Today is October 16, 2017 -

Chanting the Epic Hymn, Akdamut: A Shavuot Tradition

By Hazzan Michael Krausman

The festival of Shavuot is recognized in the Bible as the second of the three pilgrimage festivals. While it is also known as the festival during which the first fruits were brought to the Temple, we are most familiar with Shavuot as the time of the giving of the Torah. It is traditional to stay up all night on the eve of this festival and study, reenacting the excitement and trepidation of our ancestors as they anticipated receiving the Torah. Preoccupation with the Torah and the majesty of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is continued into the services of the first day of Shavuot, with the chanting of the epic hymn, Akdamut, which is said just prior to the reading of the first verse of the Torah portion.

Akdamut is a rich and extremely complicated tapestry woven in tooth-breaking Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, by Rabbi Meir Ben Issac. Rabbi Meir, who lived in France in the 11th century, used lines beginning with each of the letters the Hebrew alphabet twice through. The Rabbi also added the letters of his name, his father’s name, and of a short blessing asking for strength (which he no doubt needed after this huge work). The resulting composition is a 90- verse panegyric proclaiming the majesty and greatness of the Creator, the beauty and wisdom of the Torah, and praise and hope for the Jewish people. Each verse of the opus contains exactly ten syllables and always ends with the syllable, ‘TA’.

Akdamut is usually recited responsively. The melody used for Akdamut is an ancient chant that is characterized by a downwardly cascading motif (very short musical phrase) that occurs at the end of the first of each of the pairs of verses that characterize the hymn. Interestingly, the music for Akdamut is not utilized anywhere else in our liturgy except for a sprinkling throughout the Festival Kiddush.

It may be said that the reasons for emulating the Biblical Israelites’ night-long vigil and for reciting Akdamut with its ancient melody are identical: we are invited to share the excitement of our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai together with the passion of Rabbi Meir over God, his Torah and of the life that the Torah conveys. Perhaps, by looking through the eyes and hearing through the ears of our predecessors, we will – in our hearts, minds and bodies – feel, understand and emulate their steadfast commitment to Torah and the meaningful Jewish life it offers to us.