18 March 2020

‘I face the world without
fear because I rest in
God’s everlasting arms’

The site of the Sephardic heritage centre in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I draw on a wide range of resources for my daily prayers. This week, while I was using the Siddur or Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations, with a new translation and commentary by (Lord) Jonathan Sacks, I has struck by how appropriate in these trying times in the traditional Jewish poem Adon Olam.

The poem Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם) ‘Lord of the Universe’ has been a regular part of the daily and Shabbat liturgy since the 15th century.

As Lord Sacks says in his notes, the power of this poem lies in ‘effortless transition from abstract theology to personal experience.’

The first six lines speak of God in cosmic terms; the last four lines turn to God as a personal presence. As Lord Sacks says, though God is ‘unfathomably vast, he is also intensely close. I face the world without fear because I rest in his everlasting arms.’

These are, indeed, assuring thoughts in this time of uncertainty created by fears and anxieties surrounding the Covid-19 or Corona Virus pandemic.

The Adon Olam may have been intended to be recited before bedtime, as it closes with the words: ‘Into his hand my soul I place, when I awake and when I sleep.’ There is a tradition of reciting it each night at bedtime, and also at a deathbed.

The Hebrew version of ‘Adon Olam’ in the ‘Siddur’ or ‘Authorised Daily Prayer Book’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The beauty and grandeur of this poem or hymn also recommend its use in the liturgy:

Lord of the universe, who reigned
before the birth of any thing –
When by his will brought all things were made
then was his name proclaimed King.

And when all things shall cease to be
he alone will reign in awe.
He was, he is, and he shall be
Glorious for ever more.

He is One, there is none else,
alone, unique, beyond compare;
Without beginning, without end,
his might, his rule are everywhere.

He is my God, my Redeemer lives.
He is the Rock on whom I rely –
My banner and my safe retreat,
my cup, my portion when I cry.

Into his hand my soul I place,
when I awake and when I sleep.
God with me, I shall not fear;
body and soul from harm will he keep.

The plaque in Málaga commemorating Solomon ibn Gabirol (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The poem is attributed to the Spanish Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol 1021-1058), also known as Solomon ben Judah and Shlomo Ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, and in Arabic as Abu Ayyub Sulayman bin Yahya bin Jabirul.

He was one of the great poets and philosophers of mediaeval Spain. Although little is known of his early life, he was born in Málaga ca 1021, and his parents died while he was a child.

ibn Gabirol was a master in linguistics, and began to compose songs and piyyutim by the age of 16. By 17, he had composed five of his known poems, one an azhara (‘I am the master, and Song is my slave’) enumerating all 613 commandments of Judaism. At about this time, he also composed a 200-verse elegy for his patron Yekutiel, and four other notable elegies to mourn the death of Hai Gaon.

However, when ibn Gabirol was still 17, his patron was assassinated , and by 1045 ibn Gabirol had to leave Zaragoza.

He was then sponsored by Samuel ibn Naghrillah, the Grand Vizier of the King of Granada. By 19, he had composed an alphabetical and acrostic poem in 400 verses teaching the rules of Hebrew grammar. By the time he was 23 or 25, he had composed, in Arabic, ‘Improvement of the Moral Qualities,’ later translated into Hebrew by Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon.

By 25, he also composed his collection of proverbs Mivchar Pninim (‘Choice of Pearls’), although scholars are divided on his authorship. At 28, he wrote his great philosophical work Fons Vitæ. But ibn Gabriol and Samuel ibn Naghrillah eventually argued, and ibn Gabirol spent the rest of his life wandering. He may have died in either in 1069 or 1070, or around 1058 in Valencia.

One legend claims he was trampled to death by an Arab horseman. Another says he was murdered by a Muslim poet who was jealous of ibn Gabirol’s poetic gifts, and who secretly buried him beneath the roots of a fig tree. The tree bore fruit in abundant quantity and of extraordinary sweetness. Its unique qualities attracted attention and brought about an investigation. ibn Gabirol’s body was found under the tree, and his murderer was identified and executed.

The statue of the poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol in a small square in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The poem Adon Olam did not become part of the morning liturgy until the 15th century. Now it is often read or sung at the start of the daily early morning prayer, to attune the mind of the worshipper to reverential awe.

When it is sung at the end of the service, the congregation sits while singing it, to show 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.

For example, the hymn Adon Olam closes the morning service on all Sabbaths and Festivals in the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. It may be sung to a wide variety of melodies. There is a link to the traditional Sabbath chant for this hymn HERE.

Because of its opening and closing thoughts, the hymn is often read in the room of a dying person, and in some congregations it is recited in the synagogue as a means of reporting a death in the community.

This is a metrical hymn, written in lines of eight syllables. Each line is composed of two segments of one yated and two tenu’ot, which makes right syllables.

There are varying texts in the Sephardic version; in some traditions, the hymn has six stanzas of two verses each, but the fourth is omitted by the Ashkenazim; in others traditions, it has 15 lines, in yet others it has 16 lines.

According to the custom of the Sephardim and in British synagogues generally, it is congregationally sung at the close of Sabbath and festival morning services, and among the Ashkenazi Jews it sometimes takes the place of the hymn Yigdal at the close of the evening service on these occasions.

Every major composer of modern synagogue music seems to have written several settings for Adon Olam. The setting by Simon W Waley (1827-1876) for the West London Synagogue has become a classic among British Jews.

However, the poem is associated with few traditional tunes, perhaps only four or five in number, and the oldest of these appears to be a short melody of Spanish origin.

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