Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva (Hebrew: אלפא-ביתא דרבי עקיבא, Alpha-Beta de-Rabbi Akiva), otherwise known as Letters of Rabbi Akiva (Hebrew: אותיות דרבי עקיבא, Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva[1]) or simply Alphabet or Letters, is a midrash on the names of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Two versions or portions of this midrash are known to exist.

Version A of Alphabet

Version A, which is considered by Adolf Jellinek to be the older form,[1] and by Bloch [de] to be of a much more recent origin,[1] introduces the various anthropomorphized letters of the Hebrew alphabet that God engraved from His crown with a pen of fire contending with each other for the honor of forming the beginning of creation (bereshit). It is based upon Genesis Rabbah 1 and Shir haShirim Rabbah on 5:11, 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 = Anochi = I am);[1] it, however, varies from the Midrash Rabbot.[1] The letters, beginning with the last, Tav, and ending with Bet, all assert their claim to be the first letter in the Torah:

So all the remaining letters complain - each having some claim, each immediately refuted - until Bet (ב), the initial letter of berakhah (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.[1] This competition is followed by an aggadic explanation of the form of the various letters and by interpretations of the different compositions of the alphabet: ATav BSh, AHetSam BTetAyin, 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).[1]

Critical assessment of versions

Both versions are given as a unit in the Amsterdam edition of 1708, as they probably originally belonged together.[1] Version A shows more unity of plan, and is older.[8] It is directly based upon, if not coeval with, Shabbat 104a, according to which the schoolchildren 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 Shavuot festival furnished as themes God, Torah, Israel, and Moses.[1]

On the other hand, version B (which H. Grätz[9] considered as being the original, and the works "Enoch" and "Shiur Komah" as sections of it) shows no inner unity of plan, but is simply a compilation of aggadic passages taken at random from these and other kabbalistic and midrashic works without any other connection than the external order of the letters of the alphabet, but also based on Shabbat 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 kabbalistic works, which nearly fell into oblivion due to the grossly anthropomorphic views of the Godhead expressed therein, which offended to the more enlightened minds of a later age. For this reason, the Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva was severely attacked and ridiculed by Solomon ben Jeroham, the Karaite, in the early 10th century.[1] Version A was likewise known to Judah Hadassi, the Karaite, in the 13th century.[10]

As to Rabbi Akiva's authorship, this is claimed by the writers of both versions, who begin their compositions with the words, "R. Akiva has said." The justification for this pseudonymous title was found in the fact that, according to the Talmud,[11] Moses was told on Sinai that the ornamental crown of each letter of the Torah would be made the object of halakhic interpretation by Rabbi Akiva, and that according to Genesis Rabbah 1, 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 ve-Tziyunim,[1] 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 Bet ha-Midrasch v. 31–33.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Public Domain Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Akiba ben Joseph, Alphabet of". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  2. ^ Psalms 119:160
  3. ^ Numbers 14:4, Daniel 2:32
  4. ^ a b See Shabbat 104a
  5. ^ Proverbs 20:27
  6. ^ Psalms 145:14
  7. ^ Psalms 3:8
  8. ^ Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch vi. 40
  9. ^ Monatsschrift, viii. 70 et seq.
  10. ^ see Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch iii., xvii. 5
  11. ^ Menachot 29b

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