One thousand years ago, poet-cantors living in the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley composed soaring piyyut (liturgical poetry) for the Sabbath and holiday services.
A handful of these piyyutim became staples of the Ashkenazic liturgy.
Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak “Sheliach Tzibbur” (“agent of the congregation”) was a giant among those poets. Recognized by contemporaries for his scholarship, artistry, and piety, Rabbi Meir was active in Worms in the latter half of the eleventh century, on the eve of the First Crusade. “Akdamut Millin” (Introductory Words) is his masterwork.
The poem does not lend itself to casual recitation. It can be difficult to approach because of the Aramaic in which it was composed, its compressed style, the lack of stanzas, and the complex of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical allusions underlying every line and half-line. Akdamut becomes fully accessible, even to those who know it, only after close study.
Like the prayers themselves, virtually all piyyutim were composed in Hebrew; the Aramaic of Akdamut is related to its original function. In the taxonomy of piyyutim, Akdamut is a “reshut,” a preface to a prayer or reading in which the leader asks for the congregation’s consent. This reshut was written for the reader of the Aramaic translation of the Torah (the “Targum”); hence it too is in Aramaic. While the ancient synagogue practice of alternating the Hebrew verses of the Torah portion with the Targum fell into disuse, it continued in medieval Germany for special readings such as the Ten Commandments on Shavuot. But even after the Shavuot Targum was discontinued, Akdamut persisted on its own, and it is still recited by Ashkenazim on the first day, just before the Torah reading.
Akdamut is an artistically sophisticated and emotionally affecting work.
It is an intensely sensory piyyut. Its 90 lines overflow with vivid, almost cinematic imagery. Like a crowded allegorical painting by a Renaissance master, a library of images and symbols fill the poet’s canvas – Creation, ministering angels, mythical creatures, and the delights awaiting the righteous.
Unlike typical piyyutim, Akdamut is structured as a narrative that sweeps through time and space, both natural and metaphysical. Rabbi Meir’s story begins before creation and concludes with a grand eschatological vision. On the way, he makes multiple scene changes: From God’s throne and His heavenly court (a composite of Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s theophanies), to Israel, the nations, and, finally, the End of Days.
The narrative axis around which the poem turns is a symbolic confrontation between the gentile nations and Israel. Here the poet alludes, obliquely but unmistakably, to the social and theological pressures facing the Jews of Germany in the eleventh century.
Borrowing imagery from the Song of Songs and its related allegorical midrashim, the poet imagines Israel as a beautiful woman longing for her distant beloved (God, in the allegory) while being harassed by the daughters of Jerusalem (the nations). The nations suggest that Israel’s tireless but painful devotion to God is unrequited, and they attempt to seduce her with social acceptance and political power:
“From where and who is your Beloved, most beautiful / For whose sake you perish in the lions’ den? / How dear and lovely you are! If you join our hegemony / We will grant whatever you desire, everywhere.”
This unexpected narrative turn follows a meditation on God’s preference of Israel’s prayers over those of the angels. The poet abruptly changes scenes to a coalition of nations gathering, “like waves,” to accost the Jewish community. This sudden shift may be a deliberate attempt to evoke the instability of Jewish life as known to Rabbi Meir and his community. The scene may also allude to public disputations at which Jewish scholars were required to defend their faith.
Jews were welcomed into some German towns, but their security often was short-lived. Persecution and tolerance were alternating features of Jewish life. While writing Akdamut, Rabbi Meir surely would have been mindful of the expulsion from nearby Mainz in 1012. But he also may have known of the charter written in 1084 by Bishop Rudiger of Speyer for Jews who took refuge in his town; according to a contemporary Jewish source, Rudiger “pitied us as a man pities his own son.” The charter was reaffirmed in 1090 by Emperor Henry IV, only six years before the First Crusade massacres devastated the Rhine communities. (Rabbi Meir’s son may have been a victim.)
How then, in the narrative of Akdamut, does Israel respond to the Gentiles’ challenge? Rabbi Meir provides the Jewish people with a clear and strident retort: “Of what value is your greatness compared to that glory / The greatness He grants me when salvation arrives?” This is followed by a detailed and colorful portrayal of the messianic era – including an apocalyptic battle between Leviathan and Behemoth – in which the righteous finally are rewarded for their loyalty. The poem’s last line provides a segue to the Torah reading, and also summarizes the poem’s argument: “He desired and wanted us, and so gave us the Torah.”
This, essentially, is Israel’s answer: If God favors his people over the angels, he certainly favors them over the Gentiles. God gave us, and only us, the Torah; our relationship is immutable. There is no match for the Jewish people, either in Heaven or on Earth, despite claims that God abandoned the Jews and made Christians the “New Israel.” Empire and Church may threaten us, but we will prevail.
Some may find this response inadequate, even naive, in light of subsequent events – the tragedy that befell German Jewry soon after Rabbi Meir’s death, and especially the unfathomable horrors of the last century. But Akdamut somehow endures, resonating with worshippers a millennium later, as an incomparably beautiful hymn to God and his faithful people.