Thursday, 14 September 2017

Aleinu and Tikun Olam

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                     Tikun Olam and Aleinu
                    It is routinely taken for granted that the concept of tikun olam is integral to Aleinu. It turns out that this is probably not the case. This column will explain that a very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu read “le-tacen olamwith a caf (=to establish the world under God’s sovereignty), and not with a kof (=to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty). If so, the concept of tikun olam has no connection to the Aleinu prayer.

                     Most likely, Aleinu was originally composed as part of the Rosh Ha-Shanah (=RH) Amidah, as an introduction to the malkhuyyot verses, and was authored by Rav, early 3rd cent. C.E. (See Jerusalem Talmud Avodah Zarah 1:2 and RH 1:3.) But no text of Aleinu is included in Tannaitic or Amoraic literature.

                    When we look to the later available texts of Aleinu, we find that the reading with a caf is found in the text of the RH Amidah in the Siddur of R. Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), and in the text of the RH Amidah in the Mishneh Torah of Rambam (d. 1204) (end of Sefer Ahavah). I have looked at the following editions of the Mishneh Torah: Or ve-Yeshuah, Frankel, Mechon Mamre,  and the editions published by R. Yitzchak Sheilat and by R. Yosef Kafah. All print it with a caf. (Neither R. Saadiah nor Rambam recited Aleinu daily.)
                   In the standard printed Mishneh Torah (end of Sefer Ahavah) only the first ten words of al kein nekaveh were included (up to uzekha).  That is why the Rambam’s reading with a caf was not well-known.

                   Caf is also the reading in almost all of the texts of Aleinu that have been recovered from the Cairo Genizah. (The Cairo Genizah texts generally date to the 10th-13th centuries.) Also, the caf reading survives in Yemenite siddurim to this day. (I would like to thank Yehiel Levy for pointing this out to me.)

                   Admittedly, the Ashkenazic texts from Europe from the time of the Rishonim spell le-tacen with a kof. See, for example, the following texts of Aleinu: 1) Machzor Vitry of  R. Simchah of Vitry,  daily shacharit and RH, 12th century, and 2) Siddur Hasidei Ashkenaz, ed. Moshe Hirschler, p. 125 (daily shacharit), and p. 214 (RH) (compiled by the students of R. Judah he-Hasid, d. 1217).
                   Also, the three main manuscripts of Seder Rav Amram Gaon spell it with a kof. But these manuscripts are not from the time of R. Amram (d. 875); they are European manuscripts from the time of the later Rishonim.

                    I cannot prove based on the manuscripts that the caf reading was the original reading. But this seems very likely, as it is by far the better reading in the context. We see this by looking at all the other scenarios that are longed for in this section:
                  Lirot meheirah be-tifereret uzekha
                  Le-haavir gilulim min ha-aretz
            Ve-ha-elilim karot yikareton
            Le-tacen olam be-malkhut …  
               Ve-khol bnei vasar yikreu bi-shmekha   
                  Le-hafnot eilekha kol rishei aretz
                  Yakiru ve-yeidu kol yoshvei tevel ki lekha tikhra kol berekh tishava kol lashon
                  Lefanekha…yikhreu ve-yipolu
                  Ve-likhevod shimkha yekar yitenu
                  Viykablu khulam et ol malkhutekha
                 Ve-timlokh aleihem meheirah le-olam va-ed
                 Ki ha-malkhut shelkha hi  
              U-le-olmei ad timlokh be-khavod

                Beginning with le-haavir, every clause expresses a hope for either the removal of other gods or the universal acceptance of our God. With regard to the first line, lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzekha, properly understood and its mystical language decoded, it is almost certainly a request for the speedily rebuilding of the Temple. The idiom is based on verses such as Psalms 96:6 (oz ve-tiferet be-mikdasho) and 78:61 (va-yiten la-shevi uzo, ve-tifarto ve-yad tzar). This interpretation of lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzekha is adopted by the Abudarham. Taken together, this whole section is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple and the establishment God’s kingdom on earth. This fits the caf reading perfectly.

                  That this section of Aleinu is fundamentally a prayer for the establishment of God’s kingdom makes sense given that, most likely, this section was composed as an introduction to the malkhuyyot section of the RH Amidah (as was the first paragraph of Aleinu as well).                                                        

                  Moreover, we can easily understand how an original caf reading might have evolved into kof. The term tikun ha-olam, with a kof, is widespread in early rabbinic literature. It is found thirteen times in the Mishnah, and seventeen times in the Babylonian Talmud. The alternative scenario, that the original reading in Aleinu was with a kof and that this evolved in some texts into a caf is much less likely.                                                                

                 Classical rabbinical literature includes many references to the concept of tikun ha-olam, both in the context of divorce legislation and in other contexts. The purpose of this column was only to show that it is almost certainly a mistake to read such a concept into the Aleinu prayer, a prayer most likely composed as an introduction to the malkhuyyot section of the RH Amidah, and focused primarily on the goal of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Even if we do not fix the text of our siddurim, we should certainly have this alternate and almost certainly original reading in mind as we recite this prayer.

              Regarding the authorship of Aleinu, there is a statement found in many Rishonim that Joshua was the author of Aleinu. This statement first appears in a commentary by R. Judah he-Hasid (d. 1217). But he does not claim to be reporting an earlier tradition. Rather, this is merely something that he stated on his own. Once he gave this opinion, it became widely quoted. But it is easily seen from the language of Aleinu that it could not date as early as the time of Joshua. For example, ha-kadosh barukh hu was not yet an appellation for God in the Biblical period. Moreover, the term olam did not mean “world” until the late Biblical period. Finally, Aleinu cites and paraphrases verses found in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived many centuries after Joshua.  (Also, as stated earlier, lirot meheirah be-tiferet uzekha, is almost certainly a request for the speedily rebuilding of the Temple.)

             The ArtScroll Siddur claims that even earlier, R. Hai Gaon (11th century) wrote that Aleinu was composed by Joshua. Admittedly, there is such a statement in a responsum of R. Hai Gaon. But scholarship has shown that the relevant statement was not originally included in the responsum and was added centuries later.

               The above article is an abridged version of an article originally published in Ḥakirah, vol. 11 (2011), and revised and published in my book Esther Unmasked (Kodesh Press, 2015). This would be a good time to remind all readers that they can purchase my book (paperback and very affordable). It covers all the major holidays throughout the year.


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at  He allows himself the liberty of recommending his own book once per year, and asks mechilah for doing so.

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