The prayer Aleinu (“It is our duty to praise”) is the closing prayer of the morning, afternoon and evening service. It consists of two prayers, Aleinu and V’al Kein. Some believe Aleinu was written by Tanna Rav in 3rd century Babylonia for Rosh Hashanah services. Rav was the first to institute the Aleinu into the service. However, other Jews believe the prophet Joshua wrote the prayer after conquering Jericho, signifying the Israelites as a superior nation among nations.
Aleinu denotes the Jewish people’s struggle over being the “Chosen People” and the trials that arise with that responsibility. The prayer signifies the Jewish people’s faith and dedication to God. Additionally, the prayer speaks of God’s eternal rule.
During the verse, “va-anachnu korim” (we bend the knee), many people of Ashkenazi descent or in Ashkenazi congregations, bow at the waist toward the ark. This is symbolic of bowing to God and being humbled in his presence.
Many different sects within Judaism have eliminated various verses in the prayer over time. Many Ashkenazi and Reform prayer books have removed the verse “la-hevel va-rik” (vanity and emptiness), because its numerical connotation equals that of Jesus and Muhammad. For centuries Jews in Eastern Europe were attacked by the Church if caught reciting this verse in the Aleinu prayer. However, most Sephardic and Israeli siddurim leave this verse in the Aleinu. Additionally, nearly all Reform congregations have eliminated the verse “for God has not made us like the nations of the land.” During the establishment of the Reform movement, many Jews sought the complete integration of the Jewish people into their mother country. This verse was extracted as a result of the proclamation that the Jewish people were the “Chosen People” and unlike other citizens. In the Diaspora, Jews did not want to be singled-out in society, merely because they were Jews.
Aleinu le'shabeiach la'adon hakol,
lateit gedulah leyotzeir bereshit,
she'lo asanu ke'goyei ha'aratzot,
ve'lo samanu ke'mishpechot ha'adamah,
she'lo sam chelkeinu kahem,
ve'goraleinu ke'chol hamonam.
Va'anachnu korim, u'mishtachavim, u'modim,
lifnei melech, malchei ham'lachim,
hakadosh baruch Hu.
She'hu noteh shamayim, ve'yoseid aretz,
u'moshav yikaro bashamayim mi-ma'al,
u'sh'chinat u-zo be'gavhei me'romim.
Hu Eloheinu, ein od. Emet malkeinu, efes zulato.
Kakatuv be'torato, ve'yadata hayom, ve'hashevota Eil le'vavecha.
Ki Adonai, Hu ha-Elohim, bashamayim mi-ma'al,
ve'al ha'aretz mi-tachat. Ein od.
Kakatuv be'toratecha: "Adonai yimloch le'olam va'ed."
Ve'ne'emar: "Ve'haya Adonai le'melech al kol ha'aretz,
bayom hahu yihiyeh Adonai echad, u'shemo echad."
It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the
greatness of the One
who forms all creation. For God did not make us
like the nations of other
lands, and did not make us the same as other
families of the Earth. God did
not place us in the same situations as others, and
our destiny is not the same
as anyone else's.
And we bend our knees, and bow down, and give
thanks, before the Ruler,
the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God.
The One who spread out the heavens, and made the
foundations of the Earth,
and whose precious dwelling is in the heavens
above, and whose powerful
Presence is in the highest heights. Adonai is our
God, there is none else.
Our God is truth, and nothing else compares. As
is written in Your
Torah: "And you shall know today, and take to
heart, that Adonai is the only
God, in the heavens above and on Earth below.
There is no other."
Therefore we put our hope in You, Adonai our God,
to soon see the glory of
Your strength, to remove all idols from the Earth,
and to completely cut off
all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy
empire. And for all living flesh
to call Your name, and for all the wicked of the
Earth to turn to You. May all
the world's inhabitants recognize and know that to
You every knee must
bend and every tongue must swear loyalty. Before
You, Adonai, our God,
may all bow down, and give honor to Your precious
name, and may all take
upon themselves the yoke of Your rule. And may
reign over them soon
and forever and always. Because all rule is Yours
alone, and You will rule
in honor forever and ever.
As it is written in Your Torah:
"Adonai will reign forever and ever."
And it is said: "Adonai will be Ruler over the
whole Earth, and on that day,
God will be One, and God's name will be One.
Sources: Eisenberg, Ronald L. The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions. PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2004; “What is in the Siddur? Shabbat and Holiday Liturgy”; “Aleinu"; Wigoder, Geoffrey , Ed. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia. NY: Facts on File, 1992; “Aleinu-It’s Our Job”; “History: Who wrote the Aleinu?”