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Adon Olam: Lord of Eternity

January 1, 2014

This is a very familiar liturgical hymn for Jews, dating back to the 15th century liturgies, and supposed to be from the 11th century or perhaps much earlier. The first line has often been translated “Lord of the Universe” since olam can mean either “eternity” “a very long time” or “the universe/world.” The transition from “eternity” to “world” happened some time in the last two millennia. So, in modern terms, “Lord of the Universe” but in the biblical sense, and in the sense of the poem itself, “Lord of Eternity.” Update: This is a translation by Esther Hugenholtz.  And here it is in Hebrew script.

Adon olam asher malach
Lord of Eternity Who reigned

b’terem kol yetzir nivra
before anything was created

Le’et na’aseh b’cheftzo kol
In the hour of Creation, He willed all

azai melech shemo nikra
and so His Name is known as King

V’acharei kichlot hakol
And after all is completed

levado yimloch nora
only He will reign in awesomeness

V’hu hayah v’hu hoveh
He was, He is

v’hu yihyeh betifarah
and He will be in splendour

V’hu echad v’ein sheni
He is Alone, there is no second

lehamshil lo lehachbirah
to rule Him in fellowship

B’li reishit, b’li tachlit
Without beginning, without end

v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah
and His power is not shared

V’hu eli v’chai go’ali
Yet He is my God, He is my life and my Redeemer

v’tzur chevli be’et tzarah
my rock in vanity in my hour of need

V’hu nisi u’manos li
He is my banner and my shelter

menat kosi beyom ekra
He is my Cup [of salvation] on the day I call

Beyado afkid ruchi
In His hand I place my spirit

be’et ishan v’a’ira
in the hour of my sleep and waking

V’im ruchi geviyati
And with my spirit and body

Adonai li, v’lo ira
the Eternal is with me, I shall not fear

Here are two arguments for “Master/Lord of the Universe.” There is a conservative/liberal split in Judaism on whether this prayer/hymn should open with “Lord of the Universe” or “Eternal Lord.” A bit complicated. I have my own issues with Artscroll.

However, we do know that in the Hebrew Bible El Olam means Everlasting/Eternal Lord. In French and German this was translated as “Eternel” and “Ewige” which are equivalent to “Eternal.” They morph easily into a name for God. In English, “Everlasting God” has not become a popular name for God. Here are various translations for El Olam in Genesis 21:33,

בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָם.

the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

το ονομα κυριου θεος αιωνιος

nomen Domini Dei aeterni

le nom du Seigneur, Dieu éternel

dem Namen des HERRN, des ewigen Gottes.

I can’t help feeling that in Greek, Latin, French and German, the use of the word for “eternal” lead to using this as a name for God, in a more popular way than in English. “Eternal” is easily abstracted to “eternity” and the quality of being “eternal” in a way that “everlasting” is not. In any case, I don’t think that Olivétan really brought about a paradigm shift in using “L’Eternel” for the name of God. He had access to a great deal of material, scholarly and rabbinical works for his translation.

In short, this poem emphasizes that God existed before matter, a Platonic position, rather than an Aristotelian one. God shares power with no one at all. God is one. God is represented by many metaphors that somewhat represent the nature of God, but none that exactly represent this eternal being who existed before matter. God cannot be anthropomorphized. God relates to humans today. God is redeemer and sustainer of life.

Positioning God before the creation of matter, outside of the beginnings of mortality, distances God from sex. Sex is created for the necessity of continuing the propogation of mortal species. God exists entirely outside of that. However, the Kabbalah, deeply dependent on this tradition, did develop a strong gender theology, sometimes very negative to women and sometimes not so much. It seems that there is a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize God, and to make God in the likeness of humans. Such is life.

If you click on the tag “Eternal” at the top right of this post you should get all 7 posts in this series.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2014 7:30 pm

    Thank you for this poem. I find it easier to read the transcribed sounds than I used to though I still feel the need to find the tri-literal ‘root’. I stumbled at this line

    v’tzur chevli be’et tzarah
    my rock in vanity in my hour of need

    I am trying to imagine reading it as ‘vanity’, It seems more that the words you have as tzur and chevil are in construct relationship. Rock and Qohelet’s favorite – vanity or futility or weightless, don’t go together very well. Weightless or vanity reads it as heh-bet-lamed not chet.- but I wonder if it should be chet – and be pledge, used in Ezekiel but not with tzur anywhere that I can find. It occurs in Song 2:15 – those pesky foxes – and has the labour of birth (Song 8) as a possible meaning. Maybe ‘the rock of my pledge in the hour of trouble’

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 1, 2014 8:59 pm

    Bob,

    Thanks so much for bringing to my attention that I did not link to the source and translator. I have updated that and have added another version as well. Here is the line in Hebrew script.

    וְצוּר חֶבְלִי בְּעֵת צָרָה

    More later.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 1, 2014 9:15 pm

    Here is a suggestion. The word חבל means to be empty, often translated as vain or vanity in the sense of being empty of substance.

    How about “a rock in my emptiness, in my time of need” ??

  4. January 1, 2014 10:53 pm

    The translation at the link is good – a rock in my travail in time of distress
    … וְצוּר חֶבְלִי בְּעֵת צָרָה
    The two words travail and vanity are quite different but easy to mistake for each other: חבל and הבל – the first letters are different.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 2, 2014 9:09 am

    So did Esther, the first translator, think it said הבל? I am going to check a few more versions.

  6. January 3, 2014 10:59 am

    It’s great o find some people interested in Adon Olam – so often I find Jewish communities singing these words to trite or inappropriate tunes, and I assume that is because they haven’t considered what the words mean. Being a composer of Jewish liturgical music, I set the Hebrew words to music, and then, in an attempt to raise awareness of the meaning of the poem, I wrote a free translation-interpretation as an English lyric that would fit the same music. Here it is:

    Eternal One, who reigned supreme,
    Before creating anything,
    When by Your will all was made,
    Then all Creation named You King.

    When all shall end, God’s reign shall still
    Extend in endless story;
    God was, God is,
    And God will be in glory.

    And God is One, alone, unique,
    For all of Life the only Root.
    Without beginning, without end,
    God’s power and rule are absolute.

    And God is my redeeming God,
    My Rock when in my grief I fall,
    My miracle, my refuge,
    Who answers me when I call.

    To God I give my soul in trust
    When day and night appear,
    And when my soul must leave this earth,
    God will be with me: I’ll not fear.

    © Alexander Massey, Aug 2011

  7. January 4, 2014 11:14 am

    @Alexander, is your music generally sung in Hebrew or English or both?

  8. January 4, 2014 12:56 pm

    It depends. When I set words, the melodic shapes and rhythms echo the prosody and reflect word meanings, and the phrasings or larger musical structures often parallel rhetorical devices in the text and so on. This can be challenging when the Hebrew is set, because it often doesn’t have regular metre or stresses, or rhyme schemes. Sometimes I take a Biblical Hebrew text, and develop an English lyric from that, and then set the English to music. My Adon Olam was unusual for me, in that I set the Hebrew, then wrote an English lyric that closely followed the prosody of the Hebrew original, and, where possible, positioning of words in the lines, so that the English version could fit the tune I had written for the Hebrew.

  9. Sarah BB permalink
    February 29, 2016 1:57 pm

    The word “olam” itself changed in meaning over time. In earlier Biblical Hebrew it meant eternity (l’olam va-ed), and later on it came to mean the world, i.e. time vs. space. Therefore, our modern understanding of phrases like “Adon Olam,” and even the blessing formula “…melech ha-olam” can interpret olam as meaning time, space, or time AND space!

    Some quick googling found this link which has more interesting examples: http://daytonjewishobserver.org/2014/01/14414/

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