature has preserved, in complete or truncated form, 14 alphabetizing compositions. Except for one (Nah. 1), they are restricted to the Hagiographa (Ps. 9–10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, 145; Prov. 31:10–31; Lam. 1–4). Complete acrostics occur in the conventional order in Psalms 111, 112, 119; Proverbs 31:10–31; and Lamentations 1, as well as, with a curious but unexplained variant transposition of ayin and pe, in Lamentations 2:16–17, 3:46–51, 4:16–17. While the possibility of textual dislocation cannot be entirely ruled out here, the successive repetition of the irregularity makes it a less likely solution, particularly in view of the identical phenomenon behind the Greek version of Proverbs 31:25–26, and apparently in the original forms of Psalms 34:16–17 (ẓa'aku, v. 18 now has a remote subject) and Psalms 10:7–8c (cf. also Hebrew Ecclus. 51:23–25). In the case of four psalms the acrostic arrangement is impaired. Psalm 25 omits vav and kof, duplicates resh, and adds an extra pe at the end. Psalm 34, too, lacks vav and has supernumerary pe. The ayin is missing in Psalm 37, and the nun in Psalms 9–10 (originally a unity) and Nahum 1 are unmistakable torsos of originally alphabetic compositions, but are too mutilated to permit reconstruction in full.
The types of alphabetic structure vary. By far the most frequent is when the initial successive letters head each full verse (Ps. 25, 34, 115; Prov. 31:10–31; Lam. 1, 2, 4). Sometimes they begin alternate verses (Ps. 9–10 [?], 37) and sometimes each half verse (Ps. 111; 112; Nah. 1 [?]). The most sophisticated and elaborate arrangement appears in Psalm 119 and Lamentations 3 in which each stanza comprises eight verses in the former and three verses in the latter, all commencing with the same letter. The impact of the acrostic principle is also present in Lamentations 5 with its 22 verses, even though no abecediary is used. Whatever the age of the individual alphabetic compositions, it is clear that the phenomenon cannot be used as a criterion for the dating of biblical texts. The word and sentence acrostic is found in at least five works in Akkadian literature. Although the only two dated examples come from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., there is no reason to doubt that the principle was not in vogue in Mesopotamia much earlier. Moreover, since the traditional order of the alphabetic signs is now known to have been fixed no later than the 14th century B.C.E., there is every likelihood of its early employment in Israel in literary compositions.
It is not possible to decide what considerations influenced the choice of this particular device. Sometimes it seems to provide a connecting link between variations upon a single theme. At other times it apparently serves to impose an external order and system upon material that lacks inner coherence or logical development. Frequently, it must have been used as a mnemonic aid in a pedagogic or didactic context as well as in a cultic-liturgical situation. For instance, it would be particularly suited to the rote recitation of moralistic instruction, divine attributes, and hymns of praise and thanksgiving. A magical or mystical purpose can be ruled out in the biblical period, but purely aesthetic considerations might occasionally have been at work. Finally, it is not at all improbable that the arrangement of literary material in alphabetic sequence from beginning to end would signify the striving for comprehensiveness in the expression of an emotion or idea.
[Nahum M. Sarna]
ln later usage the letters, syllables, or words are arranged in such a way that their combinations have meaning independent of their meaning in the general context (and not necessarily alphabetically). There are three main types of acrostics: Akrostikhon – in the narrowest meaning of the word, when the letters (or syllables or words) that are to be joined are consistently found at the beginning of each line, verse, sentence, or paragraph; Telestikhon – when they are at the end; Mezostikhon – when they are in the middle. With regard to content there are two types of acrostic. One is alphabetic when the first letters (or last in telestikhon, etc.) of each line (or verse, etc.) combine to produce the alphabet or the alphabet in reverse (in Hebrew called tashrak תשר״ק) or regular and reverse in turn (atbash, אתב״ש; atbah אטב״ח; tashab תאש״ב) and the like. There are also variations, e.g., entire works in which every word begins with the same letter. The other is an acrostic of words, in which the combinations produce a word or complete sentence.
Originally, the acrostic fulfilled several important functions. It simplified learning by heart and prevented mistakes, deletions, and additions. Furthermore, it preserved the name of the author, which often appeared as an acrostic. One Midrash (pr 46) attributes an acrostic to Moses: "And Moses came and they began (Psalm 92) with the letters of his name מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר [לְיוֹם] הַשַׁבָּת." According to another Midrash (Song R. 1:7), Solomon composed an alphabetic acrostic. On the other hand, the view (appearing in the Pesikta Rabbati) that
It is not known whether there was a special Hebrew name for the acrostic. In a later period it was called a siman ("sign"), and then a ḥatimah ("signature"). Alphabetic acrostics had names which were derived from the Greek ἁλφαβητάρια (e.g., Eccles. R. 7:7, 18; in the parallel in Ruth R. 6:6 mistakenly Alfanterin (אַלְפַנְתְּרִין), and especially: Alfa Beta, Alfabeta, etc.). Under Arabic influence alphabetic acrostics began to be called fibetim (singular: fibeta), dropping the first syllable which was thought to be the (Arabic) definite article (al-). These foreign names may indicate that the acrostics in prayers and piyyutim were not a direct continuation of biblical acrostics but were influenced by those which had become part of Roman, Byzantine, Syrian, and Arabic literature (though in certain aspects it was the Hebrew piyyut that influenced the Syrian and Byzantine and not the reverse). In any event the acrostic in its different forms is often found in the prayers and piyyutim. An alphabetic prayer is found in the tractate Soferim (19:9). Other examples are the prayers: "אֵל בָּרוּךְ גָּדוֹל דֵּעָה" (Alphabet), and "…שַׁבָּת רָצִיתָ קָרְבְּנוֹתֶיהָ [or: תִּקַּנְתָּ] תִּכַּנְתָּ" (Tashrak) and others. The paytanim, beginning with Yose b. Yose, Yannai, Kallir, R. Saadiah Gaon, and others, employed acrostics, which became increasingly longer and more complicated. The letters of the alphabet were repeated in differing and unusual combinations. The names of the paytanim, their fathers, place of residence, pseudonyms, often combined with blessings, verses from the Bible, etc., were woven into the piyyut in acrostic form. The poets of Spain, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and others, followed the paytanim in this, especially in their liturgical poetry. The acrostic found its way into prose writing, especially rhymed prose, letters, introductions to various works, etc. An example is the beginning of the famous letter of Ḥisdai ibn Shaprut to the king of the Khazars which was written at his behest by Menahem b. Saruk. The introduction of R. Shabbetai Donnolo to his Sefer Ḥakhmoni includes the acrostic "הַנּוֹלַד מֵאוֹרַס שַׁבְּתַי בַּר אַבְרָהָם, חֲזָק הוּא דוֹנוֹלוֹ [i.e., Oria]". In the Middle Ages, and even later, entire works were composed in which every word began with the same letter. The most famous of these is "Elef Alfin" ("A thousand alefs"), attributed to Abraham Bedersi. A common form of acrostic is when the initial letters of the first few words of a work spell the name of God. Kabbalistic literature considered acrostics, like all combinations of letters and syllables, to be important. The use of acrostics, already criticized by R. Isaac Arama in the 15th century, has continued to the present but only as a diversion.
BIBLE: Loehr, in: ZAW, 25 (1905), 173–98; S.R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (19139), 337, 367f., 456f., 459; F. Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystic und Magie (19252); Munch, in: ZDMG, 90 (1936), 703–10; Marcus, in: JNES, 6 (1947), 109–15; G.R. Driver, Semitic Writing (1948), 181, 200–8; N.K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (1954), 23–32; W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960), 63, 66 ff. post-biblical: M. Steinschneider, Jewish Literature (19652), 149–51; Elbogen, Gottesdienst, 78, 86, 207, 209, 285, 291 ff., 309; A.M. Habermann, Ha-Piyyut (1946), 8 ff.; I. Heinemann, Ha-Tefillah bi-Tekufat ha-Tanna'im ve-ha-Amo-ra'im (19662), 88–91, 148, 152f., 168f; S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1950), 79–82; Zunz-Albeck, Derashot, 9, 47, 180, 183, 185 and notes; I. Davidson, in: Lu'aḥ Aḥi'ever, 1 (1918), 91–95. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Fleischer, Shirat ha-Kodesh ha'ivrit bimei ha-Benayim (1975), 512, index.
[Yehuda Arye Klausner]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.