Aleinu was part of the Rosh Hashanah 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. One of the interesting questions in Aleinu research is when and why it first entered the end of the daily Shacharit.
We have documentation that in 1171 the martyrs of Blois (a town in northern France) chanted Aleinu with their last breaths as they were being burned to death. Many scholars have theorized that this is what led Aleinu to penetrate the hearts of the people and be incorporated into the daily Shacharit.
But is this theory true? The earliest source that we have that records Aleinu at the end of daily Shacharit is a manuscript of Machzor Vitry that had been estimated to date to the 12th century. (Machzor Vitry is a work usually attributed to R. Simcha of Vitry, a town in northern France. R. Simcha was a student of Rashi.)
But can this manuscript be more precisely dated? After all, handwriting analysis is not that precise. Fortunately, this manuscript had some calendars attached to it. Two scholars, Sacha Stern and Justine Isserles, did a detailed study of this manuscript and published their conclusions in 2015 in the journal Aleph. Based on the calendars found in the manuscript, they were able to narrow down the date of the manuscript to between 1123/4 and 1154/5.
This enables us to disprove the theory that Aleinu entered into the daily Shacharit as a result of the events in Blois in 1171. (Of course, the events of 1171 may have contributed to the spread of the custom to recite Aleinu in Shacharit daily.)
Once we reject the Blois-origin theory, what are we left with? Most likely, 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. (See, e.g., the Encyclopaedia Judaica entry for Aleinu, last sentence, 2:559.)
Interestingly, there is an instruction given in Machzor Vitry that the daily Aleinu is to be recited silently. The reason for this instruction may be that the Jews understood that the Christians would view the prayer as an anti-Christian one. (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 my book “Esther Unmasked,” pp. 18, and 26-27 for more details.)
The scholar Israel Ta-Shema has a different theory to explain the entry of Aleinu into the daily Shacharit. But there is insufficient evidence to support his theory.
An interesting sidelight on the Machzor Vitry manuscript I just discussed is that the manuscript was formerly known as “MS. Sassoon 535,” named for the previous owner David Sassoon. Since 1975 it has been owned by a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous. Thus Stern and Isserles refer to the manuscript at “MS ex-Sassoon 535”!
Now I am going to focus on a different old siddur with Aleinu, a manuscript known as Corpus Christie College #133, preserved in a library in England.
Today, if any of us went on a trip to collect business loans and took along a siddur that had blank pages at the end, we would feel intuitively that it would not be appropriate to use these blank pages to record the business loan payments that we collected. Fortunately, a Sephardic Jew who traveled to England with a siddur at the end of the 12th century did not share this view. Now I am going to tell the story of this fascinating siddur.
Based on the method of binding of the siddur, it can be guessed that it was produced in England. Its texts reflect the nusach of northern France, which probably spread from there to England. This siddur includes Aleinu three times: once at the end of the daily Shacharit, once in the Musaf Amidah for Rosh Hashanah, and once in a different section (which I do not want to discuss now). The siddur is undated, but the individual who acquired the siddur used the blank pages at its end to record the payments he received from his money-lending business while in England. He recorded these payments in Arabic. This suggests that he was a Sephardic Jew. The Arabic was written in Hebrew characters, as was their custom.
Scholars can give a rough estimate of a 12th-century date to the siddur based on the texts of the prayers, the paleography and the method of binding. But can they be more precise?
Here is a translation of the first lines of what is written on the blank pages at the end:
The year commencing first of July…
all that I have since being here in England:
from the Bishop of Exeter one mark, twice;
also from the Bishop of Bath half a mark;
also from the Count two and a half marks, twice;
also from William Chemill?, three times four and a half marks;
from the Bishop of Winchester five marks, twice;
from Sir Walter Aud Luna half a mark, twice…
from Rau Bruyerre five paid…
A certain scholar did the research on the individuals listed and was able to estimate a date for the siddur. Not all of the individuals could be identified and dated. But regarding William Chemill?, he served as the arch-deacon of Richmond and in other positions, and is known to have died in 1202. Since the payment seems to have been taken from him while he was alive, this siddur must have been composed in 1202 or earlier.
For anyone interested in the detective work on medieval England that was done here, see M. Beit-Ari?, “The Only Dated Medieval Hebrew Manuscript Written in England” (1189 CE), Appendix 2. (The title of this book is not describing manuscript Corpus Christie College #133, but a different manuscript. This has misled many into believing that the undated Corpus Christie College manuscript was dated to 1189 CE!)
I mentioned at the outset that we have early evidence for Aleinu in daily Shacharit in France, England and Germany. The evidence from France is Ms. ex-Sasson 535 that I discussed above, from the second quarter of the 12th century. The recital of Aleinu at the end of daily Shacharit in England (evidenced by Ms. Corpus Christie College #133) was almost certainly an outgrowth of its recital in France. Its recital in Germany may simply have been an outgrowth of its recital in neighboring France, or its recital may have developed independently in Germany for other reasons. (It is too hard to discuss this issue here.) The earliest source for Aleinu in daily Shacharit in Germany is Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz, a work that reflects the order of prayers of R. Judah he-Chasid (d. 1217).
Up until now I have been addressing Aleinu’s recital at the end of the daily Shacharit in Europe. But what was going on in Palestine and its surrounding areas? One of the most interesting finds from the Cairo Genizah is 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 which begins and ends with blessings that focus on the theme of “shevach.”
Finally, regarding the entry of Aleinu into daily Minchah and Maariv in Europe, these are later developments.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He tries not to write notes on the meanings of words in the blank pages at the end of his siddurim. But you never know what might happen centuries later if he would!
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.