From a liturgical perspective, the three Festivals are among the richest times of the year for me. I love the melodies that are chanted on the Regalim, from the simple but evocative ma'ariv tunes to the more elaborate modes of the daytime services. I look forward every year to hearing and singing the melodies that are uniquely associated with each of the three Festivals: Adir Hu for Passover, the Na'anu'im (shaking of the four species) for Sukkot, and Akdamut for Shavuot (the melody commonly used for the evening kiddush on all festivals but particularly linked to Shavuot). I anticipate the reading of the megillot: The Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes, each on its respective holiday. But most of all, I relish the recitation of the piyyutim – the liturgical poems. On Sukkot, we recite Geshem – the prayer for rain: on Passover, Tal – the prayer for dew: and on Shavuot, Akdamut – the lengthy Aramaic introduction to the Torah reading.
I was recently sent a most fascinating article about Akdamut that was published in the Jewish Quarterly Review. Its author, Jeffrey Hoffman, explains that when it was written, Akdamut was meant to introduce the Aramaic translation of the Torah reading, which in many communities was chanted aloud along with the Hebrew text. The poem itself is 90 lines long, written in a very difficult, poetic Aramaic and of rather esoteric content. The prayers of Geshem and Tal, in contrast, are concise and deal with tangible subject matter, and are written in beautiful and accessible Hebrew, which helps explains their appeal and longevity. But on the subject of Akdamut, Hoffman poses a very valid question:
Why should such a lengthy creation in a language not understood by most Jews, introducing a translation of the Torah reading not used by these Jews for a thousand years, continue to be so popular that it is included in all traditional versions of the Ashkenazic festival prayer book?
In his article, Hoffman explains why the practice of reciting Akdamut has persisted even when the custom of reciting so many other liturgical poems has largely faded. In the 11th Century, following the brutal and devastating first Crusade in which the Jewish communities of Worms, Mayence, and other towns of the Rhine Valley were largely destroyed, there arose a Yiddish folk-tale that must have served as a kind of salve to the extensive wounds of the community that was recently traumatized by terrible persecution. In the tale (which is rather elaborate), a wicked monk-sorcerer uses black magic to murder over thirty thousand Jews. The Jewish community appeals to the Christian king for protection which results in the monk declaring that he will desist from persecuting the Jews if they can produce a champion whose skills in the art of sorcery are greater than his own. The Jews despair of ever finding such a savior, but at the eleventh hour (only days before the festival of Shavuot), Rabbi Meir, the leader of the community (and the real-life author of Akdamut) is dispatched to cross the mystical river of Sambatyon (from which place he can never return), beyond which reside the 10 lost tribes. He does so, and there finds a hero, Dan (like the tribe), to challenge the evil monk. Before Dan sets off on his journey, Rabbi Meir composes and recites to him the poem Akdamut and entreats him (should he prevail in his mission) to have the community recite it every year on Shavuot "for the sake of his name" (which is acrostically embedded in the second half of the poem). Dan, using incantations of mystical names of God, defeats and kills the monk; he then institutes the annual recitation of Akdamut.
Over time, the tale became inseparably associated with the piyyut. It did not matter that Rabbi Meir composed the poem years before the Crusades, or that the tale was written long after his death. The recitation of Akdamut evoked a story of redemption and vengeance that would have been broadly familiar to synagogue goers; ultimately, it was not the obscure Aramaic poem that was so beloved, but rather the colorful tale that was inextricably linked to it.
I am of the opinion that the Akdamut melody also had something to do with its survival. The tune has entered the canon of "miSinai" melodies – those tunes whose origin is so obscured with time that we say they were given to Moses at Mount Sinai – and I believe its iconic status has also helped to preserve the recitation of the piyyut associated with it.
Hoffman, in addition to his valuable study of the folk-tale connection, also offers a new translation of Akdamut in his piece for the JQR. I will be making copies of the translation available in synagogue on Shavuot. You may also read the full article by Hoffman by clicking here if you care to read his much more detailed analysis. I hope that you will join us on the first day of Shavuot to hear Akdamut being recited, perhaps with new ears (remember to be there by 10:00 AM or you'll miss it!).
On a personal note, I will add that for me Akdamut evokes strong memories of Rabbi Pomerantz. He had a way of chanting the poem with such zeal and delight that it brought life to the words in a way I had never heard before. Of course, Shavuot is also Rabbi Pomerantz' yahrzeit, so coming to hear Akdamut would be a lovely and meaningful way of honoring his memory at this time of year.
See you in shul!
Cantor Sam Levine