The next word on our list is על [All]. It means ‘on’ or ‘about’, ‘for, or ‘upon’. It is used in a lot of different phrases; for instance ‘therefore’ is על-כן. A waste of time is חבל על הזמן. And in Modern Hebrew the same phrase is used to say that something is outstanding! The Israeli national airline is אל על [El Al] meaning ‘up to the heights’. It is repeated in lists, as in the All HaNissim prayer: על הנסים ועל הפורקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשואות ועל המלחמות … which thanks God for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and for the victories … recited on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim.
I will use this post to say a few words about the most often repeated prayer in the Jewish prayerbook, Aleinu [It is incumbent upon us] which is derived from the word על. This prayer is recited at the end of every prayer service. The prayer was originally only part of the service on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It speaks of our duty to thank God for choosing us to be the ones with true faith, and it aspires to a time when all peoples on earth will recognise the One True God.
The prayer became prominent in the Middle Ages. Joseph HaKohen, in his work ‘Emek HaBacha’ [Italy, 1575] tells the story of the many Jewish martyrs who died at the stake in the city of Blois, France, in the year 1171 as the result of a blood libel. He reports that as the fire was consuming them, the martyrs sang a strange song. Those who had assembled to witness the massacre wondered at the singing, and learned later that they were singing the Aleinu. Reciting Alienu had turned into an act of defiance. The Jews were saying, ‘your cruelty will not change us; we continue to believe in our God. No-one will force us to bow down before any other’. This sentiment was so powerful that Aleinu became part of every prayer service.
That’s not the end of the story. In the 17th century, at the time of the emancipation, Jews were embarrassed by Aleinu. The line ‘they bow down to smoke and nothingness and pray to a God who does not redeem’ became an obstacle to the acceptance of the Jews in a modern pluralistic society. Many western communities omitted this line from their prayers. The debate about Aleinu features in the famous letter from Manasseh ben Israel to Oliver Cromwell seeking the re-admittance of the Jews to England (Vindiciae Judaeorum,1656). He dedicates a whole page to show that Aleinu was never aimed against the Christians. He also claims that Jews no longer say that line, to remove any possible doubt. Indeed, the offensive line is absent from prayerbooks printed in England from the very first books printed in the 17th century.
Aleinu carries a lot of Jewish history. History is both a burden and a gift. The word על – denoting ‘on’ or ‘upon’ – represents the responsibilities that we all carry.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.