Musical Settings: Adon Olam

Cantor Sarah Sager

When I was a student at the Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, Illinois, I had a Hebrew teacher who suggested that every night before we went to sleep, it would be meaningful to recite the last verse of Adon Olam. As an impressionable and obedient fourth grader, I took to heart her suggestion and incorporated what became a comforting and soothing personal prayer with my nightly recitation of the Sh’ma:

Into God’s hand I commit my spirit
When I sleep, and I awake
And with my spirit, my body
Adonai , is with me, I will not fear.

It was not until much later that I learned that Adon Olammay, in fact, have originated as a bedtime hymn or poem recited to secure God’s protection while sleeping. It was said again in the morning, upon awakening, to acknowledge, with joy and thanksgiving, that one had survived the night without incident. Abraham Baer, the great musicologist-liturgist was of the opinion that the hymn was intended to be recited before retiring.

As with many “traditional” texts and melodies, we do not necessarily know exactly where or when they originated. We do know that they are beloved by our people and, thereby, become part of the cultural repertoire of our faith.

Whereas, most reform Jews probably know Adon Olam best as a closing hymn for the evening service on the Sabbath and holidays, it was incorporated into the Shacharit service at least since the 15th century, where it served to introduce the early morning service. The Gaon of Vilna felt it was an appropriate introduction to the morning service, because Shacharit is attributed to our patriarch, Abraham, who was the first person to address God as Adon (Genesis18:27). In addition, the rabbis wrote that the recitation of Adon Olam in the early morning, “with much devotion,” directs the mind of the worshippers to a mood of awe and intentionality (kavanah) such that Satan cannot undermine or denounce the prayers that are offered! In some communities, Adon Olam is recited at both the beginning and the end of Shacharit, as extra protection against the Evil Adversary! In addition, it is sung as a wedding song in the Moroccan tradition and, in some communities, is recited by those gathered at a death bed.

One has only to look at the magnificent poetry of Adon Olam to understand its wide and varied usage. The poem is truly a hymn of praise to a God who is supreme, omnipotent, eternal and infinite, the Creator of all, Sovereign of all, Guarantor, Protector, Comfort and Strength, “Who was, who is, who will be…..without beginning, without end!” It is this majesty which is reflected in what was, for much of the 20th century, virtually the “only” melody for this hymn, the setting variously ascribed to the Russian cantor-composer, Eliezer Mordechai Gerovitsch (1844-1914), as well as to tradition and to a folk tune. Listen

Although the authorship of Adon Olam is generally attributed to the great poet-philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058), even this we do not know for certain. There are those who believe its origin is much older, perhaps originating in the Babylonian academies. It is variously ascribed to Rav Sherirah Gaon (c. 900-1001), Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038), and even to the Palestinian Tanna, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Whatever is the actual genesis of the text, the poet created a sublime statement of belief and affirmation that has inspired countless musical settings. There are settings for the High Holy Days, the Festivals, and Shabbat. There are majestic settings that seek to reflect the exalted vision of God so expertly described by the words, and there are more lyrical, loving, tender melodies that inspire us with a somewhat gentler vision, as conveyed in this lovely Sephardic melody from the Isle of Djerba, arranged by Ben Steinberg. Listen

Adon Olam is one of those strictly metrical texts that can fit almost any melody – and has! As a student at the Hebrew Union College-School of Sacred Music, one of the curiosities of our studies was a setting by the great hazzan & musicologist, Gershon Ephros, who seemingly unknowingly composed a setting of Adon Olam, (we assume during December!) that carries as its leitmotif, the melody to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman”! Other whimsical, humorous melodies to which Adon Olam has been set over the years – and sung! – include: Yellow Submarine, It’s a Small World, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, Rock Around the Clock, and Yankee Doodle!!

In fact, Adon Olam is often set to the signature melody of the upcoming or current holiday or festival on which it is sung: e.g, to the tune of Maoz Tsur on Chanukah or Adir Hu on Pesach. In the aftermath of the six-day War, many Jews sang Adon Olam to the melody of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav(Jerusalem of Gold) by Naomi Shemer. Similarly, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, many congregations sang Adon Olam to the tune of Sharm El Sheik.

Far more than pre-existing melodies or the appropriate nusach, Adon Olam has inspired countless composers. The settings of Adon Olam range from sophisticated renditions for Cantor and four-part choir to up-beat and accessible melodies that are meant for congregational singing. Among the most sublime settings of Adon Olam is Salomone De Rossi’s from the 17th century. Composed settings of Adon Olam that invite congregational singing are Bonia Shur’s delightful rendition Listen and the engaging melody that comes to us from the French Sephardic tradition Listen. Among the melodies that are just plain “fun’, is the delightfully “pseudo-Chassidic by Aminadav Aloni with its Fiddler on the Roof flavor, Listen and the Israeli setting of Uzi Chitman that takes as its inspiration, both the night club and the dance hall! Listen

It is remarkable to consider how a single text has inspired such a vast and diverse repertoire of musical settings, all of which reflect an extraordinary range of musical inventiveness, creativity and interpretation!

Sarah Sager serves Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH as cantor. She also serves on the Board of the ACC, where she chairs the Personnel Committee. Cantor Sager was the inspiration behind The Torah: A Women’s Commentary a project of the Women of Reform Judaism.