Spitting During The Aleinu Prayer

This was emailed me:

Say, my friend, I really appreciate you coming to my home to help make a minyan, but would you mind not spitting on my $4000 oriental rug?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been uncomfortable spitting during the Aleinu prayer. Or maybe you’re not Chabad and you don’t spit. If that’s the case let me explain this dandy little custom.

The Aleinu prayer concludes every service. And after we say the first line of this prayer, we spit. In this first line we praise the Master of all things that He has not made us like the nations of the world, nor caused us to be like the families of the earth; that He has not assigned us a portion like theirs, nor a lot like that of all their multitudes, for they bow to vanity and nothingness – [SPIT]. But we bend the knee, bow down, and offer praise before the supreme King of kings…

Now first I want to be clear that the bracketed word [SPIT] written above is not in the prayer book. I put that in just to show you where we spit.

Second, this particular line that He has not… has caused a lot of problems throughout the centuries and in some prayer books it was taken out so as not to cause trouble with the nations of the world, and it remains out.

Third, even today, there are some Jewish groups that are very upset by this line because they feel it is insulting and discriminatory to other religions and ways of life.

But I’m not getting into all that (you can if you want, there’s lots of interesting stuff written about it). I’m just talking about the spitting part.

I’ve been spitting now for close to two decades. And, to be honest, until recently it’s always made me uncomfortable. I’m not talking about the kind of discomfort of spitting in the home of some rich guy, or spitting when I’m davening on an airplane, or spitting when I’m with a bunch of folks who don’t spit and think spitting is disgusting.

I’m talking about spitting even when I’m smack in the middle of a Chabad shul where everybody spits. Of course I do spit. G-d forbid I wouldn’t spit, especially in a Chabad shul where everybody spits. My discomfort doesn’t come from concern about external judgment, it comes from within.

Now, it’s true some of my discomfort came from being brought up thinking that a good boy like me shouldn’t spit. And some of it comes from the simple unpleasantness of the act of spitting. And some of it came from not knowing how to spit cleanly so there weren’t lots of dribbles on my chin afterwards.

But most of it came because it didn’t seem to be the thing to do when you’re praying to the Almighty. And it seemed superfluous to me. But since the Rebbe spat, who was I not to spit. And since the Rebbe spat then I knew there must be something vital to the spitting.

Now before I go into my new revelation about spitting and why it’s become so important to me, I want to give you the explanation I received about why we spit. It’s really pretty simple. I was told that we spit because after we use our mouths to speak about idol worship, we want to cleanse our mouths from the spit that participated in speaking these words before speaking about bowing down to G-d. Furthermore, since we are prohibited from taking any benefit from idol worship, we don’t want to benefit from the spit, by swallowing it, after it’s participated in speaking these words. And finally, it creates a hephsek, a separation between speaking of bowing to vanity and nothingness and bending the knee…before the supreme King of kings.

These are great reasons for spitting. The problem was, these reasons still didn’t overcome my discomfort. I still didn’t relish spitting the way I saw others relish spitting.

Then I had my revelation and now spitting has become a vital part of my prayer. Let me explain.

First a little personal history: I’m a baal tshuvah who had, before bumping into Chabad, absolutely no Jewish education. None. Zero. So, I couldn’t read Hebrew, let alone understand it. I learned to say the prayers in Hebrew, and slowly I got the gist of what each prayer meant. The gist, mind you, not the word-for-wordness of it. Sure, I read the English siddur (prayer book), and I knew what I was saying, but I really never delved into the Aleinu prayer, not in any depth.

Then my mother passed away and I was faced with the daunting prospect of leading the davening, everyday, three times a day, in Kfar Chabad, in front of guys whove been davening for 60 or more years (I prayed at the 6 am minyan where the average age of the participants is 72 years). So, I was a bit nervous and began studying the prayer book religiously. I wanted to know the meaning of what I was saying, word for word, so that my phrasing was right (otherwise I was saying words like "and" and "the" with great emphasis while skimming over words like kindness and charity as if they were conjunctives).

This led me to Aleinu.

Now to tell you the truth, I don’t know what the author of this prayer had in mind when he wrote these words. Nor do I know what life was like in his time. But I know what life is like in my time.

Today, the concept of bowing down to vanity and nothingness couldn’t be more fitting. If vanity is thinking about oneself, we now live in the middle of the ME generation where each persons desires and inclinations are held sacrosanct. G-d today is whatever you want. Morality is whatever you want. Right and wrong is determined by ME and nobody but me and G-d forbid anybody should dare to step on my rights to do what I think is right. I think only about ME and what I want and what I deserve and if that’s not vanity I don’t know what is.

In terms of bowing to nothingness, I would say that today people bow to nothing. Nobody is higher than them, so who is there to bow to? And if nothingness refers to idols, these idols are today not other gods, but are made up of pop culture, materialism, and sex. People are constantly bowing down in order to make a buck, be like or better than everyone else, or to satisfy their lust and desire. I’m happy for the person I meet who actually bows down to a god that he or she considers to be a transcendent being with absolute authority. At least there is the recognition that there is something higher in the world than them that they must humble themselves before.

And when the verse talks about nations of the world and when we thank the Almighty for not making us like the families of the earth nor assigning us a portion like theirs, I don’t think about any specific nation. Because today, the world seems equally corrupt everywhere. Communication, travel and technology brought materialism and me-ness; the values of drugs, sex and rock and roll; McDonalds, Blockbuster Video, and Mary Tyler Moore into every household and into the aspirations of every culture. Just look at Israel today. It’s trying to be a mini United States in every way. And nothing could be a more fitting description than families of the earth, since the values being aspired to in modern culture couldn’t be lower. Families are literally being raised with a set of values – or lack of them – that belong not just in the earth, but in the mud. This, I’m afraid, is their portion.

Okay, this explains the importance of the verse, but why the spitting?

Well, it would be great if I could say that all that I’ve written about the families of the earth and the nations of the world applied only to them, and not to me. It would be great, but it wouldn’t be honest.

Because I’m in a constant battle with my vanity and must maintain a constant vigil against my tendency to bow down before nothingness. I have my own desires that don’t befit my G-dly soul and maintain a constant guard against modern culture idol worship. Money often has the power to tempt me into bowing down, as do other less compelling urges and appetites. And many of the experiences of my life have left deep impressions that continue to pull me in less than lofty directions. There is an animal soul within me that is unmistakably an offspring from the families of the earth, and sometimes wallows in the mud. And all of this – and my confrontation with all of this – is an active part of my life and certainly a part of my life that I bring into my davening and ask G-d’s help in overcoming and refining.

And so when I spit, I’m not spitting on something, I’m spitting out many things. I’m spitting out my own nefesh habehamit (animal tendencies); I’m spitting out many of my past experiences that were not so beneficial to the elevation of my soul; I’m spitting out many of the desires, inclinations, urges and appetites that disturb my growth as a Chassid and a Jew. I’m reminding myself through this glob of spit, just how disgusting and harmful these things are and how I don’t want them in my mouth, nor in my mind nor in my heart. I’m making a separation between who I was (they bow to vanity and nothingness) and who I strive to be (but we bend the knee…before the supreme King of kings). And though I may not be a tzaddik, at least at the moment I spit I am a benoni, a person who can recognize the distasteful in myself and have the wisdom, strength and will to spit it out.

But you’re right, I shouldn’t spit on your $4000 oriental rug. I’ll carry a handkerchief and spit into it, instead. But, you’ll pardon me, because I intend to keep on spitting, and I’m happy that I’ve risen to the level of one who now relishes the act.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Prayer. Bookmark the permalink.