Back to Blogs

Aleinu LeShabeach – A Prayer for the Generations

Cheshvan 5782 | October 2021

Aleinu LeShabeach – A Prayer for the Generations


When my great great grandfather arrived in America in 1895, it was important to him to ensure that Jewish tradition continued in the New World. It is reported that he would stand by his cutting table in his clothing factory with the Gemara open in front of him, learning as he worked. In fact, he would go on to teach and organize the first Siyum haShas in America.  Out of that same factory, he founded Chabad of America, at the request of the Rebbe. He bought a house and built a synagogue in the backyard. That shul was immortalized in pictures in the family birkon that came out in various editions in 1936, 1947 and 1995. However, the first edition was always prized by the children, not because of its age, but because of the prominent presence of a spittoon in front of the Aron Kodesh. In later editions, it was deemed not respectful and the spittoon was removed from the picture.

Fast forward almost 100 years from my great great grandfather’s arrival in America, and my family and I are on a plane to Israel making aliyah. We too, want to ensure the continuation of Jewish tradition, but have an easier job, travelling the country with the knowledge that the scenes of the Tanakh are playing out in front of us.

When my husband and I began learning Sefer Yehoshua, we took the opportunity to drive 20 minutes from our home to the kever of Yehoshua bin Nun, and to learn a few perakim there. There is a tradition to say the prayer of Aleinu at the kever, as Aleinu is attributed to Yehoshua.  According to Rav Hai Gaon, the Rokeach and the Kol Bo, Yehoshua wrote the first paragraph of Aleinu after the splitting of the Jordan River through which Am Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, at the beginning of the conquest of the land. Sefer Chareidim cites this as the prayer recited as the city of Jericho was encircled. We don’t know what this tradition was based on but it makes sense when one examines the content of the prayer. As Am Yisrael transitioned out of their spiritual lives in the desert in order to live as people of the Land, Yehoshua strove to give them guidance. They were leaving the protected existence of the desert and would be encountering the Canaanite nations and their cultures. “It is our duty to praise the Master of all… for He has not made us like the nations of the lands…But we bend our knees, bow and acknowledge our thanks before the King who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He…He is our G-d and there is no other…” This spiritual directive would guide the people, a generation of new Jews, who were not slaves in Egypt, and who had only known the life of the manna and the pillars of fire and clouds through the desert. While the first paragraph discusses the unique place of Jews as the nation of G-d, the second paragraph expresses the hope that the people of the world will one day recognize G-d as King as well. This beautiful tefilla sums up the basic tenets of Jewish belief, so much so that the Rema rules that one must have special concentration when reciting this tefilla.

Saying the Aleinu at the kever of Yehoshua inspired me to look more deeply into the history of this daily prayer. Our first recorded mention of the prayer is in the Mussaf of Rosh HaShana, which was attributed to the Amora Rav (3rd c., Babylonia), who used it as an introduction to the section of Malkhuyot, the section where we crown G-d as King. It is certainly a possibility that he took a known prayer and inserted it into the high holyday prayers. Others say that it was part of the prayer instituted by the Anshei Knesset HaGedola. In any case, it is clearly an early prayer. It was only much later, in the Machzor Vitry (early 12th century) that we find the use of Aleinu as a closing to the daily prayers, although it was probably not yet fully accepted, as it does not appear in the Rambam. We have accounts from Blois, France, in 1171, which tell of a number of Jews who were burned at the stake for refusing to renounce their faith and who went to their deaths singing Aleinu to the astonishment of the executioners.  This may have become the practice amongst the martyrs of the time.  By the sixteenth century the Ar”i z”l had ruled that both paragraphs of Aleinu should be recited at the conclusion of all three daily prayers. This ruling affected the Sephardic communities as well, where the practice was not as accepted.  Rav Ezra Bick suggests that the incorporation of this prayer, which was previously reserved for the holy days serves the same purpose as it did in the time of Yehoshua.  Just as Yehoshua instituted the prayer to guide the people as they left the protection of the desert, the Aleinu was instituted at the end of every prayer to send us back into the world outside of the synagogue with a strong grounding in who we are meant to be.

It was exactly that clash with the outside world that led to a censoring of the prayer. In the first paragraph there is a line “For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save.” שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וָרִיק, וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים אֶל אֵל לֹא יוֹשִׁיעַ. It is a compilation of two verses from Yishayahu. This sentence, amongst others, was the basis of a claim that Aleinu was an attack on the Church. (Despite the fact that none of the possible scenarios for when it was written are in a time or place where the church was extant). About 100 years after the publication of the Machzor Vitry, an apostate Jew named Pesach/Peter, stated that the word וריק  (and emptiness) had the same gematria as ישו (Jesus) and that the prayer was meant to slander Christianity. Christians and apostate Jews alike repeated this charge over the next two centuries. This led to the censoring of this sentence from the prayer, such that many siddurim omit the sentence to this day. In the Machzor Aram Tzova (16th c.), the prayer is printed with a blank line in the middle so that the missing sentence can be written in by hand. The fear of this sentence by the authorities was so extreme that in 18th c. Berlin there were government inspectors placed in synagogues to make sure that no one was adding back in the censored verse.

And here is where we return to my great great grandfather’s spittoon in front of the Aron kodesh. As a result of the censoring of this sentence, and perhaps to preserve the memory of it, a strange custom, first mentioned in the 15th century, began. At the point where one would have said the words להבל וריק (to vanity and emptiness) one was supposed to spit on the floor. One explanation is that this was because of the similarity in Hebrew between the word  (emptiness)ריק and the word רוק (Spit). Another is that one should clean one’s mouth out between mentioning idol worship and continuing prayer.

Despite the Rabbis’ protests, the practice persisted and became a part of the culture, so much so that there is an expression in Yiddish for someone who is very late to synagogue: “He arrives at the spitting [קומען צום אױסשפּײַען / kumen tsum oysshpayen].” – He arrived in time for the Aleinu prayer at the end of the service. In fact, Chabad to this day continue this minhag of spitting. My great great grandfather, who founded Chabad of America, had no qualms about placing a spittoon in front of the Aron Kodesh.

So in this roundabout way, the prayer which Yehoshua composed to guide Am Yisrael into the land of Israel, because he worried what would happen when they encountered the people of a new and foreign land, accompanied my ancestor when he too worried about bringing his family to a new and unknown land, just as the Rabbis who added it to the daily prayers had hoped. Thankfully, this familial concern for tradition continued down to my generation and brought my family back to the land of Israel where we can experience the history of Tanakh and the connection to the people, the Torah and the land in our everyday lives in a way that our ancestors could never have dreamed.

Rebecca Linzer

has a B.Sc. in Biology from Barnard College and an M.Sc in Genetics from Rutgers University. She studied at Orot College in Israel and Drisha in New York. She is a graduate of the Morot L’Halakha program at Matan HaSharon. She teaches Talmud and Development of Halakha at Matan HaSharon and in Oranit. She is the International Coordinator for the Matan Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah Program and the administrator of the Beit Midrash Programs at Matan HaSharon. She has a website that helps parents add Jewish learning to the family table