The following is an adaptation of an article published in Ḥakirah, vol. 11 (Spring 2011):
The Jewish obligation of Tikun Olam is often referred to, and it is traditionally assumed that the Aleinu prayer is one of the texts upon which this obligation is based. This article will show that a very strong case can be made that the original version of Aleinu read עולם לתכן (to establish the world under God’s sovereignty), and not עולם לתקן (to perfect/improve the world under God’s sovereignty). If so, the concept of Tikun Olan has no connection to the Aleinu prayer.
It is reasonable to assume that Aleinu was already included in the Amidah of Rosh HaShanah by the time of Rav (early 3rd century C.E.). But no text of Aleinu is included in classical Tannaitic or Amoraic literature.
When we look to available texts of Aleinu, we find that the reading לתכן is found in the text of the Rosh HaShanah Amidah in the Siddur of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (d. 942), and in the text of the Rosh HaShanah Amidah in the Mishneh Torah of Rambam (d. 1204). Moreover, it is the reading in all the texts of Aleinu that have been discovered in the Cairo Genizah. The reading לתכן survives in Yemenite Siddurim to this day.
Admittedly, the reading in Europe since the time of the Rishonim has been לתקן. See, for example, the following texts of Aleinu:
- Machzor Vitry, of Rav Simchah of Vitry, ed. Aryeh Goldschmidt, pp. 131 (daily shacharit) and 717 (RH).
- Siddur Hasidei Ashkenaz, ed. Moshe Hirschler, p. 125 (daily Shacharit), and p. 214 (Rosh HaShanah). This work was compiled by the students of Rav Yehuda HeChasid (d. 1217) and presumably reflects his text of Aleinu.
-Peirush HaTefilot VeHaBerachot of Rav Yehuda ben Yakar, ed. Samuel Yerushalmi, sec. 2, pp. 91-92 (Rosh HaShanah). Rav Yehuda flourished in Spain and died in the early thirteenth century.
-Peirushei Siddur HaTefilah of Rav Elazar ben Yehuda of Worms, ed. Moshe Hirschler, p. 659 (Rosh HaShanah). Rav Eleazar died around 1230.
The three main manuscripts of Seder Rav Amram Gaon also read לתקן. But these manuscripts are not from the time of Rav Amram (d. 875); they are European manuscripts from the time of the later Rishonim.
I cannot prove that לתכן was the original reading. But this seems very likely, as לתכן is by far the better reading in the context. We see this by looking at all the other scenarios that are longed for in this section:
“LiR’ot Meheirah BeTif’eret Uzecha; LeHa’avir Gilulim Min HaAretz; VeHaElilim Karot Yekareitun; לתקן/לתכן Olam BeMalchut Shakai; VeChol Bnei Vasar Yikre’u ViShmecha; LeHafnot Eilecha Kol Rish’ei HaAretz; Yakiru VeYeid’u Kol Yoshvei Teivel Ki LeCha Tichra Kol Berech, Tishava Kol Lashon; LeFanecha Hashem Yichre’u VeYipolu; VeLichvod Shimcha Yekar Yeteinu; ViYkablu Chulam Et Ol Malchutecha; VeTimloch Aleihem Meheira LeOlam Va’ed; Ki HaMalchut Shelcha Hi, ULeOlmei Ad Timloch BeChavod.”
“To see the glory of Your strength soon; to remove and destroy idols from the land; and all creatures of flesh will call Your name; for the leaders of the state to look towards You. All the residents of the world will see and recognize that all knees will bow to You, and all tongues shall bless You; toward you, Hashem, they will bow, and to the glory of your name they will give valuables for Your name; and all will accept Your servitude; and you will rule over them forever; for the kingship is yours, and you will rule forever in glory.”
Beginning with the second line, “LeHa’avir,” every clause expresses a hope for either the removal of other gods or the universal acceptance of our God. With regard to the first line, “LiR’ot Meheirah BeTif’eret Uzecha,” properly understood and its mystical and elevated language decoded, it is almost certainly a request for the speedily rebuilding of the Temple. The idiom is based on verses such as Tehilim 96:6 (“Oz VeTif’eret BeMikdasho”) and 78:60-61. Taken together, this whole section is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple and the establishment God’s kingdom on earth. This fits the reading לתכן perfectly.
That this section of Aleinu is fundamentally a prayer for the establishment of God’s kingdom makes sense given that, most likely, this section was composed as an introduction to the Malchuyot section of the Rosh HaShanah Amidah.
Moreover, we can easily understand how an original reading of עולם לתכן might have evolved into עולם לתקן, a term related to the familiar term, “Tikun (תיקון) Olam.” The term Tikun Olam is widespread in early rabbinic literature. For example, it is found thirteen times in the Mishnah, and seventeen times in the Talmud Bavli. The alternative scenario, that the original reading was עולם לתקן and that this evolved in some texts into עולם לתכן, is much less likely.
Finally, the letter Bet of “במלכות” seems to fit better in “לתכן Olam BeMalchut Shakai” (to establish the world under God’s sovereignty) than in either of the two ways of understanding "לתקן...". Also, the lack of an “Et” before the object “Olam” perhaps fits the reading לתכן better. I leave a detailed analysis of these aspects to grammarians. (Editor’s note: “LeTakein Olam,” without the “Et” literally translates to, “To establish/correct a world (under the reign of God), as opposed to with the “Et,” meaning, “To establish/correct the world.” While the first meaning (לתכן) makes sense without the “Et,” correcting a world makes much less sense than correcting the world.)
There is no question that social justice is an important value in Judaism. Moreover, classical rabbinical literature includes many references to the concept of Tikun Olam, in the context of divorce legislation and in others. The purpose of this article was only to show that it is very likely a mistake to read such a concept into the Aleinu prayer, a prayer most likely composed as an introduction to the Malchuyot section of the Amidah and focused primarily on the goal of establishing (תכון) God’s kingdom on earth. Even if we do not fix the text of our Siddurim, we should certainly have this alternate and probably original reading in mind as we recite this prayer.
(The full article is available at Hakirah’s website: www.hakirah.org )