By: Kaufmann Kohler
The last prayer of the daily liturgy in most congregations, so called from its initial word, "'Alenu," which means "It is incumbent upon us,"or "It is our duty." It is one of the most sublime prayers of the entire liturgy, and has a remarkable history, almost typical of the race from which it emanated. It became the cause of slanderous accusation and persecution, as a result of which it was in part mutilated through fear of the official censors. But having been thus mutilated, it is difficult to present it in its original form. To restore it and render it at least intelligible, recourse must be had to old books and documents. The following is a literal translation from the original so far as it can be restored:
"It is incumbent upon us to give praise to the Lord of the Universe, to glorify Him who formed creation, for He hath not made us to be like the nations of the lands, nor hath He made us like the families of the earth; He hath not set our portion with theirs, nor our lot with their multitude; . . . for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help. . . . But we bend the knee and prostrate ourselves and bow down before the King of the Kings of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He! For it is He who stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and the seat of His glory is in the heavens above, and His mighty dwelling-place (Shekinah) is in the loftiest heights. 'He is our God, and there is none other.' In truth, He is our King, there is none besides Him, as it is written in His Torah: 'And thou shalt know this day and lay it to thine heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath: and there is none other.'
"Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: 'The Lord shall reign forever and aye.' And it is also said: 'And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'"
Evidently this prayer was originally recited with the prostration of the whole assembled congregation before their departure from the house of God, or after the benediction given by the priests. In such solemn language (drawn from Jer. x. 6-16; Isa. xxx, 7, xlv. 23, li. 13; Deut. iv. 39) the congregation gives expression to its faith in the One Universal Ruler of the World, and to its hope for His universal kingdom when all the idolatrous nations around Israel shall have been converted to His truth. The omission of a personal Messiah from the expression, of the Messianic hope points to a pre-Christian era; and the very title, "King of the Kings of Kings"—found in Dan. ii. 37—shows that the formula used at the prostration goes back to Persian times when kings bore the title of King of Kings.Additions to 'Alenu.
The 'Alenu prayer had already been in use when there were attached to it the three portions of the liturgy of the New-year: (1) the Malkiyot (the Glorifications of God as King); (2) the Zikronot (the Divine Remembrances); and (3)the Shofarot (the Trumpet-blasts): these were probably originally prayers of the Ḥasidim (WatiḲim), recited on public fast-days (see Ta'anit, ii. 3, and R. H. iv. 5, 6). Zunz and his followers—who ascribe the prayer to Rab, simply because in his school the Jewish liturgy received its permanent form—disregarded the fact that it stands in no organic connection with the rest of the New-year's prayer. An old tradition, referred to by Simon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran in his responsa on Prayer 253; by Eleazar of Worms, in his "RoḲeaḥ"; and afterward in Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen of Lunel's "Orḥlot Ḥayyim," in "Kol Bo," i. 17, claims that it was written by Joshua upon his entrance into Canaan. Manasseh b. Israel, in his "Vindiciæ Judæorum," iv. 2, ascribes the 'Alenu to the men of the Great Synagogue. Moses Mendelssohn also, in his memorandum (see below), declares the 'Alenu to be one of the oldest prayers of the nation, adducing as proof of its ancient and pre-Christian character the fact that no mention is made in it of the restoration of the Jewish Temple and state, which would scarcely have been omitted had it been composed after their destruction. It was obviously written, he says, at the time when the Jews still lived in their own land. The fact that neither Maimonides nor Abudarham mentions its separate recital at the close of the daily prayers, as does the Maḥzor Vitry, merely proves that it was not generally recited as part of the service. On the other hand, it is indisputable that during the Middle Ages it was invested with especial solemnity and awe.Its Use by Martyrs.
The following is related by Joseph ha-Kohen in his "'EmeḲ ha-Baka" (ed. Wiener, p. 31), based upon contemporary records: During the persecution of the Jews of Blois, France, in 1171, when many masters of the Law died as martyrs at the stake, an eye-witness wrote to R. Jacob of Orleans that the death of the saints was accompanied by a weird song resounding through the stillness of the night, causing the Christians who heard it from afar to wonder at the melodious strains, the like of which they had never heard before. It was ascertained afterward that the martyred saints had made use of the 'Alenu as their dying song. It is quite probable, then, that it became the custom in those tragic days for the martyrs to chant the 'Alenu song in order to moderate the agonies of their death.Calumnies Directed Against It.
But this very fact seems to have given a welcome pretext to maligning persecutors, who claimed that the 'Alenu was a malicious attack upon the Church, whose Savior was characterized therein as "a god who can not help" and as "vanity and folly." In 1399, Pesach Peter, a baptized Jew, went so far as to assert that in the word ("and folly"), () Jesus was alluded to, because the Hebrew letters of both words are equal in numerical value, amounting to 316. Antonius Margarita, in 1530, was the next to repeat this charge, in a book entitled "The Belief of the Jews." Seventy years later Samuel Friedrich Brenz, a converted Jew, repeated it in a book to which he gave the characteristic title "Jüdischer Abgestreifter Schlangenbalg" (The Jewish Serpent Slough). In vain did the leading rabbis, Solomon Ẓebi Uffenhausen in his "TheriaḲ" and Lippman Mühlhausen in his "Niẓẓaḥon," protest against such misinterpretation of their ancient prayer, composed long before Jesus was born, and having solely idolaters in view. Even the learned Buxtorf in his "Bibliotheca Rabbinica" repeated the charge; but he was successfully refuted by Manasseh b. Israel, who devotes a whole chapter of his "Vindiciæ Judæorum" to the 'Alenu; and relates among other things that Sultan Selim, on reading the 'Alenu in the Turkish translation of the Jewish liturgy presented to him by his physician Moses Amon, said: "Truly, this prayer is sufficient for all purposes; there is no need of any other." But the acme of misrepresentation was reached by Eisenmenger ("Entdecktes Judenthum," i. 84), who pointed out that the words, "they bow to a god who does not help," were accompanied by spitting as a sign of utter contempt, and he asserted that reference was thereby intended to Jesus. In consequence of this charge, the indecorous practise of spitting while reciting the prayer was denounced by Isaiah Horwitz and other rabbis. Butthe charge was renewed again by Professor Kypke, government inspector of the Königsberg Synagogue, in a memorandum presented to the government in 1777, on the occasion of a memorial service held by the Königsberg Jews in honor of the Russian empress. This was refuted by Mendelssohn in a counter-memorandum presented to the government, the result of which was that, despite Kypke's protest, the matter was laid ad acta. Both documents were afterward published from the archives by L. E. Borowsky, pastor of Königsberg, in 1791 (see Mendelssohn, "Gesammte Schriften," vi. 418; Jost, "Gesch. der Israeliten," ix. 38).Coincidence in the Early Christian Church.
Singularly enough, in the early Christian Church, converts before being baptized had to step forward at the end of divine service, and make public confession by first turning backward, renouncing the kingdom of Satan and spitting out as a sign of contempt; then turning forward in the name of the Creator of the world and of man, they took the oath of allegiance to Jesus as the Son of God (see Höfling, "Taufe," i. 381; Cyril, "De Mysteriis," i. 2). Possibly the prayer for the conversion of all heathen nations, contained in the latter portion of the 'Alenu, has some connection with the practise adopted by the Church of admitting proselytes at the end of the service.
- Zunz, G. V. p. 399;
- Literaturblatt des Orients, 1846, pp. 50-76;
- Brück, Rabbinische Ceremonialbräuche, pp. 55-58;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. supplement, ii. 6;
- Grätz, Gesch. d. Juden, viii. 76, x. 303, 310;
- Mendelssohn, Gesammte Schriften, vi. 418;
- Jost, Gesch. der Israeliten, ix. 38;
- I. H. Weiss, in Koback's Jeshurun (Hebrew), 1864, pp. 168-171.