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    Alphabets & acrostics

    The High Holyday services are full of alphabetical acrostics, poems and prayers where the initial letters of words, lines and stanzas follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet or the letters of the author’s name.

    This device dates back to the time before printing, when it was hard to remember the sequence of the verses by heart. “Acrostic” entered English in the 16th century, deriving from a Greek word. In the Bible acrostics are common, e.g. in the long Psalm 119.

    In Ashrei, Psalm 145, the lines are in alphabetical order except that there is no verse beginning with “n”. The Talmudic view is that the missing verse was dropped because it had unpleasant words beginning naf’lah, “fallen”.

    Many of our Sabbath and festival songs have acrostics; alphabetically in Addir Hu and using the author’s name in Ma’oz Tzur. The Book of Lamentations (Echah) has four alphabetical chapters and one non-alphabetical.

    But how can a poem flow naturally if it has to fit into a predetermined structure?

    The Midrash explains the alphabetical structure of the list of sins (Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu) on the basis that we have committed every sin from alef to tav.

    Acrostics of the author’s name look like a wish for immortality but it saves the reader from having to remember the text unaided.

    An acrostic adds to the impact of the poem in that it provides a visible shape and not simply an aural effect.

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