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 at it.
One of the most poignant prayers in our liturgy is Hashkiveinu – “cause us to lie down in peace.” Nestled between the prayer for redemption and the prayer extolling God’s eternal reign over the world, Hashkiveinu, is one of the mandated blessings that surround the recitation of the Shema during the evening service.
Hashkiveinu contains a list of petitions including one asking God to protect us from perils that may come during the night. In ancient times, nighttime and sleep were fraught with mystery and danger. Not only was one susceptible to evil individuals, such as bandits and robbers, but it was believed that when one slept, the soul retuned to heaven (perhaps for some warranty servicing or maintenance) hopefully to be retuned in the morning. Furthermore, the night was a time for evil spirits and other daemons to roam about. This can be further understood by looking at the traditional prayers upon retiring, of which Hashkiveinu is also a part. One of the bedtime prayers asks God to send mighty angels bearing swords to protect us as we sleep.
Ismar Elbogen, the authoritative source on the subject of the history and origin of our liturgy, traces the source of Hashkiveinu to the Talmudic tractate of Brachot (4b) which outlines the cycle of daily and holiday prayer. Rav Amram, the 9th century sage who produced the first known Siddur has a text of Hashkiveinu that is similar in structure to our own. Interestingly two possible Hatimot or concluding passages can be found for this prayer; one closer to the Babylonian rite and the second closer to the ancient Palestinian. The framers of our liturgy solved this dilemma by employing the conclusion: “Shomer Amo Yisral La’Ad; Who guards His people Israel for ever” in the weekday version of Hashkiveinu. On Shabbat and festivals the ending phrase is “Ha Porese Sukat Aleinu V’Al kol Amo Yisrael, V’Al Yerushalaim; Who spreads the Tabenacle of peace over us and over allIsrael and overJerusalem.”
At first glance it may seem strange to include a list of petitions at in the midst of the prayers surrounding the Shema. After all, the Hashkiveinu is so close to the Amidah, a collection of 7-19 blessings and appeals that is the core of each formal service. Elbogen points out that before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) the evening service was considered optional and did not contain the Amidah. Thus Hashkiveinu, became the formal prayer request at night as it is centered around the fears and concerns associated with darkness. Even today, the question of the need for a formal evening service has resulted in the practice of only reciting the evening Amidah individually as opposed to the Amidah of the Morning and of the Afternoon, of which both contain a public as well as individual components.
The Talmud, as noted above, refers to the Hashkiveinu as the “Long Redemption.” This connection to the prayer for redemption: Gal Yisrael; “who redeems Israel,” is underscored by B.S. Jacobson in his definitive work on the daily prayer book. Jacobson cites a Midrash (Rabbinic Parable) which relates that when the Children of Israel were instructed to remain indoors as the Angel of Death slew the first born of Egypt, they recited a prayer asking for a peaceful sleep, for protection from adversaries and for guidance in their comings and goings – this became the precursor of our Hashkiveinu prayer.
Because of the beauty of the Hashkiveinu and the richness of its contents, may artists have been moved to set this prayer to music. From the earliest Jewish composers to Lenard Bernstein to Debbie Freedman there are innumerable versions of Hashkiveinu. This is a link to a setting by Israel Alter, a composer who has had profound influence on the music of the modern Synagogue. The singer is Hazzan Louis Danto, one of the finest artists to ever grace the Bima.[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/141011/cbmtogo/Haskeivienudanto.mp3]
Hashkiveinu is certainly a moving and richly meaningful prayer. Indeed, this prayer articulates many of the basic yearnings we express to our Creator in a succinct and eloquent fashion: protection from the perils of the night, the blessing of a restful sleep (this may be a special one for parents of young kids), removal of adversaries and other obstacles that impede our lives, guidance to help us stay on a good and productive path in our lives and peace and security for Israel, are but a few. Above all, Hashkiveinu asks God to spread over us a Sukkah of Peace and shelter us under God’s Wings so that we may always be able to feel God’s Devine presence with us where ever we go, no matter what happens, day or night.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hazzan Michael Krausman