The Aramaic poem Akdamuth is one of the most famous elements of the traditional morning service on the first day of the Feast of Weeks. It is chanted by the cantor before the reading of the lesson from the Law. The poem plays on the ancient Jewish fancy that, at the end of days, God will spread a banquet for the righteous in heaven, at which they will eat from the flesh of the defeated monster Leviathan, the mythical dragon who personifies rebellion against the Divine Law. This banquet is represented as the reward which the pious Israelite may expect for faithfully maintaining the Covenant—concluded, according to tradition, on the Feast of Weeks. Akdamuth is believed to have been written by a certain Meir ben Isaac of Orleans towards the end of the 11th century. Owing to the obscurity of its language and its many recondite allusions, it has today lost something of its traditional appeal, and the recitation of it has been discarded in most congregations.
In the present translation I do not attempt to be literal, because a literal rendering of so allusive and tortuous a composition would be grotesque. I seek only to reproduce the general tone and content, in a form which will be neither servile and wooden on the one hand, nor a mere loose paraphrase on the other.
—Theodor H. Gaster
Ere the Word of God I read,
Ere I con the Holy Screed,
Let these feeble lips rehearse
In their broken, halting verse
Praises, ne’er so scant, to Him
Whose voice forever grows not dim,
Whose splendor as a flower blows
Which never knew the winter snows;
Whose everlasting glories reach
Beyond the power of human speech.
If all the skies a parchment were,
And every reed a quill, and there
Were nought but ink within the seas,
And all mankind were penmen—these
Would ne’er suffice His praise to write
Who reigns on earth and in the height,
Who, all alone, unwearyingly,
Made this great universe to be,
And, never resting night or day,
Brought all creation ‘neath His sway;
Who, soft and low, on that first morn,
Whispered, and a world was born
Who made all things in heaven and earth
Ere the seventh day had birth;
And, when creation’s work was done,
At twilight, with the setting sun,
In glory incandescent came
And sat upon a throne of flame.
A thousand thousand angels throng
To serve Him and, a myriad strong,
The heavenly host each morning press
To make to Him their sweet address.
Flaming six-wing’d seraphs sing
His praise, and through the welkin ring
Ceaseless, in a sweet accord,
The words: Thrice holy is the Lord!
And, like the surging of the deep,
Through all the wide-flung heavens sweep
The thunders of the cherubim
As they His royal glory hymn
And rush to where the rainbow hues
Or His eternal light diffuse
High radiance; and as they fly
Unto the seraphs make reply:
“O blessèd He, whose glory lies
Not secreted from mortal eyes,
But streameth from Him like a light,
To pierce the darkness of the night!”1
Yet, one short hour, and ne’er again
Each angel sings the joyous strain,
One hour only steps before
The Throne, and then returns no more;
While Israel, which is His delight,
Rests not neither day nor night,
But sings His praise continually,
For He hath chosen it to be
The agent of His will, to show
His glory in the here below,
To be the servant of His cause,
To labor without stint or pause.
And so He holds their praises dear,
And so, as every hymn draws near,
He takes the words which forth have flown
From Israel’s lips, and weaves a crown,
Or wears them for phylacteries
Between His everlasting eyes.
Lo, It beseems that I should sing
The glories of the world’s great King;
When now earth’s monarchs ask with glee:
“Who is thy Lover? Who is He
For whom thou dwellst in lion’s den
And bravest all the wrath of men?”
And when they say, “Oh, do our will,
And we shall all thy dreams fulfill,”
‘Tis meet that I should then rehearse
(Albeit in this halting verse)
The glory of my King, and say:
“Your eyes are blind, your feet are clay!
Oh, what avails your scepter’d pride
His sovran majesty beside?
And what avails your panoply,
When Israel’s Champion rideth high,
When His salvation dawneth bright,
But ye be veiled in darkest night?
Lo, when His exiles He hath led,
To Jerusalem, there shall be shed
Upon that city, day and night,
The splendor of His radiant light;
And silver-linèd clouds shall be
Spread o’er it for a canopy,
When He doth like a bridegroom ride
At last, at last, to claim His bride.
Then, round about, on golden chairs
(Each one upraised on seven stairs),
The righteous as His guests shall dine,
And perfect bliss shall be their wine;
And o’er their heads, for chandeliers,
Shall hang the radiance of the spheres,
A beauty which no lips can tell,
Whereon no earthly eye can dwell,
A starry glory which of old
No prophet’s vision e’er foretold;
And they beside the Lord shall walk
In Eden’s close, and softly talk
With Him, and to themselves shall say:
“This is He for Whom always
We waited through captivity;
This is our Lord, yea, this is He.”2
As maidens to the dance are led,
He will lead them, and outspread,
Like viands at a royal feast
Shall be the flesh of that fell beast,
That raging monster of the sea
Who dared assail His sovereignty.
For when that monster coils and curls
And beats the angry sea and hurls
Defiance at his sovran Lord,
Unsheathèd then shall be the Sword,3
And He that made him shall arise
And smite him, till that dead he lies.
The oxen on a thousand hills4
Shall be their meat, the while He fills
Gleaming goblets crystalline
With that most rare and perfect wine
Which in His cellar He hath stored
Since first creation knew its Lord.
Now, good friends who hear this verse,
When that 1 the Law rehearse,
Bear in mind that if ye do
All that it enjoins on you,
Ye may earn a place thereby
At that great festivity.
PRAISED FOREVER BE THE LORD
WHO IN LOVE GAVE US HIS WORD
1 See Isaiah 6:2; Ezekiel 1:24; 3:12-13.
2 See Isaiah 25:9.
3 See Job 40:19.
4 See Psalm 50:10.