Ripple and Adon Olam

One of the things I love about living in Jerusalem is being pleasantly surprised by all sorts of things.  The most recent was this past Friday night.  Friday nights I usually daven at “Mizmor l’David,” aka “the Carlebach minyan.”  I suppose in Jerusalem it’s more accurate to say “a” Carlebach minyan, since there are many of them.  Anyway, we normally finish the Friday night service by singing Adon Olam – to a Beach Boys melody, the Sloop John B.  This week we had a change: instead of the Beach Boys, we had the Grateful Dead.

Now I’m what you might call a “non-hard-core” Grateful Dead fan.  I have a few albums, I went to a Dead concert “back in the day,” which is to say something like 1972.  But I certainly don’t qualify as a “Dead head.”  So I immediately recognized that it was a Grateful Dead melody, but I couldn’t place the name of the song or the lyrics.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet and how people post stuff, I was quickly able to figure out it was “Ripple.”  So I got curious about Ripple, and discovered it really doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible wine of the name we drank back in the early 70s.  It’s rather a very beautiful poem, and the sentiments of the song are actually somewhat apropos to Adon Olam.

Thanks to David Dodd for his posting of the lyrics and his commentary.

My commentary follows:


Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia.
(“Ripple” composed and written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Reproduced by arrangement with Ice Nine Publishing Co., Inc. (ASCAP))

>>comments come after the brackets

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music

>>Can you hear the music of the words even without the music of the music? This is sort of a variation on the Chasidic theme of continuing to feel the spirit of the words even when all you have is the melody. The nigun is still rich in meaning.

Would you hold it near as it were your own?

>>Sometimes people wonder why do we need a prayerbook? It’s because the prayerbook is religious poetry; we can hold King David’s words in the Psalsm “near as it were your own” because he often expresses our own feelings better than we could ourselves.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung

>>Don’t we often feel our prayers are unworthy? Our “hand-me-down” liturgy (in a good sense) whose thoughts are broken by our inability to stay focused. Sometimes we feel like giving up

I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

>>But we sing anyway, and the song lifts us and repairs our souls


Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

>>Even when we try and meditate and be still – no pebble tossed, no wind to blow, but still there is a ripple. It’s beyond most of us to be truly still for any length of time. Where there is life, there will be that Ripple

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty

>>Here of course is our connection to Adon Olam; just as often the connection between the Torah reading and a Haftorah is the same word(s) appear in both; in Adon Olam we sing that God is “the portion in my cup on the day I call.” When do we call God? All too often, when our cup is empty; Adon Olam tells us God fills our cup

If your cup is full may it be again

>>If you have the good fortune of having a full cup, it shouldn’t be a “one shot deal” not to return; or maybe, “may it be again” empty, so that God can fill it for you?

Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

>>Our fountain is Shabbat – not made by the hands of man, referred to as a fountain in Lecha Dodi and kabbalistic literature, the fountain that is the source of blessings

There is a road, no simple highway

>>Our search for God and meaning is no simple highway; there is more than one road, but none of them are simple, none offer shortcuts.

Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

>>Ultimately we are all on our own path. This reminds of the Chasidic story of the guy lost in the woods who encounters another guy lost in the woods, and tells him “let’s join and walk together; I don’t know the way out, but I can tell you, that direction I came from is not it…”


You who choose to lead must follow

>>Every congregational rabbi (or minister or priest or other religious leader) can undoubtedly relate to this line. You choose to “lead” a congregation, yet at the same time you often find yourself forced to follow where they want to go. And in any case, if you want to lead a congregation, you better remember you still follow God; lose sight of that and you’re lost. Reminds me of the story of the rabbi who was out for a walk and encountered the town’s night watchman. The night watchman didn’t recognize the rabbi; after a while, he asks the rabbi “who do you work for?” The rabbi hired him to quit his night watchman job, and instead to encounter the rabbi at random moments during the day just to ask him that question: “who do you work for?” Hint: it’s not the people paying his salary!

But if you fall you fall alone

>>Fall from grace in a leadership position and guaranteed you will feel abandoned pretty quickly . . . as Eric Clapton sings, “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out.”

If you should stand then who’s to guide you?

>>I see this as a call for humility; Mussar teaches us that if you stand – if you are proud – you can’t learn. The first step in spiritual development is cultivating humility; then God can guide you, and other people can guide you as well.

If I knew the way I would take you home

>>But ultimately, none of us really knows the way; so the answer is what is found in the conclusion of Adon Olam – to put your soul into God’s hands.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

6 thoughts on “Ripple and Adon Olam

  • Barry – Mamesh a gevalt. One side note is that an disproportional percentage of Dead Heads are Jewish. I have often pondered this phenomenon. One of the theories I have come up with is that Jewish souls crave spirituality. If is not nourished through Judaism then it will be sought out elsewhere. The communal feeling and togetherness at Dead shows probably helped fill a void in a place where spirituality is hard to find. As Jerry put it: “Once in while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

    In any case, its beautiful to think that Dead Heads can now enjoy the a Dead tune and the spiritual elements of a Carlebach davening to rock their souls. As it says in the song: “If your cup is full let it be again.”

  • A further cool thing I learned later is that Reb Shlomo actually shared a stage with the Grateful Dead! Not surprising at all for the founder of “The House of Love and Prayer…”

  • I have a figurine that says, ‘A true friend is the rarest of all blessings.’ You are fortunate, you have seem to have found that. I also read some where, that ‘home’ can sometimes mean, remembering and living your basic beliefs.

  • richard spencer

    being a dead head -and ripple a favorite i will listen to adon alom differentlly now especially because the children in my congregation diminished it with their screaming -we all must learn and be more tolerant all love surrounds u =thanks for the blog

  • jacob chinitz

    very interesting. I suppose no matter how much we explain,the siddur remains poetry. But at some point there must be a meeting between theology and liturgy. Otherwise we are threatened with a Beattle, Grateful Dead, religion which will not be able to compete with Dawkins and Hitchins defiant denial of God and the whole business.Jacob Chinitz

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