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Is There an Alternative to Reciting Akdamut on Shavuot? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 4, Issue No. 6, May 2010

Prayer and Liturgy
Responsa by David Golinkin
Shavuot

Edited by Cantor Abe Golinkin and Rabbi David Golinkin

Editors’ Note: This article was written by our father, Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, in or before 1997. It was sent at that time to the editors of  Siddur Va’ani Tefilati in Israel and they incorporated this new version of Akdamut in the first edition of that siddur, Jerusalem, 5758, pp. 717-718 with thanks to our father on p. יז. It was recently reprinted in Va’ani Tefilati: Siddur Yisraeli, Tel Aviv, 2009, p. סג. This article is being printed here for the first time – with some added footnotes – as a memorial to his love of Torah in honor of Shavuot. (For biographies of Rabbi Noah Golinkin z”l, see David Golinkin, Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, Vol. LXIV (2002-2003), pp. 360-367 = Insight Israel: The View from Schechter, Jerusalem, 2003, pp. 157-167 = www.schechter.edu, Insight Israel, March 2003. and Rafael Medoff, Encyclopaedia Judaica, second edition, 2007, Vol. 7, pp. 740-741). It is typical of our father’s creative solutions to modern Jewish problems.


Question: Is there an alternative to reciting the Aramaic poem Akdamut on Shavuot?

Responsum: Today’s Rabbis are concerned about the vanishing holiday of Shavuot.

Each Jewish holiday has a distinct personality and a unique flavor of its own.  The matzot and the seder give a flavor to Pesah.  Theetrog, the sukkah and the ushpizin give a flavor to Sukkot.  The shofar gives a flavor to Rosh Hashanah.  The candles give a flavor to Hanukkah.

  1. I) The Flavor of Shavuot

Among the few items that used to give a flavor to Shavuot was the chanting of Akdamut [=Introduction] prior to the reading of the Torah on Shavuot. The Akdamut poem was an innovation in its time, in the eleventh century. In time, it became a tradition. ( Akdamut is read in Israel on Shavuot, and on the first day of Shavuot in the Diaspora, after the Kohen is called to the Torah but before he recites the blessing. The Torah reading itself features the Ten Commandments. For a recent, thorough study of Akdamut with a new English translation, see Jeffrey Hoffman, The Jewish Quarterly Review 99/2 (Spring 2009), pp. 161-183. This poem was actually intended as an introduction (reshut) to the Aramaic Targum for the first day of Shavuot, which was still read in Germany in the eleventh century).

Akdamut is in danger of disappearing in our day.  This loss of flavor may create a danger to the holiday itself.

We need to look for a solution.  I believe that we can come up with an effective rescue operation.

  1. II) The Problem 
  2. Akdamut is in Aramaic; a unique Aramaic of the eleventh century – so difficult that even Rabbinic scholars may have problems deciphering it. Our members today have enough problems with Hebrew. Do they need problems with difficult Aramaic?
  3. The content of the Akdamut text is exotic and extremely remote from the Shavuot theme of the Giving of the Torah.
  4. The translation: The Sim Shalom prayer book carries a summary in place of a translation. (Rabbi Jules Harlow, editor, Siddur Sim Shalom, New York, 1985, p. 526). The English translation by Joseph Marcus in the Silverman prayer book is linguistically masterful, but content-wise, not relevant to the theme ofShavuot. (Rabbi Morris Silverman, editor, Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, 1946, pp. 185-188. Also cf. Akdamut in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, New York, 1998, pp. 222-225).

The pious generations of the past recited Akdamut because it was there – in the prayer book – and you asked no questions. Today, people want to know what they are doing, and why.

III) The Solution

Yes, the solemn reading of the Ten Commandments on the celebrated Anniversary of the Giving of the Torah deserves a solemn celebratory introduction.  The beautiful tune of Akdamut serves the purpose, but the text does not.  In fact, the majestic tune of Akdamut was so popular that it was adopted for every evening Kiddush of the Shalosh Regalim [=Three Pilgrim Festivals]. (Regarding the tune of Akdamut, see A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development, New York, 1929, pp. 156, 160;Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 2, col. 480).

I propose revitalizing the Akdamut concept by retaining the inspiring Akdamut tune and replacing the eleventh-century Aramaic text with Hebrew verses from the more ancient, yet more relevant text of Psalm 119. The verses of that eight-fold alphabetic acrostic are the most elaborate and most ancient Ode to Torah. (In Aramaic, Psalm 119 is called Temanya Alfin, the eightfold acrostic, since there are eight verses for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet).  It is specifically about Torah; indeed, it is all about Torah! What could be more appropriate?

I am not proposing to adopt the entire 176 verses of the eight-fold acrostic.  That would be much too long for our purpose.

  1. IV) The Proposed Format
  2. I have collated a selection of a single alphabetic acrostic of 22 of the best-known, most meaningful and most easily translatable verses from Psalm 119 – all about Torah. The Hebrew verses can be found in the Appendix below together with an English translation.
  3. This compilation reflects the deep feelings of our people about Torah – through the ages.
  4. The traditional tune for Akdamut reinforces the feeling of love for Torah.
  5. Each sentence of Akdamut is sung again and again in a very comfortable and solemn sequence. In the proposed new Akdamut, each two verses from Psalm 119 form a couplet, which can be sung to the tune of Akdamut. Try to sing it and you will hear how comfortable it is and how beautiful.

The traditional name Akdamut would be retained, but slightly changed to Hakdamot, which appropriately means “Introductions” in Sefardic Hebrew.

  1. V) Our Hope

We hope that most Rabbis will be eager to adopt the old-new Hakdamot, and help give new life to an old tradition.  Prepare for it during the year and introduce it in your synagogue next Shavuot. This presents a wonderful opportunity and exciting task for the Rabbi of today.

We shall launch a new tradition in the 21st century that will help us perpetuate an old tradition from the 11th century.  In the famous words of the Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “The old will be renewed, and the new will become sacred”.  In the process, we shall save the unique flavor of the holiday of Shavuot.

Appendix

Hakdamot for Shavuot

(to be sung to the tune of Akdamut, one couplet at a time;

selected from Psalm 119; the verse numbers appear in parentheses)

  1. אשרי תמימי-דרך, ההלכים בתורת ה’: (א)
    2. ברוך אתה ה’, למדני חקיך: (יב)
  2. גל-עיני ואביטה, נפלאות מתורתך: (יח)
    4. דרך-פקודיך הבינני, ואשיחה בנפלאותיך: (כז)
  3. הבינני ואצרה תורתך, ואשמרנה בכל-לב: (לד)
    6. ואשמרה תורתך תמיד, לעולם ועד: (מד)
  4. זמרות היו-לי חקיך, בבית מגורי: (נד)
    8. חסדך ה’ מלאה הארץ, חקיך למדני: (סד)
  5. טוב-לי תורת-פיך, מאלפי זהב וכסף: (עב)
    10. יהי-לבי תמים בחקיך,למען לא אבוש: (פ)
  6. כלתה לתשועתך נפשי, לדברך יחלתי: (פא)
    12. לולי תורתך שעשעי, אז אבדתי בעניי: (צב)
  7. מה-אהבתי תורתך, כל-היום היא שיחתי: (צז)
    14. נר-לרגלי דברך, ואור לנתיבתי: (קה)
  8. סתרי ומגני אתה, לדברך יחלתי: (קיד)
    16. על-כן אהבתי מצותיך, מזהב ומפז: (קכז)
  9. פניך האר בעבדך, ולמדני את-חקיך: (קלה)
    18. צדקתך צדק לעולם, ותורתך אמת: (קמב)
  10. קרוב אתה ה’, וכל-מצותיך אמת: (קנא)
    20. ראש-דברך אמת, ולעולם כל-משפט צדקך: (קס)
  11. שלום רב לאהבי תורתך, ואין-למו מכשול: (קסה)
    22. תהי-ידך לעזרני, כי פקודיך בחרתי: (קעג)

The NJPS translation of the 22 verses from Psalm 119

(the verse numbers appear in parentheses)

  1. Happy are those whose way is blameless, who follow the teaching of the Lord. (1)
  2. Blessed are You, O Lord, train me in Your laws. (12)
  3. Open my eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Your teaching. (18)
  4. Make me understand the way of Your precepts, that I may study Your wondrous acts. (27)
  5. Give me understanding, that I may observe Your teaching and keep it wholeheartedly. (34)
  6. I will always obey Your teaching, forever and ever. (44)
  7. Your laws are a source of strength to me wherever I may dwell. (54)
  8. Your steadfast love, O Lord, fills the earth, teach me Your laws. (64)
  9. I prefer the teaching You proclaimed to thousands of gold and silver pieces. (72)
  10. May I wholeheartedly follow Your laws so that I do not come to grief. (80)
  11. I long for Your deliverance, I hope for Your word. (81)
  12. Were not Your teaching my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. (92)
  13. O how I love Your teaching! It is my study all day long. (97)
  14. Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path. (105)
  15. You are my protection and my shield, I hope for Your word. (114)
  16. Rightly do I love Your commandments more than gold, even fine gold. (127)
  17. Show favor to Your servant, and teach me Your laws. (135)
  18. Your righteousness is eternal, Your teaching is true. (142)
  19. You, O Lord, are near, and all Your commandments are true. (151)
  20. Truth is the essence of Your word, Your just rules are eternal. (160)
  21. Those who love Your teaching enjoy well-being, they encounter no adversity. (165)
  22. Lend Your hand to help me, for I have chosen Your precepts. (173)

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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