Adon Olam is one of those lyrics that everyone seems to know by heart, and many take great delight in fitting to popular tunes like ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Happy Birthday’, or even ‘Yellow Submarine’. But what is it about what, and what is it for? To me, it is a profound and beautiful meditation, and its significance is easily missed when we are accelerating at the end of a Saturday service towards kiddush (blessing over the wine) and lunch.
The origin of Adon Olam is uncertain, but it is thought to have been written in the 10th-11th century; it only became established as a regular part of the morning liturgy in the 15th century. It begins the weekday morning service, and it ends the Shabbat morning service. The former is to put us in a reverential mood in readiness for prayer, and the latter is to encourage us to sit and reflect and not rush to leave the place of prayer. Adon Olam is also sometimes said in the room where a person is dying – it should soon become clear why this is.
To make this piyut (liturgical poem) as accessible as possible, I have created a translation-lyric that will fit the traditional tunes exactly, so that this piece can also be sung in English. Metric translations don’t always capture either the poetry or the layers of meaning. This English lyric observes the same rhyme scheme as the Hebrew original, as well as even the position of words in the lines (where possible). In the few places where I have taken a little licence with the literal meaning of the Hebrew, I have aimed to express the intent behind the words.
Eternal One, who reigned supreme, Before creating anything,
When all Creation serves Your will, Then truly Your name will be King.
When all shall end, God’s reign shall still Extend in endless story;
God was, God is, And God will be in glory.
And God is One, alone, unique, For all of Life the only Root.
Without beginning, without end, God’s power and rule are absolute.
And God is my redeeming God, My Rock when in my grief I fall,
My miracle, my refuge, Who answers me when I call.
To God I give my soul in trust When day and night appear,
And when my soul must leave this earth, God will be with me: I’ll not fear.
© Alexander Massey 2011
The poem is steeped in core Jewish theology. The first verse (musically used here also as a refrain) sets the tone of the whole text, addressing the All-Powerful Creator. Verses 2 and 3 affirm God’s eternal nature, God as One, and God as Creator and Ruler of all; I have set these musically as a pair. Verses 4 and 5 also work as a pair, and emphasise a more personal, intimate relationship with God the source of redemption, nourishment and safety, God to whom we can surrender ourselves – body and spirit. The words of the poem manage to reconcile several pairs of opposites: transcendence and immanence, God as Ruler and Redeemer, God’s will and human will, before / outside time and the end of personal time, God as source of life and God as destination of life.
The Hebrew text is also encoded with mystical ideas. It has five verses, ten lines in all, matching the ten sefirot (aspects of God, represented by points on the Tree of Life). The first 6 lines represent God who is awesome, transcendent, beyond beyond (l’eila l’eila), while the last 4 lines represent the God who is immanent, who is available for a unique, intimate relationship with each of us personally. The words Adon Olam (‘Master of the physical world’), when calculated with gematria (the mystical numerological system that assigns a number to every letter), add up to 61 and 146 respectively; these correspond exactly to two other words, Ein Sof, meaning ‘the Infinite’. The immanent and transcendent God are the same and One.
The tough-loving and tender-loving sides of God are also found here. The first three lines of the Hebrew end with the letter aleph, representing Elokim, the name of God as the All-Powerful One (and transcendent); this is the gevurah G-d of strictness, restraint and judgement. The next three lines end with the letter heh; this is understood to be the shortened form of YHVH, the name of God as the Compassionate One (and immanent), the chesed God of loving-kindness, mercy and forgiveness. The ends of the final four lines alternate heh-aleph-heh-aleph, binding together two sides of God, and giving us, in coded metaphor, the totality of God. The two sides of God – aleph and heh – have been woven into the music: the refrain is in the Ahavah rabbah (freygish) mode, and the verses are in the Magein avot mode, the former often used for weekday prayer, and the latter for moments in Shabbat. This was my way of binding two aspects of Jewish time together, representing the totality of time with a musical unity.
Read the poem again, and its translation. Sit with it, savour it, say it out loud, slowly, as a private prayer. Which of the tunes we know do justice to this majestic, deep and beautiful poem? I’m all for having a jaunty tune at the end of a service, but why not have a nigun, instead of hijacking Adon Olam? This is a poem of awe and intimacy, a poem that calls us to slow down and spend quiet time with God.