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Our Solemn Obligation – Aleinu Pt. 1

Amongst the best-known Jewish prayers is Aleinu, whose title means “it is incumbent upon us.” We recite this declaration at the end of all of our synagogue services. Many of us remember singing it as a sort of reminder (celebration?) that services were drawing to a close. It’s a little sad that more people can sing it than explain it. So, in my totally non-musical way, let’s get to know this prayer. 

There is a famous tradition, dating to the Middle Ages, that this prayer was written by Yehoshua bin Nun either when he crossed the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael or when he conquered Yericho. Most probably, it was composed by Talmudic Sages, perhaps Rav, in the early centuries of the Common Era. Rav Ezra Bick explains that, even though not historically accurate, the idea that Jehoshua recited it is ‘indicative of how the prayer should be understood’, because one recites it ‘when one leaves the secluded confines of the synagogue and goes out into the world, in which he will encounter idolatry and impurity, he should impress on his soul the true worship of God and recommit himself to the service of God.’ Rav Bick concludes, ‘It is the introduction to the world outside of prayer and not the conclusion of the world of prayer.’    

The original liturgical appearance of this prayer came in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf as an introduction to the section about the Kingship of God (MALCHIYOT). But sometime in the eleventh century, it began its role as the last prayer recited before encountering the theological dangers of the greater world beyond the synagogue walls.  

So, after we declare that we have a solemn obligation to ‘praise the Master of all, and to ascribe greatness to the Shaper of Creation’ we then make an effort to differentiate between us and everyone else who lack our connection to God. This effort to characterize the dissimilarity between us and ‘them’ notes four areas of distinction. 

The first two are, ‘We are not like the nations (GOYIM) of the lands and God has not emplaced us like the families (MISHPACHOT) of the earth.’ Nations, here, are relatively loose conglomerations of people who share certain general factors in common, especially geography. ‘Families’ refer to closer groups of people who share tight connections like genes and shared history. These are two types of physical factors. 

The second two are that our ‘portions’ (CHELKEINU) and ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’(GORALEINU) aren’t the same. These two shared factors are more philosophical and conceptual. We are discussing issues which can be described as cultural and, perhaps, even spiritual.  

The upshot of these differences, both physical and philosophic, lead to a major dichotomy in religious practice: They bow to vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save. In other words, because of these differences in their makeup and background they never found the Real God, and express the human need for spiritual outlet by worshipping phony deities. 

This line in the Aleinu prayer has been very contentious over the centuries. The Christians believed that the reference to ‘empty’ deities was an insult to their object of worship namely that Jew born in Beit Lechem a couple of millennia ago. We often call this gentleman YESHU, while the word for ‘empty’ is V’REK. They share the same numerical value or Gematria of 316. QED we must be referring to him. However, in reality this quote comes from a verse in Yeshayahu, 45:20.   

Anyway, many European Jews with Christian control over their lives and printing presses deleted this line. It remained in Sephardic versions, and has been, generally, returned to its proper place here in Medinat Yisrael. 

In contradistinction to bowing to meaningless, false gods, we Jews bend our knees in acknowledgment to the King, who rules over kings of kings. This triple expression for God’s monarchy reflects the fact that Persian and Babylonian kings called themselves king of kings. So, we added another level of God ruling them.  

  This first paragraph of Aleinu ends with two parallel statements of God’s unique character in the world. The first begins by describing God as the One Who stretches (spreads or expands) the extent of the heavens above and establishes the earth’s foundations below. It continues by describing God as the One Who sets the earth’s foundation below. This God of Heaven above and earth below, the Power behind all of the physical universe is our God.  

We conclude this description of our God of the entire Cosmos by stating EIN OD, ‘there is no other.’ God is unique in Creation. 

This very same God is ‘truly our God, and there is no other besides the One.’ This idea is written in the Torah: Know, recognize, understand therefore this day and turn your mind and heart to it that the Lord is God in the heavens above and upon the earth beneath; there is no other (Devarim 4:39).   Powerfully, we repeat those two monosyllabic words EIN OD! 

Just as we described our unique status earlier in the paragraph as a duality; we are uniquely different both physically and philosophically. So, too, God’s singular Being is unique both in Heaven above and upon the earth below. Just like there is no plethora of gods; there is no duality of Divine beings, one ruling here and another in some celestial sphere.  

So, we have described the first paragraph of the Aleinu prayer as a paean to both the unique character of God and of the Jewish people, the Divine servants. Next week we will turn our attention to the final paragraph of Aleinu in which we turn from a seemingly ethnocentric theme to a truly universal motif.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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