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29 May 2020



Shavuot remains one of the key festivals of the Jewish year.  Biblically ordained, it reminds us of the wheat harvest in ancient Israel, as well as the bringing of the Bikkurim (the First Fruits) to the Temple.  Beyond these agricultural connections to Israel’s past, the rabbis in the Talmud associated these few days in the month of Sivan with the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai.  Not surprisingly the public reading of the Ten Commandments remains the focus of our synagogue service on day one of the festival.

To embellish this part of the service, and for the only time in the entire year, we incorporate a liturgical poem just as the Cohen arrives on the bima for the first aliya of the day.  The poem is chanted in alternate lines by the reader and the congregation.  Written in Aramaic, in order to distinguish it from the Hebrew of the Biblical text, it is entitled Akdamut after its opening word.  The first of ninety lines begins - Akdamut Milin etc. Let me introduce these words by asking permission to begin.

One interesting feature of this poem is that each and every final word in each line ends with the Hebrew letters תאthe last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting the idea of uninterrupted study of the Torah: no sooner have we reached the last letter than we begin again.

But it is the history of this poem that contains a fascinating, mythological story that I want to share with you now.

One thousand years ago, religious poets living in the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley composed soaring piyyutim (liturgical poetry) for the Shabbat and Yom Tov services.  Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak Nehorai (the Illuminator) of Orléans was a giant among those poets.  Recognized by contemporaries for his scholarship, artistry, and piety, Rabbi Meir was active in Worms in the latter half of the eleventh century.  Akdamut is his masterwork.  

The theme of Akdamut is Israel's great merit before God because of her loyalty in the face of persecution.  While its only direct connection to Shavuot is in the final line which speaks of the giving of the Torah, it remains highly relevant.  The poem is a symbolic confrontation between the gentile nations and Israel.  The poet alludes, obliquely but unmistakably, to the social and theological pressures facing the Jews of Germany in the eleventh century, which culminated with the horrors of the First Crusade in 1096.

The year 1096 was a critical year for the city of Worms, as well as for nearby Mainz and Cologne.  That was the year that these towns (and, to a lesser extent, Speyer, and the surrounding area) suffered the First Crusade's worst anti-Jewish violence in Europe.  Approximately 30,000 Jews were slaughtered.  The confrontations occurred around the time of Shavuot.  

Although the Jewish communities of Franco-Germany eventually recovered, these killings - the very first outbreak of Christian anti-Jewish mass-murder in Europe - left a lasting impression on the Jewish consciousness of the region.  The impact was expressed in the introduction of additional fast days and in the composition of prayers such as Av Harahamim, which remains part of our regular Shabbat morning service and the Yizkor service, recited on Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  So we see that the original purpose of Yizkor was to memorialise those Jews who had been slain by the Crusaders.  Their names were recorded in Yizkor-buchenand then read out publicly in synagogue on those holy days.

But let me return to the fascinating story of Akdamut.  

In an article written by Jeffrey Hoffman published in the Jewish Quarterly Review, (Vol. 99, Spring 2009) I found the following amazing and wondrous story.  This story sets Rabbi Meir (if it is supposed to be the same person) in a completely different chronological setting almost three centuries later.

In 1361 CE, at the time of King Martin de Lance, adherents of magic and sorcery increased in the world.  Some of these practitioners of the occult passed themselves off as monks with long cassocks.  These monk-sorcerers built castles and lived in these strongholds.  They grew very powerful and were able to bring to themselves the most beautiful women.  The leader and teacher of them all was a master of black magic who was a cruel enemy of the Jews.  Whenever he came upon a Jew, he would place him under a spell simply by touching him.  When the Jew returned to his home, he would fall down and die.  

This "monk" murdered over thirty thousand Jews through his black magic.  The Jews of Worms sent a delegation to the king to request protection. Since the monk and his followers presented a threat to the power of the king himself, the king then summoned the monk.  The monk declared that he would desist from attacking the Jews for one year on the condition that at the end of the year the Jews present a member of their own community for a contest in sorcery.  If the Jews succeeded in this contest, the monk promised that he would never again bother the Jews.  If they failed, he would kill them all. 

The Jews felt that they had no choice but to agree.  

They immediately turned to tradition: they fasted and engaged in deeds of teshuvah, tefilah, and tsedakah, (repentance, prayer, and charity).  They also dispatched letters throughout the Diaspora asking for help, but no one came forward who was willing to challenge the “monk”.

At this time of desperation, as the months of the allotted year were rolling by, a certain scholar in the community fell asleep while studying and in his dream saw that the rescuer would not come from the Diaspora or the Land of Israel, but rather from beyond the River Sambatyon, where the ten lost tribes of Israel dwelled.  It was necessary to contact the Jews of the ten lost tribes for help.  Everyone agreed to send R. Meir, who was a great scholar, known for his piety, and a leader of the Jews of Worms. 

They sent him with a letter explaining their situation signed by the rabbinic leadership of the community, supplies for the journey, and three accompanying rabbis.  After many difficulties and much time, the party arrived at the banks of the river Sambatyon on a Tuesday, exactly eight days before the year would run out.  

Now, the Sambatyon River is impossible to traverse during the six days of the week, for it is too turbulent for any boat and the waters constantly fling dangerous rocks into the air.  Only on the Sabbath do the waters calm enough for a boat to sail across, but, of course, embarking on a boat journey on the Sabbath is forbidden.  Nevertheless, the group knew that the river would have to be crossed on the Sabbath for the sake of saving lives. 

When the Sabbath arrived, R. Meir instructed the accompanying rabbis to remain and that only he would take upon himself the burden of violating the Sabbath, crossing the river by boat. 

As soon as R. Meir arrived on the other side of the river, he was placed in prison and told that he would be stoned to death for violating the Sabbath.  However, once the Jews of the ten lost tribes read the community's letter explaining the dire circumstances, R. Meir was released from prison.  

On that same Sabbath, the Jews of the ten lost tribes cast lots to see who would face the monk in order to save R. Meir's imperilled community.  The lot fell on a short, lame, elder of the community named Dan, who was pious, upright, and God-fearing. 

R. Meir was told to stay on this side of the river, for he had accomplished his mission and could not justify violating the Sabbath day a second time by crossing back over the Sambatyon.  Rather, Dan sailed back alone. 

When R. Meir's escorts encountered Dan on the far side of the river they lost heart, for how could their rescuer be such a little old man who walked with a limp?  Nevertheless, they set out to return.  Fortunately Dan held secret, mystical knowledge of how to use the recital of God's names to bring about miracles.  Using this knowledge, the group of four returned to Worms in just two days through what is called a kefitsat ha-derekh (a miraculous short cut; lit., "a jumping of the way").  So the group arrived with just one day to spare to try and save the Jewish community.

It also happened to be two days before the holiday of Shavuot. 

When the Jewish community in Worms beheld the little old man walking with a limp and were informed that he was to be their redeemer, they were struck with terror, for how could he stand up to the fearsome monk who was a master of black magic? 

In the presence of the king and huge crowds of Jews and gentiles in the town square, the contest took place.  The monk used incantations to harm Dan, and Dan used recitations of mystical names of God to counteract the monk's magic and to fight back. 

The monk recited some magic words and created two large millstones which hovered in the air.  Then the monk was able to draw them down into his hands and grind them up as if they were merely made of sand.  Dan then took the remains of these millstones and made a huge mountain of them.  Then he kneaded the earth of the mountain like a woman kneads dough and made from it two millstones larger than the original ones, caused them to hover in the air, and challenged the monk to bring them down.  But the monk could not.  After a number of other stages of the fight, with the monk losing each round, Dan finally attached the monk to the top of an aged, towering tree, brought the gigantic millstones down, and made them grind the monk into powder.  

Dan then told the Jews that on the previous Sabbath, when R. Meir accompanied him to the boat, R. Meir had composed and recited to Dan the poem Akdamut .  R. Meir requested, through Dan, that the community recite the poem each Shavuot during their worship services "for the sake of his name," for his name is so to speak signed within the acrostic.

(What was meant by that last comment is that after the first 44 lines, which form a double alphabetical acrostic, the remainder of the prayer, using the first letter of each line, spells out the Hebrew words “Meir, son of Rabbi Isaac, may he grow in strength and good deeds, Amen.  Be Strong and of good courage.”)

The tale connects R. Meir (though it is not clear, which R. Meir) and the city of Worms with Akdamut in such a way as to elevate R. Meir to the status of valiant hero, and to elevate Akdamut above the status of a regular prayer in the order of service for Shavuot, into an anthem celebrating a miracle.

In halakhic literature, the recital of Akdamut is first mentioned around the very end of the 14thcentury, and was first included as part of the prayer book in the 1557.  

Although this year, we will not be able to recite Akdamut in shul in the normal way, I hope my article will encourage you to take a look in your Shavuot mahzor at this historic poem that comes with such an extra-ordinary story.  Judaism, a religion of law and logic, rarely entertains folk stories like this one, but in doing so the story of Akdamut does present us with a very different facet of Jewish life and Jewish learning.

Chag Sameach