R. Brodt has already discussed the custom of azharot on Shavous, I wanted to discuss another Shavous custom – akdamut. Akdamut is the poem in Aramaic which is said around the time of the reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot.
This poem, composed by R. Meir ben Isaac who lived in Worms in the 11th century. He was also know as R. Meir Sha”tz (Shiliach Tzibor). The poem itself describes what happens in heaven when the angels sing their praises to god as well as god’s relationship with the Jewish people. The earliest source which records the custom to say akdamut is R. Ya’akov Molin (MaHRiL). The custom is then mentioned in most of the traditional codifiers of Ashkenazic custom.
The placement of akdamut is the subject of some controversy. According to the earliest sources which record the custom, they place the recitation of akdamut after the first passuk is read from the Torah. This was the accepted custom for many years. In the 17th century some began to question the propriety of interrupting the Torah reading with this poem. This controversy was brought to head in Venice where there were both Ashkenazim and Sefardim. As the Sefardim did not say akdamut at all, they found it highly questionable whether one can insert such a late poem in the middle of the Torah reading. This became a large controversy in Venice. The question was raised about the propriety of Ashkenazi customs in general and whether the Sefardic majority (in Vencie) could pass judgment on customs which they do not follow.
R. Ephraim HaKohen was asked a host of questions related to this controversy. First, can a Sefardic court decide about the propriety of an Ashkenazic custom, or are they considered “suspect” as they do not follow that custom? Second, is the custom of akdamut correct – to read it after the first passuk? And, finally, what is the effect of Sefardic customs vis-à-vis Ashkenazic ones when one group is in the majority?
He responded that first, there is no issue of a Sefardic court deciding on the customs of Ashkenazim. But, he explained that although in Venice the majority is comprised of Sefardim, that fact alone does not affect the Ashkenazic custom – as majority is not decided by a raw majority of people, but rather, a majority of people who follow a particular custom. Thus, you would look only at the Ashkenazic community to decide this issue based on majority. Or as he puts it “the majority of Sefardim is nothing when it comes to Ashkenazim.”
Finally, he discusses whether it is correct to pause and recite akdamut during the Torah reading. He explains that this is a correct custom, in part, because those who decided to do this to begin with were obviously aware of this issue and decided to do so anyways. He concludes that as this is a well-established custom it should remain in effect.
While R. Ephraim HaKohen spent a considerable amount of time justifying this practice (it is a very long responsa), his descendant R. Ya’akov Emden felt, irrespective of his great-grandfather, that it was wrong to interrupt the Torah reading. In his siddur, R. Emden takes issue, recognizing that although his great-grandfather justified the practice, there can in fact be no justification. The only proper place is prior to the start of the entire Torah reading – but one can not interrupt the Torah reading for akdamut. R. Emden argues that R. Ephraim’s assumption that the ones who instituted akdamut also knew about this problem, is meaningless. R. Emden explains that the early Ashkenazim had no problem interrupting in all sorts of instances for piyyutim, thus it is unsurprising to find they did it again here. But, R. Emden, says when it is no longer acceptable to recite many piyyutim there can be no justification for reciting akdamut during the Torah reading.
A similar stance to that of R. Emden is found in R. David ben Shmuel haLevi’s work – Turei Zehav or TaZ. He also complains about interrupting the Torah reading with this piyyut.
Based himself upon the same concerns as R. Emden and the TaZ, R. Aryeh Gunzberg (Sha'agas Aryeh) when he took the Chief Rabbi position of Metz argued that the community should change their custom from reciting akdamut after the first passuk and move it before the Torah reading. The community, however, would have none of that and refused to agree to the change. The Sha'gas Aryeh then threatened to leave Metz. In the end, the "compromise" was the Sha'agas Aryeh only came to the main Shul four times a year to give a derasha in protest of the community keeping their custom of akdamut.
Although one may justify the practice, as R. Ephraim HaKohen did, based upon the notion this is an established custom, the ultimate question is why was this established in the Torah reading at all? In the journal Ve’Laket Yosef, an interesting explanation is offered. Akdamut is in Aramaic, and it was the custom to have a translator during the Torah reading. This translation was done into Aramaic. There are two rather estoric readings – the Torah reading of the first day of Shavuot and the haftorah of the second day of Shavuot. Perhaps, prior to attempting to translate these difficult readings, the translator offered a justification and request from the congregation to allow him to translate this. Akdamut was the translators introduction – thus as his first time he would translate would be after the first verse – his introduction, and akdamut is after the first verse.
Setting aside when one is supposed to say akdamut, who was R. Meir the author? R. Meir lived in Worms, but the custom in Worms was not to say akdamut. This is a bit strange as one would assume the author’s home town would say his piyyut. R. Yehuda Leib Kirchheim, one of the recorders of Worm’s custom and history, says that once someone read akdamut in a beautiful fashion, and with a tremendous amount of concentration and right after he finished – he died. Thus, they stopped saying akdamut in Worms. However, R. Kirchheim, argues that this can not be the reason akdamut is not said as this would only prove how great akdamut is, it would not justify not saying it (although one could argue that it is a great piyyut, but after the person died, in Worms, they couldn’t find anyone else to recite it).
There are all sorts of legends told about R. Meir. Although it is typically understood that R. Meir Shatz was a chazzan, there is another explanation to this name. There is a legend which has a priest challenging the Jews in Worms to a debate. This threw the Worms Jewish Community into a tizzy, they didn’t know what to do. R. Meir stood up and said someone should go to the other side of the sambatyon river. The rabbi responded, fine – you be the one to go. Well R. Meir went off, first to Israel to ask a kabbalist where the sambatyon river is and then on to the sambatyon. When he got there, sure enough, the river was impassable, except on Shabbos. Although he would have been prohibited from crossing the river on Shabbos, as he was doing so only to save the lives of those in Worms, he did so. He found someone to go back and defend the Worms community. But, R. Meir got stuck, as he no longer had a dispensation to cross the river – there was no longer any mortal danger as he had found someone, so he remained behind the sambatyon river. According to this legend, Sheliach Tzibor – or the community emissary is literal and not a chazzan.
It is unclear where R. Meir is buried, some say in Tiberius, others place him somewhere in Europe.
R. Ephraim HaKohen, Sha’arei Ephraim, no. 10; Va'yelaket Yosef, no. 175 (1916); Landshuth, Amudei Avodah, pp. 164-65; Jacobson, Netiv Benah, vol. 4, pp. 99-105; R. Weinstock, Sheni Asar Shevtei Yisrael, pp. 70-77; Yuspah Shames, Minhagi Worms, vol. 1 ; Grossman, Hakmei Ashkenaz, 292-96; Frankel ed., Goldschmit Shavous Machzor, pp. 28-35; T. Rabinowitz, Iyunei Halacha, vol. 2 pp. 452-67; Hamburger, Gedolei haDoros 'al Mishmar Minhag Ashkenaz, pp. 108-112.
Also, see A. Habermann, Toldos HaPiyyut V'hashirah, vol. 2, p. 184 where he says that akdamut is in Aramaic as it is such a marvelous piyyut if it was in Hebrew (a language the angels can understand) the angels would be jealous.
For further online sources see here, here and here.