The Letter Peh Preceding the Letter Ayin in Megillat Eichah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


It is well known that the first four chapters of Megillat Eichah comprise alphabetical acrostics.  In chapters two, three and four the Pesukim that begin with the letter Peh precede the Pesukim that begin with the letter Ayin.  In this essay, we shall present traditional explanations of this phenomenon and then explanations based on recent archaeological findings in Eretz Yisrael.

The Traditional Approach – Sanhedrin 104b

Rava, citing Rabi Yochanan, (Sanhedrin 104b, cited by Rashi to Eichah 2:16) explains that the letter Peh refers to the mouth (Peh in Hebrew means mouth), and the letter Ayin refers to the eye (as this is the Hebrew word for eye).  Accordingly, Peh preceding the Ayin is an allusion to the sins of the spies of Sefer BeMidbar who slandered Eretz Yisrael, or in other words, uttered with their mouths what they did not see with their eyes.  The spies placed their mouths before their eyes, which is reflected in Megillat Eichah by having the Peh precede the Ayin.

This approach follows Chazal’s assertion (Ta’anit 4:6) that the sin of the Meraglim occurred on Tishah BeAv.  Indeed, Chazal teach (Ta’anit 29a) that the night we cried upon hearing the evil report of the Meraglim (Bemidbar 14:1) was the night of Tishah BeAv.  Chazal state that Hashem responded, “You have cried for no reason, and as a result I will give you a reason to cry on this night for all generations.”  Accordingly, the acrostics of Eichah chapters two, three and four allude to the very root of Tishah BeAv, the sin of the spies.

One may ask, though, why does the Peh not precede the Ayin in the first chapter of Megillat Eichah?  The Maharsha (Sanhedrin 104b s.v. Patzu) suggests that it clarifies that this was not Yirmiyahu’s order of the Aleph-Bet and that Perakim 2-4 are a deviation from the norm.  The Siftei Chachamim (to Eichah 2:16) explains that order in the first chapter reflects the fact that the Meraglim did not slander Eretz Yisrael at first.  This reflects their strategy of first presenting a grain of truth because (as stated in Sotah 35a, cited by Rashi to Bemidbar 13:27) “Any lie that does contain an element of truth does not stand.”  Only later did the spies slander the land of Israel by claiming that it is a “land that consumes its inhabitants” and “all the people we saw were giants” (BeMidbar 13:32).

Archaeological Evidence

Mr. Mitchell First of Teaneck, New Jersey offers the following information which presents us with an alternative explanation of the Peh preceding the Ayin in chapter 2-4 of Megillat Eichah.  Mr. First’s essay on this topic appears at 

In the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of Tanach) version of Eishet Chayil (Mishlei 31:10-31), the translation of the Peh verse, פיה, precedes the translation of the Ayin verse, עז. The earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint are from the 4th and 5th centuries, hundreds of years earlier than the earliest Hebrew manuscript of Mishlei.

The relevant archaeological discoveries of recent decades from the land of Israel are as follows:  1) It was discovered that in the texts of Eichah from the Dead Sea [Scrolls], the Peh verse precedes the Ayin verse even in the first chapter.  2) During excavations between Oct. 1975 and May 1976 at Kuntillet Ajrud, a site in the northern Sinai, a jar fragment was discovered which included three Hebrew abecedaries (texts of the alphabet) in which the Peh precedes the Ayin. The site dates to a period between the mid-9th and mid-8th centuries.  3) In 1976, a potsherd was discovered at Izbet Sartah (near Rosh ha-Ayin). The potsherd had five lines of Hebrew writing on it, one of which was an abecedary (written left to right!). In this abecedary, the Peh precedes the Ayin. The writing and potsherd date to the 12th-11th centuries B.C.E. Scholars are confident that Izbet Sartah was an Israelite settlement.  4) In 2005, a Hebrew abecedary inscribed on a stone was discovered at Tel Zayit (north of Lachish). The stone had been used in the construction of a wall belonging to a 10th century B.C.E. structure. In the abecedary, the Peh precedes the Ayin. Most probably, Tel Zayit was within the tribe of Judah in the 10th century B.C.E.

The abecedaries mentioned above are the only Hebrew texts of the alphabet in order that have ever been discovered in ancient Israel that date from the period of the Judges and the First Temple that are long enough to span the letters Ayin and Peh. Peh precedes Ayin in every single one.   Mr. First notes that the findings are not just from one area (suggesting a local variant) but from three different regions of Eretz Yisrael.           

Suggested Explanations of the Archaeological Evidence

Mr. First draws the following conclusions from the evidence that he marshals.  “The above analysis of the Biblical acrostics suggests that this was not just a variant order, but that it was the only order used in Israel in the period of the Judges and the First Temple.”  In addition, he writes “What led Hebrew to revert to the Ayin-Peh order in the post-exilic period (Shivat Tzion) the early Second Temple era? A good guess is that the Ayin preceded the Peh in the Aramaic alphabet in use in Babylonia, and this led the scribes who returned to adopt this order for Hebrew.”

Tehillim 34 and Mishlei 31

Mr. First’s suggestion offers a fine explanation of Tehillim 34:16-18 and Mishlei 31:16-18.  He writes:

 In chapter 34 (LeDavid Beshanoto), verses 17 and 18 have troubled interpreters throughout the ages. In verse 17, we are told:    

יז  פְּנֵי ה׳  בְּעֹשֵׂי רָע  לְהַכְרִית מֵאֶרֶץ זִכְרָם.

Yet immediately following this, we are told:

יח  צָעֲקוּ  וה׳  שָׁמֵעַ  וּמִכָּל  צָרוֹתָם הִצִּילָם.

Why should God listen to and save the evildoers, when we have just been told that He wants to cut off their memory from earth? Based on the archaeological evidence for Peh preceding Ayin, let us see what happens under the assumption that Peh precedes Ayin here: 

יז  פְּנֵי ה׳  בְּעֹשֵׂי רָע  לְהַכְרִית מֵאֶרֶץ זִכְרָם.

טז  עֵינֵי  ה׳ אֶל  צַדִּיקִים  וְאָזְנָיו אֶל שַׁוְעָתָם.

.יח  צָעֲקוּ  וה׳  שָׁמֵעַ  וּמִכָּל צָרוֹתָם הִצִּילָם

The ones whom God listens to and saves are not the evildoers, but the Tzadikim. Suddenly, the sequence of verses makes perfect sense!  It is important to note that Da’at Mikra notes this as a viable option for interpreting these Pesukim.

Based on the cumulative evidence, it seems obvious that the translators of Eishet Chayil (Mishlei 31) into Greek were copying from a Hebrew text that had the Peh verse before the Ayin verse. Let us take a closer look at the key verses in Eishet Chayil:

כד  סָדִין עָשְׂתָה וַתִּמְכֹּר וַחֲגוֹר נָתְנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי.                     
כה  עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ  וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן.

In the traditional order, the woman of valor laughs to the last day because she makes cloaks, sells them, delivers belts to the merchant, and is clothed with might and splendor. But if the order here were Peh-Ayin, the reason she laughs to the last day would also be based on her חכמה and חסד:                                                         

כה  עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ  וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן.

כו  פִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ.

 A much more profound statement!

Questions and Solutions

This, however, does not explain Tehillim 119 and 145 where the Ayin followed by the Peh seems to flow very smoothly, and there is no indication that the original order was Peh followed by the Ayin.  Mr. First suggests that these Perakim were written during the early Second Temple period when the accepted order became Ayin followed by Peh.  

It seems, however, that this approach does not accord with mainstream Hashkafah.  The notion that some Mizmorim (chapters) of Tehillim were written during the time of the Shivat Tzion does have a legitimate place within our tradition (see the Malbim’s introduction to Sefer Tehillim).  Indeed, chapters 126 (Shir HaMa’alot Beshuv Hashem Et Shivat Tzion) and 137 (Al Naharot Bavel) seem to have been written during this period or during the Babylonian exile.  As Mr. First notes, “Although the Gemara (Bava Batra 14b) attributes the book of Tehillim to David and ten contemporaries and predecessors, a different rabbinic tradition includes Ezra as one of the ten authors of Tehillim (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:4, Kohelet Rabbah 7:19, Yalkut Makhiri to Tehillim, beginning).”

However, while mainstream Hashkafah is relatively comfortable with attributing a Mizmor Yatom (an anonymous Psalm) to Ezra, nonetheless it seems very difficult to attribute Tehillim 145 to the Shivat Tzion era when the superscription to this Mizmor specifically states “Tehillah LeDavid.”

One could respond to the archaeological evidence presented by Mr. First in one of two more cautious manners (for a full discussion of Torah attitudes to archaeological discoveries see the chapter devoted to this topic in Gray Matter volume three).  One approach is to simply dismiss the archaeological evidence as discoveries from deviant sects, which do not reflect the legitimate tradition.  Another is to suggest that the evidence is incomplete and that one cannot draw comprehensive conclusions simply from the archaeological evidence amassed thus far.  In other words, the findings demonstrate that there was use of Peh before Ayin.  However, in coming years we may find evidence of use of Ayin preceding Peh during the period of the first Beit HaMikdash. 

Accordingly, one could argue that during Bayit Rishon there were two alternative orders of the alphabet and that the authors of Tehillim sometimes used first Ayin and then Peh (such as in Tehillim 34), and others used Ayin before the Peh (such as in Tehillim 119 and 145).  It is possible that Ezra decided to unify all the texts and place Tehillim 34 and Mishlei 31 in the same alphabetical order, Ayin preceding Peh, in accordance with what emerged as the custom in his time.  The Gemara in Sanhedrin 104b and the commentaries explain why Eichah chapters two, three and four were left in its original order and not reordered to have the Ayin precede the Peh.


Archaeological evidence has the potential to enhance our understanding of many sections of Tanach.  It seems, however, that mainstream Hashkafah prefers a more cautious approach to such information and prefers to make fewer “leaps” in our attempts to harmonize the discoveries and our holy tradition.  We look forward to more discoveries that will further enrich and deepen our understanding of our holy Torah.

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