Most likely, Aleinu was composed as a Rosh Hashanah prayer, as the introduction to the Malchuyot verses of the Amidah. It leads perfectly into these verses, as it ends: “ol malchutecha vetimloch aleihem … ki hamalchut shelcha hi uleolmei ad timloch bechavod.”
Most likely, Aleinu was composed by Rav in the third century. See Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 1:3, which refers to the “tekiata” authored by Rav and then cites from the introduction to Zichronot. “Tekiata” is a broad term and probably refers to all the introductions. (Of course, my conclusion about the authorship of Aleinu is based on the assumption that our introduction to Malchuyot is the same as the one at the time of Rav. From the portion of the introduction to Zichronot quoted, their introduction to Zichronot seems to have been the same as ours.)
(The Hebrew of Aleinu is the Hebrew of the Tannaitic-Amoraic period, and not the Hebrew of the Biblical period. E.g., “Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”)
When and why did this Rosh Hashanah prayer enter into the daily liturgy? I am going to discuss its entry into the end of the daily Shacharit in this column. (Its entry into daily Maariv and daily Minchah—which occurred in that order—are a later phenomena.)
Aleinu made its way to the end of the daily Shacharit in France, England and Germany in the 12th and early 13th centuries. As with regards to England, our evidence for its recital there dates to the end of the 12th century. It is reasonable to view this as an outgrowth of its earlier recital in France. But why did it enter the daily Shacharit in France, in the mid-12th century, and in nearby Germany a bit later?
- Entry Into France
We have documentation that in 1171, the martyrs of Blois (a town in northern France) chanted “Aleinu,” as they were burned to death. (The story here involves around 30 men, women and children being killed due to a blood libel.) 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 we can now refute this theory. The earliest source that we have that records “Aleinu” at the end of daily Shacharit in France, is the earliest manuscript of Machzor Vitry. It has now been dated, based on the remnants of calendars attached to it, to between 1123/4 and 1154/55. (Machzor Vitry is a work authored in the town of Vitry, in northern France, by a student of Rashi.)
Once we reject the Blois-origin theory, what other explanations have been suggested? The above early manuscript does not state the reason for the recital of daily Aleinu. (Some of the later manuscripts of Machzor Vitry add that Aleinu should be recited silently, but this is not in this manuscript.) The scholar, Israel Moses Ta-Shema, makes the following suggestion in his “HaTefillah HaAshkenazit HaKedumah” (2003). In the 11th century, a Rabbi Elijah of Le Mans (a 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. Ta-Shema theorizes that Aleinu first entered the daily prayer service by way of this special service, and from here, made its way into the regular daily Shacharit. This scenario does seem to be true for some other prayers.
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.
The more likely explanation is that Aleinu was introduced into the daily Shacharit as a prayer meant to express a rejection of Christianity. The first paragraph has the phrase, “… shelo asanu kegoyei haaratzot … shehem mishtachavim lehevel varik umitpallelim el eil lo yoshia.” Also the second paragraph has, “ … lehaavir gilulim min haaretz, vehaelilim karot yikaretun … “ Probably, its introduction into the daily Shacharit in France came as a response to the Crusades of 1096, in Germany, or due to the general feeling of downtroddenness that the Jews of France had, while living as second-class citizens in a Christian land. See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:559, last sentence, and the article by Ruth Langer in Deborah Blank, ed., “The Experience of Jewish Liturgy,” (2011).
We have much documentation starting from the late 12th century and continuing for centuries that Aleinu was viewed by Jewish communities in Christian Europe as an anti-Christian prayer. See Naftali Wieder, “Hitgabshut Nusach HaTefillah,” pages 453-68 and the Langer article. But, admittedly, we do not have such evidence as early as 1123-1155.
One interesting text we have is a siddur from the late 12th century produced in England which has explicit anti-Jesus and anti-Christian language added in the first paragraph of Aleinu. See Langer, page 150 and Ta-Shema, page 147. Perhaps, this added language came from France.
There is a third view as to the origin of Aleinu in daily Shacharit. This view focuses on the positive approach to the nations expressed in the last few lines of Aleinu: “ … vechol bnei vasar yikreu vishmecha … ” In this view, it was thought appropriate to end the daily Shacharit with a prayer that envisions the end of days, when all the world will be united in divine worship.
But the negative attitude towards the nations takes up more of the language of Aleinu than does the positive attitude. The negative attitude is found in both the first paragraph and the beginning of the second paragraph. But it is of interest that even if the primary intent of the daily recital was anti-Christian, the positive language at the end was still retained.
- Entry Into Germany
The earliest source for the recital of daily Aleinu in Germany is a siddur put together by the students of Rabbi Yehudah Hachasid (died 1217): Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz (1972). This siddur reflects the prayer service of this sage and the comments in the siddur were, probably, mostly authored by him.
This work records a reason for the recital of Aleinu in daily Shacharit, stating that it is due to the fact that it includes both “azkarat Hashem” and “yichud Hashem.” The meaning of the first phrase is unclear. (It probably means that Aleinu includes some gematria or letter pattern that alludes to a name of God.) The reference to “yichud Hashem” almost certainly refers to Aleinu’s inclusion of the phrases, “ein od (two times)” and “efes zulato.”
We understand the importance of the concept of “yichud Hashem” to chasidei Ashkenaz. This is the community that produced the Shir Hayichud, intended to be recited daily. This poem was authored by Rabbi Yehudah, or his father or someone close to them. We can understand how this community could view “Aleinu” as fitting with their philosophy.
Nevertheless, we should be skeptical. Germany is next to France and, most likely, the recital of Aleinu—in daily Shacharit—in Germany was simply an outgrowth of its recital in daily Shacharit in France. The explanation found in Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz was, probably, a later rationalization of the custom and an attempt to strengthen it, by fitting it within the philosophy of Chasidei Ashkenaz.
Rav—writing in the third century CE—was probably not addressing Christianity. He lived in Eretz Yisrael and then moved to Babylonia. Although there were Christians in both of these places, Christianity was still in its infancy. Perhaps Rav was making comments about the idol worshippers of his time. Note also that the phrase, “umitpallelim el eil lo yoshia” is from Isaiah 45:20.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. (P.S. Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz mentions the gematria: וריק equals ישו. Many gematrias originated in this community and, perhaps, this one did as well.)