June 22, 2024
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Aleinu: Who Is Doing the ‘Le-Tacen?’

Many years ago, I wrote an important article on Aleinu. It was first published in Hakirah in 2011. I improved it thereafter and included it in my “Esther Unmasked” (2015). I explained that a very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu should read “לתכן”(to establish the world under God’s sovereignty), and not “לתקן” (to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty).

My interest in this subject began around 2009 when Yehiel Levy — sitting near me in Congregation Beth Aaron — showed me his Yemenite siddur which had the “לתכן ” reading and I realized that this reading made much more sense in the context. Yemenite traditions often preserve original readings.

In recent years, I realized that my article itself needs to be “improved” in one very important aspect. That is the purpose of this article. But first, I will summarize what I wrote previously.

Most likely, Aleinu was originally composed as part of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, as an introduction to the malchuyot verses. It was most likely authored by Rav, in the early 3rd century (See J. Talmud AZ 1:2 and Rosh Hashanah 1:3.). But no text of Aleinu is included in Tannaitic or Amoraic literature.But we do have a text of Aleinu in the Rosh Hashanah Amidah in the siddur of Rabbi Saadiah (died 942). He has “ לתכן.”

As to Rambam, in the standard printed Mishna Torah (end of Sefer Ahavah, Rosh Hashanah section) only the first 10 words of “al kein nekaveh” were included, followed by a ‘וכו. But I looked at the modern critical editions. These have the omitted words and all read “לתכן.”

(Neither Rabbi Saadiah nor Rambam recited daily Aleinu. That custom started in Europe in the time of the early Rishonim.)

I then began to research the reading in the Aleinu texts from the Cairo genizah.“ לתכן” is the reading in almost all of them. (These texts generally date to the 10th-13th centuries.)

Admittedly, the Ashkenazic texts from Europe that are from the time of the Rishonim read “לתקן.” See, for example, the machzor Vitry, from the 12th century. Also, in the three main manuscripts of Seder, Rav Amram Gaon spells it this way. But these manuscripts are not from the time of Rav Amram (died in 875); they are European manuscripts from the time of the later Rishonim.

In my previous article, I admitted that I cannot prove that “לתכן” was the original reading. But I argued that it is by far the better reading in the context. I also pointed out that it was more likely that an original “כ” reading would have evolved into “ק” than vice versa, since “tikkun olam” (with a“ק”) is a common phrase in the mishna.

But in recent years, I realized that there was something important that I erred about. When I wrote my article I had assumed —, as many of us do —, that it was the Jewish people who were doing the “le-tacen olam” activity. I made this assumption because of the widespread idea that there is a Jewish obligation of “tikkun olam” (however it is defined). I recall a friend of mine telling me that the Jewish people are failing in the obligation of “le-taken olam” imposed on them by Aleinu. I disagreed with him only in that I told him that the correct text had a “caf,” and not a “kof.” I did not disagree with his premise of where the obligation lay.

Now, I realize that the plain sense of the phrase in Aleinu is that it is God who is doing the “ לתכן”.

Let us look at the text of Aleinu (second paragraph):

“Al kein nekaveh lecha Hashem Elokeinu

Lirot meheirah be-tifereret uzecha

Le-haavir gilulim min ha-aretz

Ve-ha-elilim karot yikareitun

Le-tacen olam be-malchut Sha-dai

Ve-chol bnei vasar yikreu bi-shmecha

Le-hafnot eilecha kol rishei aretz

Yakiru ve-yeidu kol yoshvei tevel ki lecha tichra kol berech tishava kol lashon …”

That “lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzecha” phrase is almost certainly a request for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple. The idiom is based on verses such as Psalm 96:6 (“oz ve-tiferet be-mikdasho”) and 78:61 (“va-yiten la-shevi uzo, ve-tifarto ve-yad tzar”). This interpretation of “tifereret uzecha” is offered by the Abudarham. (If you have any doubt that the reference is to the rebuilding, the “meheirah” gives it away!) Taken together, this whole section is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. But who is doing the “le-haavir,” the “karot yikareitun” and the “le-tacen?? Are we the Jewish people the ones who will be removing the “gilulim” and cutting off the “elilim?” I don’t think so!

As I stated above, I think it is God who we are asking to take these actions. Here are the views of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the scholar, Gerald Blidstein, which influenced my thinking:

Rabbi Sacks: “It is God, not us, who will perfect the world. Aleinu is not a call to action, but a prayer.” From: “To Heal a Fractured World,” (2007), page 76.

Blidstein: “in the second half of Aleinu, (the reference is) to the renewal of the world as the kingdom of God. This renewal is the expressed hope of our prayer, but it is God who is expected and urged to bring it about …While the usage of “le-takken olam” is slightly ambiguous in context, I think the phrase is correctly referring to divine activity … See “Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (1997),” page 26.

I will add that in a conversation I had with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, he pointed out to me that the“ לך” in the phrase: “al kein nekaveh lecha,” also supports the idea that it is the activity of God that we are waiting for in this paragraph. (Admittedly, in the case of the Temple rebuilding, we are the ones who are doing the looking, but it is the rebuilding activity of God that we are looking for.)

In conclusion, it has taken many, many centuries, but we finally understand the activity involved in the passage: “le-tacen olam be-malchut Sha-dai.” It refers to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, and God will be the one who is doing it!

—————

P.S. Regarding the authorship of Aleinu, there is a statement found in many Rishonim that Joshua was the author of Aleinu. This statement first appears in a commentary by Rav Judah he-Hasid (died in 1217). But he does not claim to be reporting an earlier tradition. Rather, this is merely something that he stated on his own. Once he gave this opinion, it became widely quoted. But it is easily seen from the language of Aleinu that it could not date as early as the time of Joshua. For example, “Ha-kadosh Baruch Hu” was not yet an appellation for God in the biblical period. Moreover,“ עולם”did not mean “world” until the late biblical period. Finally, Aleinu cites and paraphrases verses found in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived many centuries after Joshua. Also, as stated earlier, “lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzecha” is almost certainly a request for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple.

The ArtScroll siddur claims that even earlier, Rav Hai Gaon (11th century), wrote that Aleinu was composed by Joshua. Admittedly, there is such a statement in a responsum of Rav Hai Gaon. But scholarship has shown that the relevant statement was not a part of the original responsum.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is happy to have had the opportunity to improve (!) his article on לתקן.


P.S. He has a new book: “Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy.” It is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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