Pikuach Nefesh – Post-Shavuot Gleanings

As part of the celebration of Shavuot, the Omaha Beit Midrash convened a panel discussion involving clergy from Temple Israel (Reform), Chabad, and Beth El (Conservative) with Jennie Gates-Beckman of the Jewish Federation of Omaha serving as moderator. The discussion questions were posed by Rabbi A. Brian Stoller; Rabbi Mendel Katzman and I also participated on the panel. The following are my preparatory notes on the topic of Pikuach Nefesh, the principle of setting aside Jewish Law to save a life.

There is a lot of talk about the principle “Pikuach Nefesh” these days. What is this principle, and how is it relevant to the current pandemic?

The concept is that Jewish Laws, especially those that apply to the Sabbath and holy days can be set aside for the sake of saving a life. The word “Pikuach” actually means “to open up” you may recall the blessing that we say in the morning “Pokeiach Ivrim” thanking God for opening up the eyes of the blind.

There is a case in the Mishna  (Yoma 8:6) that talks about a person being buried under some rubble on Shabbat. We are obligated to “open up that rubble” i.e. to clear away the rocks etc. to save the person even though this is an act that violates the laws of Shabbat.

There are two basic principles involved which allow for this. Firstly, the Torah in the book of Leviticus(18:5) teaches us that the commandments are given to us to live by and not die by. Secondly, we learn that the Shabbat is given to the people of Israel, the people of Israel not given to the Shabbat. (Yoma 85:b) Shabbat is for us, it is part of our conventual relationship with Our Creator; we are not beholding to the Shabbat.

Dr. Elana Sien Hain of the Shalom Hartman institute gave a fascinating talk on the subject of Pikuach Nefesh especially as it relates to our current situation. (https://youtu.be/z0WSSOylWSc) She cites a passage of rabbinic legal text (Tosepfta Shabbat 15) which gives two possible ways to understand the concept of Pikuach Nefesh. In some ways, Pikuach Nefesh can actually enhance our experience of Shabbat. The example she gives is of a bris which must be performed on the 8th day, even if it is Shabbat or Yom Tov – I once witnessed a bris on the Bima on Yom Kippur, it added an extra dimension of excitement and spirituality to the Holy day. I would imagine that similarly, saving a person in distress on Shabbat would give you a wonderful feeling which would make the Shabbat feel even more meaningful, even more special. On the other hand, sometimes violating the rules of Shabbat even for the sake of saving a life may make you feel like you diminished your experience of Shabbat. Perhaps, to help someone, you had to perform an action which violates Shabbat. You may feel bad or even guilty about this violation and it, therefore, diminishes your experience of Shabbat. If this occurs you can take some comfort in the knowledge that you have enabled another person to potentially keep many more Shabbatot in the future.

Doctor Hein gives the example of a psychiatrist who had to use the telephone to check in with a client on Shabbat because they were afraid that this person may be so depressed in their isolation due to the social restrictions required by the COVID situation that they could, God forbid, be considering suicide. Even though using the phone took away from her Shabbat experience, the doctor violated Shabbat so that the client would live and thus have the potential to keep many more Shabbatot in the future.

Is Pikuach Nefesh absolute, or are there limits to it? How far are we supposed to go in order to save a life? 

Fred Rosner is a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee of the State of New York, and an expert in the medical writings of Moses Maimonides. He put together a book called an Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics ( https://tinyurl.com/y9bknfc6) which discusses among other topics the concept of Pikuach Nefesh. He reminds us that one of the guiding principles in answering this question is the belief that one person’s blood is no redder than another person’s blood. In other words, every human life has equal value so we are prohibited from sacrificing one life for the sake of another. On the other hand, it is permissible to risk great personal injury to save a life. This is especially true when it is a person’s profession or training that is required to save a life. Thus, we are taught that even a person teaching a Torah lesson who is a member of a volunteer ambulance squad must abandon that class and rush out to save a life if he is called upon do so.

Interestingly, our sages made it very clear that this principle of saving a life applies even if the person being saved is not Jewish, this is explicitly expressed the Mishna I cited at the beginning. Cynics might say this is so that people will not have an excuse to discriminate against us saying the Jews only care about their own. However, The Torah teaches that all of humanity is created in God’s image and therefore we must treat everyone in the same manner regardless of their religion or nationality.

There are, however, situations where the principle of Pikuach Nephesh cannot be applied. These include committing murder,  idolatry, or violating some sexual or interpersonal prohibitions.

Is Pikuach Nefesh strictly about saving someone from death, or can it be applied more broadly?

Pikuach Nefesh certainly applies beyond the scope of physical danger. There are many cases in which psychological danger is a serious reality and therefore we are obligated to violate the rules of Shabbat to assist those in such situations. A good example is in the case of the psychiatrist checking in with the patient that I cited earlier. Even if a person isn’t suicidal, certainly there are cases involving depression or the possibility of mental abuse where violating the Shabbat to help would be considered Pikuach Nefesh. For example, the Talmud (Yoma 84b:7-10) teaches that if “one sees that a door is locked before a child and the child is scared and crying [on Shabbat], he breaks the door and takes the child out.”

There is also the principle of spiritual Pikuach Nefesh. Is it possible that to maintain the spiritual life of a community we are permitted to set aside some of the rules of Shabbat such as using a computer, to preserve the spiritual life of the community? Perhaps we can do these things so that we can ensure that the community will maintain its spiritual connection to Shabbat and therefore, on one hand, enhance the experience of Shabbat for some and on the other hand, make sure that people will remain engaged and therefore willing to keep many more Shabbatot in the future.

Does the principle of Pikuach Nefesh make any distinction between risk to the individual and risk to the community?

There are differences between individual Pikuach Nefesh and communal Pikuach Nefesh. So, for example, a soldier must go out and fight for the community even though there is a grave personal danger to that soldier. Similarly,  Dr. Rosner points out that a fire in a public space can be put out on Shabbat when the community would face hardship if the fire is not extinguished, even if there is no immediate danger to life. Also, a proactive action on Shabbat that would result in avoiding a dangerous situation in the future could be permissible when the health of the community is at stake whereas for an individual this would be much more difficult to justify.

As I said earlier,  there are situations where the principle of Pikuach Nefesh cannot be applied. These include committing murder,  idolatry, or violating some sexual or interpersonal prohibitions. However, Doctor Rosner seems to suggest and that there may be cases where even certain sexual prohibitions could be set aside for communal Pikuach Nefesh.

Finnaly, Doctor Hain in her class cited two historical examples to illustrate the idea of communal Pikuach Nefesh. The Book of Maccabees recalls that at first the followers of Matthias refused to fight on Shabbat. Their leader chided them and said, “fools if you don’t fight on Shabbat then we will suffer a terrible defeat and throughout all time people will know that if you want to defeat the Jews just attack them on Shabbat.” In other words, they were obligated to fight on Shabbat to preserve the community. Certainly, they enabled many future generations to keep the Shabbat.

Her other Example occurs during the Shoah. People who were inmates of concentration camps and ghettos risked great personal danger to keep as many laws and customs of Shabbat and festivals as they could. Kind of reverse Pikuach Nefesh.  To those brave Jews, it was a way to hang on to their humanity and to somehow resist the tyranny of the Nazi oppressors. In other words, it was in risking danger to keep the law that they were able to preserve and enhance their lives.

Worship by Computer, a Contemporary Solution to an Ancient Dilemma

Some friends have asked me how it is that I am using Zoom for Services on Shabbat. Here is my reply:

An unspeakable tragedy occurred in the year 70 C.E.; the destruction of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem: the Beit Ha Miqdash.  Besides being a severe trauma to the nation of Israel, the absence of the  Beit Ha Miqdash effectively ended the possibility of the biblically mandated system of animal sacrifices, in essence we were left with no way to gather and connect with our Creator.

Our brave sages recognized that faced with the possibility of losing our ability to both communicate with The Holy One and to commune with our fellow worshippers, a radical move had to be made. The solution was to employ a  resource that was available at that time – the developing system of public and private prayer that we continue to use today. These great scholars recognized that since Judaism is a community-based religion, all available options must be employed to facilitate communal worship. This was indeed a watershed moment in Jewish history, had our sages not chosen to turn to this radical methodology, we may well have disappeared as a people.

Similarly, what we know as Passover or Pesach, was celebrated by each family joining with the rest of the community in bringing the pascal lamb to the Beit Ha Miqdash to be ritually slaughtered. The family would then roast the lamb for their festive meal. Unfortunately, the absence of the Holy Temple made this Pesach rite impossible to observe. Once aging our wise scholars adapted to the situation by instituting the Seder ritual during which we merely point to a shank bone on the Seder Plate to remind us of the pascal offering.

In this same spirit, many Jewish clergy have decided that the corona crisis constitutes extraordinary circumstances. Just as our predecessors adapted to a calamity by using the best contemporary resources that were available, we are using our computers to connect with one other on Shabbat. While time will tell whether this too will be considered a watershed moment in Jewish history, we believe that It is especially vital under these dire circumstances for each person to feel as though they are a part of our prayer community, especially on Shabbat and festivals.

The ancient framers of our liturgy, interestingly enough, hoped just as we do that the radical change in worship modality that they instituted would be temporary. Thus each version of the Amidah – the collection of seven to nineteen blessings that constitutes the core of each worship service, contains a paragraph beseeching the Blessed Holy One to accept our supplications in their current form, given the situation at hand. The text begins with the words: “Ritzei Adonai Eloheinu b’amcha Yisrael…”

Our Siddur Lev Shalem for Shabbat  (Rabbinical Assembly 2016) translates this prayer as:

“ADONAI our God, embrace Your people Israel and their prayer. Restore worship to Your sanctuary. May the prayers of the people Israel be lovingly accepted by You, and may our service always be pleasing. May our eyes behold Your compassionate return to Zion.

Barukh atah ADONAI, who restores Your Divine Presence to Zion..”

It is always astonishing to me that the age-old prayers continue to take on new relevance in our time. Just as the author of the above prayer yearned for the day when the worship would be restored to the Holy sanctuary of the Beit Ha Miqdash, we too yearn for the day when we can safely return to the Holy sanctuaries of our synagogues. As we long not only for God’s embrace but for the embrace of our fellow worshippers, we too must use the best resources available in our times to ensure the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the congregation and the continuity of communal worship until this crisis becomes history.

Here is a stirring rendition of R’tze by the great Hazzan Moshe Ganchoff

Share a Prayer: Face Time with Your Creator.

Built into our tradition is the opportunity to have a one to one “Face Time” conversation with the Almighty every day. The Amidah, a prayer that is a compilation of 7 – 19 blessings, which forms the core of every single prayer service – both individual and communal, facilitates this. Abraham Milgram, the great authority on liturgy in his book Jewish Worship traces the origin of the Amidah to the time of the return of Babylonian exiles to the Holy land; about 533 BCE. A committee of up to 100 great sages, according to tradition, was responsible for the formulation of some of the blessings that would later constitute the Amidah.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., the leaders of the Jewish community faced an existential paradox. The Torah clearly states that the only way to communicate and connect with God is through the prescribed sacrificial service – impossible without a functioning Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Milgram explains how prayer is the solution our sages devised to this fundamental crisis:

“[By] Reciting the [Amidah] mornings and afternoons at the time when the sacrificial ritual was performed in the Temple, the Jew fulfills his duty to ‘serve the Lord.’ He replaced the ‘service of the altar’ with the ‘service of the heart’.”

The Talmud recalls how in the 1stCentury CE the blessings of the Amidah under the leadership of the great sage, Rabban Gamliel were first mandated as simply a prescribed list of prayer topics to be expounded upon by the worshiper. Over the course of many generations, paragraphs of liturgical poetry were composed to expand and elucidate the basic blessings on the list, resulting in the formally codified Amidah that we find in our Prayer Books today.

We begin the Amidah with a most extraordinary process. It is customary to take three steps backwards and then three steps forward while reciting the phrase, “Adonai S’fatai Tiftach U’fi Yagid Tihilatecha…Lord open my lips so that my mouth can find the proper words to address You.”(Ps 51:17) According to the great liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogin, this phrase was introduced by the sage Rabbi Yochannan in the 3rd century. The purpose of this ritual is to enable us to symbolically separate ourselves from the rest of the congregation, stepping out of the worldly space in order to enter into a shared private space with our Creator. Thus, in essence, at least three times a day we have the opportunity to have individual “face time” with God. Brilliantly, our sages recognized that, when faced with the overwhelming experience of approaching the Blessed Holy One for a face to face conversation, it may be difficult to find our words, so we ask God for help in beginning the dialogue through the words of the psalmist.

Similarly, it is worth noting the personal meditation,Elohai N’tzor, (God guard my tongue…) which was appended to the end of the Amidah by Talmudic sage Mar Ben Ravina (Berachot 16b-17a.) This prayer expresses the desire that our tongues, which have, in our sacred conversation, uttered only sincere words of prayer, praise and supplication, be guarded from being used for negative speech going forward.

Taking the opportunity to pause, catch your breath and connect with your Creator, whether in a communal or individual context, is an extraordinary gift to yourself. Using the full text of the Amidah or going back to its roots and just using the list of Amidah blessing topics as jumping off points for our celestial conversation is the tool our tradition gives us to accomplish this task. Knowing that we don’t have to face the world alone and that no matter what the circumstance, God is always available to listen to us personally is eternally empowering. Give it a try and let me know how it goes…


Here is a setting of Adonai S’fatai by the American singer and songwriter Craig Taubman

Share a Prayer: “The Yiddish are Coming”

Many people would be surprised to learn that there is a Yiddish prayer that can be found in our modern Siddur. The prayer, Got Fun Avrohom (God of Abraham) follows Havdalah, the ceremony of separation that is recited over wine, spices and a braided candle. Havdalah officially delineates the conclusion of the Sabbath.

Got Fun Avrahom is part of a vast collection of Yiddish Techinas or prayers of supplication that were recited by Jewish women on a multitude of joyous and often sorrowful occasions. Shabbat, festivals, fast days, illness, child birth, immersion in the Mikva (ritual bath) and separation of the Challah when baking the Sabbath loaves, are just a few of the subjects of these heartfelt petitions.

At a time when formal Hebrew education and participation in the synagogue service were mostly limited to men, women found a vital outlet in prayers that were composed in Yiddish – the common vernacular of Ashenazic Jews. [Click here for a comprehensive article on the history and nature of he Yiddish Language]

Rivka Zakutinsky, who published a collection of Techinas entitled A Voice From The Heart,traces this genre of personal prayer that is unique to women to the biblical Hanna. Her tearful entreaties to God to please bless her with a child, caught the attention of the High Priest who at first thought she was drunk. Ultimately, because of the intensity and sincerity of her supplication, God heard her prayer and she became the mother of the great prophet, Samuel.  Zakutinsky notes that there once were innumerable collections of Techinas published from the late 16thto early 19thCenturies, the earliest known of which is Techinas U’ Bakashos published in Basel, Switzerland in 1609.

Writing in Or Hadash, a Commentary on the Sim Shalom Weekday Prayer Book,Chava Weissler points out that Got Fun Avrahom was the woman’s version of the Havdalah prayer that was simultaneously being recited by the men at the synagogue. In fact, our Yiddish prayer contains similar sentiments to Havdalah, such as petitions for Divine protection during the week to come, as well as for success and financial stability. Weissler indicates that just as reciting Havdalah marks the transition from the Holy Shabbat to the ordinary weekdays for men, Got fun Avrahom performs this function for women.

One might ask how this personal Yiddish supplication made its way into the Hebrew Prayer Book. Perhaps one reason for this is that for many years the authorship of Got Fun Avrohom was erroneously attributed to the legendary Hassidic Master and scholar Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740–1809). In fact, however, versions of this prayer have been found in older publications including a grace after meals booklet published in Amsterdam that dates back to 1723. (An image of this booklet can be found in this post on the Jewish Book Seller Blog.) A more likely reason for its inclusion is the prayer’s widespread high regard in Jewish households. In either case, for our purposes, it is a beautiful conclusion to the Havdalah ceremony as we bid farewell to the Sabbath and prepare for the week ahead.

Below is the text and English translation of the somewhat condensed version of Got Fun Avrahom that appears in our Siddur Sim Shalom for Week Days (p166):

גאַט פוּן אברהם

גאַט פוּן אברהם פוּן יצחק אוּן יעקב [פוּן שרה פוּן ריבקה פוּן רחל אוּן לאה,] בּהיט דַיין פאָלק ישראל אִן זַיין נוֹיט. דער ליבּער, הַייליגער שבּת גייט אַוועק. דִי גוּטע וואך זָל אוּדז קוּמען צוּ געזוּנט אוּן צוּם לעבען, צוּ מזל צוּ בּרכה, צוּ עוֹשר אוּן כבוד, צוּ חן אוּן צוּ חסד, צוּ א גוּטער פּרנסה, אוּן הצלחה אוּן צוּ אַלע גוּטן געווינס אוּן מחילת עוווֹנוֹת, אמן ואמן סלה.


God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah], protect Your people Israel in their need, as the holy, beloved Sabbath takes its leave. May the good week come to us with health and life, good fortune and blessing, prosperity and dignity, graciousness and lovingkindness, sustenance and success, with all good blessings and with forgiveness of sin. Amen.

Follow this link to a full version of Got Fun Avrahom including an English Translation.

This is a beautiful rendition of Got Fun Avraom sung to a traditional melody by Mappamundi and Cabaret Warsaw:

Finally this is a Yiddish song Called Der Got Fun Avrahom by the great composer of secular and liturgical Jewish music, Sholom Secunda. The lyrics, written by H. Rosenblatt paint a tearful scene of a grandchild pleading with their Bobbie (grandmother) not to usher in a week of hardship and gloom by ending the peaceful holy Shabbat through the singing of Got Fun Avrahom. It is sung by Broadway star Hazzan Dudu Fisher:


NU! Want to learn to Speak Yiddish Already?

Beginners conversational Yiddish taught by Hazzan Krausman

Learn to read and speak in the language of our parents and grand parents – find out what they’ve been saying behind your back; they’ll have such nachas!!!

Besides basic conversation, will we also learn common expressions and listen to some classic Yiddish songs.

Sunday mornings at 11:00am beginning Sunday November 4, 2018

To RSVP or for more info, contact the Hazzan Krausman hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org

Share a Prayer: Avinu Malkeiu

For the Jewish people, the High Holidays are a time for introspection and self-evaluation. We are encouraged to examine our thoughts and actions over the past year with the goal of refining our relationships, and if necessary, making amends with others, with our Creator, and with ourselves. This process culminates with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Not surprisingly, the 10 days encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are know as Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah (the 10 days of repentance) – we are invited to return from the route of negative energy and dissonance to a path of positivity and harmony.

Avinu Malkeinu – juxtaposing God’s role as “our parent, [and] our monarch” is a prayer that appears frequently throughout the High Holiday season . Rabbi Reuven Hammerin his Or Hadashcommentary on the siddur traces the origin of this prayer to the 2ndcentury sage, Rabbi Akiva. According to the Rabbinic legend, on an  occasion during which a drought threatened the community, all prayers remained unanswered until Rabbi Akiva uttered, “Avinu Malkeinu have mercy on us for Your Name Sake.”  As our liturgy developed over the ages,  several stanzas were added to the prayer. Ismar Elbogen, the great authority on Jewish liturgy points out that several versions of this prayer ranging in size from 22 to 44 verses can be found. Not surprisingly, Avinu Malkeinu is also recited on fast days.

As is indicated above, the prayer Avinu Malkeinu presents a paradox: as a Monarch we expect God to Judge us for our actions according to the law but as our Parent, we expect God to act with mercy and compassion.  We learn from this that each of us has the potential to develop our own unique relationship with our Creator. Rabbi Hammer points to the Sifrei, a Midrasnhic (homiletic) commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy that resolves the dissonance of Aviu Malkeinu by noting:

“From a sovereign, who is far above the common person, one expects justice and a certain distance. From a parent, one expects love and closeness. Similarly, in our relationship to God we find both love and reverence. As the Sages put it, “We do not find love where there is reverence (fear) or reverence where there is love, except in relationship to God” (SifreiDeuteronomy” 3 2).”


This setting of Avinu Malkeinu by Max Janowskihas become extremely popular as Barbara Streisand recorded it:


(You may or may not hear this during the Kol Nidre service at Beth El)

Here is a translation of the version of the text that was set by Janowski:

Our Parent, our Monarch, hear our prayer,

Our Parent, our Monarch, we have sinned before You.
Our Parent, our Monarch, have mercy upon us and upon our children.
Our Parent, our Monarch, keep far from our country pestilence, war, and famine.
Our Parent, our Monarch, cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth.
Our Parent, our Monarch, inscribe us for blessing in the book of life.
Our Parent, our Monarch, grant unto us a year of happiness.

As we go through the process of the High Holidays, it if important to note that, Jewish tradition teaches us that on Rosh Hashanah,  the world is created anew each year; thus leaving all of us with a the possibility of a fresh start and a clean slate. Avinu Malkeinu is an age-old encapsulation of our deepest desires that the New Year will be a year of goodness and blessing for all who inhabit the earth.

Shannah Tovah U’Mitukah

Best wishes for a good, sweet and Blessed New Year!


BTW – Ba’al Tephila Workshop

BTW is an exciting new way to learn how to lead synagogue services or to understand more about the process of how services are conducted. How many times have you searched the web for a YouTube video or other source that will show you how to do something in a simple direct fashion? With BTW you can now use that same approach to learn how to be a service leader!

The BTW… is divided into a series of Keynote presentations and videos. These presentations and videos will guide you step by step through the process of learning how to lead each service. You can play these at your leisure.

Of course you can ask questions any time by emailing me, Hazzan Michael Krausman at hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org. You can also arrange a time to meet either online or in person for practice or further instruction or just to hang out and chat! You can even email recordings of yourself chanting the parts of the service you are learning and I will happily review them with you. You can also respond to the comment section below with questions, suggestions or feedback.

Here is the first video, the BTW intro. You can also receive it as a keynote presentation if you send me an email.


Share a Prayer: Modim Anachnu Lach; Thanksgiving

With the American festival of Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, the notion of expressing gratitude is very much in our thoughts. For Jews, this is not an annual event but rather a persistent theme in our hearts and heritage. Indeed, we wake up in the morning with “Modeh Ani,” a prayer thanking God for watching over and restoring our souls to us and fill our day with a myriad of Blessings acknowledging the role of the Blessed Holy One in all of our abilities and in everything we experience.

Several years ago when reflecting on the Jewish connection to Thanksgiving I related the following teaching:

… As my good friend Rabbi Mario Roizman points out, as Jews our very essence is to be thankful. Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as “Yehudim.” We receive this name from our Biblical ancestor Yehudah, the son of Jacob. When Yehudah was born his mother Leah she declared, “Odeh et Adonai, I will give thanks to God; therefore they named him Yehudah.”(Gen.29:35) thus giving thanks is part of our DNA. Indeed, Rabbi Roizman points out that Yehidim can be understood to mean: “the people who say thank you.”

Perhaps the quintessential prayer that indicates how much we value giving thanks is Modim Anachnu Lach. This blessing is found in the Hodaiya, or prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment section of Amidah, a collection of 7-18 blessings that are the central core of each of our daily, festival and Shabbat services. Below is the text according to Siddur Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical Assembly.

“We thank You, for You are ever our God and the God of our ancestors; You are the bedrock of our lives, the shield that protects us in every generation We thank You and sing Your praises-for our lives that are in, Your hands, for our souls that are under Your care, for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us each moment – evening, morning, and noon, You are the one who is good, whose mercy is never-ending; the one who is compassionate, whose love is unceasing. We have always placed our hope in You.” Click here for the Hebrew text.

Our great Talmudic sages mandated that after having made a series of requests from the Blessed Holy One on weekday or even after expressing the uniquely holy nature of a Holiday or the Sabbath, we are to acknowledge the presence of God in all that we have in our lives. Ismar Elbogen one of the greatest scholars of Jewish liturgy of all time, notes that although the present text of Modim can be found as far back as in the 9thCenturay compilation of Rav Amram, earlier forms of this poetic expression can be found across time and liturgical traditions. Elbogen also points out that it is into this section of the liturgy that our sages required that prayers of gratitude for the miracles of Hannukah and Purim be inserted. Indecently, modern prayer books also include a similarly worded prayer for Yom Ha Atzmaut – Israel Independence day.

The devastating loss of the Beit Ha Miqdash, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in the development of the Jewish people. Our great sages in their wisdom opted to replace the biblically mandated sacrificial cult with a system of prayer which would enable us draw close to our Creator by expressing our thoughts, fears, yearnings and aspirations. At first only a simple list of mandated blessings was produced – it was up to the individual worshipper to compose the introductory text that would more deeply express the theme of the blessing. Eventually gifted authors would compose relevant poetry to be uttered by the worshipper. While the current text of our blessing is indicted above, a second version of the Modim prayer that became known as the “Scholars Modim” or, Modim d’ Rabbanan was found to be so relevant that it too is included in our prayer books.Click here for the text.

Thus, in communities where the Amidah is expressed individually by the congregation and then repeated aloud by prayer leader, individuals recite the Modim d’ Rabbanan individually while the leader chants the main version. One of the salient features of this scholarly Modim is the expression of gratitude for the very ability to express our thanks. The commentator on our Siddur Lev Shalem points out that “the ability to express gratitude is seen as a special gift to humanity. The attitude of thankfulness connects us to the world with a sense of humility and a joyful spirit of openness.”

Rabbi Ruven Hammer, noted authority on Jewish liturgy explains the process of bowing as we say Modim Anachnu Lach and the significance of this prayer in a note published in his wonderful commentary on the Conservative Sim Shalom Siddur entitled Or Hadash:

“Bowing at the beginning and end of the Modim blessing indicates that we are bringing our Prayer to an end. We began with bowing to God and we conclude with a bow. We physically symbolize our acknowledgment that God is our true Ruler, to whom all thanksgiving is due. The seriousness with which the Sages viewed this particular prayer can be seen by the fact that the Mishnah teaches that if one who is leading the service says the word ‘modim’ twice, ‘he is silenced’- i.e., stopped from leading the prayers (Berakhot 5:3). As the Talmud explains, ‘It is as if he acknowledged that there are two powers in the world’ (Berakhot 33b).”

Whether is it is because of what is hardwired into our identity as Rabbi Roismam suggested above or whether it is due of the many and sometimes harsh lessons of our history, we as a people never take anything for granted. On the contrary, Jews as people are continually expressing our gratitude. Jews do not only give thanks on special occasions or when we are siting down to eat a festive meal; we are constantly cognizant and appreciative of our special relationship with our Creator – “evening,  morning and noon.”

Here is a classic setting of this Prayer by Jacob Rapaport made famous by the legendary Hazzan Mordechai Hershman:


This is Hassidic version by Lev Tahor


Here is a contemporary setting of this Prayer by Cantor Jonathan Comisar sung by Cantor Sara Hass and Cantor Lizzie Weiss







Share a Prayer: Hayom Harat Olam; Happy Birthday World!

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is among other, things a celebration of the birthday of the world. Unlike our Birthday, which celebrates our becoming one year older, a reality many of us work very hard to hide, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of a brand new, newly born world. That is to say, according to the teaching of one of the foremost scholars and teachers of our time, Rabbi Brad Artson, the world and everything contained within it that existed the day before Rosh Hashanah no longer exists and a brand new replacement world is created in its place. Thus, Rabbi Artson teaches, that the “you” that existed the day before Rosh Hashanah is only a memory; replaced by a “new you” on Rosh Hashanah. It is in this spirit that the prayer, Ha Yom Harat Olam, today the world is born, is inserted into the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.

Ha Yom Harat Olam is an ancient prayer that dates back to the time of the Geonim, the great sages of the Talmud (8th to early 11th century) and can already be found in the prayer books of the renowned twelfth century sage Maimonides (1135-1204). It serves as a leitmotif or recurring theme that punctuates the three distinctive blessings – each reflecting an aspect of our relationship with the Blessed Holy One, that are inserted into the body of the Musaph (additional) service of Rosh Hashanah: Malchuyot (Monarchy,) Zichronot (Memories) and Shofar (Moments past, present and future associated with the sounding of the rams horn in the context of divine revelation.)

Although it is one of the shortest poetic insertions in our liturgy, it is also one of the most impactful. Here is the text as translated by the High Holiday Prayer Book of the United Synagogue, Mahzor Lev Shalem:

“Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.” (Click here for the Hebrew Text)

Even the first phrase of the text is packed with meaning. The Hebrew term “Harat” implies not birth but rather conception. Rosh Hashanah, then, is seen not simply as the birthday of the world but can also be considered as the moment of its conception. The time of conception is a moment fraught with infinite uncertainty and potential; any direction or occurrence is a possibility.

While reminding us that Rosh Hashanah is also known as the day of Judgment, the text goes on to suggest that each of us has our own perception of our personal relationship with The Creator, ranging from those who see themselves as children of the Holy One to those who view themselves as subjects of a celestial monarch. The author, in either case presents God as a wellspring of favor, loving kindness and light who will be with us no matter what may unfold in the year to come.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of this poem is the last phrase in which the author refers to God as “Ayom Kadosh.” An insightful essay about our prayer linked in the Israeli News publication, Arutz Sheva from the Aleph Society of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, observes the following:

“We therefore turn to God with the adjectives that are most appropriate to this the day: Ayom, Kadosh; You are above everything, You are the source and holiness to Whom we must all look with awe and also be connected, on all the levels of our existence.”

The placement of Hayom Harat Olam immediately following the rousing tones of the shofar that punctuate the subdivisions of the Rosh Hashanah Musaph, takes advantage of an exquisite moment for the worshipper to contemplate his or her bond with God. In a few short phrases, the poet transports us to the moment of creation; we are present at the nexus of all time, the very conception of the universe.

Hayom Harat Olam reminds us that the future, while uncertain, is marked by infinite possibilities for renewal, growth, change and development. As we sing this meaningful and inspirational prayer on Rosh Hashanah we are invited to examine, strengthen and invigorate our personal relationship with the “Ayom Kadosh” – the “Awe-inspiring Holy One.”

Here is a link to the melody we will sing at Beth El in Omaha. If you are fortunate enough to be able to attend our wonderful Service, feel free to learn this melody in advance so that you will be ready when it comes around. It is taken from a composition by Hazzan Sol Zim.

Here is a link to a setting sung by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella, Hazzan Joseph Malovany, is the soloist.

Here is a link to a performance by Cantor Azi Schwartz and the RIAS Kammerchor, conducted by Ud Joffe.

E-Hazzan The Sound of the Shofar

A great silence settles over the packed synagogue as a man cloaked in a white robe with a huge black and white striped Tallit over his head slowly raises and old Shofar to his lips. With majestic fanfare the Rabbi calls out in a rising and falling melodic tone, “Tekiah.” After a momentary, breathless hesitation, a piercing, reverberating blast trumpets through the silent sanctuary… One of my most prominent childhood memories is the sounding of the Shofar during the Rosh Hashanah service. Even today, the blast of the Ram’s horn sends a special kind of electric pulse through my spine. In fact, there are few of us who are not moved by the haunting call of the Shofar.

Sounding the Shofar, an ancient instrument made from the horn of a ram or similar animal is a tradition that dates back to biblical times. Most traditions trace the source of the Shofar to the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s faith in God was so rigorous that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son Isaac. At the last moment, an angel thwarted Abraham’s attempt to kill his son and a ram, caught in thicket of thorns was sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Thus the shofar reminds us not only of the solid faith and devotion of our ancestor but also of our connection through Abraham to God. We are also mindful that God preferred the sacrifice of the ram as opposed to what might have been an overly zealous, heinous act of child sacrifice.

A.Z. Idelsohn, perhaps the most renowned of all Jewish musicologists, points out that to the primeval Israelites, the Shofar was valued for its rhythmic rather than melodic capabilities. To our ancient ancestors, Idelsohn notes, the blowing of the ram’s horn had magical powers; with a blast of the Shofar, God could be awakened from His slumber and summoned to help His People. Furthermore, the Shofar could be used to frighten off evil spirts and lesser deities of neighboring peoples. Even God, remarks Idelsohn, was depicted as blowing His Holy Shofar in order to “frighten His enemies and to gather the remnants of His people…”

Our Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) cites as the biblical commandment to blow the Shofar a passage from Psalm 81, “Tiku Ba Hodesh Shofar… Sound the Shofar on our feast day, on the new moon when it is hidden. For it is Israel’s law, a decree of the God of Jacob.” According to Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the Shofar was not only used on Rosh Hashanah but also on the first day of the new month, for the coronation of a new king as well as to proclaim the Jubilee year during which all slaves were freed and all land reverted to the clan that was its original owner. Similarly, a great celestial shofar sound was heard at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shofar blasts were also employed to call the Nation of Israel together for battle. Perhaps the best know example of the latter was the story of Joshua (Josh 6) whose famous resounding shofar blast brought down the walls of Jericho. In times when the Great Jerusalem Temple stood, the Shofar was often used in conjunction with a metal Trumpet and other instruments that served to punctuate the ancient sacrificial service.

Here is an audio recording of Tiku Ba Hodesh Shofar presented by Hazzan Moshe Schwimmer and his magnificent choir through the Judaica Sound Archives of Florida Atlantic University.

Shofarot(pl) are constructed using the horn of a Kosher animal. In recollection of the sin of the golden calf, horns made of cows are prohibited. While Ashkenazim (German and eastern European Jews) prefer shorter Ram’s Horns, Jews of other cultures use longer horns such as those from an Ibex or Antelope. Barsheset- Riback, an Israeli purveyor of Shofarot, describes the process of selecting, boiling, cleaning out and finishing the horns to produce a functioning Shofar. According to Jewish law, nothing, such as an external mouth piece may be added to the horn, neither can holes be drilled to produce variable sounds.

A day of Blowing [the Shofar] is one of the ways in which the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah. As we usher in the New Year, the shofar is literally a wakeup call to our Jewish Soul. In fact, it is customary to begin the daily sounding of the shofar at the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew Calendar, to awaken the listener to the need for undergoing the process of Heshbon Ha Nefesh, the accounting of the soul.

We are jolted into the reality of the High Holiday season – the need for self-examination and introspection in order that we can enter the New Year with a clean slate and a renewed spirit.

During our Rosh Hashanah liturgy the shofar is sounded in the context of the Shofar service that comes just after the Torah reading as well as to punctuate the three unique sections of the Musaph (additional service.) Please see my post on Rosh Hashanah Musaph for more details.

There are three distinct calls that are made on the shofar; each has its own significance and meaning. Noted authority on Jewish Liturgy Abraham Milgram traces the source of these distinct shofar blasts to the biblical book of Numbers (10:5-7) which defines a “Tekiah” – a solid sound and a “Teruah” – a wavering or broken sound. Because the Rabbis of the Talmud (R.H 34a) could not agree on what constitutes a “broken tone,” they mandated the “Shevrim,” a sound comprised of three medium length notes and the “Teruah” a blast consisting of nine short individual blasts. A “Tekiah Gedolah” or longer Tekiah is also used. The skill of the Ba’al Tekiah (Master Blaster) or one who blows the shofar, determines the quality and duration of each type of sound.

Here is a video of the four types of Shofar sounds:

Deep meaning can be found in each of the types of shofar blasts. The website Mazornet, a traditional site that focuses on resources and explanations for Jewish celebrations, posts an interesting understanding of the shofar blasts: Tekiah, is a regal sound appropriate for Rosh Hashanah which celebrates God’s coronation as Ruler of the Universe. Shevarim is compared to the sound of sobbing; the heart cries out for strengthening the relationship between God and the worshiper. Teruah is an alarm, the challenge to wake up to the call for Teshuvah, or return to a path that leads to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life.

This explanatory reading by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the great Conservative theologian appears in Machzor Hadash, published by the Prayer Book Press:

For untold generations, on this day, our ancestors listened to the sound of the Shofar. What did they hear in its piercing tones? What solemn truths did they detect in its calls which stirred them so profoundly each year?

And what does the Shofar say to us today, as we stand at the dawn of the New Year, groping for a light to guide us and a faith to sustain us?

Tekiah! Awake! Let not habit dull your minds, nor comfort harden your hearts. Examine your deeds, look well into your soul, mend your ways, turn to God.

As we hear the sharp Tekiah blast, let us rouse ourselves from smugness and self-satisfaction, from callousness and self-righteousness.

Shevarim! The broken refrain! Listen to the staccato cry. Hear the echoes of sighing and weeping. The deprived and the distressed, the neglected and the enslaved, the bruised and the broken-all cry out for relief from their pain, for release from their torment.

As we hear the anguished wail of Shevarim, let us open our ears to the cries of the afflicted and the oppressed, and let our hearts respond with compassion and love.

Teruah! The call to battle is sounded: Join the struggle against evil and suffering. Give of your bread to those who hunger; give of your strength to those who stumble; give of your time to the lonely and forsaken; heal the wounded, comfort the bereaved.

Let us hearken to the Teruah’s call to action.

For in our hands, in our hearts, and in our minds

Are the means for building a better world,

For fulfilling the promise of peace and justice,

And for hastening the day when all will hear

The sound the great Shofar of liberation.

Hopefully, the blast of the Ram’s horn will send a special kind of electric pulse through your spine and reverberate in your soul this Rosh Hashanah so that you too will moved by the haunting call of the Shofar. May you be inspired by the sounds of the Shofar to strive for a Shanna Tova, a year of Blessing and Goodness.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at part of our prayer service. If you have a suggestion, comment or question, please fee free to leave a comment below or to email me at michaelkrausman@gmail.com.

Take  Care

Hazzan Michael Krausman

A quick and easy guide to understanding the themes and meanings of our Hebrew High Holiday liturgy.

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.

These are the notes from a class I gave entitled, “High Holiday Service Crash Course: A Quick and Easy Guide to Understanding the Themes and Meanings of our Hebrew High Holiday liturgy.” There are links to some of the materials to which I referred, so all you need are some really good cookies and you can almost have the same experience as those who joined me for the discussion.

With the High Holidays just around the corner, now is a great time to start to prepare for them. Here is a quick reference guide for making High Holiday services a more personally meaningful experience. By following some of these suggestions, services can become more of an active rather than passive process for you

A Reading Readiness

* Look over the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book), borrow one from the Synagogue if you wish.* Read through a copy of our High Holiday companion See the link at the end of this post) which explains the prayers of our Machzor * Compare different versions of the Machzor; find alternate readings or translations. * Visit the Library or a Jewish book store and select a book about the prayers or about the Holidays.

B Personal Experience

* The function of many of our prayers is to place us back into the history e.g. to “feel” what it was like to get the Torah at Mount Sinai: write down and be prepared to think of a time when you felt the presence of God, or felt profoundly Jewish.

C Z’chut Avot:

* May times during service we appeal for forgiveness due to the merit of our ancestors; find out about your own ancestors/family and share the results with other family members. * Ask kids to interview grand parents etc. and discuss the results during festival meals or before services. * Find out about and discuss past Holiday experiences such as sitting next to a grand parent in services.

D Personal Prayers/Meditations

* Personal prayers/meditations are provided for at various places in the services (e.g. at the end of the Amidah or silent prayer) * Bring a list of things you want to thank God for; things you want to ask for; or things you have trouble understanding. * Write poems that you can include in the service similar to the Piyutim, or liturgical poems, that are already part of the service. * List things about your self you a proud of or would like to improve in the coming year. * Think about plans or goals for the future.* before Yom Kippur it is costmary to ask for Michilah(forgiveness) from any individual you may have harmed either intentionally or inadvertently, think about who these individuals may be – family members are always a good place to start.This is an opportunity to enter the New Year with a clear conscious and rekindled relationships.

F By CD’s or MP3’s of Holiday Music

* Playing music in the home as you prepare for a Holyday always helps set the appropriate tone and builds excitement for the upcoming occasion.

E Buy You Own Machzor:

* Paper clip in you own: prayers, readings, meditations or personal lists from above, transliterations, names of family members to be remembered at Yizkor or during the Martyrology, which is said during Yom Kippur.
F Quick Guide to Prayer book Hebrew

Hebrew, as you may know is based a system of three or four letter roots around which all of the various forms and conjugations of words are formed. By looking at a few of these, you will be able to receive an idea of some of the concepts the author of the particular prayer is seeking to convey. These roots can be expressed in English transliteration as a series of letters separated by dashes. So here we go:

  1. B-R-Ch. This conveys the concept of Praise or Blessing. Thus the word BRaCha, means blessing, as in Blessed are you our God. Any time this root is employed we are evoking the presence of the Creator in what we seek or in that for which we are grateful. So BiRCHat Kohanim, is the Priestly blessing recited on the Holidays, Festivals and on other significant occasions. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “knee” is BeReCh; we often bend our knee when acknowledging God’s presence.
  2. K-D-Sh. This conveys the concept of Holiness. God is the Holiest of all entities because there on one God in the universe. So we have KidDuSh, the sanctification of Shabbat or a Festival usually made over wine. KiDuSha, the expression of God’s holiness found during the public recitation of the Amidah. KaDdiSh, the prayer said by mourners and KiDuShin, the Hebrew word for a wedding.
  3. M-L-Ch (K). This conveys the concept of monarchy. God is described as MeLeCh Ha Olam, the ruler of the universe. We have a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the monarchy of God called MaLCh Also we often sing the popular prayer, Avinu MaLKeinu, Our Parent Our Monarch, pointing out the continuum between Justice and Mercy that defines our relationship with God.
  4. Z-Ch(K)-R. This conveys the concept of Remembering. So we have ZiChRonot, a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the past and the memory of the relationship between God and our ancestors. Many gather on Yom Kippur and other festivals for the YiZKoR, memorial service. Also we have the Israeli version of Memorial Day; Yom Ha ZiKaR
  1. Tz-D-K. This conveys the concept of Justice or doing that which is right. Thus the bible implores us, “TzeDeK, TzeDeK Tirdof; Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” We come to the realization before God during the High Holidays that we are not TzDiKim, completely righteous people like our great sages, but that we have indeed committed transgressions. During Yom Kippur we may be motivated to support the Synagogue or other worthy cause by giving TzeDaKah i.e. doing that which is right and just.


Mahzor 101 by Samuel Rosenbaum

This excellent guide to High Holiday prayers was the last creative work by Samuel Rosenbaum, z”l. The commentaries offer short explanations of the major prayers and services.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Survival Kits

A delightful, down to earth approach to understanding the High Holidy services. Written by Shimon Apisdorf.

Inspirational Readings by Rabbi Dov Perez Elkins

Collections of stories and other sources of reflection and insight that are perfect for before, during (not while the Rabbi is speaking of course) and after services. Rabbi Elkins is a world renowned motivational speaker and author.

Beth El Synagogue High Holiday Companion

I created this booklet so that it would be the equivalent of having me sitting beside you in services and explaining each prayer as it happens. I include the page number in Machzor Lev Shalem for each prayer as well as indicating particular points of interest throughout the service.

The Spirit of the High Holidays

Part of a joyous series of music CDs jointly produced by the Cantors Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism featuring music and prayers sung by members of the Cantors Assembly. Familiar favorites and new compositions, includingHebrew texts, translations, and commentaries on the selections are presented.

For example, here is a beautiful, uplifting setting from the Rosh Hashannah Musaph service entitled, “Kadosh Atah,” “You are Holy,” sung by Hazzan David Lefkowitz and the Park Avenue Synagogue Choir.

Please feel free to contact me for help with any of the above suggestions or to explore other possibilities. By doing a small amount of preplanning, the services that we experience together this year can be the most meaningful ever.

Best wishes for a Shanna Tovah – a year of Goodness and Blessing

Hazzan Michael Krausman, Beth El Synagogue hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org 402-492-8550