This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Vanity, Emptiness and the Throne of Glory*

The 'Aleinu prayer, which is now recited at the conclusion of every Jewish prayer service, first appeared on the scene as part of the Additional Service for Rosh Hashanah. It is indeed a most appropriate text to introduce the theme of "Malkhuyyot," the proclamation of God's sovereignty over the entire universe.

The unique tenor of the 'Aleinu, full of confidence that idolatry and tyranny will imminently yield to universal acceptance of God's dominion by all the nations of the earth, distinguishes it from the majority of rabbinic prayers, which confined their scope to the Jewish nation.

The placement of the 'Aleinu at the conclusion of all three daily prayer services was instituted because the medievals saw in it an expression of the highest ideals of Judaism.

The 'Aleinu's triumphal tone led some medieval rabbis to ascribe it to Joshua. At any rate, the prevailing view among historical scholars sees it as the product of a time when the Temple was standing and a confident Jewish nation dwelled on its ancestral soil.

For later generations, it was more difficult to uphold their faith that humanity as a whole would come to acknowledge God's sovereignty. The change in attitude was occasioned largely by the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity in the fourth century. Hebrew liturgical poets who lived under the yoke of Byzantine oppression ceased hoping for a time when the world would voluntarily submit to God's will. Their works were filled instead with apocalyptic visions in which Israel and its messiah would prevail over their irreconcilable foes, especially the evil empire of Rome.

Like many other traditions that had their origins in ancient Palestine, the tendency to depict God's judgment on Rosh Hashanah as an ultimate confrontation between Israel and the heathen nations was continued by the early synagogue poets of medieval Germany. This motif came to pervade many of the familiar festival prayers in the Ashkenazic rite.

In light of these developments we may readily understand how, though the 'Aleinu's origins almost certainly predate the advent of Christianity, there was a widely held view in medieval Europe that it was a specifically anti-Christian text.

This accusation was directed primarily at the passage in the 'Aleinu that speaks of heathens who "bow down to vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save." The Hebrew word for "and emptiness"--varik--has the same numerological value--gimatria--as "Yeshu," which was believed to be the Hebrew name of Jesus.

In spite of the historical anachronism implied by this interpretation, it was taken very seriously by Christians and Jews alike. The influential Jewish mystical school of German Pietism (Hasidut Ashkenaz) set great store by numerological interpretations of the liturgy, and Rabbi Jacob Moellin (Maharil), the renowned authority on liturgical customs, was accustomed to spit when he pronounced varik (the word also sounds like the Hebrew word for spitting).

When the Christians (often through the agency of apostates) heard how the Jews construed the prayer, they were understandably offended, which led to the excising the offending sentence from many prayer books; though it has been reintroduced (usually in brackets) into most recent printings.

Armed with a bit of arithmetical creativity, you can prove almost anything, and it did not take long for some clever individuals to find an anti-Islamic reference in the same sentence. The full phrase "to vanity and emptiness" adds up to the numerological sum of "Jesus and Mohamet." Unfortunately, the calculation requires some tampering with the spelling of the Muslim prophet's name (which should end with a d, not a t), as well as the adding of a letter to the Hebrew text, so that it reads velarik instead of larik. However, such is the power of a good gimatria that the "emended" spelling was introduced into several texts of the prayer book, and was solemnly discussed by the learned commentaries of the time.

For those who insisted on a correct spelling of Muhammad's name, an alternative gimatria was derived based on the end of the verse. The expression "to a god who cannot save" adds up to the desired sum, except that it also requires a tiny change in the Hebrew text, from "el el lo yoshia'"to "le'el lo yoshia'."

While the emendation involves no change at all in the meaning of the Hebrew sentence, it happens that the original formulation was based on a Biblical quotation, from Isaiah (45:20).

Some authorities, like Rabbi Judah the Pious, preferred a third version: "el lo yoshia'" (to one who does not save), in order to remove the name of God entirely from this unsavoury setting.

It did not take long for our nimble numerologists to run into an unexpected problem. The consonantal text of varik forms an anagram of the word yekaro, which means that the two words share the same gimatria. Yekaro means "his glory," as in the clause "and the throne of his glory is in the heavens above."

Now, if they wanted to be consistent, then they would have to interpret this sentence as well as an allusion to Jesus, leading to implications that were far too ecumenical for any medieval Jew!

Though we might easily brush off this word game as a mere triviality, the medieval German rabbis treated it with the utmost seriousness, and several of the most distinguished halakhic authorities of the time voiced opinions on the question. In some prayer rites, the offending sentence was deleted or replaced by synonyms with different gimatria totals. An examination of the medieval Ashkenazic prayer books and commentaries reveals that much energy and ingenuity was being devoted to the quest for new ways to say "throne of glory" without forcing the innocent Jewish worshipper to inadvertently acknowledge the divinity of Jesus.

One of the obvious lessons to be derived from this story is that we should not build too much on the capricious game of gimitria. The whole episode reminds me of the excitement that surrounded the discovery a few years ago of mathematical codes in the Bible, that supposedly proved beyond question its supernatural authorship and the authenticity of the Jewish oral tradition. All was well until the Christians began to apply the same methods, and were able to demonstrate equally irrefutable evidence that their own messiah was predicted in the numerical patterns of the Old Testament.

However, I think there is a more significant moral to be learned: namely, that our prayers should be more concerned with our own relationships with the Almighty, and less with passing judgment upon the followers of other faiths.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, September 28, 2000, pp. 10-11.

  • Bibliography:
    • Elbaum, Yaaqov. 1972-3. Concerning Two Textual Emendations in the 'Aleinu Prayer. Tarbiz 42: 204-8.
    • Sperber, Daniel. 1994. Minhagei Yisra'el. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook.
    • Wieder, Naphtali. 1998. Regarding an Anti-Christian and Anti-Muslim Gematria (in the 'Alenu le-shabeah") prayer). Sinai 76: 1-14.
    • Yahalom, Joseph. 1999. Poetry and Society in Jewish Galilee of Late Antiquity. Edited by M. Ayali, Helal ben-Hayyim Library. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad.