Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Akdamut: History, Folklore, and Meaning

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Akdamut: History, Folklore, and Meaning

Article excerpt

AKDAMUT IS AN ARAMAIC PIYYUT in the Ashkenazic rite which was composed as an introduction ircáhut) to the Aramaic translation of the Torah reading (Targum) for the first day of Shavuot. Aside from a few Sabbath table hymns, Akdamut ("The Introduction of Words") is the most widely known Aramaic hymn in Ashkenazic liturgy.' It has outlived all other introductory hymns to the Targum for the first day of Shavuot, and, it has outlived - by many centuries - the custom of chanting the Targum itself on Shavuot - its erstwhile raison d'etre! Ismar Elbogen, consistent with his inclination lor relorm ol apparently outmoded passages ol the liturgy, used strong language to suggest that Akdamut, and other poetic introductions of the Targum, for any holy day, be excised: "With the elimination of the translation that they were intended to introduce, they have completely lost their significance and their right to exist."2 It is indeed curious that this liturgical poem has continued to persist in Ashkenazic liturgy. Why should such a lengthy (ninety lines) literary creation in a language foreign to most Jews, introducing a translation of the Torah reading not used for a millennium, continue to be so popular and widely recited?

The answer, I hope to show, is that the piyyut acquired a life of its own in the centuries following its composition, independent of the Targum or Shavuot. A sense of loss in the Rhineland, as well as among Ashkenazi Jewry in general, following the First Crusade's violence prepared the ground lor the poem taking on an enduring new significance The piyyut's major theme of Israel's loyalty to the Covenant in the face of the nations' enticements and persecutions undoubtedly helped to position the poem to address the needs of post- Crusade European Jewry.3 But a key role in securing its place in Jewish liturgy was played by a medieval Yiddish tale which portrayed the author of Akdamut, R. Meir b Isaac, as a savior of his people and Akdamut itself as a paean to a triumph over a demonic priest who had threatened thousands of Jews. In time, the Ashkenazic collective memory came to associate R. Meir with a miraculous antiChristian victory, and Akdamut with a celebration of that salvation. The fact that its author lived in the Rhineland around the time of the First Crusade helped to lend a sense of vicarious vengeance to the local Jewish community in the following generations. As we will see, the study ol a Yiddish folktale against its historical background helps to explain the surprising popularity and longevity of a lengthy Aramaic liturgical poem.

THE TALE

Because of the importance of the Yiddish tale in the history and meaning of Akdamut, I will sketch an outline of the story, including enough detail to bring out its drama. Discussion of editions and varying versions of the tale will be presented below.

In the year 5121 (1361), 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. …

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