Avinu Malkeinu: Its Meaning and Historical Background
By Rabbi Richard Sarason
It is an irony of history that the very language now so controversial in Avinu Malkeinu (namely, the masculine-gendered, hierarchical images of God as “Father” and “King”) is what made this prayerful appeal so distinctive and effective for its original users.
Avinu Malkeinu is a penitential litany. That means that it uses the (now problematic) refrain, “Our Father, our King,” repeatedly to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor – “Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You.” Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.
The prayer formula was originally associated with situations of extreme human need: those occasional fast days proclaimed because of drought in the land of Israel, as indicated in the following talmudic narrative:
It is related of Rabbi Eliezer that he once stepped before the ark [to lead the congregation in prayer] and recited the twenty-four benedictions [of the Amidah for fast-days called on account of drought1], and his prayer was not answered. Rabbi Akiva stepped before the ark after him and exclaimed:
Our Father, our King! We have no king but You!2
Our Father, our King! For Your sake, have compassion for us! And rain fell.
(Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b)
The efficacy of Rabbi Akiva’s invocation of divine compassion, bestowed here through the gift of rainfall, was deemed to reside in his calling upon God both as “our Father”—the intimate parental relationship—and “our King”—acknowledging God’s sovereignty and rulership over us. It was on the basis of this understanding that the earliest fully written-out liturgy, Seder Rav Amram (9th c.), prescribed the use of this formula on the fast day of Yom Kippur, on Rosh Hashanah, and on the ten days between them, in addition to other fast days—that is to say, on those liturgical occasions that have a distinctly penitential character, enacting both the extremity of human need and the subjective sense of little worth in God’s presence.
The litany itself consists of the repeated invocation Avinu Malkeinu followed by any number of petitions for God’s compassionate care. For example:
Our Father, our King! Deal with us [graciously] for the sake of Your name [i.e., reputation]!
Our Father, our King! Send a complete healing to the sick among Your people!
Our Father, our King! Remove from us plague, sword, famine, and destruction!
Our Father, our King! Remember that we are but dust and ashes!
Our Father, our King! Speedily bring us salvation!
Seder Rav Amram lists twenty-five such petitions; the current Ashkenazic rite has forty-four! Most Reform prayer books have reduced the number of petitions (the UPB had only seven), both for reasons of length and because the extreme penitential rhetoric of some of these petitions was offensive to a modern sense of human adequacy and competence. Gates of Repentance, which included more of the traditional liturgy, also included more of the Avinu Malkeinu petitions—concluding with the one that pleads our lack of merit, since that one is commonly sung to a well-known eastern European melody, and thereby has come to typify the entire litany for many American Jews.
When the first day of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu traditionally is omitted, because its strong supplicatory rhetoric and its vaunted verbal efficacy are deemed inappropriate for a day of rest (even God should not be compelled to work on Shabbat!)3. In the traditional liturgy, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited in the evening service of either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur; it is saved for the day. Both the UPB and GOR include it in the evening services as well.
While earlier generations of Reform Jews had difficulty with the extreme penitential rhetoric of Avinu Malkeinu, our generation has also had trouble with its masculine and hierarchical images of God—so much so that the 1996 gender-sensitive edition of Gates of Repentance included at the back of the book a feminized version of the prayer, Shechina, M’kor Chayenu:
Shechina, Source of our lives, Motherly/Holy/Gentle/Guiding/Nurturing/Compassionate/Caring/Loving Presence . . .
Further alternatives for both aspects of this litany are being explored in the draft versions of the new CCAR Mahzor and will be discussed by members of its editorial team next week.
- This is the custom of the Mishnah, Ta’anit 2:2, whereby the daily eighteen benedictions of the Amidah would be supplemented by six additional ones, identified there as Zichronot, Shofarot, and four psalms: 120, 121, 130, and 102, all of which invoke God in times of distress. An appropriate chatimah concluded each of these psalms, and the shofar would be blown after each one. This custom is no longer in use.
- In the best medieval manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud (Ms. Munich 95), this is preceded by the formal confession, “Our Father, our King! We have sinned before You!”
- Since the second day of Rosh Hashanah never falls on Shabbat (for reasons having to do with food preparation), the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu is delayed until then. Similarly, when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu is delayed until the Neilah service. Those Reform congregations that only observe one day of Rosh Hashanah generally recite Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat. Similarly, when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, most Reform congregations will recite Avinu Malkeinu at all services.
Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.