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Aleinu: A Rosh Hashanah Prayer That Migrated Into the Daily Service

Every Rosh Hashanah (RH), many are puzzled by the flow of the Musaf Amidah, when Aleinu suddenly appears. After all, Aleinu is a prayer recited all year long at the conclusion of the daily services. Why does it suddenly appear in the middle of the Amidah on RH?

It turns out that the question we should be asking is the reverse. Aleinu was part of the RH Musaf Amidah for centuries before it began making its way into the end of the daily Shacharit service in France, England and Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The earliest source we have that records Aleinu at the end of daily Shacharit is a manuscript of Machzor Vitry. This is a work usually attributed to R. Simcha of Vitry (a town in northern France). The most recent scholarship dates this manuscript to the second quarter of the 12th century.

We have documentation that in 1171 the martyrs of Blois (another town in northern France) chanted Aleinu with their last breaths as they were being burned to death. Many scholars had theorized that this is what led Aleinu to penetrate the hearts of the people and be incorporated into the daily Shacharit. But now that we can document that Aleinu was already being recited in Shacharit several decades earlier than this, this theory is disproven. (Of course, the events of 1171 may have contributed to the spread of the custom to recite daily Aleinu.)

In recent years, a novel theory was proposed by the scholar Israel Ta-Shema. In the 11th century, a R. Elijah of Le Mans (another town in northern France) established a special prayer service for his select circle, modeled after the maamadot of Mishnaic times. This special prayer service was conducted after the daily Shacharit. Aleinu is included in this special service in a siddur from the end of the 12th century. Based on this, Ta-Shema theorized that Aleinu first entered the daily prayer service by way of the special service, and from here made its way into the regular daily Shacharit. But the siddur that Ta-Shema cites for the proposition that Aleinu was included in this special service is only from the end of the 12th century. One can just as easily argue that Aleinu made its way into the special service from the daily Shacharit service.

In my view and in the view of many scholars (see, e.g., the EJ entry for Aleinu, last sentence, 2:559), Aleinu was introduced into the daily Shacharit as a prayer meant to express a rejection of Christianity. Its introduction probably came as a response to the Crusades of 1096 or due to the general feeling of downtroddenness that the Jews of France felt while living as second-class citizens in a Christian land.

Interestingly, there is an instruction in Machzor Vitry that the daily Aleinu is to be recited be-lachash (silently). The reason for this instruction may be that the Jews understood that the Christians would view the prayer as an anti-Christian one.

We have clear documentation starting from the end of the 12th century and continuing for centuries that Aleinu was viewed by Jewish communities in Christian Europe as an anti-Christian prayer. See, e.g., Ta-Shema, Ha-Tefillah Ha-Ashkenazit Ha-Kedumah, p. 147, n. 20. But this was probably already the case in the second quarter of the 12th century as well. If one looks at the text of Aleinu it has the following passages: she-lo asanu ke-goyey ha-aratzot…she-hem mishtachavim le-hevel va-rik…le-haavir gilulim min ha-aretz, ve-ha-elilim karot yikaretun… Jews reciting these passages in northern France in the second quarter of the 12th century would likely have recited these passages with a rejection of Christianity in mind.

(Whether Aleinu was originally composed as an anti-Christian prayer is a separate issue, and depends on when and where Aleinu was composed. Certain statements in the Jerusalem Talmud imply that Aleinu was composed by Rav, early third century C.E. See J. Talmud Av. Zar. 1:2 and RH 1:3 and my “Esther Unmasked,” pp. 18, and 26-27. Although Rav gained prominence in Babylonia, he had been a student of R. Judah ha-Nasi in Israel, where Christianity was practiced. Also, Christianity was not entirely absent from Babylonia.)

Outside of France, we have documentation of Aleinu in the daily Shacharit from Germany and England from a slightly later period. The recital of Aleinu in England is almost certainly an outgrowth of its recital in France. Its recital in Germany may simply be an outgrowth of its recital in neighboring France, or may have developed independently in Germany for other reasons. The earliest sources for Aleinu in daily Shacharit in Germany are: 1) Siddur Hasidei Ashkenaz, a work that reflects the order of prayers of R. Judah he-Hasid (d. 1217) and 2) Sefer Ha-Rokeach of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms (d. 1230).

Aleinu at the daily Maariv and Minchah prayers are later developments. (The former preceded the latter.) Most likely, Aleinu began to be recited at Maariv because it was viewed as a prayer parallel to Shema. See, e.g., its language: hu Elokeinu, ein od. The idea of this parallel has long been forgotten, as Aleinu came to be recited three times per day.

Up until now I have been addressing Aleinu’s recital at the end of the daily services in Europe. But what was going on in Palestine and its surrounding areas? In the Cairo Genizah there was found a Palestinian siddur that includes Aleinu in the middle of the daily pesukei d’zimra. (Genizah texts generally date from the 10th to 13th centuries.) Almost certainly, Aleinu was introduced into their daily pesukei d’zimra because a prayer that begins with the theme of shevach (Aleinu le-shabe’ach) was thought of as appropriate for pesukei d’zimra, a section whose purpose is one of shevach and that begins and ends with blessings that focus on the theme of shevach.

A very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu spelled le-tacen olam with a caf, meaning: to establish the world under God’s sovereignty. The kof spelling, to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty, seems to be a later erroneous spelling that arose in Europe in the time of the Rishonim. See my “Esther Unmasked,” pp. 17-29. Nevertheless, the end result of this process is fitting. As Aleinu evolved from being a RH prayer to a daily prayer, we no longer think about establishing the world under God’s sovereignty but have shifted focus to our daily task of perfecting and improving the world under God’s sovereignty.

Throughout my discussion above, I have been assuming that Aleinu was originally composed as a RH prayer (as an introduction to the malchuyot verses). Although many take this approach, there is another (less-likely) view that Aleinu was originally composed in another context and then borrowed into the RH Amidah.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He wishes all his readers a shana tova u’metuka!

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