Perspectives on Avinu Malkenu, the Classic High Holiday Prayer

If It Worked for Rabbi Akiva…


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The prayer Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) is recited after the Amidah (the main prayer, said while standing) and before the Torah service. It is recited throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, as well as on fast days. The following short passages explore different aspects of this popular and fascinating prayer.

Rabbi Akiva in­stituted this prayer, as it is stated: “Once Rabbi Eliezer or­dered 13 fast days, but no rains fell…. Rabbi Akiva followed him before the Ark and said, ‘Our Father, our King, we have no king but Thee.’ He was immediately an­swered” (Taanit 25b).

–Orhot Hayyim, Aharon haKohen of Lunel. Reprinted from S. Y. Agnon’s anthology “Days of Awe,” published by Schocken Books.

first page of the mahzor

Our Parent, Our Sovereign?

It can be argued that regular masculine language for God promotes the distinct presumption that though all of us are created in God’s image, some of us are more Godlike than others. In Avinu Malkenu, by retaining the image of Father and King, one might infer that important decisions about life are made, or should be made, by fathers (but not mothers) and kings (not queens).

After all this discussion, it may come as a surprise to discover that it was decided [by the committee of Reform rabbis revising the Reform Machzor] to retain masculine language for God anyway. Some people held that neutral language virtually does away with the concrete imagery that the Days of Awe demand. Calling God “Our Parent, our Sovereign” here, for example, seemed far more remote, far less compelling, than the traditional “Father” and “King.” Others noted that doing away with “He” and “Him” presented insurmountable problems in translation, which could not be overcome without completely altering the sense of ancient Hebrew passages whose integrity we respected. Would the committee charged with our liturgy vote that way today, if we had it to do again? I doubt it. One’s consciousness of language’s subtle effect on our thinking rises slowly. Nevertheless, it does rise. And today, I think, we would have voted the other way.

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