Aleinu is such a prominent feature of every tefillah that it is difficult to conceive of davening without it. Nonetheless, strange to say, centuries passed before it reached full prominence in our daily lives.
Apparently, Jews originally said Aleinu only during Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We find a wide range of opinions beginning eight hundred years ago regarding its daily recital.
The siddur of Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam (Niftar 4964/1204) make absolutely no mention at all of Aleinu in the daily davening. The first sefer to mention the recital of Aleinu every day, the Machzor Vit- ri, only mentions saying it after Shacharis. Rav Eliezer of Worms (Niftar 5033/1273) also only mentions the daily Aleinu in his section on Shacharis (Sefer haRokei’ach, chapter 324).
The Meiri (Niftar 5073/1315) has a compromise opinion, considering Aleinu as one option of creating a delay before leaving shul.
The argument whether or not to say Aleinu continued. While the Tur (Niftar 5103/1343) mentions reciting Aleinu (O.C. 133), the ShulchanAruch (132:2) says nothing about it, only writing, “It is forbidden to leave shul before the Kedushah of the Sidra (U’va l’Tziyon).״ To this the Rema adds, “After the tefillah, we say Aleinu while standing.” He does not even mention saying it after Mincha or Maariv.
One of the first authorities to mention saying Aleinu after all the tefillos is the Ma- gen Avraham (died 5443/1683) who cites earlier manuscripts saying, “One should say it after every tefillah.”
The Shulchan Aruch of Rav Yitzchak Luriah (the Ari Z”L) (a collection of his pesakim, page 43) also writes, “Regarding Aleinu, know that this is an infinitely great praise; therefore one should say it after all three prayers of the day and not like those who have the custom of only saying it after Shacharis.״
The Mishnah Berurah (O.C. 426 B.H. U’mevarech) writes, “I heard a good reason
from someone regarding why many places have the custom of saying Aleinu after kid- dush levanah. This is to save people from erring, chas veshalom, and thinking that, when we go out to greet the moon and rejoice beneath it, there is any faint notion that we are giving honor to the moon. Therefore, we say Aleinu, concluding that ‘Hashem is the L-rd in the Heavens above. there is none else.’ We only go out to see the Holy One’s might, that He, with His will, gives light to everyone in the world.”
Some suggest that saying Aleinu at a bris is in order to emphasize that the child is no longer “like the nations of the world,” but has now entered the bris of the Jewish nation.
Who Wrote It?
Who authored the Aleinu prayer? Although Aleinu is part of the Rosh Hashanah malchiyos composed by the Amora Rav, a responsa of Rav Hai Gaon (cited in the sefer YadNe’eman) indicates that it was originally composed by Yehoshua Bin Nun.
“You asked why we say Aleinu outside the Land when Yehoshua only said it in the Land,” the responsa says. “The answer is that this was not part of the service of the Bais Hamikdosh, which is forbidden to recite outside the Land, but rather a service that is verbal and not an action which we are permitted to say. For example, in the Bais Hamikdosh they used to say Retzei and Ishei Yisroel, and we see that the service has ceased [and yet we still continue to say this prayer].”
Indeed, one verse of Aleinu is intimated by Rachav when she says to Yeshoshua’s two spies (Yehoshua 2:9-11), “I know that Hashem has given you the Land because your fear has fallen upon us…. For Hashem your L-rd is the L-rd in the Heavens above and on the earth beneath.”
The Chida mentions a few more connections between Aleinu and Yehoshua.
“Aleinu was instated by Yehoshua bin Nun who came from Yosef who is called a shor (bull), and Aleinu le ’shabei’ach has the numerical value of shor,” he writes. “It was instated at the time Yehoshua conquered Yericho and circled it seven times, each time mentioning the forty-two-letter Name, whose first [section of the] Name is the initials of Ana ba ’ko ’ach gedulas yemincha tatir tzerurah, the numerical value of Aleinu le’shabei’ach, because he did the miracle for us with the forty-two-letter Name.”
Rav Yaakov Emden’s siddur mentions yet another connection between Aleinu and Yehoshua: “Al kein nekaveh is the initials of Achan [who stole the spoils of Yericho]. They say that Achan confessed to Him and prayed that all the wicked of the earth should repent.”
This seems to suggest that Achan, and not Yehoshua, composed the second half of Aleinu.
Al Kiddush Hashem
Aleinu gained an everlasting link to the concept of dying al kiddush Hashem on May 26, 4891/1171, when about thirty men and women of the Jewish community of Blois, northern France, were slaughtered following the first fatal blood libel in mainland Europe. In his Sefer Zechirah, Rab- beinu Ephraim of Bon describes how the Jews of Blois refused to convert and were burnt alive with Aleinu on their lips.
“In the year 4931 (1171), evil appeared in France, too, and great destruction in the city of Blois, where about forty Jews lived at that time. A Jew [Yitzchak bar Eleazar] rode up to water his horse; a common soldier, may he be blotted out of the Book of Life, was also there watering the horse of his master. The Jew had on his chest an untanned hide, but one of the corners had become loose and was sticking out of his coat. When, in the gloom, the soldier’s horse saw the white side of the hide, it was frightened and sprang back, and it could not be brought to water.
“The Christian servant hurried back to his master and said, ‘Hear, my lord, what a certain Jew did. As I rode behind him toward the river to give your horses a drink, I saw him throw a little Christian child, whom the Jews killed, into the water. When I saw this, I was horrified and hastened back quickly for fear he might kill me, too. Even the horse under me was so frightened by the splash of the water when he threw the child in that it would not drink.
“…The next morning the master rode to the ruler of the city, the cruel Theobald, son of Theobald. He was enraged and had all the Jews of Blois seized and thrown into prison. The ruler was mulling over all sorts of plans to condemn the Jews, but he did not know how. He had no evidence against them until a priest appeared. and said to the ruler: ‘Come, I’ll advise you how you can condemn them. Command that the servant who saw the Jew throw the child into the river be brought here, and let him be tested using a tank of water to discover if he has told the truth.’
“The ruler thus commanded and they brought him, took off his clothes, and put him into a tank filled with holy water to see what would happen. If he floated, his words were true; if he sank, he had lied. The Christians arranged it in accordance with their wish that the servant float. The ruler had started negotiations for a money settlement before the coming of the priest who convinced the ruler not to accept any sum for the dead child.
“At the wicked ruler’s command they [the Jews] were taken and put into a wooden house around which were placed thorn bushes and sticks. As they were led forth they were told: ‘Save your lives. Leave your religion and turn to us,’ but they refused. All these facts were written down by the Jews of Orleans.
“It was also reported in that letter that as the flames mounted high, the martyrs began to sing a melody in unison that began softly but ended with a full voice. The Christian people came and asked us, ‘What kind of a song is this for we have never heard such a sweet melody?’ We knew it well for it was the song: ‘It is incumbent upon us to praise the Lord of all.’
“Of their own free will, all the communities of France, England, and the Rhineland observed Wednesday, the 20th of Sivan, 4931/1171, as a day of mourning and fasting.”
During the Middle Ages, one section of Aleinu became the cause of great controversy: the sentence, “For they bow down to vanity and emptiness (va’rik), and pray to a god that does not save,” which is based on the verse (Yeshaya 45:20), “Come, gather together, draw near, remnants of the nations! Those who carry their wooden idols and pray to a god that does not save have no knowledge.”
In about 5140/1400, a Jewish apostate, Pesach Peter, “revealed” that the numerical value of va’rik (316) is exactly the same as that of “Yeshu” and intended as a direct insult to the god of the Christian faith. This claim was repeated time after time by anti-Semites such as Antonius Margarita in The Belief of the Jews (5270/1530), and the apostate Samuel Friedrich Brenz in Judischer Abgstrifter Schlangnebalf.
The German anti-Semite Johann An- dras Eisenmanger (1655-1704) added that a further insult to Christianity was the Jewish custom of spitting after this sentence, a minhag that had developed due to the similarity between the words va’rik (and emptiness) and rok (saliva). Indeed, the Shaloh discouraged this minhag due to the hatred it might stir up.
Attempts to prove that this claim was nonsense—that Aleinu was instated by a rav who lived in Bavel where there were no Christians—had no effect, and in 5463/1703, the King of Prussia decreed to erase the offending sentence. Chazzanim were to chant Aleinu to ensure the sentence was omitted and officials were sent to guarantee that the law was scrupulously upheld. This and similar decrees led to this sentence disappearing from Ashkenazi siddurim.
In modern times, certain Rabbonim, particularly Rav Yehoshua (Mahril) Leib Diskin, urged the reintroduction of the deleted sentence and it is now printed in most modern siddurim. At last, Jews everywhere are saying Aleinu in its pristine completeness.
(Source of Blois story: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, New York JPS, 1938)