This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Akdamut, Aramaic, and Ashkenazic Origins*

During the late seventeenth century, the Venice Jewish community was torn apart by a controversy. The issue that had the Venetian Jews raging at one another was a trivial-looking item of the Shavu'ot liturgy: When to recite the "Akdamut"?

The "Akdamut" is a rhymed poetic prologue to the festival Torah reading of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Composed by a cantor in Germany at the time of the Crusades, its ninety Aramaic stanzas speak in praise of the Torah and of the great rewards that await those who devote their lives to it.

Although the recitation of this inspiring poem had spread beyond the confines of the German and Polish rites, there emerged a slight discrepancy over where exactly it should be inserted. The established Ashkenazic custom was to chant it after the first reader, usually the Kohen, had read the first verse of his aliyyah.

The Sepharadic Jews of Venice were understandably perplexed by this strange practice. On no other occasion is it permissible to interrupt the sequence of the Torah reading for the sake of a prayer or liturgical poem, and there was no apparent justification for doing so now.

The Venetian Jews were so polarized on the issue that they eventually involved an outsider, Rabbi Ephraim Cohen of Vilna. In his responsum on the question, the Lithuanian sage came out solidly in favour of the Ashkenazic practice, appealing to its antiquity and to the sacred duty of following ancestral custom, even if it is not readily understandable.

Several of the elements in this controversy can be viewed as typical of the differing approaches of Ashkenazic and Sepharadic attitudes towards local custom.

The Sepharadim, representatives of a culture that esteemed rationalism and systematic thinking, insisted that practice must conform to the theoretical demands of the halakhah. Where conflicts arise it is the custom that must yield to the law.

By contrast, the Jews of central Europe had been distinguished from their earliest days by a profound reverence their local customs. Lacking the Sepharadic inclination for systematic codification, early Ashkenazic Jewry channeled their literary energies to meticulously recording the customs of individual communities and rabbis. Where their customs seemed to conflict with the requirements of the Talmud, then it was the Talmud had to be reinterpreted so as to uphold the customs.

It is likely that this veneration of ancestral ritual was inspired by the consciousness that their forebears had subjected themselves to heroic martyrdom at the sword of the Crusaders, the very same setting that had produced the Akdamut.

Through their unyielding adherence to custom, Ashkenazic Jewry succeeded in preserving vestiges of ancient traditions, even though the historical roots were unknown to them.

This is certainly true in the instance of the "Akdamut" controversy. Although the defenders of the Ashkenazic rite were usually at a loss to explain it, we are now able to trace its origins back to ancient synagogue procedure.

According to the procedures described in the Talmud, the reading of each verse from the Scriptures must be followed by the recitation of its Aramaic translation, known as a "Targum." The purpose was to make the Hebrew text accessible to worshippers who were not well-versed in the holy tongue. With the decline of Aramaic as a Jewish vernacular the practice has fallen into disuse in most communities, but it remains on the books.

The recitation of the Targum would thus begin after the reading of the first verse of the Torah reading. With this fact in mind, it makes perfect sense that the Akdamut, which is composed in Aramaic, should be inserted at that point in the reading if it was actually the beginning of the Targum, and not of the Torah reading itself.

Although the "Akdamut" is not a translation of the opening verse of the Torah reading, but a poem in its own right, the phenomenon can still be accounted for by our knowledge of the history of the Targum literature.

The Targums that were employed in the Land of Israel were elaborate literary creations that wove together elements from midrash and traditional teaching. The "Turgeman," official responsible for reciting the Targum during the service, was expected to improvise his text. Indeed, this preference for creative improvisation over uniformity and standardization was another characteristic difference between the Palestinian and Babylonian liturgies.

As a natural extension to their artistic Targums, the Turgemans of the Land of Israel were accustomed to composing dramatic introductory passages for "special" occasions. Several of these have survived in manuscripts.

Thus, in one text, the story of the parting of the Red Sea is introduced by a long alphabetical poem in which Moses debates with the sea over the Israelites' right to pass through. The sea refuses to relent until Moses appeals to divine authority. The same manuscript contains a prelude to the giving of the Torah, in which hosts of angels and supernatural beings celebrate the mystical wedding of God and his people.

Of course, the Shavu'ot reading of the Sinai revelation is a very special one and so the theme attracted a number of poetic creations.

Thus we can recognize that in fashioning this "Targumic prelude", the eleventh-century author of the Akdamut was continuing a tradition whose roots lay deep in the Holy Land. Removed from its original setting of a full Aramaic translation, the placement of the Akdamut seemed an incomprehensible deviation from normative practice.

This instance provides additional confirmation for a pattern that has often been discerned by historians of Ashkenazic Jewry: that the community originated in the Land of Israel, having reached Germany via Italy and France. This route can be traced through the strata of the Yiddish language as well as through many of their rituals and customs. Sepharadic Jews, on the other hand, can be linked to Babylonia.

Thanks to their fervent devotion to local customs, the Ashkenazic Jews of Venice and elsewhere have allowed us access to precious treasures from our past.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 12 1997, p. 6.
  • Bibliography:
    • A. Grossman, The Early Sages of Ashkenaz, Jerusalem, 1981.
    • J. Heinemann, "Remnants from the Poetic Creation of the Ancient Meturgemans," Ha-Sifrut 4 (1973), pp. 362-375.
    • I. Jacobson, Netiv Binah, Tel-Aviv 1978.
    • R. Kasher, "Two Targum-Tosephtas on the Death of Moses," Tarbiz 54 (1985), pp. 217-224.
    • S. Y. Zevin, The Festivals in Halachah, New York and Jerusalem, 1983.