Usually, when writing verses in Tanach Scrolls, words are written across the column from the right margin to the left (except, of course, for required Parsha spacing.)

I have seen two "special" formats:

The "brick" layout, which seems to be reserved for "songs". Examples:

  • Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) in Shemot
  • Devorah's song in Shoftim (Judges)
  • David's song in Shmuel II (Samuel II)

The 2 column straight layout. Examples:

  • Ha'azinu near the end of Sefer Devarim (Deut.)
  • Words beginning "To everything there is a time" in Kohelet (Ecclessiastes)
  • List of Haman's 10 sons in Esther
  • Tehillim, Mishlei, and most of Iyov

The 4 column straight layout. Example (the only one?):

  • The kings in Yehoshua

What common theme or criteria are used to decide which layout to use for which of these areas?

From what I can tell, the "brick" layout seems to reserved for "songs", though ha'azinu is called a "song" and it has the 2 column layout.

Why are these specific layouts appropriate for these areas? (I.e. - why choose one layout vs. the other?) Why does it get any layout at all? Why not leave the writing straight across as with everything else?

  • The kings in Yehoshua get a 4 column straight layout.
    – Heshy
    Sep 17 '18 at 15:25
  • Using the brick layout for David's song is a modern innovation to make it be more song like. In all old manuscripts and early printings it's two columns like Haazinu. It's really just Devorah and Az Yashir have one type, and everything else is another.
    – Double AA
    Sep 17 '18 at 15:44
  • SA YD 275:3 seems to hold (unless I’m misreading it) that while it’s passul if you write a shirah as an ordinary parshah, it’s kasher if you write it using the wrong shirah format. Take a look at §4-5 where he discusses Shiras HaYam and Shiras Haazinu.
    – DonielF
    Sep 17 '18 at 15:45
  • Similar judaism.stackexchange.com/a/91846/759
    – Double AA
    Sep 17 '18 at 15:46
  • @doniel he says explicitly you have to keep the right format אם שינה בפיזור ממה שנהגו לא פסל ובלבד שיהא אריח על גבי לבינה
    – Double AA
    Sep 17 '18 at 15:49

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer dedicated an entire chapter to subject of shirot in Tanach in his book "כתר ארם צובה והנוסח המקובל של המקרא" (can be found in Otzar Hachochmah). It's important to note that there are differences, sometimes significant, between various manuscripts we have in terms of how each scribe wrote each song or song-like section.

He concludes from his analysis of the manuscripts1 and the differing views in the gemara that the key factor in deciding how to write the song section is the internal division of each of the verses of that section - how many groupings of words are there in a verse, and how many words in each grouping. The differences between manuscripts he puts down to there being no halachic need to write in any particular song-format; the scribe just had to follow his tradition of פתוחות and סתומות, and to make sure that internal verse division still made sense to some extent, as he saw fit. In other words, in most cases, it was up to the scribe to decide the exact format.

As for why not just write straight across, it seems that it was obvious to the ancient scribes that songs should be written in a special format, likely to emphasize that they were to be read as songs. Later on, as internal structural divisions in other lists in the Tanach became more apparent to the scribes, they were also written in special format - though what that format was exactly depended on the choice of the scribe.

1 He examined eight manuscripts, plus compared the original Mikraot Gedolot from Venice, and a few other editions of Tanach.

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