Personally Connecting to Aleinu

Aleinu “on one foot”:

Aleinu is a prayer said at the end of each service throughout the year (minus Yom Kippur Musaf and Mincha). It was originally in the Malchuyot / Sovereignty section of Rosh Hashanah Musaf starting in the Middle Ages and then became more widespread. It is thought to have been written by Rav in the 300s. Hai Gaon (900s CE) claimed that it was written by Joshua and that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai decreed it should be said at the end of each service; while the authorship claims are dubious (it’s not mentioned in the Bible or Talmud, and the last line is from Zechariah, who lived after Joshua) this does give evidence as to its timeline. We stand for this prayer and bow at the part which says “We bow”.

The Prayer

עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל

It is upon us to praise the Master of all

How is the meaning different to say that it is upon us collectively to praise G-d? How does that change your experience to be praising G-d in a group?

לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית.

to acclaim the Creator.

Whether you see G-d as more like a non-bodied person or more like a force for good in the world, what in your life would give you reason to praise G-d?

שֶׁלּא עָשנוּ כְּגויֵי הָאֲרָצות. וְלא שמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחות הָאֲדָמָה. שֶׁלּא שם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם וְגורָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמונָם:

G-d made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.

Noting that this is a statement of each people having their own story rather than a statement of superiority, how has Judaism made your life different?

וַאֲנַחְנוּ כּורְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמודִים לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא:

We bend the knee and bow, acknowledging the Supreme Sovereign, the Holy One, Blessed be G-d.

In Talmudic times, “kor’im” meant to fall to your knees, while “mishtachavim” meant a full-body prostration (Shevuot 16b:9). Why might we only do that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur now?

שֶׁהוּא נוטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיוסֵד אָרֶץ. וּמושַׁב יְקָרו בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל. וּשְׁכִינַת עֻזּו בְּגָבְהֵי מְרומִים:

who spread out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, whose glorious abode is in the loftiest heights.

When have you experienced G-d in the world of nature?

הוּא אֱלקֵינוּ אֵין עוד. אֱמֶת מַלְכֵּנוּ. אֶפֶס זוּלָתו. כַּכָּתוּב בְּתורָתו. וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּום וַהֲשֵׁבתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ. כִּי ה' הוּא הָאֱלקִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת. אֵין עוד:

This is our G-d; there is no other. In truth, G-d alone is our Ruler, as it is written in the Torah: "Know this day and take it to heart that Adonai is G-d in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other."

What else might people either treat as a god or treat as more important than G-d?

עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ ה' אֱלקֵינוּ לִרְאות מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ. לְהַעֲבִיר גִּלּוּלִים מִן הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאֱלִילִים כָּרות יִכָּרֵתוּן. לְתַקֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי.

And so we hope in You, Adonai our G-d, soon to see Your splendor: that You will sweep idolatry away so that false gods will be utterly destroyed; to perfect the world under the Divine sovereignty

It seems that the purpose of doing “Tikkun Olam”, fixing the world, is to help draw people closer to G-d’s vision of the ideal world. What’s the connection?

What does it look like “to perfect the world under the Divine sovereignty”?

Why might this be one of the last things we say in each service before we go out into the world?

Note: It may be that the original version of “l’takein Olam” might have been spelled with a kaf instead of a kuf, thus making it “to establish the world” rather than “to perfect the world”. Given that Pirkei Avot 1:2 says that the world is established on deeds of loving kindness (and prayer and study), this difference may not be so great. If this topic interests you, you can read more here: https://hakirah.org/vol%2011%20first.pdf (kippah tip to Miron Hirsch)

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:

so that all humanity will invoke Your name, and all the earth's wicked will return to You, repentant. Then all who live will know that to You every knee must bend, every tongue pledge loyalty. To You, Adonai, may all bow in worship. May they give honor to Your glory; may everyone accept Your dominion. Reign over all, soon and for all time. Sovereignty is Yours in glory, now and forever. Thus it is written in Your Torah: "Adonai reigns for ever and ever." Such is the prophetic assurance: "Adonai shall be acknowledged Ruler of all the earth. On that day Adonai shall be One and G-d's name One."

In a world where everybody follows G-d’s guidance for living a good life, how would things look different?

The Full Text

(א) עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל. לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית. שֶׁלּא עָשנוּ כְּגויֵי הָאֲרָצות. וְלא שמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחות הָאֲדָמָה. שֶׁלּא שם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם וְגורָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמונָם: 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 מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת. אֵין עוד:

(1) It is for us to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the Creator. G-d made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny. We bend the knee and bow, acknowledging the Supreme Sovereign, the Holy One, exalted, who spread out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, whose glorious abode is in the loftiest heights. This is our G-d; there is no other. In truth, G-d alone is our Ruler, as it is written in the Torah: "Know this day and take it to heart that Adonai is G-d in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other."

(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:

(2) And so we hope in You, Adonai our G-d, soon to see Your splendor: that You will sweep idolatry away so that false gods will be utterly destroyed, and that You will perfect the world under Your sovereignty so that all humanity will invoke Your name, and all the earth's wicked will return to You, repentant. Then all who live will know that to You every knee must bend, every tongue pledge loyalty. To You, Adonai, may all bow in worship. May they give honor to Your glory; may everyone accept Your dominion. Reign over all, soon and for all time. Sovereignty is Yours in glory, now and forever. Thus it is written in Your Torah: "Adonai reigns for ever and ever." Such is the prophetic assurance: "Adonai shall be acknowledged Ruler of all the earth. On that day Adonai shall be One and G-d's name One."

Musical versions

How does each version affect your experience of the words?

This version was made by Cantor Brian Shamash, using the Tefillah Trainer software worked on by Cantor Neil Schwartz. The tune was written by Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890). Sulzer was the cantor in Vienna for 45 years and is considered the father of the modern cantorate. He composed many classic tunes, including for the Shema.

The second part of this tune includes snippets of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” (at “she’hu noteh shamayim” and 2 other spots), “Three Blind Mice” (at “v’ne’emar”), and “The Farmer in the Dell” (at “bayom hahu”). To see Jews in El Salvador using this tune, click here: https://youtu.be/0BAqZ9qxqaI

This is the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur version of Aleinu, as sung by Cantor Azi Schwartz of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. For a very similar version from the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal, see here: https://youtu.be/vZv1rcQyZ48. For a very different Moroccan version, see here: https://youtu.be/FLtcjkpiICI.

This is a 2011 recording of the Yeshiva University a capella group “The Maccabeats” singing their version of “Aleinu”. A studio version from their album “Voices from the Heights” can be found here: https://youtu.be/nkGoDT4e5mw .

Context: This is the 2nd part of “Aleinu”, the “Shehu noteh shamayim” section, being done in sign language while somebody sings it. It is an important reminder of how praising G-d is something upon all of us to do, regardless of how well we hear, and that our destiny as a people includes everybody regardless of ability.

With appreciation to Corey Gold, Tamar Fox, Roni Tabick, Rav Dani Victor, Gloria Becker, and Rabbi Michael Siegel

Appendix A: An explanation of “Tikkun Olam”


Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534­1572), also known as The Ari, was a rabbi and mystic in Safed. His teachings are referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah. He taught the following story:

Before God created the world, the entire universe was filled with a holy presence. God took a breath to draw back and make room for the world. From that first breath, darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light,” lightness was created filling vessels with holy light. God sent those vessels to the world, and if they had each arrived whole, the world would have been perfect. But the holy light was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels split open sending sparks flying everywhere. Some of God’s holy light became trapped inside the shards of the vessels.

It is our job to release and gather the sparks. When enough sparks have been gathered, tikkun olam, repair of the world will be complete. How do we gather sparks? By doing mitzvot, tzedakah and acts of gemilut hasadim (loving kindness).

According to the story in Genesis, on the first day of creation, God created light and darkness. On the fourth day of creation, God created the sun, moon, and stars.

What light did God create on the first day?

Does Rabbi Luria's story help explain this or not?

Appendix B: Chosenness

Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism

Regarding Chosenness

Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the 'Chosen People' doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) 'You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth—that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities.' The Torah tells us that we are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessing at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a 'covenant people, a light unto the nations.

Appendix C: The Censored Line

There is a line in some versions of Aleinu which says that non-Jews bow to idols who can not save them. This line is more commonly found in Sephardic versions, since it was censored in many Ashkenazic communities, though some Ashkenazi Orthodox siddurim have the line, and some communities either say it or leave space for people to say it. Here is a response to that.

Why Can't We Worship Idols? By Rabbi David Wolpe
The Hebrew Bible contains no prohibition on atheism, but is filled with prohibitions against idolatry. The Torah teaches that it is safer to worship no God than to worship the wrong one. So it is worth asking why? What exactly is the point of prohibiting idolatry?

The conventional answer is to emphasize that God has no image. Therefore it is sacrilege to fashion any kind of image and call it "God." Idolatry is an insult to the Almighty. Well, it is possible, one supposes, that we refrain from idolatry to spare God the insult. But after all, God is omnipotent and can presumably endure our insults. Jewish law presumes that all these rules are for our benefit, not for God's. What benefit is there in avoiding idolatry? In one interpretation at least it is precisely the opposite of what we might assume.

Often we hear that the ban on idolatry is to ensure that we do not worship the results of our own labor. When we fashion something of stone and call it "god," it is an oblique way of saying we are capable of creating the divine and giving ourselves far too much credit.

But what if idolatry was really about giving ourselves too little credit? Abraham Joshua Heschel had a beautiful and compelling answer to explain why we should not worship idols. Idols are forbidden, explains Heschel, because there already exists an image of God in this world: it is found in every human being. Therefore there is only one medium in which one may fashion an image of God, and that is the medium of one's life. To create an idol of wood or stone and call it "God" is less an insult to God than it is an insult to ourselves, to human dignity. And that is not permitted. The message of the Torah is to make oneself a worthy image of God, and not to seek images of God in that which we create.

As images of God we are given a sacred task. The task is to reflect that image in our lives each day. A mitzvah is a brushstroke; a well-lived life an ephemeral yet indelible work of art. An idol is the work of our hands. A divine image begins in the work of one's heart.

Appendix D: Historical References to Aleinu

With appreciation to Corey Gold

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.

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.

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.

Appendix E: Other Versions of “Shehu Noteh Shamayim”

This version, by Cantor Lori Corrain, uses the Sephardic melody for “Az Yashir”. Cantor Corrain has been the Cantor Emeritus at the Reform Temple Emanu-el in New York City since 2015.

In this version the music was composed by Cantor Bradley Hyman, a Reform cantor who has been at Temple Chaverim in Plainview, NY since 2004.

This 2016 version was done by Margalit Jakob, who made aliyah to Israel as an adult.