Aleinu: The Prayer for God’s Kingdom

by Lois Tverberg

The main theme of Jesus’ ministry was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom of God, but it is a source of confusion and misunderstanding to many Christians. Is it in heaven after we die? Isn’t God king already?

One thing widely misunderstood is how Jesus spoke about the coming of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim himself as the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king. The primary task of the Messiah, after all, was to establish God’s reign on earth. Dozens of articles are available on this page about Jesus’ Jewish Messianic claims.1

What would the coming of this kingdom look like? An ancient Jewish prayer named Aleinu (Ah-LAY-nu) can shed light on this question. Scholarly sources believe that this beautiful prayer predates Jesus, so that he himself would have prayed it. The name, Aleinu, means, literally, “it is upon us,” which means “we must” or “it is our duty to.”

Even today this prayer is recited at the conclusion of every synagogue service. It is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when it is traditional to focus on God’s kingship over the world.

Through the prayer the worshiper exalts God as his or her king, and prays that all the world will repent and do the same. (Note that in the third section, the word for “rule,” malchut, is the same word for kingdom.)

 

Aleinu

It is our duty to praise the Lord of all.
To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation,
Who has not made us as the nations of the world,
Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth,
Not making our portions as theirs,
Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes.2

3For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of Kings,
The Holy One, blessed be He,
Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens
And laid the foundations of the earth.
His glorious abode is in the heavens above,
The domain of His might in exalted heights.
He is our God, there is no other,
In truth our King, there is none else.
Even thus is it written in His Torah:
“This day know and lay it to your heart,
That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below.
There is none else.”

We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God,
Soon to behold the glory of Thy might
When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty,
And all mankind shall invoke Thy glorious name.
May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion,
And speedily do Thou rule over them forever more.4

Here is an excerpt of the last section from another translation that is older and more literal, that talks about the “Yoke of God’s Kingdom.”

“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee. Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor. So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'”

 

Christians should be fascinated by how this prayer describes the Kingdom of God being established on the earth, and how it desires that all the nations repent and worship the true God of heaven. It seems to be very much related to Jesus’ words about “the coming of the kingdom of God” and Paul’s sermon in Philippians:

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 See also, “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!” and “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

2 In some versions there is a line that says, “for they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who can not help.” Ironically, Christians protested since they saw it as said against them, and persecuted Jews for praying this prayer. In many prayer books it has been removed.

3 It is customary to stand for the prayer, and bow while saying this line.

4 From the Siddur, The Traditional Prayerbook for Sabbath and Festivals
Behrman House, 1960

For more information about this prayer see the following:

Alenu,” a Jewish Enclyclopedia article
This site devoted to the Aleinu

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

The Richness of Jewish Prayer

by Lois Tverberg

It’s good to have a taste of Jesus’ customs and culture, but as Christians, our goal is not to become more Jewish, but rather to become more like Jesus.

There is, however, one Jewish practice that all of us would benefit from, and that is adopting a type of Jewish prayer which can transform a person’s spiritual life. These have been used for thousands of years, even back to New Testament times.

What was this wonderful style of prayer? It is the habit of “blessing” the Lord. It is an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God that expresses itself through brief prayers that acknowledge him as the source of every good thing. It ultimately comes from the Scriptures, when Moses admonished the Israelites not to forget the Lord:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God…(Deut. 8:10-11)

It was easy for the Israelites to cling to God in the desert, but very easy to forget God when times got better and they prospered in the Promised Land. The cure, according to the rabbis, was to continually remind themselves of God’s care by uttering a short prayer of thanks, to “bless the Lord.”

This pervasive act of prayer kept God’s presence and love continually on their minds. Jesus and Paul both would have practiced it, and Paul may have had it in mind when he told Christians to “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

A Practice from Before Jesus’ Time

Before the time of Christ, the Jews developed a number of short blessings to be said whenever the occasion arises, in addition to saying longer prayers in the morning and evening. Some of them are now prayed in the daily synagogue service. Modern custom begins all of them by saying, “Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

The idea is not to bless objects and people, in our usual Christian sense of the word, but to bless the Lord, with the understanding that we are focusing on him as the source of all blessing. The word for bless, barak also means “to kneel,” suggesting that when we bless God, we mentally bow on our knees to worship him.

In Jesus’ day the first line was probably just “Blessed is he,” but the rabbis felt it was important to be reminded that God is King over us in order to “receive on ourselves the Kingdom of God,” so they added the rest of the line later. So in these prayers we mentally kneel toward God, remind ourselves of his goodness, and that he is our King.

In the gospels it says that Jesus “took the bread and blessed.” (The NIV says “gave thanks” but more literal translations use the word “blessed.”) Some translations incorrectly add the word “it,” to sound as if Jesus “blessed it.” But the idea of blessing the Lord is to thank him for providing, not to confer holiness on the food. Some of our table prayers even reflect this misunderstanding.

We know what words he said – most likely, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.”

When Jesus did miracles, the people “glorified God,” perhaps exclaiming, “Blessed is he who has performed a miracle in this place!” It was customary to pray this blessing at a site where a miracle occurred. So when Jesus healed ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan, came back and loudly blessed God, Jesus wondered why the other nine hadn’t returned to do the same thing (Lk 17:12 -19).

For Everything a Blessing

In Psalm 24:1 it says that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” and the rabbis of Jesus’ day and earlier decided that everything that we enjoy in life should cause us to bless God. In the Mishnah, the record of rabbinic thought from before Jesus’ time until about 200 AD, the first book is devoted entirely to blessings.

In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God, and these blessings have God at their center. They contain no personal pronouns — focusing utterly on him, and not on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for his goodness.

A person was supposed to devote his first thoughts upon waking to praising God once again for each part of his body that was functioning. The very first thing that would have woken them up was probably a rooster’s crow. So in the first century they would have said, “Blessed is he who has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night!

When they opened their eyes they said, “Blessed is he who opens the eyes of the blind!” When they dressed they said, “Blessed is he who clothes the naked!” They also said this when they put on a new piece of clothing.

In their experience of nature they also blessed God. When the first flowers were seen on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” After a long, cold winter, who isn’t happy to see these little signs of new life?

When they heard thunder or an earthquake that inspired fear, they also blessed God by saying, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” Next time there is a windstorm, step outside and remind yourself of God’s amazing power.

When it rained, they said, “Blessed is he who is good, and gives good things!“I thought this was very odd at first, since rainy days are bad days to us. But in Israel where water is greatly needed, rain is source of joy. When you think about it, our abundant food here also is dependent on the rain that we always complain about.

I have since realized that every time I complain about the weather, it’s a way of convincing myself that yet another day has come when God wasn’t faithful and that he decided not to care about me. It’s a minor habit to change, but my outlook on life improved when I stopped finding something to grumble at God for every time I stepped outside.

Blessings for Life’s Seasons

They had blessings for the highs and lows in life as well. When they went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated some happy event for which they waited, they said, “Blessed is he who has allowed us to live, and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.” When a son returned home from war, or when a baby was born, or some other wonderful thing, they uttered this prayer to praise God for bringing them to that point in their lives.

Even in times of grief, when someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said, “Blessed is he who is the true judge.” It was a reminder that God was still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that he will ultimately bring justice even where justice can’t seem to be found.

Remembering God’s Kindness

It’s easy to start worrying that God is not in control, and not remember his continual faithfulness that sustains every minute of the day. In Psalm 103, David shares the secret for how to keep God’s loving care on your mind:

Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.
(Psalm 103:1-5, RSV)

~~~~~

For more about this rich practice of prayer, see the chapter “For Everything a Blessing” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus.

This same article can be found at Lois Tverberg’s website, ourrabbijesus.com

(Images courtesy of kolyalovestruck and martin labar at flickr.com.)

Praying with Intention

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart. ” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus and Paul prayed were a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were prayed at certain times of day. One of them that is still prayed today is called the “Amidah” or “Eighteen Benedictions.” (1) It is quite lengthy, and consists of prayers for all the various concerns of the Jewish people. For thousands years since Jesus lived, these petitions have stayed nearly the same.

In contemporary Protestant culture, we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.” The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as “Kavanah.” The word means “direction,” “intention,” or “devotion,” and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward praying the memorized prayer “with all your heart.”

A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is undistracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them today that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know before whom you stand.” That is just what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe.

When I used to pray after crawling in bed, I would often fall asleep before finishing my prayer. After thinking about the lack of reverence this has for God, I now make myself kneel or stay awake in some way, or pray at a time of day when I’m more awake. He deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and day with devotion and intention, being aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God in every way.


1The Amidah: A New Translation, by David Bivin, is available here.

Clothing the Naked

by Lois Tverberg

“`For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ ” Matthhew 25:35-36

Since Jesus’ time, Jews have been encouraged to fill their days with short prayers to constantly remind themselves that God is the source of every blessing in their lives. A number of these are said traditionally in the morning while a person gets ready for the day, and the one that is said while dressing is the following:

Blessed art Thou, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who clothes the naked.

This prayer is also said on another occasion – when putting on a new garment from the first time. One Jewish school teacher starts each day by asking students if anyone is wearing anything new that day, and if so, the whole class recites this prayer.

This prayer and its practice I found very rich, and pointing toward some things for which I needed to be reminded. First, clothes are such a small part of my budget, and readily available, that I never thought to give thanks to God for them. I’ve been overwhelmed by blessings, and hardly think about the amazing abundance even in my own closet. Truthfully, until hearing about this blessing, I didn’t think of God as having input on small needs, or that He may even have an opinion on how I spend money on things like this.

It reminded me of the real use of clothes as they were intended, to protect and cover our bodies, to warm us and give us modesty. Do we really think of that when we spend great amounts of money and time on being fashionable? Or when we evaluate others as people by how well they have observed the current modes of fashion? Our shallowness is unmasked when we see clothing through God’s eyes rather than through the eyes of a materialistic, vain culture.

Last, it reminded me that just as I have been clothed, Jesus points out that I need to have concern about clothing the naked too. In Uganda, I saw many children in dirty, ripped clothes, knowing that those were all they had. I need to live so that I can help in supplying the most basic of needs to them as well.

The Direction of Your Heart

by Lois Tverberg

“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus, Paul, and the Jewish people of their day prayed were
a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were
prayed at certain times of day. For thousands of years these petitions
have remained nearly the same. In contemporary Protestant culture,
we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous
prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We
wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.”

The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as kavanah. The word means direction, intention, or devotion, and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward pray the memorized prayer “with all your heart.” A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is not distracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is immersed so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them each time that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” That is exactly what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe. Prayer is so simple and it is easy to do it half-heartedly. But God deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and every day with devotion and intention, fully aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God with his whole being.

Kavanah – Praying with Intention

by Lois Tverberg

Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart. – Psalm 24:3

The prayers that Jesus and Paul prayed were a combination of spontaneous petitions and traditional prayers that were prayed at certain times of day. One of them that is still prayed today is called the “Amidah” or “Eighteen Benedictions.”1 It is quite lengthy, and consists of prayers for all the various concerns of the Jewish people. For thousands years since Jesus lived, these petitions have stayed nearly the same.

In contemporary Protestant culture, we tend to disdain rote prayer, preferring the intimacy of spontaneous prayer and feeling that a repeated prayer is empty and hollow. We wonder how a person could avoid just “going through the motions.” The answer is a concept that the rabbis developed known as “Kavanah.” The word means “direction,” “intention,” or “devotion,” and the idea behind praying with kavanah is that you set the direction of your thinking toward God, and toward praying the memorized prayer “with all your heart.”

A person who has kavanah focuses his entire being on prayer, and is undistracted by the chaos around him. He may have said the same prayer a thousand times, but his mind is sunk so deeply into the words that he is experiencing new insights and feelings from them today that he has never experienced before.

In synagogues, above the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, there is often a plaque that says, “Know before whom you stand.” That is just what it means to have kavanah in prayer – to have a sense of standing in the presence of God, to know that you are addressing the sovereign Lord of the universe.

When I used to pray after crawling in bed, I would often fall asleep before finishing my prayer. After thinking about the lack of reverence this has for God, I now make myself kneel or stay awake in some way, or pray at a time of day when I’m more awake. He deserves our best, not our least efforts in prayer.

Kavanah can go beyond prayer as well – our lives should also show it too. We should live each hour and day with devotion and intention, being aware of God’s presence all around us. When we do this, our lives will truly be the reflection of Christ, whose every desire was to please and honor God in every way.