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Akdamut Milin

Akdamut Milin

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Akdamut Milin

Talk given at Chabad Oxford as part of Leyl Limud by Ros Abramsky

31st May 2017

I was recently lucky enough to hear a radio broadcast about a pair of girls – identical twins who scaled Everest together.

They enthused – in almost identical voices – about their devotion to their father, a mountaineer who carried them on his back as babies as he scaled the peaks.

As indeed our own parents have carried us as we grew up, introducing us to the world as they saw it, based on what their parents taught them as they watched over and cared for them, but also maybe modified by their own life experiences and the communities they joined or even founded, including the synagogue where we learnt and prayed.

At Shavuot our communities focus their attention on the day we acquired the basic framework for our way of thought – the Torah.

Whose ‘gifting’ marked our adoption by God as his representatives and messengers on earth, and involved a climb almost to heaven itself. Moses brought down for us – after the honour of seeing God, even if only His back – the colourful, multifaceted jewel we capture in the idea of Torah – something purposively issued and shot out – towards the (sort of) willing target of a motley bunch still coming to terms with their new life in the desert, fending for themselves.   We may have moved on from the practical details of that particular lifestyle, but we still revere and adhere to that particular gift. So much so that we read every word of it each year, struggling to pronounce every syllable with its correct weight, accent, and intonation.

We read it in that purified literary construct academics call Biblical Hebrew, which Jewish (and other) linguists have sometimes revered as ‘the language of God’.

However, or maybe consequently, it has not often (possibly never) been the language used in the street, the shops, and the home. Through the ages there have been many such – Ladino, Yiddish, and now Ivrit. Often our more human reactions and feelings have been expressed rather in these tongues with their closer connection to the details and objects of everyday life.

Possibly the earliest ‘street language’ of the Jews, referred to indeed in the Tanach, is Aramaic.  Its very name relates to our origins as described in Genesis, where we learn of Laban, the Aramean, to whom Jacob was sent and acquired a wife, or rather a pair of wives. In Deuteronomy, in a famous passage that also made its way into the Haggadah, we learn that ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’.

The rabbis disagree (as ever) as who is being referred to here, maybe Laban, maybe Jacob. Either way, the use of the ‘demotic’ language, at one time the lingua franca of the entire Near and Middle East, somehow broadens the linguistic possibilities, as indeed was clearly understood by the editors of both the Talmuds, whose texts frequently indulge in its use. In the early synagogues that grew up after the destruction of the Temple, the reading of the Torah in the original text would not be understood by the congregation. So the reading consisted of short portions of the Hebrew text followed by the translation into Aramaic. Later these translations were written down and carefully preserved, even when the congregations would be just as baffled by the Aramaic as by the original Hebrew.   Not so surprising then, that parts of our liturgy also bear witness to its distinctive sound patterns and wide vocabulary, that drew imaginatively and creatively on the linguistic treasury of the many cultures that were interacting with it at the time.

In the Middle Ages it developed a literary life of its own, well beyond the Tanach and the Talmuds, entering our liturgy in the form of the Kaddish, the prayer B’rich Shmae, which is from the Zohar, and poetry with strict structures, related to those found in the psalms and Arabic poetry, known as piyyut.

The word for Torah in Aramaic is ‘orai’ta’. I have already given you some ‘introductory words’ about this basic topic. Not, though, in the high-flown, allusory style of the piyyut. But this task has indeed been done. By a rabbi who lived in Worms, Germany, in the 11th century, Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Yitzchak, Shliach Tzibbur, ben Shmuel, who wrote such  a  poem -  the ‘Akdamut Milin’. That’s  ‘Introductory words’ to you and me, and indeed this is the first half-line of the 80 partnered phrases that make it up.  Each ends in tav aleph, the last letter of the alphabet and the first.

Its ideas draw on the strangeness of the contract we have with God – as laid out in the Torah: being honoured above other nations as its sponsor on earth, and yet doomed to suffer in its name. Its imagery and vocabulary draw on the official translations into Aramaic of the prophetic texts from Ezekiel and Habbakuk that are read as haftarot on Shavuot.

More than this, he makes reference to the power given to man to choose between ‘life’ and ‘death’ that Moses presents to the people in his final oration – to keep to the script of the Torah or abandon it.

Hasidism, drawing on Kabbalistic interpretations, has tinkered somewhat with this stark choice, proposing slightly different contrasting pivotal pairs – God (male, heaven) and the Shechinah (female, earth) and also the partnership where man’s role in the world is as a crucial participant in Tikun Olam, restoring the damage caused by a malfunction in the work of the creation that released evil into the world. Whichever of these sets of ‘twins’ in Jewish thought we prefer to focus on, we pursue our task in life by adhering to the Torah in every detail.

Though this should not really be uppermost in our minds, the poem encourages us by promising that - in spite of all the difficulties along the way – there will be a reward at the end.

Let’s fast forward, following the lead of the poem, to the coming of the Messiah and the grand feast at which we will devour our enemies, kosher or not. Indeed the word for ‘feast’ is ariston, obviously an import from Greek. One of many employed in the Talmud to deal with objects, activities and concepts the Jews of the time had to deal with on a daily basis. So let’s hear final act in Rabbi Meir’s words.

(lines 80 – 90)

You won’t be surprised to learn that the last word is actually ‘orai’ta’, the Aramaic for Torah.

The belief that, yea though he tarry, as our great thinker Maimonides put it, the Messiah is on his way, has been a great source of inspiration to us.

And I end by imparting to you a festival greeting by drawing on a contemporary pair of twins that maybe mirror those the poem deals with. On the one hand, Messianism, the hope that survives and outlasts anything history can throw at us, morphs into positivity, and mindfulness, conscientious reflection on our conduct and how it relates to the aspirations and sensitivities of others, is the basic lesson we learn from the Torah.

 

 

 

 

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