Q. Why do some congregations read the Akdamut poem at the beginning of K’riat HaTorah on Shavu’ot?
A. So awesome were the events described in the reading that the poet, the 11th century Ashkenazi cantor, Meir ben Yitzhak, was inspired to put his feelings into words. Written in Aramaic, Akdamut praises God who gave Israel the Torah, describes how the nations try to entice the Jews away, and says that we are ready for martyrdom to defend our faith. It ends with a lyrical account of the messianic era with the banquet of the leviathan.
Rabbi Ya’akov Emden called the poem “estimable… precious in my eyes”, but objected to inserting it after the Torah reading had begun.
The poem commences (in David de Sola Pool’s translation),
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love
Of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor would the scroll
Contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
The reference to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is derived from the Midrash to Shir HaShirim 1:3. The thought was borrowed by both Moslems and Christians. The Koran says, “Were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely fail before the words of my Lord fail” (Sura 18, verse 109), and “Were the trees that are in the earth pens, were the sea ink with seven more seas to swell its tide, the words of God would not be spent” (Sura 31, verse 27).
Medieval Christian sermons use the same imagery, and there is even a light-hearted English nursery rhyme composed in 1641 which says,
If all the world were paper,
And all the Sea were ink,
And all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drink?