DanF previously asked about piyutim and zemiros which follow the author's name. But if they don't follow the author's name, they follow the aleph-beis in some fashion or another (repeat letters, forwards, backwards, at-bash, etc.). Why is this? Why are there so few piyutim that are in an arbitrary order?

It is worth noting that according to Maharzu, Koheles Rabbah 1:33 says that although many paytanim attempted this pattern, they often were unable to come up with a stanza for all letters, while Shlomo HaMelech was always able to complete his piyutim - and have 5 extra, which Eitz Yosef understands as corresponding to the five final letters םןץף״ך. The Midrash based this off of Melachim Aleph 5:12. According to this reading of the Midrash, this practice of following the Aleph Beis is at least as old as Bayis Rishon, if not older.

  • 2
    Why would you write a poem and not bother to make use of the opening letters or words? This wasn't the age of free verse.
    – Double AA
    Feb 19, 2017 at 6:43
  • There is also a kabalistic significance to using the letters of the aleph-bet in order.
    – user13937
    Feb 19, 2017 at 6:50
  • @HaLailahHaZeh Answer?
    – DonielF
    Feb 19, 2017 at 6:51
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    @DoubleAA that would contribute to an answer if the practice of writing poetry across other cultures showed a form of using initial letters as an expression of structure. More often, though, outside of Hebrew/biblical texts, the era before free verse was marked by end rhyme or meter, not abecedarian presentations. If the alphabetical structure was historically a hallmark specifically of biblical/Hebrew literature, then an explanation from within Judaism (a la any kabbalistic significance) would be a stronger answer.
    – rosends
    Feb 19, 2017 at 13:32
  • @DoubleAA In "Yosifin", there is some original poetry, which is in arbitrary order. Rabbi Hominer in his preface uses that as proof that the work was written by Josephus Flavious (in the 1st Century CE), as it seems to predate the era of using Aleph Bet in poetry. There are Rishonim who date the Kalir to the 2nd century CE, thus placing the Aleph Bet method pretty early.
    – lionscribe
    Feb 20, 2017 at 6:29

1 Answer 1


The alphabetic acrostic, already in practice in the Bible (e.g. Psalms 119, Proverbs ch. 31 etc.), was originally incorporated as a mnemonic. As the eminent scholar Ezra Fleisher observed (see Schirman's Toldot Ha'shira Ha'ivrit Be'farad Ha'notzrit U'be-drom Tzarfat pg. 673) it was used primarily in religious-themed poetry.

  • מגילת איכה too.
    – kouty
    Sep 15, 2017 at 14:48

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