QUESTION: What is Akdamot and who composed it?

ANSWER: “Akdamot” means “introduction.” In many European (Ashkenzai) communities it is customary to recite this Piyut — liturgical composition — on the first day of Shavuot as an introduction to the assigned Torah reading.

The poem was composed in Aramaic some 900 years ago by the righteous and famous liturgist Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchak who was the shliach tzibur (chazan) — “prayer leader” — in Worms, Germany. Worms was Rashi’s native city. Tradition relates that Rabbi Meir was Rashi’s teacher, and Rashi mentions him in his commentary to Psalms 73:2, Hoshea 6:9 and Amos 3:12. He is also mentioned in Tosafot to Rosh Hashanah 11a.

The son of the author was slain for the sanctification of G‑d’s Name during the crusade of 1096. And he too sanctified the Name of Heaven in a debate with priests, which was forced upon him. In the debate the priests attempted to persuade him to forsake his faith and to accept theirs. He answered appropriately and scorned them. He spoke to them, in strength and certainty, of the Creator’s power, of His love of Israel, of the excellence of Torah and the reward harbored for its devotees.

The sainted author did not live long after the debate, but he left as a blessed legacy the Piyut “Akdamot” in praise of the Creator, of the Torah, and Israel.

(ספר התודעה)

QUESTION:What is the poem about?

ANSWER: In the poem the author gives praise to G‑d the Creator of the world, for His choice of Israel to serve Him and proclaim His dominion over the world. The author continues describing the selfless devotion of Israel to G‑d, despite the constant efforts of their enemies to tear them away from the Torah and from G‑d. He further describes the readiness with which the Jews sacrifice their lives for the sanctification of G‑d’s name and declares that the Jews are unshaken in their faith and hope for the day of the complete Redemption. He also stresses the great reward that is in store for them.

QUESTION: How was the poem structured?

ANSWER: Akdamot consists of ninety verses. The first forty-four are a double acrostic of the twenty two letters of the Hebrew Alef-beit. The first letters of the opening words of the remaining forty six verses spell the author’s name and a blessing:

מֵאִיר בִּיר רַבִּי יִצְחָק יַגְדִל בְתּוֹרָה וּבְּמַעֶשִׂים טוֹבִים אָמֵן וְחַזַק וְאֶמָץ

“Meir, the son of Rabbi Yitzchak, may he grow in Torah and in good deeds, Amen. Be strong and fortified.”

Each verse concludes with the suffix ta — תא, the first and last letter of the Hebrew alef-beit to signify that Torah is endless, and that as soon as one completes the Torah, he should begin anew (Sefer Hatoda’ah).

QUESTION: Why was it composed in Aramaic?

ANSWER: There was none in his generation who could sing praises to the Al-mighty as sweetly as Rabbi Meir did. The very angels On High listened to his singing and prayers and returned to the Heavenly Throne to sing his songs to G‑d. But G‑d silenced them, saying: “Every angel and every creature remain silent, until I have given ear to the songs of praise of My children Israel, and especially to Rabbi Meir ben Isaac.”

Many a time, however, the angels snatched the beautiful words of Rabbi Meir from his very lips and sang them before G‑d only as angels can.

The Angel Sodi-el (Sod — means “secret” in Hebrew), who knows all the secrets then went to Rabbi Meir to warn him. He told him that he was not alone in singing those wonderful melodies to G‑d, and that the angels On High were trying to outdo him, learning his songs and singing them to the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Meir thanked Sodi-el for his kindness in informing him of this. He sought a remedy and found it. He knew that the angels did not know the Aramaic language in which the Talmud and the Zohar were written (Shabbat 12b), and so he began to write his poems and songs in Aramaic.

(Complete Story of Shavuot by Nissan Mindel)

(ובסידור בית יעקב מהיעב"ץ מעמדין כ' "ועשאו המחבר בלשון ארמי לרוב חשיבות הפיוט שלא יתקנאו בנו מלאכי השרת)

QUESTION: When exactly is the poem recited?

ANSWER: So sacred is this poem regarded that in some Congregations it is customary to interrupt the reading of the Torah after concluding the first verse in order to recite Akdamot. It serves as an introduction to the Torah reading regarding the Giving of the Torah and Aseret Hadibrot — Ten Commandments — which would be an integral part of the mornings Torah reading.

This custom became very controversial. Many halachic authorities considered it an interruption which may not be made after the Kohen has recited the blessing over the Torah and the reading has begun.

Therefore, many have proposed that on the first day of Shavuot, the Torah should be taken out of the Ark and placed on the reading table. The Kohen is called up to the Torah and the reader opens it to the place where the reading of the day begins. The Torah is then rolled up and a cover is placed over it. Before the Kohen recites the blessing, Akdamot is read responsively, the chazzan chanting two verses and the Congregation chanting the next two. Upon the conclusion of the recital the Kohen recites the blessing over the Torah and the reading commences.

Regarding the controversy over when Akdamot should be read, the Shulchan Aruch Harav (494:7) writes the following:

Concerning “those who have a custom of chanting Akdamot after the interruption in the middle of the reading, with something that is not necessary for the reading, protest should not be raised since there are those who confirm this custom. However, in places where no custom exists, it is better to chant Akdamot before the Kohen commences to recite his blessing that precedes the Torah reading.”

(עי' בט"ז וחק יעקב סי' תצ"ד, ובספר פנים מאירות ח"ג סי' ל"א)

Chabad Custom

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidut wrote a Shulchan Aruch and a Nusach Ari Siddur. When there are opposing views between them, Chassidim follow the ruling of the Siddur. The Shulchan Aruch and the Siddur both seem to agree that Akdamot is said. However, in this case, though the Siddur included Akdamot, it cannot be considered a factor, since the first Siddurim that were printed during the Alter Rebbe’s lifetime did not have Akdamot in them (and did not have the Torah reading for the Festivals).

Since Akdamot is not mentioned in the Gemara nor in Kabbalah sources, it is difficult to decide whether to say it or not. Some Chabad minyanim did say it and some not. (Probably time was a consideration.)

(שער הכולל מ, י"ז)

The prevalent Chabad custom is not to say it. The Rebbe noted, however, that in the Synagogue in Yekatrinislav (Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) where his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was the Rabbi, Akdamot was said and his father said it with the chazan. Though it is presently not chanted publicly, the Rebbe himself would say it before the Torah reading began and during the intermission between one aliyah and another.

(המלך במסיבו ח"א, ועי' אוצר מנהגי חב"ד ע' ש"ג)