Siddur Ba-eir Hei-teiv --- The Transliterated Siddur

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All transliterations, commentary, and audio recordings are copyright © 1997, 1998, 2002, 2009, or 2016 by Jordan Lee Wagner. All rights reserved.

a dono lo,

Here are some of the most popular melodies for Adon Olam, which is included near the beginning and/or the end of the davening on most occasions, though not always sung aloud.

  • This is one of the oldest composed melodies for Adon Olam still in widespread use.
  • This melody is borrowed from Keil Adon, a hymn in the Shema Section of the Shacharit Service for Sabbaths.
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Adon Olam: Awe and Intimacy

Adon Olam is a majestic poem appended to the end of some Sabbath and festival services. It was probably written by Solomon ibn Gabriol in Spain in the eleventh century. Adon Olam is composed of ten lines, each containing twelve syllables. A single rhyme runs through every line. This structure gives Adon Olam the unusual property that it can be sung to almost any tune at all. (Try singing it to the tune of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", or "Stairway to Heaven", or "Joy to the World" (!!!) or the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony! No problem!)

Adon Olam was originally written to be a bedtime prayer, used in conjunction with the Sh'ma and Hash-ki-vei-nu. But its ending is ambiguous enough to also be appropriate on arising. In the fifteenth century, Adon Olam was incorporated into prayerbooks at the beginning of the daily Prelimi­nary Morning Service. In the twentieth century, Adon Olam has become a popular addition to end of the Friday night and Saturday morning services.

Placing Adon Olam right beside Aleinu enhances the drama and beauty of both. Adon Olam deals with the present, while Aleinu is futuristic. Adon Olam is a personal prayer while Aleinu is a collective prayer. Adon Olam reflects an individual's situation while Aleinu reflects national interest. Both end on a universal optimistic note, one for the human condition, and the other for the individual worshipper's human condition.

Adon Olam has two distinct sections. They are radi­cally different in mood. The first half of Adon Olam explores the mystery of what it means to be outside of space and outside of time; to be Other than our material reality.

lord of...eternity... reigned... alone

before... everything... void... alone.

when... by will... all... was wrought

his Name made known... sovereign

And in the End... when Chaos comes, and...

all... ceases... to be...

He still... will reign... awesome... alone...

glorious... eternity.

He was... He is... He will remain.

He is Oneness...

no other to compare... nor join with him

no beginning... no ending...

might... and mastery.

The second half celebrates the ability of the divine to be perceived simultaneously everywhere within material reality as needed. Nothing material can be everywhere at once, so this ability is a second mystery.

Both omnipresence (existence throughout reality) and transcendence (existence outside reality) are mysteries. Of course, these two mysteries can be combined to form a dichotomy that is in itself a mystery. Adon Olam does this by pressing its two halves to­gether without any gradual transition. There is no change in the poetic form when the mood changes. Adon Olam presses these mysteries close together, and thereby cele­brates the biggest mystery of all: that that which is outside of space turns out to be right here!

Another way to look at this is that the first half of Adon Olam deals with "God and the Universe", while the second half deals with "God and the Individual". God is outside the universe, yet with each individual. This is the same mystical combination of simultaneous nearness and awe-inspiring transcendence that is expressed in the grammar of all the fixed prayers. The beginning of every benediction, "Baruch Atah Adonai", is in the second person. But the ending of a benediction is always in the third person. For example: "Praised art Thou, LORD,...who returns His presence to Zion." or "Blessed are You, LORD,...who brings forth bread from the earth.", etc. Because there are prescribed fixed blessings for so many things, observant Jews say blessings fairly constantly, and have the opportunity to experience (or be reminded of) this intimacy and awe all day long.

In the second half of Adon Olam, God is portrayed as a personal "Rock" and "Protector". "I" and "my" (words with "ai" and "i" endings) occur frequently. This is dra­matically different from the rest of the Siddur. And the sound of "nu" (meaning "us" or "our") is absent.

Although there are many different congregational tunes used for Adon Olam, none of them actually sets the words of the poetry. Many simply apply the poem to a pre-existing melody. None of them make any distinction between the powerful dark mystical first half and the cheerful confident loving second half. (Great composers have written choral settings of Adon Olam that set the words to music carefully, but these are not generally sung by congregations.)

--- adapted from "The Synagogue Survival Kit" by Jordan Lee Wagner, publ. by Rowman & Littlefield. 1997.

Last Updated on Sunday, 31 January 2010 23:45

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