If you have ever read bad religious poetry, it makes you appreciate all the more the relative handful of exquisite verses that can draw us in and transport us to paradise. At Shavuot we find one of those rare hymns which causes us to delight in God.
The Akdamut (Ashkenazi Jews say Akdamus) is an Aramaic poem written in the eleventh century by Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a German cantor.
As is typical in some Biblical poetry, the Akdamut makes use of literary features involving letter sequences. In the first half, the lines begin with letters in order of the Hebrew (Aramaic) alphabet. In the second half, lines begin with the letters spelling the name of the author. Even more interesting, each line ends with a suffix of two Hebrew letters: tav and aleph, the last and the first letters of the alphabet. The suffix symbolizes the end and the beginning, a recurring cycle, which is about the endless cycle of Torah study which is the delight of Jews everywhere.
The original intention of the prayer was for it to be read just before the scripture portion about Mt. Sinai and the giving of the commandments during the Shavuot morning service. Some congregations have moved the prayer until after the Torah service, though others continue the older tradition.
The prayer moves from creation’s beauty reflecting God’s glory to a description of the wonders of the World to Come and to the angelic beings praising God and his chosen nation studying the perfect words of Torah.
The most famous stanza of the Akdamut is worthy by itself as a great poem and great prayer:
Were the sky a parchment made
A quill each reed, twig and blade
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
Were every man a scribe of skill,
The marvelous story
Of God’s great glory
Would still remain untold;
For he, Most High,
The earth and sky
Created alone of old.
–Translated by Joseph Marcus, from the 1946 Rabbinical Assembly Sabbath and Holiday Prayerbook
You can read the entire Akdamut online here.