“For They Worship Vanity and Emptiness”: An Attack on Christian Belief?

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The tefilah of Aleinu, (“It is our duty”)[i] that is said at the conclusion of the daily tefilot consists of two parts, “Aleinu” until “Ein Od,” and “Al Kein” until “U-shemo Ehad.” The first half, Aleinu, expresses praise of God and proclaims Israel’s recognition and acceptance of God’s sovereignty as Ruler of the universe. The second half of this piyut expresses our confidence that all humanity will eventually recognize God’s sovereignty and be obedient to His commandments.[ii]

Aleinu was originally found as part of the introduction to the Malkhuyot section in Musaf of Rosh Hashanah, but has since found its way into multiple locatins of the liturgy. It is a declaration of one of the most important tenants of Jewish belief, that God is one and there is no other god but Him. Around the year1300 Aleinu became the closing prayer of the daily service along with the second paragraph of “Ve-Al Ken” in order to serve as a reaffirmation of the proclamation of God as Supreme King of the universe and of the Divine Unity.[iii]Additionally, Aleinu is recited at the end of a berit milah to emphasize that the child is no longer like the other nations of the world and is now a Jew[iv]. It is recited at the end of Kiddush Levanah, about which the Be’ur Halakha writes, “Lest people should think that we worship the moon when we joyously go out to greet it, we recite this prayer [Aleinu] which closes with ein od, saying that the Lord alone is God and none beside Him”[v] [vi]

There is a line in Aleinu that has been the source of controversy for quite some time. “She-Hem mishtahavim la-hevel va-rik, u-mitpalelim le-el lo yoshia—For they worship vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save,” is viewed by some as offensive to other religions. In various versions of siddurim the line is present, included in parentheses, taken out altogether, or replaced by an alternate line. The Vaani T’fillati Siddur Yisraeli, for example, includes an alternate line that is more inclusive of other religions—“Ki kol ha-amim yelkhu be-shem elohav ve-anahnu be-shem Hashem le-olam va’ed—For all of the nations will go by the name of their god and we, by the name of Hashem forever.”[vii][viii]

The line She-Hem mishtahavim” is controversial because it is thought of as derogatory towards other religions. The history of the controversy traces back to the year 1400, when a baptized apostate Jew spread the rumor that this line was meant to slander Christianity. The Jew claimed that the prayer was used to reject the Christian belief that Jesus is the messiah. He used as proof that the gematria, numerical value, of the word “va-rik,” (“and emptiness”) has the same value (316) as  “Yeshu,” the Hebrew name for Jesus. Throughout many countries in Ashkenaz during the Middle Ages the Church condemned this phrase and took actions to eradicate it. As printed reproductions of the siddur in the mid-sixteenth century increased, Christian censorship altered the line in many books. In France and Germany the line was deleted altogether. In Berlin in 1703 the Prussian government prohibited its recital, appointing special commissioners to see to it that the hazan would not recite it. Again in 1716 and then in 1750 censors strengthened their attacks, and as a result the line was completely deleted from all Ashkenazic prayer.[ix]

Consequent to the spread of the rumor and the censorship of the Church, Jews and Christians alike came to regard this line as anti-Christian. It is not clear that this piyut was meant as an attack on Christian belief. As a matter of fact, most of the traditions of ascribed authors of this piyut show that the author probably had no disposition toward Christianity, because the author either lived before the development of Christianity or composed it in a non-Christian country. Therefore, the line was probably directed toward pagan religions and idol worshippers.[x] One tradition points to Yehoshua ben Nun as the poet who wrote Aleinu after entering the land of Israel with the Jewish nation. He wanted to praise God for making the Jewish people different from the other nations, who, in Israel at that time, were idol worshippers.[xi] A second tradition attributes Aleinu to Rav, a third century Amora from Babylonia. The author of Iyun Tefillah in Siddur Otzar Hatefilot explains that Rav penned the introductory lines to the Malkhuyot section of Musaf for Rosh Hashanah, where this piyut is originally found, implying that he was the author of Aleinu.[xii]

Furthermore, the line “U-mitpalelim le-el lo yoshia,” is drawn from two verses in Yishayahu. The navi asserts, “For Egypt helpeth in vain, and to no purpose; (30:7) and, “they have no knowledge that carry the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save” (45:20) In these verses, the navi condemns idol worship, clearly referring to pagan gods.  [xiii] [xiv]

Interestingly, there are practices that indicate Aleinu is derogatory toward other religions. Historical context, however, refutes such a notion. Although not widely practiced today, it has been noted that there was a tradition to spit after reciting the line “She-hem Mishtahavim.” The reason given is that the root of the word “va-rik” is the same as the word “rok,” meaning spit.[xv]

Still today in some Chabad-Lubavitch communities, the phrase “U-mitpalelim le-el lo yoshia” is omitted, and congregants spit after saying the line “She-Hem Mishtahavim.” Although at face-value these practices appear like acts of disgust for other religions, there are alternative explanations. Hayom Yom, an anthology of Hasidic customs, explains that the purpose of the spitting is so one will not benefit from the saliva accumulated in the mouth after reciting a phrase about avodah zarah, idol worship.[xvi] [xvii] Spitting can also be explained as an act of detestation toward those who worshipped idols during the time of Yehoshua, who first composed this prayer.. [xviii]

Based on historical context and tradition, it is unlikely that Aleinu, and specifically the line “she-Hem Mishtahavim,” were originally written as an attack on Christianity. Today, many publishers have reinstituted the previously censored line to the Ashkenazi siddur based on the Sefaradi version, although there are still many synagogues that do not recite it aloud. Aleinu can be viewed more positively as a testament to the singularity of the Jewish nation and its future hopes that one day all of mankind will also recognize God as the One God. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “No prayer more eloquently expresses the dual nature of the Jewish people: its singular history as the nation chosen to be God’s witnesses on earth, and its universal aspiration for the time when all the inhabitants of earth will recognize God in whose image we are all formed.” [xix]
[i] All translations from Aleinu are from the Koren Hebrew-English Siddur

[ii] Commentary on Aleinu, Artscroll Siddur

[iii]  Bach, Orach Chaim, 133

[iv] Ozt Din Umin, p. 323; Otz Hat, vol. 1, Seder Brit Milah

[v]  MB Chap. 426:2, Be’ur Halakhah

[vi] Macy Nulman “Alaynu” The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993): 24.

[vii] “What Makes the Siddur ‘Vaani T’fillati: Sidur Yisraeli’ to the Right Siddur for this Time,” Masorti, available at: http://www.masorti.org.il/page.php?pageId=274.

[viii] Translation mine

[ix] Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993) 71-72

[x] Macy Nulman “Alaynu” The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993): 24-25.

[xi] Teshuvot ha-Geonim, Sha’arei Teshuvah #43

[xii] Rabbi Dov Shahor, “Studies in the Prayer ‘Alenu Le-Shabeah’” Daat Limudei Yahadut Ve-Ruah – Michlelet Hertzog, available at http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/kitveyet/niv/shahor-1.htm

[xiii] Macy Nulman “Alaynu” The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993): 24-25

[xiv]  “ICCJ: Daily Prayers: Aleynu” International Council of Christians and Jews, available at: http://www.iccj.org/index.php?id=3699

[xv] Leonid Livak, The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2010) 97

[xvi] Uri Kaploun, Sefer Haminhagim: The Book of Chabad-Lubavitch Customs (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot Publication Society, 1991) 35

[xvii] “Hayom Yom: Tevet 9 – Wisdom & Teachings.” The Rebbe: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, available at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/6029/jewish/Hayom-Yom-Tevet-9.htm

[xviii] Macy Nulman “Alaynu” The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: The Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993): 24-25

[xix] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Commentary to Aleinu, Hebrew-English Koren Siddur