It Is Our Duty: Understanding the Aleinu
1 א

Hai Gaon (939–1030)

Alenu was originally composed by Joshua, son of Nun. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai later ordained that is should be said following each service.

2 ב

Kol Bo 16 (13th Century)

After each service, we should say Alenu... It is taught that Alenu is a great praise, and should therefore be said while standing...

There is a tradition that Alenu was composed by Joshua when he conquered Jericho. It contains an allusion to his name.

3 ג

Rav Ezra Bick, "Shiur #18: Aleinu," Virtual Beit Midrash

Historically, Aleinu appears in the Machzor Vitry (early 13th century France) as a passage recited after the prayers. It is also mentioned in the Abudraham (mid 14th century Spain), and subsequently in all siddurim. Originally, it seems to have been recited only after Shacharit, but it eventually spread to the conclusion of every tefilla, an expansion strongly supported by the Ari z"l.

[...]

Interestingly, Aleinu is not found as part of the daily prayers in the classic siddurim of the Geonim, nor in the Rambam. The source of the text is in the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashana, attributed to the Babylonian Amora Rav, and as such, it dates to the earliest formulations of the prayers; but as a part of the daily prayer, it makes a relatively late appearance. This fact should not be taken as a reason to diminish its importance; on the contrary, the fact that all modern prayer rituals include a prayer that is not rooted in the ancient siddurim should be taken as a sign that it expresses something very important. It is almost as though the collective prophetic genius of Israel has insisted on its adoption. This alone should focus our attention.

4 ד

(א) אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־מֹשֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽה' וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽה' כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ (ב) עָזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֔הּ וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָ֑ה זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ אֱלֹקֵ֥י אָבִ֖י וַאֲרֹמְמֶֽנְהוּ׃ (ג) ה' אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה ה' שְׁמֽוֹ׃ (ד) מַרְכְּבֹ֥ת פַּרְעֹ֛ה וְחֵיל֖וֹ יָרָ֣ה בַיָּ֑ם וּמִבְחַ֥ר שָֽׁלִשָׁ֖יו טֻבְּע֥וּ בְיַם־סֽוּף׃ (ה) תְּהֹמֹ֖ת יְכַסְיֻ֑מוּ יָרְד֥וּ בִמְצוֹלֹ֖ת כְּמוֹ־אָֽבֶן׃ (ו) יְמִֽינְךָ֣ ה' נֶאְדָּרִ֖י בַּכֹּ֑חַ יְמִֽינְךָ֥ ה' תִּרְעַ֥ץ אוֹיֵֽב׃ (ז) וּבְרֹ֥ב גְּאוֹנְךָ֖ תַּהֲרֹ֣ס קָמֶ֑יךָ תְּשַׁלַּח֙ חֲרֹ֣נְךָ֔ יֹאכְלֵ֖מוֹ כַּקַּֽשׁ׃ (ח) וּבְר֤וּחַ אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ נֶ֣עֶרְמוּ מַ֔יִם נִצְּב֥וּ כְמוֹ־נֵ֖ד נֹזְלִ֑ים קָֽפְא֥וּ תְהֹמֹ֖ת בְּלֶב־יָֽם׃ (ט) אָמַ֥ר אוֹיֵ֛ב אֶרְדֹּ֥ף אַשִּׂ֖יג אֲחַלֵּ֣ק שָׁלָ֑ל תִּמְלָאֵ֣מוֹ נַפְשִׁ֔י אָרִ֣יק חַרְבִּ֔י תּוֹרִישֵׁ֖מוֹ יָדִֽי׃ (י) נָשַׁ֥פְתָּ בְרוּחֲךָ֖ כִּסָּ֣מוֹ יָ֑ם צָֽלֲלוּ֙ כַּֽעוֹפֶ֔רֶת בְּמַ֖יִם אַדִּירִֽים׃ (יא) מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ ה' מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃ (יב) נָטִ֙יתָ֙ יְמִ֣ינְךָ֔ תִּבְלָעֵ֖מוֹ אָֽרֶץ׃ (יג) נָחִ֥יתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ֖ עַם־ז֣וּ גָּאָ֑לְתָּ נֵהַ֥לְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ֖ אֶל־נְוֵ֥ה קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃ (יד) שָֽׁמְע֥וּ עַמִּ֖ים יִרְגָּז֑וּן חִ֣יל אָחַ֔ז יֹשְׁבֵ֖י פְּלָֽשֶׁת׃ (טו) אָ֤ז נִבְהֲלוּ֙ אַלּוּפֵ֣י אֱד֔וֹם אֵילֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב יֹֽאחֲזֵ֖מוֹ רָ֑עַד נָמֹ֕גוּ כֹּ֖ל יֹשְׁבֵ֥י כְנָֽעַן׃ (טז) תִּפֹּ֨ל עֲלֵיהֶ֤ם אֵימָ֙תָה֙ וָפַ֔חַד בִּגְדֹ֥ל זְרוֹעֲךָ֖ יִדְּמ֣וּ כָּאָ֑בֶן עַד־יַעֲבֹ֤ר עַמְּךָ֙ ה' עַֽד־יַעֲבֹ֖ר עַם־ז֥וּ קָנִֽיתָ׃ (יז) תְּבִאֵ֗מוֹ וְתִטָּעֵ֙מוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר נַחֲלָֽתְךָ֔ מָכ֧וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֛ פָּעַ֖לְתָּ ה' מִקְּדָ֕שׁ אדושם כּוֹנְנ֥וּ יָדֶֽיךָ׃ (יח) ה' ׀ יִמְלֹ֖ךְ לְעֹלָ֥ם וָעֶֽד׃

(1) Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD. They said: I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (2) The LORD is my strength and might; He is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine Him; The God of my father, and I will exalt Him. (3) The LORD, the Warrior— LORD is His name! (4) Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; And the pick of his officers Are drowned in the Sea of Reeds. (5) The deeps covered them; They went down into the depths like a stone. (6) Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, Your right hand, O LORD, shatters the foe! (7) In Your great triumph You break Your opponents; You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw. (8) At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, The floods stood straight like a wall; The deeps froze in the heart of the sea. (9) The foe said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall have its fill of them. I will bare my sword— My hand shall subdue them.” (10) You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the majestic waters. (11) Who is like You, O LORD, among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders! (12) You put out Your right hand, The earth swallowed them. (13) In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode. (14) The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. (15) Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them; All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast. (16) Terror and dread descend upon them; Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone— Till Your people cross over, O LORD, Till Your people cross whom You have ransomed. (17) You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, The place You made to dwell in, O LORD, The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands established. (18) The LORD will reign for ever and ever!

5 ה

(א) עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל. לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית. שֶׁלּא עָשנוּ כְּגויֵי הָאֲרָצות. וְלא שמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחות הָאֲדָמָה. שֶׁלּא שם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם וְגורָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמונָם: שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְרִיק וּמִתְפַּלְלִים אֶל אֵל לא יושִׁיעַ: וַאֲנַחְנוּ כּורְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמודִים לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: שֶׁהוּא נוטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיוסֵד אָרֶץ. וּמושַׁב יְקָרו בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל. וּשְׁכִינַת עֻזּו בְּגָבְהֵי מְרומִים: הוּא אֱלקֵינוּ אֵין עוד. אֱמֶת מַלְכֵּנוּ. אֶפֶס זוּלָתו. כַּכָּתוּב בְּתורָתו. וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּום וַהֲשֵׁבתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ. כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱלקִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם

(ב) עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ ה' אֱלקֵינוּ לִרְאות מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ. לְהַעֲבִיר גִּלּוּלִים מִן הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאֱלִילִים כָּרות יִכָּרֵתוּן. לְתַקֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי. וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ לְהַפְנות אֵלֶיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָרֶץ. יַכִּירוּ וְיֵדְעוּ כָּל יושְׁבֵי תֵבֵל. כִּי לְךָ תִּכְרַע כָּל בֶּרֶךְ. תִּשָּׁבַע כָּל לָשׁון. לְפָנֶיךָ ה' אֱלקֵינוּ יִכְרְעוּ וְיִפּלוּ. וְלִכְבוד שִׁמְךָ יְקָר יִתֵּנוּ. וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת על מַלְכוּתֶךָ. וְתִמְלךְ עֲלֵיהֶם מְהֵרָה לְעולָם וָעֶד. כִּי הַמַּלְכוּת שֶׁלְּךָ הִיא וּלְעולְמֵי עַד תִּמְלךְ בְּכָבוד. כַּכָּתוּב בְּתורָתֶךָ. ה' יִמְלךְ לְעולָם וָעֶד: וְנֶאֱמַר. וְהָיָה ה' לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ. בַּיּום הַהוּא יִהְיֶה ה' אֶחָד וּשְׁמו אֶחָד:

6 ו

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (1561–1640), Bayith Chadash, Orach Chaim 133

We conclude the service with Alenu in order to reinforce our faith in the unity of God's kingdom before we return from the synagogue. We thus strengthen our faith that, "He will wipe out false gods from the earth, and all idols will be cut off, so that the world will be rectified in the Kingdom of the Almighty."

Even though we must then go and deal with the gentiles, seeing that they are dominant, our hearts will not be drawn to their gods, and we will not have any sinful thoughts.

7 ז

Rabbi Dr. Ellie Munk, The World Of Prayer (p. 188)

The Olenu is among the most meaningful of our prayers. In its first part it emphatically pronounces the decisive difference between our belief in G-d and the belief of the rest of mankind; while the second part with equal emphasis utters our confident hope (which is part of even that belief) that ultimately all men will return to G-d. A return to G-d, according to the Jewish view does not imply the acceptance of the Jewish faith at all, but rather the recognition of the One G-d as the Immutable Source of Truth and lovingkindness, and the decision to serve Him, each one in the way will by Him.

8 ח

Rav Ezra Bick, "Shiur #18: Aleinu," Virtual Beit Midrash

The desert was, for the Jews, a place of permanent presence of God, surrounded by the "clouds of glory," eating manna from heaven, spending their days learning Torah from Moshe. The world – the outside world – is on the other side of the Jordan River, a place where each man will be under his vine and fig tree, where he will have to struggle with the world, including rampant idolatry in the Land of Israel. This may seem like a reversal of our usual impression of a desert and the Holy Land, but from the point of view of occupation and activity and the relationship with God, the desert was a sanctuary and the Land of Israel was the "real" world. The crossing of the Jordan marked the entry of the Jews into history, into conflict, into the risk of contamination and de-sanctification. That is precisely the moment for which Aleinu was written.

[...]

We can leave the sanctuary of the service of God only if, first, we understand that the life of sanctity we experience in the synagogue, the service of God our King, is radically different than what we will meet outside; and, secondly, that we can leave the sanctuary only in order to bring the service of God with us. We leave the sacred precincts because we are carrying a consignment, a mission, not to join the world and descend to its level, but to raise it to ours and to work for its transformation. Aleinu is not only a prophylactic to the dangers of the world, but a charge and mission to make the world the kingdom of God.

[...]

It is, in other words, the anthem of the believing servant of God. Standing on the banks of Jordan, about to set out on the great mission of creating the people of God in the Land of Israel, fearful and hopeful, Yehoshua recites Aleinu. It is the battle cry of a movement, a movement to "establish the world as the kingdom of God." The first paragraph, Aleinu, states who we are; the second commits us to what we stand for and to what we are dedicated.