אדון עולם אשר מלך בטרם כל יצור נברא
Some years ago Prof. Marc B. Shapiro dealt with the translation of the opening words of the well known Adon Olam prayer in a post on the Seforim Blog. He began with the premise that the proper translation must be “Eternal Lord”, but goes on to explain that based upon the expert opinion of Rabbi Meir Mazuz, he is forced to admit that Artscroll’s translation “Master of the Universe” and other similar renderings are in fact more correct. The central point is that the sages of the post biblical era who composed Adon Olam understood “olam” to mean “world” or “universe”, although in the Biblical Canon it usually means “eternal”, or “forever”. Subsequently, another blogger by the name of Zack (Sholem) Berger, took issue with Shapiro’s conclusion. Here again the premise is that the rendering of “olam” as “eternal” is “more plausible”.
While neither Shapiro, nor Berger, justify their premise, their line of reasoning should be clear enough: The words “adon olam” are directly qualified by the continuation of the verse “asher malach beterem kol yetzur nivrah” – since G-d is described here as the one “who who reigned before any form was created”, G-d cannot be simultaneously described as Master (or Lord) of the as yet non-existent universe.
Long before this issue was raised in the blogosphere it was addressed in a Chasidic discourse (mamer) delivered by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Rayatz of Lubavitch. In that discourse (see Sefer Hamamrim 5703, pages 10-11) the Rayatz points out that even if we were to translate “adon olam” as “Eternal Lord”, we would still be left with an unresolved contradiction implicit in the qualifying description itself: The concept of kingship – reign – applies to a particular form of relationship that can only be achieved by a ruler in relation to a group of people who, save for the dynamic of kingship would exist as entirely separate and independent selves. The designation “who reigned” (“asher malach”) cannot be applied to the Eternal Lord absent the creation of ostensibly independent entities (“before any form was created”) over which He may reign.
This difficulty is only compounded by the fact that in the opening words of Adon Olam are rendered as “Ribon Almin” – “Master of the Universe” by no less an authority than Rabbi Yeshaya (Isaiah) HaLevi Hurwitz, famed as the Shaloh (an acronym for his work Shnei Luchot Habris). In his commentary on the Siddur, Shar Hashamyim, the Shaloh deals with the issues raised above by invoking the passage in Tekunai Zohar, which is read in some communities every Friday afternoon: “Pasach Eliyahu ve’amar: Ribon Almin…”, and the interpretation of that passage by Rabbi Moses Cordevero (Ramak) in Pardas Rimonim. In doing so, the Sheloh plunges us into a discussion that reaches far beyond the technicalities of translation and into the fundamental questions that lie at the core of religiously fueled philosophical inquiry. The Shaloh in question can be viewed here.)
Since the terminology in these sources is heavily Kabbalistic, I will attempt to formulate the central ideas in less cryptic language.
The foremost premise here is that empirical existence (existence as we know it and experience it via the senses), by virtue of its impermanent state, cannot have existed eternally and therefore can only exist if a being of a more absolute quality caused its existence. Ramak explains that although such a being exists essentially and entirely independent of any relationship with created existence, It is nevertheless referred to as “Master of the Universe” because our knowledge of the Absolute Being is gained via our knowledge of the empirical realm, from which data we deduce that only a being of a more absolute quality can be the “First Cause” of existence as we know it. Framed slightly differently; although G-d essentially has no need to cause the existence of the universe, since G-d ‘chooses’ to do so, a context exists in which the term “Master of the Universe” carries meaning, even though it does not at all reflect the true nature of the being it refers to.
Every relationship between two separate entities creates an implicit spectrum of multiple perspectives from which the relationship may be seen in various forms. The Rayatz provides us with an analogy, which I will paraphrase: A king is a king to his people, but a son to his mother, a husband to his wife, a father to his son, and above all, an individual to himself. In order to act the part of a king to his people, he must – to some degree – step out of his role as an individual, and apply himself to a different mode of living. This shift from private individual to public officer is not only technical but also psychological; the individual himself undergoes an inner paradigm shift in which the people independent of himself can no longer be seen as independent of himself, and nor can he think of himself as independent of them. Only after this relationship has been established internally can the technical functions of kingship be executed.
In applying this analogy to the relationship between G-d and his creations we must be careful, but nevertheless, the Shaloh asserts that a similar dynamic does exist: Beyond the technical relationship that must exist between the Creator and creation, the relationship necessitates an earlier paradigm shift in which the First Cause, the Absolute Reality, considers the possibility of another form of existence, only then can the act of creation be initiated. In this context, the Shaloh cautions us, when we use the word “earlier” we are not referring to an earlier time, but to a “loftier” conception of Divinity (i.e. to G-d as Essential Reality, rather than mere Creator).
The phrase “Adon olam asher malach beterem kol yetzur nivra” (Master of the universe, who reigned before any form was created”), is now cast in a new light. In essence this is a statement that describes the depth to which the Absolute Reality – which we refer to as G-d – is immersed in the relationship with created existence. Even as G-d exists essentially and absolutely – “before any form was created” He chooses to “reign” as “Master of the Universe”.
What led the Supreme Being, absolute in every sense, to enter into the creation and maintenance of the non-absolute ‘reality’ that we inhabit and empirically experience – a form of existence whose transient time and space dynamic is utterly incongruous with the absolute and infinite nature of its First Cause? It is this question that the Rayatz seeks to address in the series of discourses cited above.