Jewish morning & evening prayer, the Aleinu

The prayer Aleinu (“It is our duty to praise”) is the closing prayer of the morning, afternoon and evening service among observant Jews.

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 it 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 You 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.”

Notice that some of the phrases sound just like some of the phrases you might find in the New Testament, particularly under Saint Paul. And, this should not be surprising. Some date this prayer to before the birth of Christ, some to after. But, certainly, before it was written, various phrases would have been making the rounds. Note that some of the phrases almost sound like some of the Islamic phrases used today.

Oral tradition was a strong component of Judaism. The Mishna is a codification of received oral teachings. Thus, even if the prayer was not written down until after Christ, there is at least one set of Jewish traditions that assign the writing of the prayer to Joshua, after the fall of Jericho. Another way to put it is that these traditions confirm that the oral prayer predated the written prayer by several centuries. And this tradition of oral prayer continued on into both Christianity and Islam.

Christians inherited this mix of oral tradition and written prayers. You can read it in the writings of Saint Paul when he talks to the Corinthians about keeping the Lord’s Supper as they were taught. That is, he cites the oral tradition, and then he corrects the misunderstanding of the oral tradition by giving written instructions. Just like the Mishna was put together to unite the various bits of oral tradition, so were the Gospels. Saint Luke even speaks about talking to people and putting together what he learned in order that Theophilus may know the accurate truth about what transpired.

Throughout the Epistles of the New Testament, the emphasis is on correcting teachings that were misunderstood. Really, only the Book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) is not a correction of teaching, despite the letters written to the Seven Churches. The Epistles, and the introduction to the Book of the Apocalypse all assume that there is an oral tradition that has been handed down and must be kept correctly. This oral tradition concerns teachings of doctrine, worship, leadership, moral teachings, etc.

Note that where the oral tradition is well received, there is no exposition of it in the New Testament. As one of my professors pointed out many years ago, it is impossible to put together a New Testament worship by simply reading the New Testament. That is because only corrections to the worship, or passing mentions of it are found in the Epistles. The actual worship is only described in the Early Church Fathers and manuals such as The Didache.

In other words, the New Testament was meant to work alongside oral tradition as an authoritative correction to the oral tradition. But, the New Testament was not meant to be a complete exposition of doctrine, worship, etc. I think the Lutherans have it closer to correct when they say that if it is not forbidden in Scripture, it is permitted (when it comes to worship). Mind you, I would argue that even this principle is not quite correct, as I would prefer to say that if it is not forbidden in Scripture, look to the received tradition to see whether it is permitted.

In other words, it does take Scripture and Holy Tradition to correctly and in balance understand what we believe, how to worship, how leadership is chosen, etc.


  1. says

    I would say there’s an even deeper underlying issue flowing from the fact that we are fundamentally shaped within the context of a literate rather than an older culture — we tend to treat the Holy Scriptures and the overarching received tradition of the faith as if they are two different things. And that misunderstands how human beings through much of our history passed along knowledge and approached the written word.

    And part of that misunderstanding flows from the fact that we misunderstand the fundamental difference between a literate and an oral culture. It’s not really about how many people in the culture can read and write, at least to some extent, or even how many written works they produce. I can’t remember where I read it, but the description that’s stuck in my mind is that it’s about whether written sources are trusted or privileged over oral or not. Certainly a great many cultures in the ancient had many citizens who could read and write, but they were still oral cultures. In fact, from everything I’ve studied historically, it seems like the Jewish culture at the time of Christ was highly literate in the sense that a very high percentage of those in it could read and write, but it was still a deeply oral culture.

    In fact, as far as I can tell (and from everything I’ve read), it wasn’t until the advent of the printing press that the shift from an oral to a literate culture even became possible. And that’s because before the printing press, fidelity of reproduction could not be a privileged and unconscious assumption. We unconsciously and automatically privilege what someone says if they can back it up with written sources because we tend to trust the printed word over spoken communication. We want to verify that the speaker hasn’t distorted the source, taken it out of context, and incorrectly conveyed its meaning. In oral cultures (not just from history, but also from studies of the few oral cultures that have survived into the modern world) that process is reversed.

    And that really does make sense when you think about it. Before the printing press and without means to widely associate a work with its author, copies of even the most famous and widely read texts tended to be expensive, rare, and laboriously produced by hand. In that context, if you received a written communication, how did you know it was really from the one who claimed to write it? If it was a preserved and broadly read text, how did you know a copy you had accurately reflected the original? How did you even know you had read it correctly? You trusted those who brought it to you. And since copies were rare and precious (even after the shift from scrolls to the somewhat less expensive codices) it was normal in the ancient world to commit large texts or swaths of texts to memory and they had a lot of tools and techniques to do that. (We’re still capable, we just mostly don’t do that anymore and aren’t taught to do that because it’s no longer necessary.) So there was nothing unusual about, for example, the requirement that a Bishop must have the entire Psalter committed to memory before being ordained as such (which was a canon for one swath of time). That sort of thing was very common across the ancient world (pagan, Jewish, or Christian).

    We tend to have this vision of Paul sitting in prison or elsewhere writing (or dictating) these letters, sealing them, and having a messenger deliver them. The recipient then opens the letter, reads it, and then shares the letter with others. But that’s really not the way the process worked at all. First, the process of working with a scribe was very interactive. The scribe would participate in the development of a written work, shaping it as it was developed, and sometimes even interjecting his own thoughts. A work produced with a different scribe would alter the nature of the work. Most ancient writings were short communications or recordings of lists of facts, but the longer works (whether Plato or Paul) were very different in nature. They are fundamentally rhetoric or oral arguments captured in written form and need to be approached as such. Paul was not writing letters that could simply be read and understood by the recipient. Among other things, ancient writing had a single case, no punctuation, and no spaces between words. Part of the process for delivering such communications, then, involved having a messenger carry the letter who would then know how to deliver it orally to the recipients, ensure the people knew it really was from Paul and delivering it to them as if Paul himself were present to speak or tradition it to them. So the one carrying the letter was not simply a messenger. They were a vital part of the process of delivering the communication properly to those receiving it. When those receiving it passed it on, they had to do so faithfully in the manner they had received it.

    And then, of course, writings from those who received the tradition of our faith directly from Christ and the Spirit and handed it over to the Church (adapting and developing the practices as it moved to include the non-Jewish world as well) were seen as precious and faithfully preserved and communicated to those who followed and were eventually seen as Holy Scripture in addition to the Jewish Scriptures. (We see the beginning of that process very early, actually.) So the Holy Scriptures are not somehow different or distinct from the oral tradition of our faith, rather they are the highest product of it. They cannot be divorced from that context.

    Sorry. I have a tendency to ramble. Feel free to edit or even delete the above. I think I mostly just reiterated your central point at length anyway.

    • says

      Given what you said, it is interesting to note that when the Early Church Fathers discussed the writings, before the canon was settled, part of their judgment over the writings was whether their content tallied with what they had received orally. Until they were verified, oral tradition held it over the writings. After they were verified, then they were indeed considered fully authoritative. But, that is a reverse of what many believe happened.

Leave a Reply -- who knows what might happen?