Aleinu: A Rosh Hashanah Prayer That Migrated Into the Daily Service
by Mitchell First (originally published in Jewish Link, September 10, 2015; available here)
Every Rosh Hashanah, many are puzzled by the flow of the Musaf Shemoneh Esrei, when Aleinusuddenly 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 Shemoneh Esrei on Rosh Hashanah?
It turns out that the question we should be asking is the reverse. Aleinu was part of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Shemoneh Esrei 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 the daily Shacharit is a manuscript ofMachzor 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) chantedAleinu 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 (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. 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 Encyclopaedia Judaica 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 futility that the Jews of France felt while living as second-class citizens in a Christian land.
Interestingly, there is an instruction given 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. (But it can also be argued that the instruction merely reflects that the prayer was viewed as a new, non-mandatory prayer at this time.)
We have clear documentation starting from the end of the 12th century and continuing for centuries thatAleinu was viewed by Jewish communities in Christian Europe as an anti-Christian prayer. See, e.g., I. 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 thatAleinu was composed by Rav, early 3rd century C.E. See my book Esther Unmasked, pp. 18, and 26-27. If we work with this assumption, we can remark that 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.)
Some scholars have focused on the positive approach to the nations expressed in the last few lines ofAleinu (beginning with ve-chol bnei vasar yikreu vi-shmecha…) These scholars argue that it was thought appropriate to end the daily Shacharit with a prayer which 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. Also, the true reason for the recital of a prayer is usually found towards its beginning, rather than towards its end. (This principle applies to the recital of haftarot as well!) As mentioned earlier, 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.
Outside of France, we have documentation of Aleinu in 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 its recital may have developed independently in Germany for other reasons. (Due to space limitation, I cannot discuss that issue here.) The earliest sources for Aleinu in daily Shacharit in Germany are: 1)Siddur Chasidei Ashkenaz, a work which reflects the order of prayers of R. Judah he-Chasid (d. 1217) and 2) Sefer Ha-Rokeach of R. Eleazar b. Judah of Worms (d. 1230).
So far we have addressed the recital of Aleinu at the end of daily Shacharit. Soon thereafter, Aleinubegan to migrate to the end of the daily Maariv. The earliest source we have for this practice is the Sefer Minhagot of R. Moses b. R. Samuel, a work written sometime after 1204 and describing the customs of Marseilles, France. We also know that R. Meir of Rothenberg (d. 1293) had the practice of reciting Aleinu at Maariv. See Kol Bo, sec. 11. It has been suggested that Aleinu began to be recited at Maariv because, with its line of Hu Elokeinu, ein od, it was viewed as a prayer parallel to Shema. See, e.g., the statement of the Tzeror ha-Chayyim, cited in Ta-Shema, pp. 140-41. But it is possible that the original scenario was as follows. After Aleinu began to appear at the end of Shacharit, it came to be viewed as a closing prayer. It was then felt that Maariv needed a closing prayer, and Aleinu was chosen. The view of Shema and Aleinu as parallel prayers developed thereafter.
Eventually, the recital of Aleinu began to spread to Minchah. A responsum of the Radbaz (Egypt, 1479-1573) records that a questioner asked him whether it was appropriate to recite Aleinu at Minchah. The questioner reported that some were not reciting it at Minchah, since there is no recital of Shema at Minchah. The Radbaz’s answer was that precisely because there was no recital of Shema at Minchah,Aleinu needed to be recited there! Based on this rationale, Aleinu came to be accepted as a prayer to be recited in all three services, and the once widely accepted connection between Aleinu and Shemahas now been largely forgotten.
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? One of the most interesting finds from the Cairo Genizah is a Palestinian siddur which includes Aleinu in the middle of the daily pesukei de-zimra. See Esther Unmasked, p. 21. (Genizah texts generally date from the 10th-13th centuries.) Almost certainly, Aleinu was introduced into their daily pesukei de-zimra because a prayer that begins with the theme of shevach (Aleinu le-shabeach) was thought of as appropriate for pesukei de-zimra, a section whose purpose is one of shevach and which begins and ends with blessings which focus on the theme of shevach.
There is perhaps earlier evidence for the entry of Aleinu into the daily service in Palestine. Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer includes a statement that Aleinu had to be recited while standing. Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer is a work from 8th-century Palestine. There would have been no reason for an instruction thatAleinu in the midst of the silent Amidah on Rosh Hashanah would have to be recited standing. Moreover, the language of the passage does not seem to be giving an instruction to the congregation on what to do during the repetition. Therefore, it is reasonable to deduce that Aleinu was recited in some context outside of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah at the time of Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer. It is possible that what we have in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer is an earlier reference to the practice of including Aleinu in pesukei de-zimra.
As I wrote in The Jewish Link last year, a very strong case can be made that the original version ofAleinu spelled le-tacen olam with a caf, meaning: to establish the world under God’s sovereignty. Thekof 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 Esther Unmasked, pp. 17-29. Nevertheless, the end result of this process is fitting. As Aleinu evolved from being a Rosh Hashanah prayer to a daily prayer, we no longer think about establishing the world under God’s sovereignty but have shifted our focus to our daily task of perfecting and improving the world under God’s sovereignty.
Final Note: Throughout my discussion above, I have been assuming that Aleinu was originally composed as a Rosh Hashanah prayer (as an introduction to the malchuyyot verses). Although I and many others take this approach, there are others who believe that Aleinu was originally composed in another context and then borrowed into the Rosh Hashanah Amidah. I discuss these two different approaches in Esther Unmasked, pp. 24-25.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently-published book: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at Amazon.com. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is the author of Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy