The pages of older Hebrew prayer books were filled with many piyyutim, elaborate poetic works that enhanced the standard liturgy and linked it to the specific themes of a holy day or a special scriptural reading. In more recent times, most Jewish communities have reduced the number of piyyutim in the service, as they came to be perceived as time-consuming, incomprehensible and inconsistent with the esthetic standards of classical Hebrew style.
In light of this wholesale abandonment of arcane liturgical poetry, it is quite astonishing that one of the most popular of those poems continues to be the work known as “Akdamut” that is still recited in many traditional congregations on the first day of Shavu’ot. After all, the Akdamut is open to all the criticisms that were directed against the genre: it is lengthy and abstruse, consisting of ninety stanzas in awkward Aramaic, with a single persistent rhyme throughout. Much of its language is contrived and grammatically questionable. To add to the mystery, it was originally composed to serve as a preamble to the verse-by-verse Aramaic translation—”Targum”—that used to accompany the Torah reading—even though the recitation of Targum has long since been eliminated from all European synagogue rites.
How then are we to account for the stubborn survival of this liturgical anachronism?
I find it most unlikely that Akdamut’s popularity derives from any extraordinary features in its contents. Truth to tell, most of the poem consists of fairly conventional religious sentiments—praises of the Almighty and solemn depictions of the splendour of the Heavenly court in all its angelic glory. The closing stanzas recount the marvellous rewards that lie in store for those who faithfully observe the Torah, especially in adversity. No doubt some of this imagery is striking and the message is reassuring, but it is hardly unique (and remember that it is all cloaked in mystifying Aramaic).
One distinctive motif in the Akdamut is that of Israel stalwartly resisting attempts by the nations of the world to entice them away from their sacred covenant with God’s Torah. This idea might have resonated with a special relevance to the experiences of many Jews in their medieval exiles; nevertheless, it does not seem like a sufficient reason to account for the poem's lasting appeal across the generations.
It has therefore been suggested that the immense popularity of the Akdamut should be credited not to the text itself, but to a legend that arose around its origins and the personality of its author, an otherwise unknown individual who reveals his name in an acrostic as “Meir ben Isaac”; that is to say: Rabbi Meir Nehorai of Orléans who lived in Worms, Germany, at the time of the Crusades. Meir bore the title “Sheliaḥ Ṣibbur,” which traditionally designated a synagogue cantor, a prayer leader; but his role in the legend also corresponds to the literal meaning of the Hebrew title: the “emissary of the community.”
The epic saga of Rabbi Meir was probably first composed in Yiddish, though Hebrew versions have also survived from early times. It is a thrilling tale of swords and sorcery that rivals Tolkien or Rowling. Like many such popular sagas, it features an invincible super-villain: a Jew-hating Christian monk who utilized his mastery of the black arts to murder thousands of innocent Jews. As the crowning achievement of his nefarious career, the Black Monk boastfully challenged the Jews to produce within the coming year a magician of their own who would vie with him in a sorcery tournament. If the Jewish champion won, then the scoundrel pledged to leave them in peace; but if the monk prevailed, then he would be given a free hand to slaughter them all with impunity.
In spite of their best attempts to remedy their situation through prayers and acts of religious contrition and by scouring the Jewish world in search of a qualified magician, the Jews found themselves approaching the fatal deadline with nary a flicker of hope of rescue from their predicament. At that point someone was informed in a dream that a saviour did in fact exist, but that he dwelled among the ten lost tribes of Israel in the remote territory beyond the fabled river Sambatyon. According to ancient legend, that river’s rapid currents made it impassable throughout the six days of the week, and it only calmed down on the Sabbath—when religious law forbids Jews to traverse bodies of water.
The righteous scholar Rabbi Meir of Worms was chosen to lead a delegation of petitioners who set out on the perilous journey to find the great wizard. After a series of adventures they reached the Sambatyon river. Rabbi Meir decided that the dreadful dangers that threatened the survival of his community warranted overriding the Sabbath ritual prohibition, so he crossed the river. At that point he was arrested and charged with the grave offense of violating the Sabbath, but he was able to persuade his captors of the urgency of his mission.
The trans-Sambatyonites now responded to his request by choosing an unlikely-looking candidate to confront the evil sorcerer—a righteous man named Dan (or from the tribe of Dan) who was short and lame and of a generally unheroic appearance. Using the same reasoning that Meir had employed initially to permit crossing the river into his land, Dan now allowed himself to violate the Sabbath when crossing in the other direction in order to carry out his critical life-saving mission. However, Meir himself could no longer make use of that dispensation, and consequently he would be compelled to remain forever after in his remote exile. [He was not equipped with a pair of ruby slippers]
When Meir’s companions beheld their unimposing champion, they were at first very skeptical, but he soon impressed them with his power to teleport them back instantly to Germany, where they arrived on the very last day of the Black Monk’s ultimatum—two days before the Shavu‘ot festival.
As it turned out, the Jews were not disappointed by their champion, nor were generations of readers and listeners to the exploit. The fateful match between the Jewish and gentile magicians, which took place in the presence of the king and huge crowds of spectators (in a dramatic spectacle reminiscent of “Ivanhoe”), contained all the elements of a cinematic special-effects extravaganza. After a series of breathtaking demonstrations of his magical skills, Dan was able to extract from the earth two immense millstones that he levitated and suspended in mid-air. He then fastened his wicked opponent to the top of a tall tree and brought the millstones down upon him to grind him to dust.
At this point it was revealed that their loyal emissary Rabbi Meir ben Isaac, before parting from Dan and resigning himself to a lifelong exile from his home, had composed the Akdamut poem, and asked that it be recited every year on Shavu‘ot in his memory.
No doubt the myth provided much satisfaction to Jews in Europe who in real life were often powerless against their persecutors.
And it is probably worth the effort of listening attentively to the ninety Aramaic stanzas—if only to provide an opportunity for retelling the fateful duel of the master wizards.
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