The Ashrei prayer, primarily derived from Psalm 145, is recited by Jews three times daily. The sages of the Talmud declared that anyone who says Ashrei thrice daily will secure a place in the World to Come,1 thanks to its unique characteristics:

  1. Each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, allowing one to praise G‑d with the entirety of speech.
  2. The verse starting with the letter peh praises G‑d who “opens Your hand and satisfies every living thing [with] its desire.”2 Reciting this verse with proper intention is so crucial that if said without concentration, it must be repeated, similar to the Shema.

The Mystery of the Missing Letter Nun

Despite the alphabetical structure, one letter is conspicuously absent: nun. Why is there no verse beginning with nun?

Supporting Those Who Fall

In the very Talmudic discussion cited above,3 Rabbi Yochanan provides a fascinating reason for why this letter was left out: Nun stands for נפל (nofel), which means “fall,” as in the verse “The virgin of Israel has fallen (naflah) and she will rise no more,”4 which speaks of the downfall of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchak explains that King David, author of this psalm, was sensitive to this fall and preemptively provided support in the following verse: “The Lord supports (סמך-somech) all those who fall . . .”

So the sages were well aware of this “omission” and attributed deep significance to it.

Interestingly, some note that the Septuagint5 (Greek translation of the Tanach) and a variant Hebrew text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls do contain a verse for the letter nun: “Trustworthy (נאמן-ne’eman) is the L-rd in all His words, and righteous is He in all his ways.”

This has led some to suggest that the verse might have been lost from the standard Hebrew text but preserved in other manuscripts.

However, many scholars point out there is no indication content-wise that anything is missing between the verses for mem and samech. Moreover, the added verse for nun is highly suspicious for a number of reasons, including:

  • It uses the Divine name "Elokim," whereas the rest of Psalm 145 exclusively uses the Tetragrammaton, which appears nine times in this chapter.
  • The ending of the added verse, “and kind in all His deeds,” is a duplicate of the ending of the tzadi verse. This would be a major anomaly, since no other verses contain duplicate endings.

These are very strong indicators that the verse was added in by some scribe who assumed it was an error, and it subsequently crept into other manuscripts, even as the sages successfully kept it out of the Mesorah.

But if we accept that the letter nun was purposely omitted because it begins a negative word, we’re left with an obvious question: Don’t all letters start both positive and negative words? Why was the nun picked out for special treatment?

The Letter That Stands Alone

This issue was addressed by Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, known as the Maharal of Prague (15126–1609).7

He begins by explaining the significance of Ashrei being constructed of all 22 Hebrew letters. The Hebrew letters are the building blocks of the entire creation and thus contain within them the secrets of creation.

And if we look carefully at the letter nun, we’ll see how “falling” is baked into its position in the Hebrew alphabet. There are exactly 27 Hebrew letters (including final letters). Nun is the 14th, with 13 letters on each side. So while each letter has a counter letter, the nun stands alone with no support.

This isolation is also reflected in its numerical value. The Midrash8 explains that every letter can be combined with another to reach the round (and complete) number of 10. For example:

Aleph (1) + tet (9) = 10

Bet (2) + chet (8) = 10

The same applies to the higher numbers:

Yud (10) + tzadi (90) = 100

Kaf (20) + peh (80) = 100

The exceptions to this rule are hei (5) and nun (50), which have no pair with which they can be combined to become 10 or 100 respectively.

This, the Midrash9 explains, is reflected in the verse הן עם לבדד ישכן (“it is a nation that will dwell alone”),10 which begins with a hei and ends with a (final) nun.

Since this verse speaks of Israel’s unique position as being reliant directly upon G‑d, it’s appropriate that it’s framed by these isolated letters, which have no pairs and are thus prone to falling if not for Divine support. This intrinsic relationship with G‑d is eternal and will last after all other civilizations rise and fall—right into the era of Moshiach.

(As to why only nun is excluded from Ashrei, the Maharal explains that it’s the only letter with both of these isolating characteristics.)

Yet, although we Jews appear to be alone and vulnerable, the truth is that we have the greatest support of all: G‑d, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. This is clearly seen in the next verse following the missing letter nun: “The L-rd supports (סמך-somech) all those who fall . . .”11

Nature vs. Supernatural

But all is not yet settled. In other contexts, the letter nun has very positive connotations. In fact, the Talmud tells us that seeing this letter in a dream is a good omen, since it’s the first letter of the word nes, “miracle.”12

So why not include nun in Ashrei?

In a somewhat esoteric essay, the Alter Rebbe13 explains that this chapter, which begins with, “I will lift You, my King … every day,” tells the story of our toil in this world to raise up our reality to its spiritual source through our daily efforts.

This rectifies the original “fall” that created a void in which reality was able to form in the first place. Thus, although not mentioned, the fall of the nun is expressed in this entire chapter, which serves as its antidote.

Since this is all about engaging in our reality and working within the confines of nature, it makes no sense here to have the nun of nes, which expresses a reality that is above and beyond the natural.

Building upon this, the Rebbe14 explains that Ashrei praises G‑d for His everyday kindness in the natural world, which is why it’s recited daily. (This is in contrast to Hallel, which thanks G‑d for extraordinary miracles and is not recited regularly.)

So the fact that nun reflects miracles has no place in this Psalm.

Rather, the word nofel appears as part of the following verse: “The L-rd supports (סמך-somech) all those who fall (noflim-נפלים).”15 Indeed, our falls and G‑d’s support come as a single parcel. This is best understood through a verse in Jeremiah: “And it is a time of distress for Jacob, from which he shall be saved.”16

The Baal Shem Tov explains17 that the distress itself becomes the source of salvation. Whenever we fall, it is only so that we can rise to even greater heights!