Akdomus (Yoely Greenfeld)

May 27, 2022

Keeping to the pre-Shavuos agenda, I thought we would take a closer look at the mystical piyut that most Ashkenazim have the custom of reciting on Shavuos morning. “Akdomus milin vesherayus shusa…” This Aramaic introduction to kriyas haTorah – sung in an ancient, emotional tune – has uplifted Jews through hundreds of years of persecution and exile, reminding us of our glorious status as the Am HaNivchar, and of the eternal nature of the Torah and the Jewish people.

Akdomus stirs the soul as it delves into Hashem’s indescribable greatness, conveys the depth of our relationship with Him when we withstand the derision of the nations, and reveals the astonishing reward awaiting those faithful to His Word. Yet its complex wording makes this stirring Shavuos piyut enigmatic to the contemporary ear. The truth is, this poignant poem is more than words, more than prayer, more than music – but rather a delicate, enduring fabric woven from them all.

Akdomus was composed by the renowned talmid chacham and liturgist Rabi Meir bar R’ Yitzchak Nehorai (Sha”tz) of Worms (approx. 1010-1090) – one of the rabbeim of Rashi. Although it is typically understood that R’ Meir was a chazzan, there is another explanation to the name Sha”tz. According to the following legendary story, “Sheliach Tzibbur” is meant literally, as a reference to his role in the miraculous rescue of his beloved community.

The following is based on the writings of a ninth century traveler of mysterious origin who visited Jewish communities in North Africa and Spain. Calling himself Eldad HaDani, he brought news of the tribes of Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher, residing in the land of Chavilah beyond the river known as Sambatyon. The tale he told is widely known as the “Story of Akdomus.”
When the Jewish nation was exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, among them were the Levi’im, whose task it had been to sing in the Beis Hamikdash. The wicked conqueror, Nevuchadnetzar, commanded them to appear before him with their harps and sing to him, but they refused. “How can we sing before Israel’s enemy?” they said, “if only we had sung more of Hashem’s praises when the Beis Hamikdash still stood, it might not have been destroyed!”

With tears in their eyes, they hung their harps in the willow branches along the Euphrates River and then bit off their thumbs so that they could no longer play. Then they came before Nevuchadnetzar and held up their bloody fingers. Enraged at their impudence, the Babylonian king ordered them all executed first thing in the morning.

That night, the Levi’im and their families davened to Hashem and prepared themselves to die Al Kiddush Hashem. But when the morning mist lifted, the Levi’im found that, to their surprise, they were no longer in Babylon but in a strange and beautiful land they had never seen before. Fruit trees were in blossom everywhere, and the air was filled with sweet fragrance. On three sides the land was bordered by the sea, and on the fourth side flowed a wide river, in the midst of which boulders rolled and crashed with a ceaseless roar.

This was the Sambatyon River – the Shabbos River. For six days of the week, the rocks in the river’s midst continued their tireless churning, but on Shabbos they rested – on Shabbos, the river was as still and smooth as glass. To keep out enemies, a curtain of fire arose on the opposite bank and remained there until the following sunset, when the rocks resumed their weekday commotion.

The Levi’im soon discovered that their new land was a paradise. The trees and flowers bloomed twice each year, and the seeds sown in the fields produced a hundredfold. Grandparents never saw a grandchild die before them, and the old left the earth in perfect health. There were no soldiers, judges or guards among them, for all was peaceful and just. There they lived happily, and for many years no one else ever crossed the Sambatyon.
Fast forward to 11th century Medieval Germany. In the great city of Worms, there lived a Christian monk who murdered thousands of Yidden in the Rhineland with his great powers of witchcraft. Seeking royal protection, the Jewish community of Worms approached the king, who in turn summoned the wicked monk. The monk promised to cease his attacks on the Jews for one year – on the condition that at the end of the year, the Jews produce a champion to compete in a contest of wisdom and wizardry. Should the Jewish champion win, the monk will never again attack the Jews; should the Jewish representative lose, the monk would kill them all.

This took place at a time when many priests would take on the Rabbanim of the Jewish communities in debates about faith and religion, but this was different. The Yidden had no idea who could successfully stand against the evil priest. They had no way to combat this powerful wizard and they felt a great despair come over them.

One night, after nearly a year of fruitless searching, all the Rabbanim of the city had the same dream in which they were told that Hashem was angry with them, and that their only chance to defeat the priest was to venture across the Sambatyon River and bring back a savior from among the Levi’im – known as the Bnei Moshe.

With no other option, the sages drew lots to choose one person to cross the Sambatyon and summon a champion from among the inhabitants there. The lot fell upon one of the youngest among them, Rabi Meir. Before he left, he would need to divorce his wife, for he would have to desecrate Shabbos to cross the river on the one day that it was still, however, he would not be allowed to be mechalel Shabbos to come back once this plight of pikuach nefesh had passed.

And so it was.

Rav Meir traveled for many days – first to Eretz Yisroel to ask the kabbalists for directions to the Sambatyon – until finally arriving at the banks of the river, where he waited until Shabbos when the boulders would temporarily cease. When Shabbos came, he passed through the water into the land of the Bnei Moshe, and told them of his mission. They listened sympathetically and then they, too, drew lots to choose one of their own to fulfill the mission. The lot fell upon Rav Dan, a dwarf, hunchback and lame individual. He, too, had no choice but to divorce his wife since he would not be coming back.

During the week, a Ruach HaKodesh came upon Rav Meir and it was then that he composed the extraordinary poem of “Akdomus” in honor of Hashem. And so, before the emissary to Worms departed, Rav Meir gave this poem to Rav Dan to deliver to the heads of the Worms community, from where it was to be disseminated to all the Jewish cities.

Charged with his mission, Rav Dan set out, crossed the Sambatyon, and quickly reached Worms in the allotted time. When the giant sorcerer saw the hunchbacked dwarf, he laughed. “So, this is whom you have sent to challenge me?” he taunted.

Alas, the great contest was to take place that afternoon. A big platform was set up in the center of the city, and at the appointed time, all gathered to see what would happen. The two men stood upon the stage. First, it was the priest’s turn. Chanting magic incantations, he made wheat grow right out of the wooden boards of the platform, but Rav Dan conjured up roosters that quickly devoured the wheat. The priest then spotted a millstone on the ground, cast a spell on it and caused it to levitate and spin in the air at great speed.

It was Rav Dan’s turn. He made two giant trees sprout up from the platform. Within seconds their leafy tops pierced the clouds. Rav Dan then offered the evil priest a choice: either he would bend one of the trees down to the ground and the priest would have to hold it down, or the priest would bend the tree and he would hold it down. The priest chose the former, but as he tried to hold down the tree, Rav Dan caused the top to spring back into the sky, throwing the priest high up in the air. He fell back down directly into the floating mill, which ground his body until nothing remained.

The next day, a great thanksgiving meal was held during which the rabbanim of Worms urged everyone to strengthen their observance of Torah and their fulfilment of mitzvos. Rav Dan also spoke words of chizuk and read aloud the prophetic piyut that he had been given – urging all those present to spread its words to Yidden the world over and to have it publicly recited each year on Shavuos.
Akdomus was composed by the accomplished Yitzy Waldner, and was sung by the equally brilliant Yoely Greenfeld on his debut album Hamevorech Yisborach back in 2011. For good reason, the song became an instant hit, and in my opinion, is just one of the many excellent tunes on this outstanding album. As we prepare to enter the month of Kabbolas HaTorah, let us dance into Shabbos with the words of Akdomus in our hearts and in our minds.

Wishing all of you a g’bentcht Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Sivan!

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