Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission from Jason Aronson Inc.
On the first day of Shavuot, a special hymn is recited responsively by the reader and congregation, each taking two verses, after the Torah scroll has been opened and the first person has been called to it. An introduction (Akdamut) to the Ten Commandments, it is an exaltation of God, His wonders in the world, Torah, and the reward waiting at the end of days for those who devote themselves to it.
The first 44 verses are a double acrostic of the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet (first two verses start with aleph, next two with bet, etc.). The initial letters of the last 46 verses spell the author’s name and blessing, “Meir, the son of Rabbi Yitzkhak, may he grow in Torah and good deeds, Amen. Be strong and of good courage.” The syllable ta at the end of each line, representing the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, signifies the endless cycle of Torah study.
Tradition holds that Rabbi Meir, the 11th-century cantor of Worms, Germany, wrote the hymn of praise to God, Israel, and Torah in response to being forced to publicly debate the precepts of Judaism as opposed to those of Christianity. While celebrating the Jewish people’s resolve to retain Torah despite oppression, he chose to write his hymn in Aramaic so only Jews would have access to its meaning. Meir’s purpose especially was to strengthen the people’s faith during the Crusades, the first of which claimed his wife and son.
A Symbolic Marriage Contract
Instead of Akdamut, the Sephardim (Mediterranean)and Yemenite Jews read one of several versions of a ketubah (marriage contract) between Israel and God modeled on the traditional format for a Jewish bride and groom. It generally includes prophetic verses alluding to the covenant between God and Israel (Jeremiah 31:31; Hosea 2:21-22), substitutes the gifts between God and Israel (Torah, tefillin, tallit, Sabbath, and festivals and their observance) for what a bride and groom normally promise each other, and lists God and Moses or Heaven and Earth as witnesses. Itis invariably dated 6 Sivan 2448 (the year Revelation occurred, counting from Creation at year 0).
A special group of piyyutim (religious poems) summarize the 613 commandments in rhymed form. Called azharot (warnings) because the numerical value of that word is 613, they were composed by Shlomo ibn Gabirol [c.1021-c.1055], the celebrated poet of the Jewish Golden Age of Spain (900-1100).
Sephardic and Oriental congregations that include the poem in their musaf (additional) or minchah (afternoon )services concentrate on the 248 positive commandments [i.e., “You shall…”] on the first day, and the 365 negative commandments [i.e., “You shall not…”] on the second.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.