This Day in Jewish History

1336: Aleinu Prayer Prohibited in Castile

King bans prayer believing that the line uttered toward the end of each daily service was insulting to Christians and their messiah.

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February 25, 1336 is the day the king of Castile (what is today north-central Spain) issued an edict prohibiting the recitation of the Aleinu prayer by his Jewish subjects. The reason for the ban was the perception that the line in the prayer uttered toward the end of each daily service was insulting to Christians and their messiah.

Tradition attributes the Aleinu prayer to the third century C.E. Babylonian rabbi Rav; there is an early version of it is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, where its connection to the Rosh Hashana Musaf service (the additional service that follows the morning payers) is noted. By the ninth century, Aleinu was a regular part of the “Malkhuyot” section of Rosh Hashana Musaf, and soon was also adopted into the Yom Kippur Musaf.

According to historian Ruth Langer, the trouble started when Aleinu found its way into the daily Shaharit (morning) service, and eventually into the final part of all traditional services. By the end of the 12th century in northern France, says Langer, it was also being recited on a daily basis, at the end of the Shaharit (morning) service.

The prayer distinguishes between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world, as God “hath not set our portion with theirs, nor hath he made us like the families of the earth.” The difference, says the prayer, is that “they prostrate themselves before vanity and folly, and pray to a god who cannot help,” whereas the Jews “prostrate ourselves and bow before the King [who is] the Kings of Kings …”

The phrase in question is a conflation of two phrases from the biblical Book of Isaiah (30:7 and 45:20): “in vain, and to no purpose” and “pray unto a god that cannot save.”

In the biblical context, it was clear that both these phrases were meant to describe idol-worshippers, and distinguish them from the Israelites. But in medieval times, Christian commentators such as the Dominican priest Bernard Gui, author of an early 14th-century “Inquisitor’s Manual,” read it as being “specifically intended and comprehended” as referring to Christians.

Considering the contemporary texts that find such additions to the traditional words as a reference to a people who prostrate themselves to “a man, of ashes, blood and bile; flesh, [an embarrassment] of rot and worms,” it does seem reasonable to think medieval European Jews did have Jesus and his followers in mind when they said those words.

It was in this context that an apostate Jew called Alfonso of Valladolid appealed to King Alfonso XI of Castile about the Aleinu. Originally named Abner of Burgos, Alfonso of Valladolid became an important polemicist against the Jews after his late-life conversion, employing his extensive knowledge of Hebrew sources to make his anti-Jewish arguments. King Alfonso ordered the Jews of Valladolid to participate in a disputation about the Aleinu prayer. The result of the debate was the victory of Alfonso/Abner, and the issuing of a royal edict, on this day in 1336, banning the recitation of Aleinu, or at least of its allegedly anti-Christian line. Violators of the edict were to be subject to a fine.

Thereafter, and to this day, prayer books belonging to the Ashkenazi tradition omit that line, although in modern Orthodox Siddurim in Israel, it has been restored.