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Why do Lubavitchers spit whenever saying the Alenu Prayer?

Why do Lubavitchers spit whenever saying the Alenu Prayer?

This is a great question, but to put it in perspective, we must first analyze the  Alenu Prayer and its historical development. Without a doubt, the Alenu is one of the most moving prayers of the Jewish liturgy; it calls upon all the members of humankind to accept the One and only King of Kings, as Lord and Master of all the earth. Its universal message envisions a time when all the pagan gods will cease to be as humanity unites together in soulful worship. Without going into too much detail of the prayer, we will look only at the section that is relevant to our current discussion.

Let us praise Him, Lord over all the world;

Let us acclaim Him, Author of all creation.

He made our lot unlike that of other peoples;

He assigned to us a unique destiny.

We bend the knee, worship, and acknowledge

The King of kings, the Holy One, praised is He.

He unrolled the heavens and established the earth;

The origin of the prayer dates back to the time of the third century and is attributed to the sage Rav, who was a famous Babylonian scholar. The Jerusalem Talmud also makes an occasional reference to it.[1]Assuming that Rav is the writer of the Alenu prayer, then it is reasonable to assume he was referring to the conversion of the pagan—and not the Christian, since Christianity had not really spread into Babylon in Rav’s day. The prayer also stresses the importance of Israel, God’s chosen messenger, who introduced ethical monotheism to the world.

With this introduction, the background of the Alenu has been fairly well-established. During the 12th-13th centuries, Jewish communities in Europe often suffered because of the blood libels that were issued against them. At one famous accusation in the French town of Blois, thirty-four Jews were burned at the stake for having “participated” in the blood ritual. As they died, they recited the Alenu prayer.

Oppressed peoples who lived under the powerful hand of the Christian world often fought an ideological battle with the more powerful Christian or Muslim enemy, who oppressed them on a daily basis.  Obviously, they could not openly criticize their tormentors, so they resorted to a more subtle method of expressing their anger. Like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 137, ordinary people of that persecuted generation demanded that God dispense justice for the wrongs committed against their communities. The language of this psalm is disturbing but understandable when seen through the eyes of the powerless victim.

Some rabbis ingeniously used numerology to express contempt toward the Christian and Muslim world as a form of silent protest. So, a number of scholars decided to rewrite the Alenu Prayer with a couple of lines calling on God to eradicate the oppressive religions whose devoted followers  threatened Israel.[2]

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת. וְלֹא שָׂמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה. שֶׁלֹּא שָׂם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם וְגוֹרָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם. שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לָהֶבֶל וָרִיק וּמִתְפַּלְלִים אֶל אֵל לֹא יוֹשִׁיעַ: וַאֲנַחְנוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמוֹדִים לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא.

Let us praise Him, Lord over all the world;

Let us acclaim Him, Author of all creation.

He made our lot unlike that of other peoples;

For they bow down to vanity and emptiness

and pray to a god who cannot save . . .

The dating of this textual emendation, to the best of my knowledge, is mentioned by R. Elazer of Worms (1176 – 1238) [2b]who lived after the Blois blood libel of 1171. These words sound innocent enough except when you start looking for certain numerological patterns. The word וָרִיק can mean either “emptiness and spit.”  The numerological value (gematria) of this word equals the Hebrew name for Jesus— יֵשוּ  which adds up to 316. When one adds the phrase הֶבֶל וָרִיק “vanity and emptiness,” we get the gematria for Yeshu u Mohammed![3] Needless to say, this liturgical sleight of hand destabilized Christian and Jewish relations, which only got progressively worst over time when Jewish scholars who converted to Christianity pointed out these arithmetic patterns in the Siddur.

Some  communities changed the line to read, וּמִתְפַּלְלִים אֶל אֵל לֹא יוֹשִׁיעַ  (umitpallelim el ale lo yoshia) ‘They used to bow down to idols and pray to a god who does not save.’ This version still makes a pun and alliteration on Jesus’ Hebrew name, יְהוֹשֻׁעַ  and יוֹשִׁיעַ (yoshia =saves), as if to say, the belief in Jesus does NOT really “save.” This is an important message the rabbis wished to direct at Jews who might have considered conversion to the Christian faith.

Since the word for “emptiness” or “spit” meant essentially the same thing, it became customary for Jews in certain communities to spit[4] whenever they said these words. This custom appears to have originated with one of the great 16th century scholars, led by Rabbi Jacob Moellin (Maharil) of Mainz Germany (1356-1427), the renowned authority on liturgical customs, used to spit whenever he pronounced the word  varik. The Chabad Hassidic custom of spitting derives from the Maharil’s custom.[5]  One must seriously doubt whether  the entire Jewish community acted like the great rabbi did, but when the late Rebbe of Lubavitch spat, thousands of Hasidim joined in pious devotion. Despite the ubiquity of this custom among Chabad Hasidim, I would venture to say that 99% of them haven’t a clue as to why they spit. It is important to add, that some rabbis danced around the original wording by adding an extra letter, e.g., the lammed; thus in the Nusach Ari of Chabad, the text now reads: ולריק (velorik). The computation adds up now  to a numerological value of 346. This approach is a sleight-of-hand, and ignores the real theological issue.

RESTRICTING INDECENT SYNAGOGUE ETIQUETTE

The question of spitting in prayer is discussed in both the Talmud and in Halacha. Synagogues of old were more like Jewish community centers; people used to bring their animals, and even sleep in the synagogue like a motel. The Sages may have wanted to lighten up the rules regarding the synagogue and make it a bit more of secular space–at least when compared to the Temple Mount, where wearing shoes and spitting is forbidden (cf. T.B. Berchaot 63b). Despite the theoretical permissiveness of spitting in a synagogue, the Halacha goes to great pains to stress that spitting should not be done during services; in fact one should wait several moments before resuming prayer lest one appear as if one were mocking the words of the Siddur that are being recited! (See O.H. 92:9, with the Mishnah Berurah and other commentaries; Aruch HaShulchan O.H. 92:13). The Halacha also goes to great pains to show that spitting should not take place during a prayer service if there are people who would find such a custom offensive. The famous mystic of Safad, R. Isaac Luria, never used to spit in a synagogue. It seems strange that Chabad, which ordinarily follows Isaac Luria with respect to many of its customs, does not do so here.

The situation in Germany got so bad that in 1703 Frederick the Great of Prussia, ruled that the Jewish communities of his country must remove the controversial passage and even sent representatives to make sure the prayer was finally expunged from the Siddur. Today’s Orthodox and Haredi communities decided to restore the wording. Although Modern Orthodoxy does not believe in spitting, nevertheless, they still recite the modified words of the Alenu. The  Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish prayer books have eliminated the passages in question. I would strongly recommend to any person attending a Chabad House service that they insist that the practice  of spitting be discontinued, for such customs really belong in the Dark Ages and not in the present.

With the spread of diseases such as H1N1, the act of spitting also threatens to spread disease; simply put, not only is publicly spitting in prayer offensive, it is also potentially dangerous.

SEEING THROUGH THE EYES OF THE OTHER

In the Christian imagination spitting at Jesus exemplifies the suffering of Jesus at the hand of the zealots, who heaped scorn on Jesus for not assuming the role of a militaristic Messiah (Cf. Matt. 26:67; 27:30; Luke 14:65; Mark 15:19) and reflects some of the worst stereotypes about Jews that helped to inspired the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Yet the Catholic leadership  has acknowledged the problem of such negative caricatures and mandated specific guidelines for Passion plays, including: “Any presentations that explicitly or implicitly seek to shift responsibility from human sin onto this or that historical group, such as the Jews, can only be read to obscure a core gospel truth.”

Sadly, Jews who spit at Jesus’ name or at a Church, or toward Christian clergy as recently seen in the Old City of Jerusalem, re-enforce some of the worst stereotypes Christians have had about the Jews who turned against Jesus. As Jewish leaders, we have no right to ask the Christian community to purge its anti-Semitic references from its sacred writings unless we are prepared to do the same with our sacred texts. We are living in a different world today, we can ill afford to remain stuck in the medieval past, or with a medieval mentality. Religious leaders must act as a healing force for both faith communities.

The vast majority of Jews are embarrassed by this antiquated custom that only serves to belittle our neighbor’s faith in God.  It is vital that both our religious communities–Jewish  and Christian–learn from the mistakes of the past and make a promise not to repeat them.



Notes:

[1] JT Rosh Hashanah 1:3 57a, Avodah Zarah 1:2 39c.

[2] We have certain Psalms where our ancestors demanded that God punish the offspring of our ancient foes:

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks  (Psalm 137:8-9)

While these passages make us squirm, we must remember that anger is expressed through prayer; such prayers demand justice. When we look at their historical context, they begin to make more sense. While they may offend our contemporary sensibilities, we also realize that when people are suffering, they must give voice to their suffering–sometimes in unpleasant ways.

[2b]פירושי סידור התפילה לרוקח [קלב] מלכיות עמוד תרנז

[3] Prof. Eliezer Segel explains:

Armed with a bit of arithmetical creativity, you can prove almost anything, and it did not take long for some clever individuals to find an anti-Islamic reference in the same sentence. The full phrase “to vanity and emptiness” adds up to the numerological sum of “Jesus and Mohamet.” Unfortunately, the calculation requires some tampering with the spelling of the Muslim prophet’s name (which should end with a d, not a t), as well as the adding of a letter to the Hebrew text, so that it reads velarik instead of larik. However, such is the power of a good gimatria that the “emended” spelling was introduced into several texts of the prayer book, and was solemnly discussed by the learned commentaries of the time.

[4] In Yiddish the expression, ‘Er kumt tsum oysshpayen,’ ‘He arrives at spitting time,’ means to be very late for services since the Alenu is at the end.

[5] See Taz’s comments on Yoreh Deah 179:5, who seems to endorse Maharil’s dubious custom. However, the Mishnah Berurah makes absolutely no mention about the custom of spitting, which in itself is very significant that he rejected it outright. Other Halachic sources concur, cf. R. Isaiah Hurwitz (a.k.a. “the Shelah”) writes that the custom of spitting during the Alenu ought to be discontinued ( See Emek Bracha, Laws of Alenu #40.) Mekor HaHayim also urges his community to discontinue the custom [132:2]; According to Da’at Torah and Orah Ne’eman, this custom deserves to be condemned [ see Ishai Yisrael. p. 275].  R. Baruch Epstein, flatly states:

תורה תמימה הערות שמות פרק טו הערה מד

מד) בגמרא בפרקין (ק”א א’) מוקי ר’ יוחנן דאיירי ברוקק בה, ולפי שאין מזכירין שם שמים על הרקיקה, ופירש”י שכן דרך מלחשים לרקוק קודם הלחש, ור”ל כיון שמקודם רוקק ואח”כ אמר כל המחלה וגו’ כי אני ה’ רופאך, הרי מזכיר ש”ש על הרקיקה, אבל הטור יו”ד סי’ קע”ט פירש שדרכם להזכיר השם מקודם ואח”כ רוקקים, יעו”ש, ולפי’ הטור מסייע מנהגנו שרוקקים בתפלת עלינו קודם שמזכירים את השם משום דדוקא אם מזכיר את השם ואח”כ רוקק אז אסור דמיחזי כבזיון, אבל לרש”י דגם רקיקה קודם ההזכרה אסור קשה מנהגנו זה, ומש”כ הטור בסי’ הנ”ל, דהיכא דניכר שלשם כבוד רוקק כמו בתפלת עלינו אין קפידא, לדעתי אין זה מספיק, שהרי גם הלוחש אינו מכוין לבזיון השם, ואדרבה מזכירו בכבוד כי הוא רופא כל בשר, ובכ”ז מבואר דאסור משום דבכל אופן אין מדרך הכבוד להזכיר ש”ש ברקיקה. והיוצא מזה דלפירש”י ראוי למנוע מלרקוק בעלינו, וכן ראיתי גדולי החכמים נוהגים כן, וכן נהגתי אחריהם:



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