Aleinu is a relatively short prayer that marks the end of all three daily prayer services. Its two paragraphs express both particularistic and universalistic themes: The first paragraph speaks of a specifically Jewish obligation to praise God (“It is our duty to praise the Master of all…”). The second paragraph calls for universal recognition of God by all people (“and all humanity will call upon your name”). It closes by invoking collective recognition of God, citing the verse “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zechariah 14:9).
Commenting on Aleinu’s prominence in Jewish prayer services, Ismar Elbogen, a 20th-century scholar of Jewish liturgy, said it was certainly significant that “the idea of… the future union of all mankind… in the service of the one God became part of the daily service.”
Both paragraphs of Aleinu are recited in a standing position. During the first paragraph, it is customary to bow while saying the words, “We bend the knee and bow.”
A History of Controversy
Though the second paragraph of Aleinu expresses a harmonious vision of collective recognition of God, Aleinu has caused a fair bit of discord at various points in history. Particularly contentious is the line in Aleinu’s first paragraph, praising God: “who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude, for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save.”
When reciting the end of this line, Jews used to spit, because “emptiness” and “spit” share the same Hebrew consonants (r-i-k). Some synagogues were even constructed with special spittoons in their pews, designated for this part of the service.
Not surprisingly, Christians of the Middle Ages were angered by this line, assuming the “god who cannot save” referred to Jesus. Church decrees, government edicts, and censors sometimes demanded Jews omit this reference–even as late as 1750 in Prussia. In other cases, Jews took it upon themselves to omit this line, probably out of fear that including it would incite further Christian persecution.