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עלי לשבח | Alai l’Shabe’aḥ (It is incumbent upon me), a prayer of praise from the Ma’aseh Merkavah

Aleinu is the central prayer of the Malkhuyot service for Musaf on Rosh haShanah and is also found in the musaf for Yom Kippur. Beginning in the mid to late 12th century in Northern France and England, the prayer became established as the liturgy concluding the morning service. Sometime before this period, Aleinu began to be recited as a private prayer after services had ended. Owing to a story on the prayer being sung by the Jews of Blois during their martyrdom after a blood libel in 1171, this practice of reciting Aleinu may have begun with those sitting with the trauma of the Crusades and mourning the grievous injuries and horrific deaths which haunted European Jewry under Christendom.[1] For more information, make sure to find “The Censorship of Aleinu in Ashkenaz and its Aftermath” by Ruth Langer in The Experience of Jewish Liturgy: Studies Dedicated to Menahem Schmelzer, ed. Debra Reed Blank (Brill 2011).  Variations in the form of Aleinu first appear in the Maaseh Merkavah, a compilation of esoteric Jewish material originating in the first millennium CE. There, the prayer is first introduced as a prayer of praise (shebaḥ) offered by Rebbi Akiva[2] Some manuscripts ascribe the vision to Rebbi Yishmael.  after surviving the dangerous challenges of a spiritual ascent through heavenly realms and receiving a divine vision. In his article on the prayer,[3] in “‘Alay le-Shabbeaḥ: A Liturgical Prayer in “Ma’aśeh Merkabah,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct., 1986 – Jan., 1987, New Series, Vol. 77, No. 2/3 (Oct., 1986 – Jan., 1987), pp. 179-190.  Michael Swartz explains the differences between the liturgical Alenu l’Shabe’aḥ and Alay l’Shabe’aḥ,

The differences…lie in the use made in each of the biblical verses and in the prose passages which separate the poetic strophes. In the Rosh ha-Shanah liturgy the prayer serves to introduce the declaration of God’s kingship (the malkhuyot verses), which in turn precedes pleas for God’s remembering His relationship with Israel (zikhronot) and salvation (shofarot). To serve this function Alenu l’Shabe’aḥ reminds God of the worshiper’s devotion, in contrast to the idolatry of the nations. This theme is accented by the use of Deut. 4:39 and is echoed in ‘al ken neqavveh, in which the prayer turns to the hope for God’s sovereignty over the nations. In the context of Ma’aseh merkabah, Alay l’Shabe’aḥ serves as a prayer of praise in gratitude for God having spared the traveler to the Merkabah.


Source (Hebrew) Translation (English)

א״ר עקיבא כיון שהתפללתי התפילה הזו ראיתי שש מאות וארבעים אלף רבוא מלאכי כבוד שעומדין כנגד כסא הכבוד וראיתי קשרת תפילין של גדודי יהוה אלהי ישראל, ונתתי שבח על כל אבריי
§550 Rebbi Akiva said: When I prayed this (prior) prayer (for mercy),[4] referring to the previous prayer recorded in the Maaseh Merkavah (§548-549). Michael Swartz: “Rebbi Akiva’s description of his vision serves to testify to the success of the prayer for mercy. The prayer that follows is referred to as shebaḥ, “praise,” in §550 and indeed begins Alai le-shabbeaḥ, “It is [incumbent] upon me to praise” (§551). The narrative treats the prayer as an expression of Rebbi Akiva’s gratitude for his safety and the success of his vision, and as proof of his participation with the heavenly retinue in their praise.”  I saw six hundred and forty thousand myriad[5] 6,400,000,000.  angels of kavod who stood facing the throne of kavod. And I saw the knot of the tefillin of GDVDY YHVH Elohei Yisrael, and I gave praise (shebaḥ) upon all my limbs.[6] The angelic name (or nomina barbara) “GDVDY” is found here with different spellings across the various manuscripts. The invocation of “YHVH Elohei Yisrael” in connection to “limbs” might be related to the gematria for the “YHVH Elohei Yisrael” being 613, and the Talmudic dictum that the body has 248 bones and 365 sinews, which add up to 613, equal to the number of mitsvot. 

עלי לשבח לאדון הכל
לתת גדולה ליוצר בראשית
שלא עשאנו כגויי הארצות
ולא שמנו כמשפחות האדמה
שלא שם חלקי בהם
וגורלי בכל המונם
שהם משתחוים להבל וריק (ישעיה ל:ז)
ומתפללים אל אל לא יושיע (ישעיה מה:כ)
§551 It is incumbent upon me to praise the Lord of all,
to ascribe greatness to the One who formed Creation,
who did not make us like the nations of the lands,
and did not place us as the clans of the earth,
who has not placed my portion among them
(nor) my lot in all their tumult,
since they prostrate themselves to vanity and emptiness (Isaiah 30:7)
and they pray to a deity who does not save (Isaiah 45:20).

ואני מתפלל לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקב״ה
שהוא נוטה שמים ויוסד ארץ (ישעיה נא:יג)
ושכינת עוזו בגובהי מרומים
הוא אלהינו ואין עוד אחר
אמת מלכינו אפס זולתיך
יהוה הוא האלהים,
יהוה הוא האלהים,
יהוה הוא האלהים (מלכים א׳ יח:לט)
הוא אחד ושמו אחד
יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד (דברים ו:ד)
יהוה יהוה אל רחום וחנון
ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת (שמות לד:ו)
But I pray before the King of kings of kings, the blessed Holy One,
who stretches out the heavens and founds the earth (Isaiah 51:13),
and the Shekhinah of Hashem’s power is in the lofty places of the heights.
Hashem is our elo’ah and there is none else.
Truth is our King, there is none beside you.
YHVH is Elohim,
YHVH is Elohim,
YHVH is Elohim! (1 Kings 18:39)
Hashem is one and Their name is one.[7] Cf. Zechariah 14:9.  
YHVH our elo’ah, YHVH is one! (Deuteronomy 6:4)
YHVH YHVH EL merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth! (Exodus 34:6)

על כן נקוה לך (ירמיה יד:כב) יהוה אלהינו
לראות מהרה בתפארת עוזך
להעביר גילולים מן הארץ
והאלילים כרות יכרתון
לתקן עולם במלכות שדי
וכל בני בשר יקראו לשמך
להפנות אליך כל רשעי ארץ
יכירו וידעו כל יושבי תבל
כי לך תכרע כל ברך,
תשבע כל לשון (ישעיה מה:כג)
וכל קומה לפניך יהוה אלהינו
יכרעו ויפולו
לכבוד שמך יקר יתנו
ויקבלו כולם עול מלכותיך
ותמלוך עליהם מהרה לעולם ועד
כי המלכות שלך היא ולעלמי עד
תמלוך בכבוד לעולם ולעולמי עולמים קדושים
Therefore we hope for you (Jeremiah 14:22), YHVH our elo’ah,
to realize, quickly, the splendor of your power,
when you will remove idols from the earth,
and the non-gods (elilim) shall be utterly cut off,
when you will mend the world under your kingdom of Shadai,
and all the mortal children shall call on your name
so as to turn all the wicked of the earth to you.
Let all who dwell in the inhabited world recognize and know
that to you every knee must bend,
every tongue must swear fealty (Isaiah 45:23),
and all that stands before you, YHVH our elo’ah,
must kneel and fall prostrate;
to the glory of your name they must ascribe worth,
and all of them must accept the yoke of your kingdoms.
And quickly, your reign will be established over them in the cosmos forever,
for the kingdom is yours and in the cosmos forever
You will rule with kavod in the cosmos and eternally in the holy realms.

ואני אקדש שמך הגדול והגבור והנורא
ההדור האדיר והמופלא והנכבד
הדרירום אדרירום יציב גדול טהור מפורש שמך
חוצב בשלהביות של אש
חי יה יהו יהו קדוש ונורא
בראת עליונים ותחתונים במאמרך
ברוך אתה יהוה אדיר בחדרי שירה
And as for me, I will declare holy your great and mighty and fearsome name,
which is adorned, magnificent, wondrous, and honored,
Hadiryarom Adiryarom,[8] Or Hadiryaros Adiryaros. Cf. “Adiryaron Bahiryaron” at the beginning of the list of angelic names forming the acrostic 42-letter divine name in Sefer haPeliah and Sefer haQanah. An alternate spelling in those works has Adiryarots Bahiryarots with a tsadi sofit in place of the nun sofit.  firm, great, pure, explicit is your name.
It hews with flames of fire.[9] Cf. Psalms 92:7.  
Living YAH YHV YHV holy and fearsome.
You created the uppermost and the lowermost with your command.
Blessed are you, YHVH, magnificent in chambers of song.

The transcription of Alai l’Shabe’aḥ here is a reconstruction deriving largely from Oxford 1531 f.51a-b supplemented by text from MS NY 8128 (Jewish Theological Society) — with only minor exceptions, the text of Alai l’Shabe’aḥ provided by Gershom Scholem in his appendix to Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960). Scholem writes,

The following…contain the transcription of the text as I have restored it from the two manuscripts, Oxford 1531, folios 50a ff., and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America 828, folios 29a ff. Both manuscripts are from the circles of the German Ḥasidim, who preserved material that came to them from the Orient through southern Italy. Both manuscripts belong to the 14th century, the New York manuscript possibly to the beginning of the 15th. I have used the Oxford manuscript as a base for the transcription because in those parts which it contains it has, for the most part, the obviously better readings. But not a few lines, and even complete paragraphs (such as §§ 18-20), are missing in this manuscript whereas they are preserved in the New York manuscript. All additions in brackets are taken from this manuscript.

The English translation is adapted from that of David de Sola Pool, and that of James Davila in Hekhalot Literature in Translation: Major Texts of Merkavah Mysticism (Brill 2013), p. 259-261, while looking at the wording found in the variations of Alai l’Shabe’aḥ published by Peter Schäfer in Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur (Tiibingen, 1981), §550-551. I have replaced default male divine pronouns in the translation of the Hebrew grammar with “Hashem.” –Aharon Varady

Source(s)

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Notes

Notes
1 For more information, make sure to find “The Censorship of Aleinu in Ashkenaz and its Aftermath” by Ruth Langer in The Experience of Jewish Liturgy: Studies Dedicated to Menahem Schmelzer, ed. Debra Reed Blank (Brill 2011).
2 Some manuscripts ascribe the vision to Rebbi Yishmael.
3 in “‘Alay le-Shabbeaḥ: A Liturgical Prayer in “Ma’aśeh Merkabah,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct., 1986 – Jan., 1987, New Series, Vol. 77, No. 2/3 (Oct., 1986 – Jan., 1987), pp. 179-190.
4 referring to the previous prayer recorded in the Maaseh Merkavah (§548-549). Michael Swartz: “Rebbi Akiva’s description of his vision serves to testify to the success of the prayer for mercy. The prayer that follows is referred to as shebaḥ, “praise,” in §550 and indeed begins Alai le-shabbeaḥ, “It is [incumbent] upon me to praise” (§551). The narrative treats the prayer as an expression of Rebbi Akiva’s gratitude for his safety and the success of his vision, and as proof of his participation with the heavenly retinue in their praise.”
5 6,400,000,000.
6 The angelic name (or nomina barbara) “GDVDY” is found here with different spellings across the various manuscripts. The invocation of “YHVH Elohei Yisrael” in connection to “limbs” might be related to the gematria for the “YHVH Elohei Yisrael” being 613, and the Talmudic dictum that the body has 248 bones and 365 sinews, which add up to 613, equal to the number of mitsvot.
7 Cf. Zechariah 14:9.
8 Or Hadiryaros Adiryaros. Cf. “Adiryaron Bahiryaron” at the beginning of the list of angelic names forming the acrostic 42-letter divine name in Sefer haPeliah and Sefer haQanah. An alternate spelling in those works has Adiryarots Bahiryarots with a tsadi sofit in place of the nun sofit.
9 Cf. Psalms 92:7.

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