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Aleinu Lishabe'ach is one of the most sublime prayers of the entire liturgy. It has a remarkable history that in many ways parallels our history as Jews. It became the cause of slanderous accusation and persecution, and was in part mutilated through f ear of the official censors. Because of this censorship it is now impossible to det ermine Aleinu's exact original form; therefore, I have used the version found in th e Nussach of the Alter Rebbe (FOOTNOTE based on the Nussach of the Ari Zal) because this is the version with which I am most familiar.

Who wrote Aleinu

The prophet Joshua composed Aleinu2 after conquering Jericho.3 Being a loyal servant of G-d, he wished to praise Him and cause the Jewish people to remember that they are different from the nations of the world. After seeing the nations of the world worshiping the sun and constellations, he lifted his hands towards the heavens, and with great fear and trepidation, said "Aleinu Lishabe'ach - look G-d, how special Your nation is. They worship only You."4 Accordingly, the prayer of Aleinu must be said with humility, intense concentration, and fear of Heaven (one should always try to have special Kavanah when saying it).

Various explanations have been offered as to how we know that Joshua composed Aleinu. The most widely accepted is that the first letter of each of the first four verses spells out the name Hoshea (backwards), his name until G-d changed it to Joshua. Due to his great humility, he continued to use Hoshea, even after G-d changed it.

The Chidah offers an explanation as to how we know it was Joshua who composed Aleinu. Joshua was from the tribe of Joseph, who, in being blessed by his father Jacob, was compared to a shor (ox). - Shor and Aleinu Lishabe'ach have equal numerical values (506).

Another proof that Joshua composed Aleinu lies in the fact that Joshua did not have the innate ability to conquer Jericho alone. Therefore, G-d instructed Joshua to circle Jericho once every day for seven days. On the seventh day he was commanded to circle seven times, then sound the shofar. Miraculously, the protective wall around the city fell, allowing the Jewish people to take the city as G-d had commanded.

Why did Joshua receive these special instructions with regard to Jericho and not any other city? Jericho was the center of all impurities, and thus the "father" to all other impure cities. The impurities of Jericho were so great that its conquering could only be done through a miracle. After following G-d's specific instructions and felling the wall, the power of the Almighty was shown and the impurities of the remaining cities were lessened. Even so, each was so important that G-d commanded Joshua that all the inhabitants of these cities had to be destroyed.

Each time Joshua circled the city, he said a set of names from the forty-two-letter name of G-d. The numeric value of Aleinu Lishabe'ach is the same as the first set of names aleph, beis, gimmel - yud, sof, tzadi (506).5

There is another opinion6 that the great Tanna Rav composed the prayer of Aleinu, while arranging the Rosh HaShanah prayers. It is said that he wrote it as an introduction to the blessing of Malchiyot7. Subsequently realizing its greatness, Rav instituted it into our daily prayers.7 However, many are of the opinion that although it was Rav who instituted it as part of the Musaf service of Rosh Hashanah, it was not he who actu ally wrote it.8

Another opinion is that it was written by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) during the period of the Second Temple.10

The Tur mentions that from its language it belongs to the Hechalos literature.10

The Aleinu is one of the oldest prayers of the nation. Proof of its ancient character lies in the fact that no mention is made in it of the restoration of the Holy Temple, which would scarcely have been omitted had it been composed after the destruction. It obviously must have been written at the time when the Jews lived in their own land.

The Rambam (late 11th century) does not mention Aleinu's recital at the close of the daily prayers, but the Machzor Vitri (early 11th century) does. This may mean that it was not generally recited as part of the daily service, or that, while French Jewry already had Aleinu as part of its daily prayers, Sephardic Jewry did not. However, by the Middle ages it was already a very important prayer in all prayer service.

Martyrdom and Censorship

With the Aleinu as a firm proclamation of G-d's Kingship, the prayer became associated with Jewish martyrs. In 1171, during the persecution of the Jews of Blois, France, thirty-four Jewish men and seventeen Jewish woman, falsly accused of ritual murder, died as martyrs at the stake. An eye-witness wrote to Rabbi Jacob of Orleans that their death was accompanied by a mysterious song, resounding through the stillness of the night. It caused the gentiles who heard it from a distance to wonder at the melodious strains, the likes of which had never before been heard.12 Afterward, it was determined that the martyrs had sung Aleinu as their dying prayer.12

The double meaning of the word Varik, (rik, "emptiness," and rok, "spittle" or "saliva"), contributed to the practice of Jews spitting when saying this phrase. The anti-Jewish author Johann Andreas Eisenmenger interpreted this as an additional insult to Christianity.13 This too was refuted when it was pointed out that the practice of spitting was directed toward those who worshipped idols during the days of Joshua, and it was Isaiah14 who later said, "they pray to a god that cannot save."15 Hence, the habit of spitting became a sign of contempt for those early idol worshippers. Spitting while reciting Aleinu was finally denounced and discouraged by the great kabbalist, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, and by other leading rabbis due to fear of the the gentiles. In recent years, however, it has become part of the prayer again, especially the Chassidim. (See commentery on the verse "for they bow to vanity and nothingness" for a further elucidation on the spitting).16

The charge was renewed by Professor Kypke, government inspector of the Konigsberg Synagogue, in a memorandum presented to the government in 1777, on the occasion of a memorial service held by the Konigsberg Jews in honor of the Russian Empress. Mendelsohn refuted this in a counter-memorandum presented to the government, and, despite Kypke's protest, the matter was laid ad acta. 17

At the turn of the fifth century, Pesach Peter, an apostate Jew, no doubt seeking to prove loyalty to the church, spread slander that this passage was meant to slur Christianity. He proved his contention by the fact that 316, the numerical value of "V'rik" (nothingness), is the same as Yeshu, (the Hebrew name used for Jesus); the charge was refuted time and again.18

Antonius Margarita, in 1530, was the next to repeat this charge, in a book entitled "The Belief of Jews."

Seventy years later, Samuel Friedrich Brenz, a converted Jew, repeated it in a book to which he gave the characteristic title "Judischer Abgestreifter Schlangenbalg" (The Jewish Serpent Slough).

In vain did the leading Rabbis, Solomon Zebi Uffenhausen, in his "Theriak" and Lippman Muhlhausen, in his "Nizzahon," protest against such misinterpretation of this ancient prayer, composed long before Yeshu was even born, and having solely idolators in view.

Buxtorf, in his "Bibliotheca Rabbinica," repeated the charge, but Menasseh b. Israel, who devoted a whole chapter of his "Vindiciae Judaeorum" (The defense of the Jews) to the Aleinu, successfully refuted him. He relates, among other things, that Sultan Selim, on reading the Aleinu in the Turkish translation of the Jewish liturgy presented to him by his physician Moses Amon, said "Truly, this prayer is sufficient for all purposes, there is no need for any other."

In 1702, Prussian Jews were attacked with special vehemence on account of this prayer. Repeated persecutions and church insistence backed by the August 28, 1703 governmental decree, prohibited its recital. The edict added that the Aleinu prayer was to be recited aloud by the reader; commissioners were appointed to visit synagogues and enforce the implementation of the edict.19

Many learned rabbis tried to prove how wrong the accusations against this prayer were, based on the facts that the phrase found to be offending is found in Isaiah,20 that the composition of the prayer was pre-Christian. If Rav (not Joshua) was the author, it was written in a non-Christian country. The censors remained adamant and renewed their attacks in 1716 and again in 1750. The vehement opposition to this phrase resulted in it being deleted from the Ashkenazic prayer books. The Sephardim, especially of Oriental countries, retained it, and in recent years it has been restored to many Ashkenazic prayer books at the insistence of many authorities, especially Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin.

Converts, before being baptized in the early Christian Church, had to step forward and make a public confession at the end of the divine service. First, they would turn backward, renounce the kingdom of Satan and spit as a sign of contempt. They would then turn forward, in the name of the Creator of the world and man, and take an oath of allegiance to Jesus as the son of god.

Possibly the prayer for the conversion of all heathen nations, containing the latter portion of the Aleinu, has some connection with the practice adopted by the Church of admitting proselytes, which is also done at the end of the service.

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