A popular prayer with a controversial history.

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Aleinu's Popularity

Despite the strong Christian reaction to the harsh language of the prayer's opening paragraph, Aleinu grew in popularity among medieval Jews.

In The Vale of Tears, a 16th-century martyrology (a catalogue of martyrs), Joseph Ha-Kohen describes the persecution of the Jews of Blois, France in 1171:
Many Masters of the Torah died at the stake [and] the death of the saints was accompanied by a solemn song resounding through the stillness of the night, causing the Churchmen who heard it from afar to wonder at the melodious strains, the like of which they had never heard before. It was ascertained afterwards that the martyred saints had made use of the Aleinu as their dying song.

We do not know whether these martyrs sang Aleinu because they identified their persecutors with the negative description of gentiles in the first paragraph of the prayer, or because they wanted to stress their hope of universal recognition of God which would include their persecutors. But this story does illustrate that Aleinu was an important and well-known prayer, as early as the 12th century.

Over time, Jews began to recite Aleinu at the end of the morning and evening services, probably because Aleinu's theme of universal recognition of monotheism complemented the Shema, which was said during morning and evening services. And eventually Aleinu was included in afternoon services too--another testament to its growing popularity.

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Seth Winberg

Rabbi Seth Winberg is Assistant Director of University of Michigan Hillel.