A Thought on Akdamut
I was flipping through the pages of a Shavuot machzor this morning (yes, machzorim are not just for High Holidays, but exist for other holidays as well) and I noticed an abundance of elaborate poems interspersed among the holiday liturgy much as we find on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, these Medieval piyyutim follow the same structure and are introduced by the same words as we find on the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Over the centuries, most congregations have stopped adding these poems into the holiday worship. As with the High Holiday piyyutim, the language is often difficult even for Hebrew readers to decipher, the text contains esoteric references to earlier rabbinic works, and these poems would add a great deal of time to an already lengthy service. In spite of that, I must admit that some of them are very cleverly constructed around the Ten Commandments and other themes of the holiday and it might be interesting to look at them more closely at some other time, however to rush through them on the holidays would not really enhance our worship.
Of all of these holiday poems, one however, has remained in most traditional synagogues as an introduction to the reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. This is the lengthy Aramaic poem of Akdamut Milin. At one time it was the custom to intersperse the Aramaic Targum (translation/paraphrase) between the verses of the Torah reading to explain the words of Torah to the congregation whose language was no longer biblical Hebrew. This is still done in some Middle Eastern traditions. I heard it once while visiting the synagogue of some friends whose family came from Yemen. On the basis of these once regular Aramaic “interruptions” and explanations, it was the custom in some places to have the Kohen called to the Torah, make the blessing, then the reader would read the first verse of the Torah reading, and before going onto verse two would chant the 90 lines of Akdamut. When the addition of Aramaic translation between verses ended, this custom looked like a real interruption in the reading. So a change was introduced. Instead it became customary to chant Akdamut after the Kohen's blessing, but before verse one, so the Torah reading was not interrupted.
The first forty-four lines of the poem comprise a double alphabetical acrostic; each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet is given two verses. The opening letters of the remaining 46 lines contains the name of the author Meir Bir Rabbi Yitzchak and the prayer, “Yigdal b'Torah uv'maasim tovim. Amen v'Chazak ve-ematz.” “May he grow in Torah and good deeds. Amen. Be strong and courageous.” (Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchak Nehorai, the author, lived in Worms in Germany in the eleventh century.) The commentators note that all the lines end with the closing syllable – ta, spelled Tav Alef, bringing together the last letter of the alphabet Tav with the first, Alef, reminding us of the tradition of beginning our study all over again as soon as we finish the Torah or any other text. Both the alphabetical acrostic and the final -ta of each verse indicate a desire to represent totality.
That's the basic structure of this poem. Its language is a rather difficult Aramaic. While I can pick out many words, it is hard to translate it fully without resorting to translations and commentaries. Rabbi Laura Lieber, a professor at Duke University, has written an article on Akdamut that appears on the Internet, which gives a lot of background on the institution of liturgical poetry in general. Noting the abundance of piyyutim written for Shavuot which are ignored in most synagogues today, Lieber comments, “The liturgical durability of Akdamut Milin despite its dense allusiveness and opacity in both language and imagery remains an enigma that has puzzled scholars for generations.” Though this poem has been removed from Reform prayerbooks, it persists in both Orthodox and Conservative liturgy. As Lieber writes, “The composition of an elaborate Aramaic poem in the medieval Rhineland is challenging enough to understand; its persistence through the centuries since can seem baffling.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Hoffman, cited by Lieber, has suggested that some of Akdamut's appeal may be due to a folkloristic “backstory” that the poem and its author picked up by the 17th century. This story, preserved in Yiddish, describes how a wicked monk had murdered some 30,000 Jews in the Rhineland through black magic. Seeking royal protection, the Jews of Worms approached the king who summoned the monk. The monk promises to stop his attacks on the Jews for a year on condition that at the end of the year the Jews come up with a champion to compete in a sorcery contest with him. If the Jewish sorcerer wins, the monk will stop attacking Jews permanently. If the monk wins, he gets to kill them all. (What a deal!) So as the story goes, as the deadline approaches a certain scholar learns in a dream that the long-sought champion can be found among the Ten Lost Tribes who legend tells us live beyond the River Sambatyon which is only navigable on Shabbat, thus permanently keeping these observant Jews out of reach. A search party goes off to the Sambatyon, wherever that may be, and in order to keep others from violating Shabbat, Rabbi Meir crosses alone (justifying this as necessary to save lives).
The champion is found and does succeed in defeating the evil monk, but Rabbi Meir must remain beyond the Sambatyon, so as not to violate Shabbat again by crossing back. As a gift to his people back in the Rhineland, he composes a poem (Akdamut) and asks that it be recited every year on Shavuot for the sake of his name. So, apparently, the least we can do for Rabbi Meir's memory is to break our teeth every year on this tough poem. Though the words are difficult, the melody is one of those which cantors call “MiSinai” as if it goes back to Mount Sinai, and certainly by the ninetieth line, everyone should be familiar with this simple tune which we chant responsively.
Akdamut begins with a formal request by the cantor to offer this poem before the Lord. Reminiscent of a passage we read every week in Nishmat Kol Chai, he begins by stating that “Even if the heavens were parchment and the forests quills, if all oceans were ink, as well as every gathered water, if all the earth's inhabitants were scribes...” we could not record “the glory of the Master of Heaven and the Ruler of earth.” He goes on to describe the angelic chorus surrounding God at great length. This leads to his praise of the people of Israel who join in this chorus, who study Torah and offer prayer. The poet speaks also of the vision of future times, the great things God will do when He brings redemption to the world, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The exiles will be brought home to Jerusalem and the Shechinah will dwell there once more. At that time a great banquet will be held and the Leviathan, the great fish, and the Behemoth, a gigantic ox, will be served to all present. Wine preserved from Creation will pour freely. The poet concludes, “If you listen to His words that emanate in majesty. He is exalted – God – in the beginning and when all is done. He desired and selected us, and He gave us the Torah.” As the reader arrives at these final words, he turns to the Torah scroll before him and reads the portion from Exodus 19 and 20, retelling the story of the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
I must admit that while I struggle with this medieval poem's language and imagery, enough of the meaning comes through each year to provide a sense of the glory of the moment at Sinai and to elevate the experience of returning to the mountain each year to hear the words of the Decalogue proclaimed once again. As with many of our prayers, the words become secondary to the emotions created by the antiquity of the poetry and its triumphant melody. We've seen this before where the words of the prayerbook recede into the background as we create the illusion of standing once more with our ancestors at the foot of the mountain ready to embrace the message from on high.