The Jewish obligation of tikkun olam is widely referred to and it is traditionally assumed that the Aleinu prayer is one of the texts upon which this obligation is based. This article will show that a very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu read Letakein Olam with a caf (=to establish the world under God’s sovereignty), and not with a kof (=to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty). If so, the concept of tikkun olam has no connection to the Aleinu prayer.
It is reasonable to assume that Aleinu was already included in the Amidah of Rosh ha-Shanah (=RH) by the time of Rav (early 3rd cent. C.E.).1 But no text of Aleinu is included in classical Tannaitic or Amoraic literature.
When we look to available texts of Aleinu, we find that the reading with a caf is found in the text of the RH Amidah in the Siddur of R. Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), and in the text of the RH Amidah in the Mishneh Torah of Rambam (d. 1204).2 Moreover, it is the reading in almost all of the texts of Aleinu that have been recovered from the Cairo Genizah.3 Also, the caf reading survives in Yemenite siddurim to this day.4
Admittedly, the reading in Europe since the time of the Rishonim has been with a kof. See, for example, the following texts of Aleinu:
– Machzor Vitry of R. Simchah of Vitry, ed Aryeh Goldschmidt, pp. 131 (daily shacharit) and 717 (RH).
– Siddur Hasidei Ashkenaz, ed. Moshe Hirschler, p. 125 (daily shacharit), and p. 214 (RH). This work was compiled by the students of R. Judah he-Hasid (d. 1217).
-Peirush ha-Tefillot ve-ha-Berakhot of R. Judah b. Yakar, ed. Samuel Yerushalmi, sec. 2, pp. 91-92 (RH). R. Judah flourished in Spain and died in the early thirteenth century.
-Peirushei Siddur ha-Tefillah of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms, ed. Moshe Hirschler, p. 659 (RH). R. Eleazar died around 1230.
The three main manuscripts of Seder Rav Amram Gaon also have it with a kof. But these manuscripts are not from the time of R. Amram (d. 875); they are European manuscripts from the time of the later Rishonim.
I cannot prove that the caf reading was the original reading. But this seems very likely, as it is by far the better reading in the context. We see this by looking at all the other scenarios that are longed for in this section:
Lirot meheirah be-tifereret uzekha
Le-haavir gilulim min ha-aretz
Ve-ha-elilim karot yikareton
Le-tacen olam be-malkhut …
Ve-khol bnei vasar yikreu bi-shmekha
Le-hafnot eilekha kol rishei aretz
Yakiru ve-yeidu kol yoshvei tevel ki lekha
tikhra kol berekh tishava kol lashon
Ve-likhevod shimkha yekar yitenu
Viykablu khulam et ol malkhutekha
Ve-timlokh aleihem meheirah le-olam va-ed
Ki ha-malkhut shelkha hi
U-le-olmei ad timlokh be-khavod
Beginning with le-haavir, every clause expresses a hope for either the removal of other gods or the universal acceptance of our God. With regard to the first line, lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzekha, properly understood and its mystical and elevated language decoded, it is almost certainly a request for the speedily rebuilding of the Temple. The idiom is based on verses such as Psalms 96:6 (oz ve-tiferet be-mikdasho) and 78:61 (va-yiten la-shevi uzo, ve-tifarto ve-yad tzar).5 Taken together, this whole section is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple and the establishment God’s kingdom on earth. This fits the caf reading perfectly.
That this section of Aleinu is fundmentally a prayer for the establishment of God’s kingdom makes sense given that, most likely, this section was composed as an introduction to the malkhuyyot section of the RH Amidah.6
Moreover, we can easily understand how an original caf reading might have evolved into kof. The term tikkun ha-olam, with a kof, is widespread in early rabbinic literature. It is found thirteen times in the Mishnah, and seventeen times in the Babylonian Talmud. The alternative scenario, that the original reading in Aleinu was with a kof and that this evolved in some texts into a caf is much less likely.
There is no question that social justice is an important value in Judaism. Moreover, classical rabbinical literature includes many references to the concept of tikkun ha-olam, both in the context of divorce legislation and in other contexts. The purpose of this article was only to show that it is almost certainly a mistake to read such a concept into the Aleinu prayer, a prayer most likely composed as an introduction to the malkhuyyot section of the Amidah, and focused primarily on the goal of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Even if we do not fix the text of our siddurim, we should certainly have this alternate and almost certainly original reading in mind as we recite this prayer.
The above article is an abridged version of an article originally published in Hakirah, vol. 11 (2011), and then revised at seforim.blogspot.com (Sept. 3 2013). Interested readers should consult the latter. The author is a personal injury attorney who doubles as a Jewish historian and has published many articles on Jewish history and liturgy. His book on the liturgy is forthcoming. He can be reached at [email protected]
By Mitchell First
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.