This piyyut (liturgical poem), which begins with the word "Aleynu" (we must), has, since the thirteenth century, functioned as a closing prayer for every Jewish service. Before this, it was recited only three times per year, in the additional musaf service for Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) as the introduction and conclusion to the verses about God's majesty recited in conjunction with the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn), and in an analogous position on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It voices a communal recognition and acceptance of God's sovereignty. In the course of this, it contrasts Israel's interaction with its sovereign God to that of surrounding nations. The second stanza continues that theme, voicing the hope that all humanity will soon come to recognize God.
The verses that this poem originally accompanied are discussed first in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (4:5-6) in the names of sages of the early 2nd century C.E. Traditionally, this poem and the parallel ones for the other sets of verses accompanying the shofar blowing are ascribed to the school of Rav, an early third century Babylonian rabbi. However, the style of the poem (its biblical-style parallelism, its lack of rhyme, its primitive and inexact meter, its anonymity, its lack of allusion to rabbinic traditions) places it firmly in the land of Israel, sometime before the sixth century. It may have originated among early Jewish mystics. Thus, we cannot know whether author of the composition referred originally to pagan or Christian non-Jews. In the ongoing life of the prayer, worshipers reinterpret the words to reflect their own contexts.
|עלינו לשבח לאדון הכל |
לתת גדלה ליוצר בראשית
|We must praise the master of all,|
and render greatness to the creator of the universe,
|שלא עשנו כגויי הארצות|
ולא שמנו כמשפחות האדמה
|Who did not make us like the nations of the lands,|
and did not place us like the families of the earth,
|שלא שם חלקנו כהם|
וגרלנו ככל המונם
|Who did not make our lot like theirs,|
or our destiny like all of them,
|שהם משתחוים להבל וריק|
ומתפללים אל אל לא יושיע
|For they bow down to nothingness and emptiness,|
and pray to a god that will not save,
|ואנחנו כורעים ומשתחוים ומודים|
לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא
|But we bow down low in grateful acknowledgement|
before the king over the kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
|שהוא נוטה שמים ויסד ארץ|
ושכינת עזו בגבהי מרומים
ומושב יקרו בשמים ממעל
|For He spreads out the heavens and establishes the earth,|
and his majestic abode is in the sky above,
and his mighty dwelling place in the lofty heights
|הוא אלהינו אין עוד|
אמת מלכנו אפס זולתו
|He is our God; there is none else.|
He is truly our King; none is like Him.
|ככתוב בתורתו: וידעת היום והשבת אל לבבך, כי ה' הוא האלקים בשמים ממעל, ועל הארץ מתחת, אין עוד.||As it is written in His Torah, "Know this day and reflect on it, because the Eternal is our God in the sky above and the earth below. There is none else." (Deut. 4:39)|
|על כן נקוה לך ה' אלקינו,|
לראות מהרה בתפארת עזך,
|Eternal our God, we therefore hope|
soon to see Your majestic glory;
|להעביר גלולים מן הארץ|
והאלילים כרות יכרתון.
|To remove idols from the earth,|
so that the false gods will be destroyed;
|לתקן עולם במלכות שדי,|
וכל בני בשר יקראו בשמך.
|To perfect the world under the Almighty's kingdom,|
so that all will call on Your name;
|להפנות אליך כל רשעי ארץ.|
יכירו וידעו כל יושבי תבל,
|To turn all the wicked of the earth toward You|
so that all the inhabitants of the world will realize and know
|כי לך תכרע כל ברך|
תשבע כל לשון.
|That to You every knee must bow down,|
every tongue swear allegiance.
|לפניך ה' אלקינו יכרעו ויפלו.|
ולכבוד שמך יקר יתנו.
|Eternal our God, before You they will bow down and fall,|
and honor Your glorious name.
|ויקבלו כלם את עול מלכותך,|
ותמלך עליהם מהרה לעולם ועד.
|And they will all accept the yoke of Your kingdom,|
that You might rule over them soon and forever,
|כי המלכות שלך היא,|
ולעולמי עד תמלוך בכבוד.
|For the kingdom is Yours, |
and to the ends of eternity You will rule in glory.
|ככתוב בתורתך: ה' ימלך לעולם ועד.||As it is written in Your Torah, "The Eternal will rule forever." (Exodus 15:18)|
|ונאמר: והיה ה' למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה ה' אחד, ושמו אחד.||And it has been said, "The Eternal will become King over the entire earth. On that day, the Eternal shall be One and His Name shall be One." (Zechariah 14:9)|
The first stanza of this liturgical poem is less a comment on the other nations, per se, than a paean to God for having made Israel distinctive. However, the poet elaborates on one concrete element of this distinctiveness: where Israel's worship of her majestic God truly benefits Israel, worship of the nations' gods is pointless because these gods nations are ultimately powerless (see the bold-faced verse). That the poet makes such a clear distinction between the Jewish God and the gods of the nations strongly suggests a pagan context. That the other gods "will not save" need not be read as a response to Christian (or other) claims that these gods are saving. Rather, it can be understood as coherent with the regular positive appeal throughout rabbinic liturgy to redemption as God's greatest and most needed power. The poet draws the language of this verse from Isaiah 30:7 (emptiness and nothingness) and 45:20 (and pray to a god that will not save), both biblical verses clearly referring to pagan gods.
Nonetheless, by the time this prayer entered the daily liturgy, Jews had come to recognize that the numerical value of the letters וריק ("and emptiness") was the same as the numerical value of the most common Hebrew form for Jesus, ישו. Especially in mystical traditions common in the high middle ages, this numerology suggested a real equivalence, and both Jews and Christians came to understand the line "For they bow down to nothingness and emptiness, and pray to a god that will not save" to be explicitly anti-Christian. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben Azriel, in Germany in the thirteenth century, broadens the meaning of the verse to include all the non-Jews of his known world, adding in his Arugat Habosem that להבל ("to nothingness") has a similar correspondence to Muhammed -- but he fails to explain how.
When the Catholic Church started censoring Jewish books in the mid-sixteenth century, this verse was one of the first liturgical elements to disappear -- totally in the Ashkenazi rite, partially in the Italian rites (one common version reads: "For they bow down and pray, and we bow down..." -- thus removing the sensitive elements), and for a while in the Sephardi rites (which were most common in Muslim lands and in Protestant Europe. Books printed outside Catholic jurisdiction reverted to the original text for this prayer). Only in the late twentieth century did some Ashkenazi Jews restore this verse, particularly in Israel, but also in some American orthodox circles. Others, though, and all liberal Jews, are grateful to the censors for removing what they consider an unnecessary denigration of their neighbors.
The second stanza presents an eschatological vision of a future in which God will be triumphant over all false gods, and all non-Jews will come to accept God as their sovereign. This is not the only possible messianic scenario in Jewish tradition; by no means do all expect the conversion of the gentiles, and it is not even certain that that is the intent here. However, essentially no other text of the statutory prayers makes an explicit statement about the active participation of non-Jews in the messianic scenario. Sheer repetition makes this conception deeply influential.
Liberal liturgies of the past two centuries have frequently eliminated the comparisons with other nations and the expressions of Jewish particularism, choosing to reformulate this prayer as simply a paean to the Divine sovereign of creation and a prayer for the coming of the brotherhood (in recent years: fellowship) of messianic redemption. These prayer books vary from complete revisions of the text to euphemistic interpretative translations, including, for instance, the American Reform Movement's 1975 Gates of Prayer (p. 616) which transforms the false gods of the gentiles into the false gods "of our hearts."
See the relevant sections of the books listed here, according to their chapter titles and indices:
Elbogen, Ismar, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, trans. Raymond P. Scheindlin (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1993; original publication in German 1913; Hebrew, updated translation, 1972).
Friedland, Eric L. Were Our Mouths Filled With Song: Studies in Liberal Jewish Liturgy (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1997)
Hoffman, Lawrence A., ed., My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 6 -- Tachanun and Concluding Prayers (Woodstock Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002).
Petuchowski, Jakob J. Prayerbook Reform in Europe: The LIturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism (New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1968).
Swartz, Michael D. “Alay Le-Shabbeah: A Liturgical Prayer in Ma’aseh Merkavah.” JQR 77 (1986–87): 179–90.
Ta-Shma, Israel M. The Early Ashkenazic Prayer: Literary and Historical Aspects [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2003).
Ta-Shma, Israel M. "The Source and Place of Aleynu Leshabbeah in the Prayer Book..." [Hebrew] in the Frank Talmadge Memorial Volume, ed. Barry Walfish (University of Haifa, 1993), 85-98.
Translation with minor adaptations is that of Joel Hoffman, My People's Prayer Book, Vol. 6 -- Tachanun and Concluding Prayers, ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman (Woodstock Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002). Annotation by Ruth Langer