Friday, August 28, 2009

A Controversial Prayer

The final prayer recited at all three daily prayer services is Aleinu, a beautiful poem expressing the greatness of God, the only God. The prayer begins with the phrase: “Aleinu l'shabay’ach la’don hakol... It is our duty to praise the Master of all...” And while this seems like a common prayer theme, Aleinu was the cause of great controversy.

There are two opinions regarding the origin of Aleinu. Many sages are of the opinion that Aleinu was composed by Joshua after his victory over Jericho. Others, however, believe that it was written by Rav (a Talmudic sage).

The trouble began around the fifth century (C.E.) When an apostate Jew told the church that within Aleinu there are words that slander Christianity. The verse in question was: "Sheh’haym mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik, u’mitpall’lim el ayl lo yo’she'ah. For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who helps not." The verse is actually a reflection of ideas found in Isaiah regarding idolatry, written hundreds of years before Christianity. However, the church was led to believe that va’rik (and emptiness) referred to Jesus, because both words have the same numeric value (when adding the value of the Hebrew letters together) of 316.

This claim was repeated over and over again throughout the centuries until, finally, in the early 1700s, Prussian Jews were physically attacked for reciting Aleinu. On August 28, 1703, the Prussian government banned the recitation of this verse and insisted that the prayer be recited by the prayer leader out loud so that government inspectors could make certain that the offending line was omitted.

The line, however, was never censored from Sephardi prayerbooks, and in the last few decades it has been reintegrated into many Ashkenazi prayerbooks as well.

Click here for a complete translation and transliteration of Aleinu.

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