“Akdamut” and “Ketuvah”
From one end of the Diaspora to the other, a need was felt to add components to the Service of Shavuot. The components added, “Akdamut,” “Before I Speak,” created in and added throughout the world of Ashkenazic Jewry, and “Ketuvah,” “The Marriage Contract,” created in and very popular in the world of Sefardic Jewry, were expressions of the unique conditions existing in those areas of the Exile.
“Akdamut” – The Background
Akdamut is a “piyut,” a religious poem, which was composed during the First Crusade, which began in 1096, as an effort by Christian Europe to recapture the “Holy Land” from the Moslem “infidels” who had seized it. On their way to the Middle East, the Christian knights would, in general, visit terror if not outright destruction upon the Jewish communities which happened to be on their route. It was a time of oppression, of cruelty, of ignorance on the part of the Jews’ neighbors. There was absolutely nothing attractive in the dominant culture in Europe at that time.
Nevertheless, the Christians tried to force their religion upon their Jewish neighbors, often at the threat of death. Sometimes, mock “debates” were held, in which Jewish rabbis were forced to participate, knowing that the juries, consisting of church officials, were rigged against them, and that nothing they said would have any effect on their listeners, or upon their own fate. The author of Akdamut was the unwilling participant in such a “debate.”
This then was the background of Akdamut, composed at that time by Rabbi Meir son of Rabbi Yitzchak, who was the “Chazan” of the City of Vermaiza, in Germany. The position “Chazan” is not directly translatable as “Cantor,” which is its current meaning, for at that time, there was the additional connotation of great Talmudic scholarship associated with the position and, indeed, this particular Chazan is supposed to have been one of the teachers of the great Bible and Talmud Commentator, RASHI.
The poem describes the words of the author as he “debated” the truths of Judaism to a hostile audience. But they are disguised for posterity in the Aramaic language, which was not understood by the Christian world or its censors. The author, who died shortly after the “debate,” left behind a priceless inheritance for the Jewish People, the piyut of Akdamut. The practice began to chant Akdamut on Shavuot, with its characteristic melody, at the beginning of the public reading which includes the “Aseret HaDibrot,” the Ten Commandments.
“Akdamut” – The Structure
Akdamut has ninety lines; the first forty-four begin with a double Aleph-Bet; Aleph, Aleph, Bet, Bet, and so on. The first letters of the next forty-six lines make up an acrostic in which the author expresses the prayer that the L-rd will bless him with the ability and opportunity, even in the extremely hostile environment in which he found himself, to grow in knowledge of Torah and in the performance of good deeds.
Each line of the poem, written in Aramaic, as mentioned above, ended in the letters “Tav,” the last letter of the Aleph Bet, and “Aleph,” the first letter of the Aleph-Bet, to show that when one reaches the last letter, the “end” of the Torah, so to speak, one immediately turns and restarts the Torah from its “beginning.”
“Akdamut” – Free Translation of Content
Before I begin to read his Words (The Ten Commandments), I will ask Permission, Of the One Whose Might is such that – Even if all the heavens were parchment, And all the reeds pens, And all the oceans ink, And all people were scribes, It would be impossible to record the Greatness of the Creator, Who Created the World with a soft utterance, And with a single letter, the letter “heh,” The lightest of the letters.
And Angels of Heaven of all kinds, All full of fear and terror of their Master, Have permission to praise him only at set times, Some once in seven years, Others once and no more,
How beloved is Israel! For the Holy One leaves the Angels on High, To take the People of Israel as His lot – And they make Him their King, And declare, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Twice a day, Morning and Evening –
And all His Desire is that His Chosen People Will study His Torah and pray to Him, For they are inscribed in His Tefillin, “Who is like Your People, Israel, One nation in the World!”
Thus it is the will of the Holy One, That I speak in praise of Israel, And though all the nations come and ask, Who can it Be, for Whom you give up your lives, O most beautiful of the nations? But come with us, And we’ll satisfy all your desires!
And Israel responds with wisdom, Only a bit of the truth do they reveal, What is your greatness, say they to the nations, Compared to the reward that He has in store for us! And when He sheds upon us His great light, While you go, then are destroyed in darkness!
Yerushalayim will be rebuilt! The Exiles will return, The Gates of Gan Eden will Re-Open, And all their Brilliance will be Revealed to us – We will enter those Gates and take Pleasure, In the Radiance of the Divine Presence, Whom we will point to, and say – Here is our G-d, in Whom we hoped, He will save us!
And each righteous one under his canopy will sit, In the Sukkah made from the skin of Leviathan, And in the future He will make a dance for the righteous ones, And a banquet in Paradise, From that Great Fish and the Wild Ox , And from the Wine preserved from the Creation – Happy are those who believe and hope and Never abandon their faith forever!
Now you my listeners, When you hear your praise in this song, Be strong in your faith! And you will merit to sit in the company Of the holy and righteous ones In the World-to-Come! If you’ve listened well to my words, Which were uttered in holy majesty – Great is our G-d! The First and the Last! Happy are we, for He loved us, And gave us His Torah.
“Ketuvah” – The Background
This “piyut,” actually a love song, modelled after Shir HaShirim, the Book of the Bible which is a metaphor for the relationship between the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and the People of Israel. The poem takes on the form of a marriage contract between Israel and the Torah, composed by Rabbi Yisrael Najara.
It emerged from the world of Sefardic Jewry, which at that time was radically different from Christian Europe. The Sefardic World, ruled mainly by the Moslems, had many features which were attractive to the Jewish communities which lived among them. The Moslems at that time were world leaders in Poetry, Philosophy, Grammar, Mathematics and many other cultural expressions. This caused a reaction in the Jewish communities, which took the form of an unprecedented focus on such areas as, essentially, all the branches of culture cited above, as illustrative of the Moslem world. The time of Rabbi Yisrael Najara, a great Jewish Grammarian and Poet, was indeed a Golden Age, unprecedented perhaps, in the range of opportunities available to Jews, and taken advantage of by Jews, till the Golden Age of America.
“Ketuvah” – (More-or-Less) Free Translation of Content
My Beloved went down to His garden, to His bed of spices, To delight in the princess, and to spread over her the canopy of His peace; “King Solomon made for Himself a Palace.”
Serafim and Ophanim He abandoned, and His Horsemen and Chariot, And with the beloved doe, He observed His banquet; “On the day of His wedding and the rejoicing of His heart.”
My beloved, My doe, Come with Me to My chamber, my hall, For your sake I have left all the legions above, and their host; “And I have betrothed you unto Me forever.”
Said the Awesome One, You Who from the time of love I have heard Him, And I love Him with an Eternal love, “May He kiss me with the kisses of His Mouth!”
To go to the wedding canopy, agreed the dancer of the camps, And for her “We will do, and then obey” merited six hundred thousand crowns; “In the third month, from the time That Israel left Mitzrayim.”
And the connection was strong With this Nation, which He acquired at Sinai, And the Deed of Purchase and the Signature I read for My throngs, “Behold! It is written before Me.”
On the Sixth Day I will read what is written in the Letter, A day on which to bequeath to His beloved ones the Torah, The Living G-d did Intend, “Six Days in the Month of Sivan.”
The Last Segment
“…That He should not travel far away, Or make His way in the sea, Without the Torah placed near His heart; “It should be with Him, and He shall read from it”
“And all these conditions are strong and stand fast,” As the host of heaven in the sky is arrayed, “Forever and ever, and for Eternity.”
And the Groom swears to fulfill them all for His congregation, And to bequeath “Yesh,” “Substance” to those who love Him And who do His will, “The L-rd swore with His Right Hand.”
And the Bridegroom Acquired five Possessions, And among them were the Torah and the Testimony, And the Treasure betrothed, “And He laid the corner-stone.”
Let the righteous see and rejoice, And let them enjoy their reward, Of a Testimony that is “longer as the land, And wider than the sea,” “And all is strong, and clear, and steadfast!
And He established the Torah in Yaakov with vigor, And He commanded to erect its fences So no one would break through! “And I established faithful witnesses, The Heavens and the Earth!
Let the Bridegroom rejoice with the Bride, To take for his possession, And let the heart of the Bride rejoice With the husband of her youth, And let her say to the one who sings His praises, “Happy is the People for whom it is so!”