Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King") is an ancient litany recited daily during Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, or the Ten Days of Awe (with an exception on Shabbat when this prayer is omitted from the liturgy), and also on other Jewish fast days throughout the year. The prayer powerfully speaks of a God who is an all-powerful, eternal father or parent watching over us all with the loving kindness and tender mercy that one would expect from a loving parental figure. Avinu is translated as our Father, Parent, or Merciful One, and Malkeinu is translated as our King.
This special prayer itself dates back to Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest sages of the Talmudic era, who lived approximately from 40 to 135 AD. It is believed Rabbi Akiba was inspired by texts found in the Siddur of Rabbi Amram Gaon (these texts can now be found in the Talmud). He then wrote the original two verses of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer on a Jewish fast day, crying out to the Lord to relieve a drought that had taken over the land. "Avinu Malkeinu, we have no King but Thee; Avinu Malkeinu, for Thy sake, have compassion upon us" (Ta'an 25b). According to tradition, rain immediately began to fall, answering the sage’s prayer and relieving the drought.
After Rabbi Akiba’s prayer was answered, the original text was expanded to 44 verses, the most famous verse being, "Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, even though we have no worthy deeds, act with us in righteousness and goodness, and save us." Some scholars say that the concept of Our Father, Our King dates back 500 years before Rabbi Akiba to the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
Avinu Malkeinu is customarily recited within a congregational setting, both in the morning (Shaharit) and afternoon (Minha) services each day during the Ten Days of Awe. Reform Jews will additionally recite the Avinu Malkeinu on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which correlate to the first and last days of the Days of Awe. Many congregations will recite the Avinu Malkeinu while standing while the Ark of the Covenant is opened, asking God for forgiveness of sins committed and for an outpouring of His blessings. Avinu Malkeinu is often included during the Amidah.
When the prayer was first incorporated into Jewish liturgy, congregations would chant the prayer, the first part of each verse, and the rest of each verse would be recited by a reader. Over time, it became such that the entire congregation would recite the prayer in its entirety, though possibly some middle verses may be repeated after the designated reader, though this practice may vary depending on the congregation. In the Ne'ilah portion of some Yom Kippur services, "seal us" is incorporated instead of "inscribe us," and "remember us" is used on the fast days.
Each line of the litany begins with the words Avinu Malkeinu and ends with a petition to the Lord. The prayer has taken on different variations over the centuries, such as some Ashkenazi Jews adding prayers to the Lord for protection, mercy, and compassion in light of the Crusades that had ravaged some Jewish communities throughout Europe as one example, and there are other examples as well. Some prayer books, such as that of Maimonides, interestingly never included this prayer.
Avinu Malkeinu has become so entrenched in Jewish life that Shimon Peres, the former President of Israel, requested that Barbra Streisand sing a Hebrew version of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer at his 90th birthday gala in Jerusalem. Peres reportedly said it was "worth waiting 90 years to hear such a heavenly voice" as he remarked on the stanzas of Avinu Malkeinu's song being sung per his request. Many songs have been written over time, putting music to the words of this beautiful prayer. Former President Peres also formally requested in his will to have the Avinu Malkeinu sung at his funeral, which included several heads of state and royalty and other government officials from around the world.
The Lord of the Universe knitted each of us together in our mother’s womb and knew us before we were born. Despite sin polluting the world and our carnal hearts naturally rebelling against His perfect ways, He chose to bestow on us the honor of being Children of the Covenant, Children of the Most High. He reigns not only as our Lord and King, but He longs for us to recognize and fully accept Him as Our Father, Our Beloved Parent, the Husband of the Church, His Bride.
What a beautiful relationship and what a deep love the Lord has for His children to not only have the role of Ruler and King of the Universe, but one who longs for us to see Him as a loving parent figure, Our Father in Heaven, who desires to bestow great blessings upon His children, and from whom all blessings flow. His Father-of-the-Universe heart aches when we suffer on this earth, as He longs for all hearts to repent and turn toward His ways so that when that final trumpet sounds, He can bring us all home.