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.

Share a Prayer: Sefirat Ha Omer

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.

The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, are known as the time of Sefirat Ha Omer, the “Counting of the Omer.” In ancient times, on the second day of Pesach the barley harvest was marked by cutting enough sheaves of barley, to make about an Omer of fine flour (about five pounds) which was combined with oil and spices to produce a special wave offering. This inaugurated an agricultural festival that was observed for 49 days until Shavuot, which celebrated the wheat harvest. More significantly, the 49 days of the Omer correspond to the days between Pesach, the holiday of our physical liberation from slavery, to Shavuot, the time of our spiritual liberation stemming from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was on Shavuot that we were transformed form a band of escaped slaves to a united nation with common goals and beliefs. Thus, the Omer becomes a period of excitement and expectation; we recall the experience of the children of Israel as they anxiously awaited their close encounter with God – the revelation at Mount Sinai.

For generations this was a joyous period, celebrating both an agricultural event and the anticipation of receiving the Torah. However, following the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Roman occupation in 135 CE, the Sefirat Ha Omer became a time of mourning and sadness. The Talmud relates that shortly following the Bar Kochba incident, the students of the Great Rabbi Akiva suffered a terrible plague and thousands perished. As a sign of mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest of our sages, it became traditional to refrain from holding weddings and other forms of celebration. Some men do not shave, haircuts are not taken and many people will not attend movies, concerts or other forms of merriment.

Miraculously, on the 33rd day of the Omer, known by its Hebrew numeric equivalent – Lamed (30) Gimel (3) or “Lag Ba Omer, the plague subsided. This gave rise to the festive observance of Lag Ba Omer, including the celebration of weddings and the holding of concerts and other musical events. It is customary to have outdoor activities on Lag Ba Omer such as bon fires, field days and picnics. Because Lag Ba Omer is also the anniversary of the death of the Great Talmudic and Kabbalistic sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai celebrations are often held in his honor, especially at his grave site in the Israeli town of Meiron.

This is a video of the Breslav Hasidim singing the traditional song “Bar Yochai composed in honor of the sage and traditionally sung on Lag Ba Omer.  Click here for the lyrics in Hebrew and transliteration.

Here is video by Rabbi Tovia Singer of Hundreds of Hassidim gathered at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai .

The process of counting the Omer is outlined in most prayer books and in many standalone Omer Counters and apps.  An introductory meditation is first offered, containing the biblical commandment to count the Omer:

“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an Omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

A blessing thanking God for making us Holy by giving us the commandment to count the Omer is then recited followed by the announcement of the new day. This announcement includes the exact number of weeks and days of the counting, thus, on the 22 day of the Omer one would declare, “ Today is the 22nd day marking three weeks and one day of the Omer.” The Omer must be counted after dark to ensure that a complete day has passed between each counting. Here is the text in Hebrew and English.

Below is a video of extremely talented Cantor Netanel Hershtik together with his choir chanting the Sefirat Ha Omer Prayers.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs writing for my Jewish Learning.Com, express the significance of the counting of the Omer in a clear and precise manner:

“While Pesach celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”

Although it may seem like a lot of attention is given to counting a period of 49 days that fall between two Jewish Holidays; in a similar fashion to the Pesach Seder, the Sefirat Ha Omer helps create a mutigenerational bond that links us to our biblical ancestors and reminds us of the significance of personal as well as spiritual freedom. Counting the Omer is a ritual  in which the entire family can participate. As we count each day, we are reminded not to take everything in our busy lives too seriously but to focus on what really counts.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

 

Share a Prayer: Private Prayer in a Public Context

We all know that prayer is both a communal and an individual experience. Our tradition is replete with volumes of prayers that have been composed and codified throughout our history. Psalms and other Biblical sources are thousands of years old, yet they still have the power to sustain our liturgical yearnings and help us to reach out to The Holy One. Interestingly, though most of our prayers are couched in the plural – pertaining to the entire community, baked into our formal liturgy are opportunities for individual, personal prayer.

The first place to look for such private prayer opportunities is the very opening pages of most prayer books that begin with the morning service. Originally intend to be recited at home; these prayers were transferred to the synagogue to serve as private mediations which would help prepare the worshipper for the public worship to come. In October 2010 I wrote:

“Those who are familiar with the Siddur (prayer book) will note that even before the formal service begins there is a collection of personal prayers and reflections that can be offered. ‘Elohai Neshama – My God the soul that You implanted with in me…,’ the passionate prayer dating back to Talmudic Times (Berachot 60b) is a perfect example of such a prayer. The text reflects the notion that at night-timeis that part of God that is inside each and every one of us. Elohai Neshama gives us the opportunity to express gratitude to God and to remind ourselves of our connectedness to our Creator and to each other.”

Here is a stirring setting called Elokai Neshama by one of the greatest and best know Hazzanim of all times; Moshe Koussevitzky. Taken form an album entitled; Moshe Koussevitzky Earliest Recordings; a compilation of material originally recorded in Europe, this record was copyright 1967 by the Collectors Guild. The recording is part of a magnificent collection of Jewish Music Located at Florida Atlantic University, the Judaica Sound Archives.
Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

Following the recitation of the Amidah, (see below), is a liturgical compilation known as Tachanun. Tachanun is a section of personal petitions and supplications that are inserted in the weekday morning and afternoon service. So intense is the recitation of Tachanun that we rest our heads on our forearms and say part of the Tachanun in a hunched-over submissive posture. Based on biblical president, our sages felt that since we are at a time in the service when we are most focused on our relationship with the Almighty, we should expand this intense period of concentrated prayer and introspection by adding Tachanun.

On Monday and Thursday mornings we extend the Tachanun with additional supplications. However, Tachanun is not recited on happy occasions such as Purim or Hanukah in the presence of a bride or groom or when a Brit Milah  (Bris) is about to take place. Remarkably, this set of supplications is also omitted in the presence of a mourner and on Tisha B’Av, our day to grieve for the fallen Jerusalem Temple, so as to not too greatly increase our sadness.

Personal prayers by such great liturgical sages as Sa’adia Gaon and Rav Amram as well as some poignant psalms are found in this plaintive collection. These prayers ask God to help us personally through whatever difficult times we may be currently experiencing.

We ask that God “assuage our fears, establish the works of our hands, heal our wounds and save us from our tormentors.” Even in our deepest time of despair we appreciate the ability to place ourselves in God’s hands.

Some of the other themes related to in Tachanun include, the value of a good friend, guidance in avoiding evil or temptation. Sephardi congregations often include the confessional as part of Tachanun.
All versions of this supplication include the prayer Shomer Yisrael – guardian of Israel which, as Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes, reflects the trepidation of the medieval European Jewish community. Tachanun concludes with the declaration, “alone we are helpless”; we rely on God for compassion and guidance. Here is a recording, again from the FAU archives, of Hazzan Israel Rand singing a popular setting of Shomer Israel.

Above I made reference to the Amidah the a formal series of 7-19 blessings that form the core of every synagogue service. Certainly an entire Blog post could be devoted to this quintessential prayer. 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…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 symbolically separate ourselves from the rest of the congregation enter into a private audience with the Holy One. In essence, at least three times a day we have the opportunity to have individual “face time” with our Creator.

This private conversation with God is guided by the age-old Blessings of the Amidah – some of which date back to the time of the Ancient Jerusalem Temple. Built into the process of reciting the Amidah, however, are specific opportunities for individualized prayer. Chief among these personal prayers is that contained within the eighth Blessing, the Prayer for healing. Our Siddur, contains a formula into which the names of those for whom we pray can be inserted. Moreover, the version found in both the Sim Shalom Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals and the Weekday Sim Shalom contain an extra line asking the Holy One also support the caregivers of those who we mentioned.

Similarly, the sixteenth blessing, “Shomeia Tephila – The One who listens to prayer”, is also a traditional point at which to insert a personal petition. Rabbi Hammer cites the Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) for the origin of this custom. Not only can any heart-felt supplication be inserted at this point but prayers for comfort on the national days of sorrow are customarily included here as well. Thus prayers for Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Holy Jerusalem Temple and Yom Ha Shoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust are added to the Shomeia Tephila prayer. Interestingly, Hineni, the personal plea of the prayer leader on the High Holidays, ends with the same concluding phrase.

Just as the opening phrase of the Amidah is based on a psalm as instituted by Rabbi Yochanan, the concluding passage also contains a verse from a Psalm (19:15) “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart …” Preceding this is a moving personal mediation –“Elohai N’tzor L’shoni Me’ra – May God keep my tongue from evil.” This prayer is cited in the Talmud by the sage Mar Ben Ravia.

Although several permutations of this concluding meditation have existed in different liturgical traditions, offering some personal thoughts is an essential part of the process of the individual recitation of the Amida. At the conclusion of the Elohai N’tzor, with the words “Oseh Shalom,” we take three steps backwards and bow to the left and the right symbolizing the conclusion of our formal chat with God. Perhaps our sages felt that since we began by asking Divine guidance for our words, we should conclude our conversation with The Holy One with the hope that our language continues in this sanctified vein.
Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

The provision of opportunities for individual prayer in the context of public worship reminds us of the nature of our relationship with God. We are connected to The Holy One on a personal level at all times, even when experiencing the power of communal prayer. It is clear that God is at the same time within us and part of the community at large; the more that we seek God, the closer we feel to God and the deeper our connection to our community through the Almighty.

Share a prayer: Techinas (not the Middle Eastern dip)

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.

A pristine white tablecloth decked with the finest of dishes and shinning silverware adorns the dining room table. The iridescent glow of waxy white candles set in two lustrous ancient candlesticks reflects in the eyes of your mother as she waves two strong but gentle hands over the flickering yellow flames. After whispering the traditional blessing, a singular tear rolls down her cheek as she silently recites an age-old private Shabbat prayer.

It is quite likely that the private petition that was just offered comes from a collection of Yiddish Prayers for various occasions known as Techinas .Techinas, from the Hebrew word meaning “supplication”, date back to the early 17th century. They were composed specifically to be offered by women who, in many cases were not given the opportunity to learn the Hebrew Prayers recited by men in the synagogue. Rabbi Julian Sinclair of the Jewish Chronicle.com suggests these prayers stem from Yiddish translations of Tachanun – the selections of supplications that are part of the weekday services.

Spiritually, these personal petitions are connected to biblical women who are credited with the most sincere and selfless supplications in the Bible. Hagar, the alienated concubine of Abraham besought God to protect her son Ishmael after they were cast into the dessert. Similarly, Hannah, in the book of Samuel, is recorded to have offered a tearful, silent supplication to the Holy One asking for a child. Incidentally, both were rewarded for their passionate pleas, Hanna became the mother of Samuel the first of the prophets while Hagar was shown a well which sustained her and her young son Ismael.

Rivka Zakutinsky, a noted author and educator living in Brooklyn NY, is the editor of an excellent new collection of Techinas entitled, Techinas A Voice from The Heart. She relates that while numerous collections of Techinas were published, the earliest known book of Techinas entitled, Techinas U’Bakashos (Supplications and Appeals) was printed in Basel Switzerland in 1609. Zakutinsky also notes that the best known author of Techinas was the elusive Sara Bas Tovim who was born sometime in the later part of the 17th Century. A collection of Techinas referencing the weekday prayers, fast days and the High Holydays entitled Sheker Ha Chen, (Charm is Deceitful), a reference to the Eishet Chayil ( a woman of valor) passage from the book of proverbs which is read by a traditional husband to his wife on Friday eve, is attributed to Sara Bas Tovim. Sara also is credited with a collection of these personal supplications relating to commandments specifically directed to women such as lighting candles, separating challah and attending the Mikvah. This work is called Shalosh She’arim (three gates.)

Shas Teḥine Rav Peninim  published in New York in 1916, is another  popular gathering of Techinas. Like many of the collections of Techinas, it contains Techinas to be recited while “the men are at synagogue,” following child birth, for the welfare of family and, over the kindling of Sabbath candles.

A high tech compilation of Techinas, assembled by The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College can be found onlineTechina Prior to Immersion in the Mikveh, is an excellent example of these.

Techinas are so powerful that even our modern-day siddur includes the Techina, Got Fun Avrum (God of Abraham) a soulful supplication said at the immediately following Havdalah  (separation), the prayer that marks the conclusion of Shabbat. There is tradition which attributes this prayer to the great Hassidic Master, Levi Yizchak of Berdichev.Here is the English translation of this text from Siddur Sim Shalom:

“God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, protect Your people Israel in their need, as the holy beloved Shabbes takes its leave. May the good week come to us with health and life, good fortune and blessing, prosperity and dignity, graciousness and loving-kindness, sustenance and success, with all good blessings and with forgiveness of sin.  Omein.”

Here is the Yiddish Text:

gotfunavrum

Got Fun Avrum is so well know that it became the theme of a popular Yiddish Song in titled Zol Noch Zein Shabbis (May it still be Shabbat) by the great composer and arranger of Jewish Music, Sholom Secunda  Here is a video of this melody sung by the one of the greatest and best known Hazzim, Moishe Oysher. The song also contains the text of the prayer as cited above.

Techinas are a rich, meaningful and potent source for personal prayer.  Rivka Zakutinsky best sums up the power of these sacred Yiddish texts:

“[Techinas are] the voice which women have used to approach God and to Serve Him…For God to be present in our most intimate daily experience –to commune with Him in the most private, unstructured moment, and to know that HE is there and ready to answer – therein lies the Blessing.”

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a Prayer: Praying in the Vernacular

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.
In my last post I extolled the vital importance of praying in Hebrew. While it is true that, “for thousands of years Hebrew prayers, such as those drawn from the book of psalms and others, have resonated in our Jewish DNA providing comfort, compassion and inspiration” there is also room in our liturgical service for prayers written in the vernacular. In fact, codified in our Siddur, are prayers, such as the Kaddish that are written in Aramaic, an ancient language that, a one time, was the lingua franca of our people. Similarly, in some traditions, the standard prayers are interleaved with or translated into Ladino or Judeo Espanol – a language spoken by Jews who stem from locations such as the Balkan countries, parts of the Middle East and sections of Europe such as Spain and Portugal. Similarly, there are wonderful very old and brand new prayers written in English and other modern languages, created to supplement and enrich our services.
Aramaic is an archaic  cousin of Hebrew that stems from the ancient Near East. Texts written in Aramaic such as the biblical books of Ezra and Daniel, have been found dating back to the 5th Century B.C.E.  The Talmud, one of the primary texts of Rabbinic law as well as Biblical Translations and the mystical Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar also written in this ancient language, are still studied in their original form today. In our Siddur, the most significant prayer written in Aramaic, is the Kaddish.
Constructed around an ancient Aramaic translation of a passage from the Biblical book of Daniel, “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah m’vorach l’olam ol’olmei al maya….May His Great Name be blessed for ever and ever in to the world to come,” the Kaddish is one of the best know elements of our liturgy. Ismar Elbogen the great scholar of Jewish Liturgy, notes that the great sages of the early rabbinic period attached deep meaning to this biblical phrase and  invoked it at the mention of the Holy Name. Soon this expression began to be used in the context of a formal expression of faith in God’s eternal Kingdom that was customarily uttered at the end of a rabbinic discourse. Although at first, these expressions were improvised by each orator, the formula eventually became the standardized in the form of the Kaddish.
Elbogen notes that the earliest reference to the Kaddish appearing as part of the synagogue liturgy can be found in a Palestinian source dating back to the seventh century. Phrases like, “L‘eila minkol birchata … beyond all blessings, hymns and praises …,” make the Kaddish an ideal vehicle for expressing the greatness and holiness of God.  Similarly, the passage found in the full Kaddish beginning with, “Tikabel Tzlothon … accept our supplications and petitions …” is most meaningful in the context of the service. In the synagogue, the Kaddish serves to separate various  major and minor sections of the service. Thus we find a Half or “HatziKaddish as well as a full Kaddish. There is also a Kaddish D’Rabbanan or “scholar’s Kaddish” which is recited after a selection from rabbinic literature. The mourner’s Kaddish, which is also included at various points during the service, differs from the full Kaddish in that it omits the section asking that our prayers and supplications be acceptable. It is interesting to note that the last stanza of the Kaddish, Oseh Shalom, a petition for peace, is written in Hebrew.
Brich Shemei – “Blessed is the Name,” a prayer said before the ark when the Torah is removed, is another popular prayer written in Aramaic. Taken from the Kabalistic text known as the Zohar (see above) Brich Shemei praises God as master of the universe and asks for Devine favor in granting our prayers and petitions. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, author of Or Hadash, a Comentary on Siddur Sim Shalom points out that the Kabbalistic Mystics maintained that the gates of heaven were opened whenever the Torah was read so they saw  this is as an opportune moment to seek God’s favor.
The conclusion of Brich Shemei begins with the statement, “ Ana Avda D’Kudsha Brich Hu, I am the servant of the Holy One.” We affirm that we place our hope not in any mortal but only in God and the revelation of the Torah.  Bei Ana Racheitz,  “in God we  trust”  the last part of the prayer, is often sung together by the congregation. Here is a wonderful rendition of the Ana Avda D’Kudsha Brich Hu by master Hazzan Aaron Bensoussan taken from his CD, Joyus Chants, recorded with members of the Israeli Philharmonic.

Brich Shemei  is also an example as a prayer expressed in Ladino by many members of the Sephardi tradition in the form of “Bendicho Su Nombre.”  Ladino, like Yiddish its Ashkenazi counterpart, is enhanced by Hebrew expressions as well as by local phrases and idioms. There is a rich culture of music and poetry written in Judeo Espanol which still can be heard in many countries throughout the world. This is a link to the text of Bendicho Su Nombrei in Ladino and English published by the Eitz Chaim Sephardic Congregation of Indianapolis. Here is a video of this prayer performed by Hazzan Sylvain Elzam.


Ein Keloheinu, an extremely popular hymn sung at the end of the Shabbat morning service, is often sung in Hebrew with an instantaneous translation into Ladino by many Sephardi congregations. The text of this hymn which according to the Machzor Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical assembly, dates back to the first millennium expounds on three different ways by which we refer to The Holy One; Our God, Our Lord, Our Sovereign and Our Savior. The mantra like repetition of phrases is typical of prayers of mystical origin. This is a setting of Ein Keloheinu sung by a delightful Turkish group called Los Pasharos Sepharadis.

Many Siddurim (prayer books) contain beautiful and inspirational poetry that, following the ancient tradition of the framers of our liturgy, expounds on the themes and motives of our sacred liturgy. Some of the most noteworthy writers and thinkers and poets of the past few generations have works published within  Siddurim  or in individual volumes  of contemporary prayer. Perhaps one of the most sensitive, compassionate, inspirational and enlightened modern American composers of Jewish Prayer is Rabbi Naomi Levy. One of the first women to be ordained as a Conservative Rabbi, Naomi Levy has written several books including a volume of English  prayers for various occasions called Talking to God .  Here is a heart rending prayer she wrote in response to  the tragedy of 9/11.

The Hebrew core of our traditional liturgy has sustained us throughout history, and around the globe. Yet in each generation, gifted, inspired poets have given voice to their connection with God and the liturgy through the medium of their native tongue. Whether through translating and interpreting the traditional text or by composing new elements of liturgy that speak to their contemporaries, these talented artists have contributed to the ever evolving and growing opus of our sacred liturgy; providing for the worshipper new pathways on which to seek a closer relationship with the Divine.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:hazzan@e-hazzan.comor leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a Prayer: Have a Cup of Coffee With God

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.

Perhaps the most perplexing problem affecting synagogue attendance today is lack of prayer literacy. Congregants who have great expertise in their professional field or who can attend a sports event and know all the plays and players feel uncomfortable in an environment where they are don’t understand the language and have no real clue what is taking place. Simply put, people who are used to being well-informed and confident tend to avoid situations where they may feel lost or unconnected.  Some Synagogues have responded to this challenge by seeking the lowest common denominator; either by substituting English readings for the Hebrew prayers or by greatly simplifying the service. Unfortunately, the casualty in this process of simplification is often the prayer service itself. For thousands of years Hebrew prayers, such as those drawn from the book of psalms and others, have resonated in our Jewish DNA; providing comfort, compassion and inspiration. Hebrew language prayer has sustained us not only through generations but across geographical boundaries as well.  Of course, the traditional Nusach – the prescribed musical language of prayer, has also provided a formidable chain that binds generation to generation and community to community.

The question becomes, then, how to tackle the problem of prayer literacy while retaining the quality and meaningfulness of the service. Instead of altering the prayer service, it may be more effective to attempt to change the prayer participant. While education maybe the most prudent approach, the real challenge is to avoid “preaching to the Choir.” That is to reach out to those who do not regularly attend the service and to convince them that it is safe and indeed beneficial, to come in to the Synagogue. It is to that end that the Have a Cup of Coffee with God service  was instituted.

Originally developed as a Learner’s Service for Camp Ramah Darom family camp in Georgia, the Have a Cup of Coffee with God Service is about to promoted to the main service for our congregation in Omaha Nebraska for a series of Shabbatot. At Camp Ramah, the response to this approach was so positive that what began as a Shabbat only experience became a daily occurrence. It is very exciting to see the effect this will have on a mainstream congregation in Omaha NE.

At is core, the “Have a Cup of Coffee with God” service has a unique, homemade siddur called L’Havin U’lhaskeil. (click here for sample page from this Siddur) Focusing on the salient sections of the prayer service, this siddur features transliteration, translation and commentary in addition to the Hebrew text. The room is set in a large circle for the service so that there is no front or back row and no Bema or stage to separate the participants from the clergy. During the Cup of Coffee Service, coffee etc. and cookies are available and all encouraged to enjoy the refreshments throughout the morning. As we progress through the liturgy, the basic meaning of many of the  prayers is explained and all are invited to ask questions or offer an opinion or explanation of their own at any time. In addition any actions associated with the prayer, from bending and bowing or gathering Tzitizit from the corners of the Tallit are clarified. The Cup of Coffee Service is enhanced by physical demonstrations such as using a tower of plastic blocks to illustrate the structure of the service or by combining the movements associated with praying into a two-minute aerobics class. In the past, augmenting the liturgy with Yoga, Tai Chi or meditation has added to the impact and spirituality of the Cup of Coffee service while at the same time opening congregants to the possibility of combining alternative approaches within the framework of the traditional service. The Have a Cup of Coffee with God Service ends with the Torah service so that, when offered as an alternative service, all can join together for Torah Reading and Musaph and conclude the prayers as one congregation.

The response to this approach to prayer has been extremely encouraging. When conducted on a monthly basis in my former congregation, those who were initially reluctant to attend a standard service attended the Cup of Coffee Service regularly. Of more importance, many who attended the Cup of Coffee service began to feel more comfortable in the standard service and increased the frequency of their attendance and the level of their participation. Transforming this service from an alternative service to the sole Shabbat Morning is a new evolution of this idea which is only possible with the encouragement and participation of our Rabbi, Steven Abraham. Surely all will benefit from the sharing of ideas, feelings and knowledge while maintaining our usual  sense of warmth and of unity on Shabbat morning.

Empowering members of our community to feel ownership in their liturgical heritage is key to increasing synagogue attendance and ensuring the future of the Jewish prayer service. Services such as Have a Cup of Coffee with God give the individuals who are part of our community the opportunity to gain knowledge about the service in a comfortable, non-judgmental, relaxed atmosphere. By offering the Have a Cup of Coffee with God service we provide the community the opportunity to not only examine the prayers in a new light but also to draw strength and understanding from one another in the context of a meaningful liturgical experience.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael KrausmanImage