Davening Directed: Adon Olam
INTRO Adon Olam (Hebrew: אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם; “Eternal Lord” or “Lord of the Universe”) is a strictly metrical hymn in the Jewish liturgy written in Iambic tetrameter. It has been a regular part of the daily and Shabbat(Sabbath) liturgy since the 15th century.
It proclaims G-d as L-rd of the Universe Who created the world and all creatures, Who Was, Is and Will be the sole G-d, in Him we trust, in His charge we entrust body and soul, both when we sleep and when awaked. Proclaims our selfless devotion to Him, deep consciousness of his greatness and power. Nothing can happen without his power and protection.
ASSOCIATIONS Because of association with kol nidre, Shabbos and Yomtov, and on account of its opening and closing sentiments, often quite serious tunes.
OVERVIEW It is likewise recited or chanted at the commencement of the daily early morning prayer that its utterance may help to attune the mind of the worshiper to reverential awe. When it is sung at the end of the service, the congregation sits while singing it, as a demonstration that they are not eager to leave the house of prayer but were willing to stay and continue praying (by starting again at the beginning of the day’s prayers).
AUTHOR Often attributed, as least tentatively, to Solomon ibn Gabirol(1021–1058), who is known for his Hebrew poetry, but there is no solid evidence apart from the quality of this hymn and the language appears to be older. It has also been attributed to Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) and even to the Talmudic sage Yohanan ben Zakkai. Although its diction indicates antiquity, it did not become part of the morning liturgy until the 15th century.
BEDTIME SHEMA & DEATHBED Baer, in his commentary on the “Prayer-book” (Rödelheim, 1868), says that the hymn seems to have been intended to be recited before retiring, as it closes with the words: “Into His hand I commit my spirit when I fall asleep, and I shall awake.” There is a tradition of reciting it each night at bedtime, and also on the deathbed.
TUNES This song is sung to many different tunes, and can be sung to virtually any due to its meter. Many synagogues like to use “seasonal” tunes, for instance, Shabbat before Hanukkah, they might do it to Maoz Tzur. In 1976, Uzi Hitman created a more upbeat tune for the 8th Annual Hasidic Song Festival. This version has become a favourite worldwide sung outside traditional liturgical settings. Most irreverent – Match of the Day, Auld Lang Sine
PRAYER OF AVRAHAM AVINU
Someone once wrote a Siddur commentary and showed it to the Gaon of Vilna for his approbation. The Gaon saw the following insight and said that for this insight alone, the work was valuable.
The author asked why the Siddur begins with the prayer “Adon Olam” (Master of the World). The Talmud [Brochos 7b] quotes a teaching of Rav Yochanan in the name of Rav Shimeon Ben Yochai that from the day G-d created the world no creature called G-d by the term “Master” (Adon) until Avraham came and called Him Master as it is written “And he said Adon-ai…” [15:2].
We attribute each of the three daily prayers to a different one of the Patriarchs. The prayer of Avraham is the morning prayer, Shachris. It is therefore only right that the morning prayer begins with “Adon Olam” (Master of the World…).
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch further clarifies the nuance implied by referring to G-d as “Adon” (Master) as opposed to King or Monarch. Rav Hirsch points out a difference between a “King” and a “Master”. The relationship between a King and a citizen of the country is a very tenuous one. “What do I have to do with the King? The King does not know that I exist. He is not aware of my needs or my problems.” The word “Adon” is used in connection with a servant. The relationship between a master and his servant is a very different one from the relationship between a king and his citizen. The master knows his servant very well. A personal relationship exists between them.
It could be that when Rav Shimeon Ben Yochai spoke of the novelty of Avraham Avinu referring to G-d by the name Adon, he was referring to this nuance. Avrohom introduced into the world the idea that G-d is not merely our King – He is our Master. He was the first person to recognize that despite the fact that G-d is King of all kings, he is also MY personal G- d, my Master.
FLOW OF PRAYER The poem begins with the terminology Master of the WORLD who ruled before any form was created. But it later says, “He is MY G-d and MY living Redeemer; Rock of MY pain… MY banner; MY refuge…” This makes it even more appropriate to label Adon Olam as the prayer of Avraham Avinu, because Avraham was the person who taught that the Almighty is both the King as well as my personal G-d.
BRIEF ANALYSIS Let’s start with the title. This poem is so named, not necessarily to describe its contents, but merely because these are the opening words. This is also how we name other sections of the siddur — e.g. Shema, Ashre, Aleinu.
On the other hand, there is meaning in these opening words. The Shema reminds us, first and foremost, to be good listeners. Ashre instructs us to be happy (have a positive view of the world) when we are praying in the synagogue. Aleinu emphasizes that there are obligations “upon us.”
Similarly, the name Adon Olam suggests an important principle contained in this poem. Before continuing, it is important to understand that the Hebrew word olam has two definitions — one referring to space, and the other to time. Olam either means “world” or “eternity.” Adon Olam can be translated ”Lord of the World.” Or “Eternal Sovereign.”
The Hebrew describes G-d as malach . . . melech . . . Yimloch — G-d was, is, and will always be our King. You should recognize these words, and this concept from other places in the siddur and machzor. And in case you still don’t get it, Adon Olam continues:
Vehu hayah, vehu hoveh, vehu yihyeh betifarah G-d has been, G-d still is, and G-d shall be
In addition to being eternal, G-d is better and stronger than all the others—Vehu echad, ve’ein sheni.
And G-d is mine — Vehu eli. Suddenly, the poem takes a dramatic shift in direction. Not only is G-d eternal, unique and strong—but this same powerful G-d belongs personally to me. The Queen of England will most probably never even know my name, let alone call me, but G-d will always be with me.
Which brings us to the final stanza, reminding us so clearly of the words of the 23rd Psalm — G-d is with me, I shall not fear.
In fact Adon Olam references several of the most famous lines inPsalm 23. Where the psalm says, “I fear no evil for You are with me,” Adon Olam repeats, “God is with me, I have no fear.” Where the psalmist exalts that “my cup runneth over” Adon Olam refers to God as “my cup of life.” These descriptions of a personal, attentive God dovetail nicely with the piyut’s use of the singular first person. Though the entire congregation in a synagogue often recites it together, the message of Adon Olam is that God is present in the day to day lives of every individual.
This is a nice way with which to conclude our Shabbat morning service, girding each of us with confidence to face the world when we depart from the synagogue.
Perhaps that is why even if people arrive for no other part of the service they normally manage to arrive in time for Adon Olam!