The Origins of Aleinu

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Rosh Hashanah 5780
The Origins of Aleinu
Aleinu is recited in the preamble to the Malkhuyyoth section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service. For many Jews, it is an emotional highlight of the High Holiday liturgy. The ark is opened, the cantor chants the paragraph to a haunting melody, and the congregants prostrate themselves outstretched on the floor as they say “we bend the knee and bow and acknowledge before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.” In keeping with the Judaic tradition of not prostrating one’s self in religious devotion on a stone surface, some people will place a cloth or piece of paper on the floor in front of them before dropping on their knees to the ground. When the devotional moment is over, elderly and infirm worshippers, as well as the cantor -- whose feet must remain together throughout the repetition of the Amidah -- are aided back onto their feet by kindly fellow congregants. For those accustomed to western modes of worship and unfamiliar with traditional High Holiday rites, the choreography of Aleinu can be jarring.
The contemporary practice of reciting Aleinu thrice daily -- at or near the conclusion of each prayer service, though without the above physicality and pageantry -- did not always obtain. Amram Gaon (9th century), Maimonides (12th century), Abudarham (14th century), and Shulhan Arukh (16th century) make no mention of a daily recitation of Aleinu. For these halakhists and liturgists, Aleinu was recited only on Rosh Hashanah. The earliest mention of Aleinu as a daily prayer appears in Machzor Vitry (Section 193; see also the parallel work Siddur Rashi Section 419). Famously, the martyrs of Blois, France, in 1171 recited Aleinu as they were burned at the stake. Joseph Hakohen, author of Emek Ha-Bakha (“Valley of Tears”), noted that the Christian executioners had never before heard the song and were quite moved by it. In Provence, Aleinu entered the Yom Kippur liturgy sometime in the late 12th century (Sefer Ha-Manhig Hilkhot Tzom Kippur 351).
For nearly as long as Aleinu has been part of the liturgy, scholars have speculated about its provenance and authorship. A Geonic responsum credits the Biblical hero Joshua with composing Aleinu. In this view, Joshua was inspired to write the prayer after leading the Israelites across the Jordan and encountering the Canaanites. He wanted the Israelites to draw a clear distinction between themselves, who knew and accepted the sovereignty of the Heavenly Creator, and those nations of the world which do not recognize the true God (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Shaarei Teshvah 43). Eleazar of Worms theorized that Joshua composed Aleinu upon seeing that the militarily defeated Canaanites had prayed to false deities who could not save their worshippers (Perushei Siddur La-Rokeach, Malkhuyyoth 656). Several medieval commentators noticed that Joshua’s shorter birth name, Hosea, appears in the first few verses of Aleinu in reverse acrostic: ע – עלינו, ש – שלא שם, ו – ואנחנו כורעים, ה – הוא אלוקינו (Kol Bo 16).
Unsurprisingly, there is no real evidence that Joshua composed Aleinu. The closest connection between the ancient warrior-leader and the Rosh Hashanah prayer is a remark made by Rahab of Jericho to Joshua’s spies: “For the Lord your God is the only God in heaven above and on earth below (Joshua 2:11).” Rahab’s words are reminiscent of another verse incorporated in Aleinu by its author: “The Lord who is God in the Heavens above and on the earth beneath -- there is none else (Deuteronomy 4:39).”
The claim that Joshua wrote Aleinu is belied by its being patently anachronistic. The ideas and, in some instances, the precise wording of Aleinu are borrowed from the writings of prophets who lived half a millennium or more after Joshua (see Isaiah 30:7, 45:20-23, 51:13). “King of Kings” as a euphemism for God would not have been known to a 13th BCE century Israelite like Joshua; that phrase first appears a millennium later, in the Second Temple period (see Daniel 2:37).
Leopold Zunz and other early Wissenschaft scholars credited the third century CE Babylonian Amora Rav with composing Aleinu. Several passages in rabbinic literature mention תקיעתא דרב, which might be loosely translated as “the shofar liturgy of Rav” (Leviticus Rabbah 29, Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4). Scholars assumed that Rav composed the entirety of the middle section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, the service during which the shofar is sounded. Yet that theory is supported by insufficient evidence. Another passage refers to these prayers as תקיעתא דבי רב, “the shofar liturgy of the Academy of Rav” (Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 39c). Yerushalmi’s wording indicates that the Rosh Hashanah prayers were codified by the liturgists who operated at the academy once founded by Rav, not that Rav himself composed the prayers.
Moreover, all three of the Talmudic/Midrashic passages mention a specific prayer as having emanated from the Academy of Rav, namely the preamble to the Zikhronothsection of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf: “This day, anniversary of the first day of Thy creation, is indeed a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob. On it, sentence is pronounced upon countries for war or peace, for famine or abundance. On this day mortals are recorded for life or death.” It is reasonable to conclude, as does the Yerushalmi, that, in the dispute whether the world was created in Nisan or in Tishri, Rav believed the latter. But it seems an overreach to conclude that just because Rav (or his intellectual heirs) redacted the preamble to Zikhronoth he must also have been the author of a preamble to Malkhuyyoth the text of which is never directly cited in Talmudic literature. In fact, the wording of Aleinu as we know it appears in no written work prior to the 9th century Seder Amram Gaon (which, as noted above, did not describe it as part of the daily liturgy).
In early modern times, Jewish apologists were highly motivated by then-contemporary concerns to prove that Aleinu dated from deep antiquity. The trouble began in 1399, when Jewish apostate Pesach Peter denounced Aleinu as an attack on Christianity. His calumny led to the deaths of 77 Jews. The line regarded by the Church to be especially offensive reads: “For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god which helps not.” Notably, the Hebrew word for “and emptiness” וריק has the same numerical value (316) as does the name Jesus ישו. The attacks on Aleinu by Jewish apostates continued in 1530 with Anton Margarita’s publication of “The Whole Jewish Belief”; in 1610 with Samuel Friedrich Brenz’s “The Jewish Serpent’s Skin Stripped”; and in 1703 with troubles instigated by Franz Wentzel that inspired King Friedrich I of Prussia to promulgate anti-Judaic decrees interfering in the synagogue service.
The best way for Jewish apologists to undermine Christian charges against Aleinu was to assert that the prayer was composed in the pre-Common Era – that is, long before the birth of Jesus -- and that the prayer’s condemnatory language refers to the polytheists and idol-worshippers of antiquity and not to moral, monotheistic Christians.
In 1656, Manasseh ben Israel wrote Vindiciae Judaeorum, in which he posited that Aleinu was composed in the days of Ezra by the 120 members of the Great Assembly. [He also claimed that Judaism forbids making mockery even of foreign deities, citing the verse “Thou shall not revile God (Exodus 22:27).”] In 1777, Moses Mendelssohn came to the rescue of the Jews of Koenigsberg, who stood accused by the Prussian government of violating royal edicts concerning the recitation of Aleinu. Mendelssohn averred that “Aleinu is one of the oldest prayers of our nation… It can be shown irrefutably, on a number of grounds, that only heathens and their idolatrous worship are referred to in it, and not, as some enemies and slanderers of the Jewish nation falsely contend, the Christians, who like ourselves worship the Holy One, Blessed be He.”
Putting aside the issue of which specific religious groups Aleinu intends to condemn, is there any evidence for the assertions made by Yom Tov Lippman of Muhlhausen, Solomon Zvi Hirsch of Aufhausen, Manasseh ben Israel, Moses Mendelssohn, and other Jewish defenders that Aleinu is an ancient (and, specifically, pre-Common Era)? Examination of the thematic issues appearing throughout Aleinu might indeed suggest early provenance. There are no references to a personal messiah, no indication of the exiled status of the Jewish people, and no petition for a return to Zion. These considerations point to a date of composition during the Second Temple era – and, therefore, before the destruction of the Jewish Commonwealth and well before Christianity came into existence and it and Judaism became competitor faiths.
On the other hand, the absence of Aleinu from pre-Geonic literary sources militates against drawing any firm historical conclusions about the prayer’s supposed antiquity.
It is fascinating to consider how and why a prayer that rarely inspires fervor during its thrice daily “mundane” recitation can, when returned to its original liturgical context in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, become an awesome and awe-inspiring profession of faith. Well beyond its words, the melody, bodily movements, and setting synergistically heighten the impact of the prayer upon the worshipper.
We cannot know with certainty the historical origins of Aleinu. We do know, however, that its wording became a life and death matter when Christian attacks upon it led to the murder of Jews.  Being mindful of that historical fact should add to the seriousness with which Jewish congregants must take the Day of Judgment.