Alienu - the history of a prayer

    June 2009            
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google
aleinu prayer


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society


Aleinu: Its Storied Past and Sacred Melodies

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

Jewish liturgy is a portal to the past. Beyond its immediate function in worship, a prayer can tell us much about the history of Jewish thought and culture. The liturgical texts that comprise our services are not only spiritually efficacious, but also historically valuable. This is certainly true of the Aleinu ("It is our duty"), which extols God's unity and sovereignty.

Aleinu was first introduced into the Malkhuyyot ("Kingships") section of the Rosh Hashanah additional service (musaf) liturgy. This original placement is certainly fitting, as Aleinu calls for a time when all people will accept God as their King. By the twelfth century, the text found its way into the daily morning service as a concluding prayer, and was later added to the end of the afternoon and evening services. In this concluding role, Aleinu reaffirms that God is the sole and supreme ruler of the universe—a crucial declaration according to Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen (1838-1933): "Lest people should think that we worship the moon when we joyously go out to great it, we recite this prayer, which closes with ayn od, saying that the Lord alone is God and none beside Him."

Aleinu has been ascribed to several authors. There is a popular tradition that Joshua wrote the prayer when he conquered Jericho. Others attribute the prayer to the Rav (Abba Arika), a third-century leader of the Jewish academy in Babylonia. Yet another tradition places Aleinu in the Second Temple Period (516 BCE - 70 CE), with the Men of the Great Assembly. This early date is supported by the prayer's reference to the Temple practice of prostration: "…we bend our knees, bow, and acknowledge our thanks before the King of kings…"

The prayer became the subject of controversy during the Middle Ages. In 1400 a baptized Jew spread a rumor that the passage "for they bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who does not save" was an attack on Christianity. In support of this view, he noted that the numerical equivalent of the word "emptiness" (varik) is the same as "Yeshua," the Hebrew name for Jesus. And because varik is also related to the word rok, meaning "spittle," it was customary for Jews to spit during this phrase—a practice anti-Jewish author Johann Andreas Eisenmenger (1655-1704) interpreted as a further insult to Christianity.

In France and Germany, censors insisted that this passage be deleted. In 1703 the Prussian government in Berlin even appointed special commissioners to make sure that the Hazzan did not sing these words. Many rabbis tried to prove these accusations wrong, arguing that the passage is based on a pre-Christian text, Isaiah 45:20, and that if Rav was the author, it was scribed in a non-Christian land. But the censors renewed their attacks in 1716 and 1750, and the passage was eventually expunged from most Ashkenazi prayer books.

Because of its theme of God's eternal kingship, Aleinu also came to be associated with Jewish martyrdom. Most notably, the prayer was chanted during the 1171 massacre in Blois, France. Jews of the town were accused of murdering a Christian child during Passover. This was the first time that the accusation of ritual murder, known as the "blood libel," was made in continental Europe, and as a result some thirty Jews were burned at the stake. There are three reports extant that describe the victims intoning Aleinu as they died amid the flames. One is an eyewitness account sent to Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, which reads in part: "When the flames blazed and licked the bodies of the victims, they raised their voices in a unison melody; at first it was a low chant and afterwards a high-sounding melody. The people [Gentiles] came and said: 'Which of your songs is this? For we have never heard such a melody from you before.' Yet we knew it very well, for it was the chant of the Aleinu." Another report adds that the Gentiles "henceforth used the chant in their church," and musicologist Eric Werner did in fact locate the melody in the Sanctus of the Ninth Mass of the Virgin.

The melody these martyrs sang was from the Malkhuyyot portion of the High Holy Day liturgy. It is a Mi-Sinai tune: a cherished melody developed in the Rhineland between the 12th and 15th centuries. As the name suggests, these songs are held in such esteem that they are traditionally believed to have originated with Moses on Sinai. They include the High Holy Day Barchu and Kiddush, the Kol Nidre, and many others melodies specific to the Festivals and High Holy Days. Eastern European Jews gave these tunes the elevated status of skarbova, meaning "antique" or "old." More specifically, the word refers the music's "official" status, indicating that, from the time of their genesis to the present, they are considered obligatory in the synagogue; no other melodies may be substituted for them.

A similarly honored melody for Aleinu permeates all other services. It is a creation of Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), the Austrian cantor-composer known as the "father of the modern cantorate." Like the High Holy Day tune, this melody has become "traditional" in the truest sense of the term: it is long established, regularly chanted, and universally known. Many of Sulzer's pieces remain synagogue standards, including the familiar tunes for Shema, Hodo Al Aretz, and Ki Mitziyon. And it is interesting to note that virtually all of Sulzer's music in popular use is in three-quarter time, reflecting his affinity for the waltzes of his native Vienna.

Aleinu is a prayer rich in both religious and historical significance. It captures succinctly the theological assertions of God's kingship and the chosen status of His people. Its origins, controversial language, use as a martyr's prayer, and musical settings reveal a storied and sometimes tragic past. But the fact that Aleinu is still sung thrice daily is evidence of its lasting relevance and spiritual value. Like the Jews themselves, it refuses to perish.


Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the editor of four books: Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008); The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009); Music in Jewish Thought (McFarland, 2009); and Perspectives on Jewish Music (Lexington, 2009).


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (