Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look at it.
Perhaps the most popular of all prayers, with the possible exception of Adon Olam, which signals the actual end of the service, is Aleinu (“We are called to praise the Master of all…”). In every Siddur, at the end of every one of the required daily and festive prayer services, Aleinu can be found. Because of its ubiquity and its stirring melody, we often pay only casual attention to the text of this essential element of our liturgical tradition. So here is a chance to take a closer look.
Aleinu originally appears in the context of the Rosh Hashanah Musaph (additional) service as an introduction to the Malchuyot or “Sovereignty” section of the service. This purpose is served most admirably by Aleinu as the prayer not only reminds us of our duty to serve God, the “Master of all that there is” but also reminds us of our unique position as the “chosen people.” Aleinu expresses the hope that God’s kingdom will be established throughout the world and that all of humanity will some day live together in harmony. True to the form of the other sections of the Rosh Hashanah Musaph, Aleinu consists of liturgical poetry supported by various biblical quotations. These are the biblical passages that form the backbone of Aleinu: “Know this day and take it to heart that Adonai is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:39),”Adonai reigns for ever and ever” (Exodus 5:18) and “Adonai shall be acknowledged Ruler of all the earth – on that day Adonai shall be One and His name One” (Zachariah 14:9)
During the High Holidays, the Hazzan re-enacts the ancient practice of falling prostrate on the ground during the phrase, “Va Anachnu Korim… We bend the knee and bow, acknowledging the Supreme Sovereign, the Holy One” You may recall seeing me hop away from the podium and over to the ark in preparation for this ritual. Hopping, while being a good method of exercise and fuel for speculation as to my health, is necessary in order to avoid the prohibition of separating one’s feet during the recitation of the Amidah (standing prayer.) The jubilant, regal melody of the Aleinu that is sung during the holy days is part of a collection of music referred to as Mi Sinai (from Mt. Sinai) Tunes. While certainly not composed by Moses – he was a great prophet but there is no evidence to suggest he was much of a musician, these melodies originated in the Rein land, the cradle of Ashkenazi culture and date back between the 10th -14th Century. This is a setting of the High Holiday Aleinu arranged by Samuel Adler. The soloist is Rowna Sutin.
When not being chanted during the High Holiday Musaph service, Aleinu is most often sung to a melody composed by the great Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890.) Sulzer also brought us such great hits as Vayehi Bin’soa most often sung during the Torah Service. Rather than falling prostrate on the floor during the passage beginning, Vanachnu Korim, we symbolize this action in the following manner: We bend the knees for “Korim“, bow slightly for “Umishtachavim” bow fully for “Umodim” and straiten for Melech…”
As to the question of the origin of Aleinu, there is no clear answer. We know that this poem appeared in the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) of the great third century Talmdic sage, Rav. However, most scholars feel that Aleinu is much older, if fact the Encyclopedia Judaica cites a tradition that credits the authorship of the prayer to the Moses’ biblical successor, Joshua. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, who is a noted expert on liturgy and the author of the commentary on our Sim Shalom prayer book, feels that Aleinu dates back to the time of the Maccabees:
“[Aleinu] may have originated as a statement of basic Jewish belief, in opposition to Hellenistic thought, at the time of the Maccabees (second century B.C.E.), the struggle between Hellenism and Judaism was then at its height, a struggle that took place within the Jewish people as well. There was a real question as to whether Judaism would survive or would be transformed into yet another Hellenistic system of belief.”
Ismar Elbogen, the great liturgical scholar and historian states that Aleinu became part of the daily ritual around 1300 C.E. At first, this prayer became the basis for much controversy and some anti-Semitism. In its original format Aleinu contains an additional phrase before Va’Anachnu Korim ; “she hem mishtachavim li hevel v’reek… that other nations bow down to nothingness and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save them.” Many non Jewish authorities took umbrage at the pejorative discretion of their perception of God. Although some prayer books maintain this controversial phrase; it has been edited out of most modern prayer books – both out of fear and out of sensitivity.
Whatever its origin, the Aleinu leaves us with a profound message that is most fitting to serve as a final point to our service. As part of God’s chosen people, we are in a unique position to praise our Creator and to publicize Gods greatness by serving as a “light to the nations” through the way in which we act and interact with our neighbors and each other. As Jewish worshippers, we leave the service with hope – that all of humanity will some day live together in accord, united by the values and behavioral guidelines that a life guided by serving our God represents.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at email@example.com.
Hazzan Michael Krausman