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 Yitziv Pitgam: Special prayer for the Second Day of Shavuot

Prequel:

After the  experiencing the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel were given seven weeks to prepare for the watershed moment in the development of our people, the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. Today, in commemoration of these biblical events, we meticulously count the Omer, the days and weeks from Pesach, the occasion marking our physical freedom to Shavuot, the festival celebrating our transformation from a band of escaped slaves into a holy nation.

Indeed, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai constitutes not only a revelation of the Divine word, but a revolution in contemporary culture. The Book of Exodus (19:23-20:21) describes how the entire nation was present as the Torah was revealed. In fact, tradition maintains that not only did the generation that left Egypt witness the pyrotechnic revelation of the Law, but the soul of every Jew that would ever exist was present at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Edwin Farber of North Miami Beach Florida, points out that this public revelation is unique among all contemporary cultures. Rather than having the most Sacred of all of our texts and writings reserved for an ecclesiastical elite, the Torah is open and available to each and every one of us.

Thus Moses began a chain of transmission of the teaching of Torah that links every generation from the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness,through Joshua, through the prophets, through the residents of ancient Israel , through Babylonia and throughout the diaspora to the present day and beyond.

In the Fifth Century B.C.E. Ezra, the leader of the community of exiles who returned to the Holy Land from Babylonia, instituted the public reading of the Torah on Sabbaths, festivals and market days. This public reading meant that all could have easy access to the teachings of their sacred heritage. Dr. Max Margolis, a renowned  Judaic scholar notes in The History of Bible Translations that the practice developed to alternate each line of the Hebrew Text of the Torah, with a translation into the vernacular language of Aramaic. The task of providing this simultaneous translation was often relegated to a professional called the M’Turgaman. At first the Rabbis were against the writing down  of these translations fearing  the  translator might color the meaning of the Biblical text with his interpretation. Moreover, the Rabbis insisted on a clear distinction  between the written text of the Torah and the “Oral Torah” consisting of legal, homiletic and exegetical material. Initially, some of the Targum  texts were codified but remained for a long time the personal property of a few individuals. Eventually, as Dr. Margolis notes, perhaps due to the waning of the skills of those who memorized text coupled with the sheer of volume of material, the Rabbis relented and allowed the “oral texts” to be preserved in written form.

Today, while the Bible has been translated and interpreted into a myriad of languages, the Targum, or Aramaic translation, remains an essential tool of Biblical exegesis. Targum Onkelus, an eponymous work attributed to a well know convert of Babylonian origin is the most popular Aramaic translation of the Torah  mostly because of its fidelity to the original texts. The authorship of Targum Jonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Books of the Prophets is attributed to the Jonathan son of Uzziel, one of the followers of the great Talmudic sage, Hillel.There are other Aramaic translations that are still available, these like translations into other languages, provide a valuable tool to the Biblical scholar – not only due to the insight of the translator, but also because the translation may suggest the existence of a variant original text on which the translation was based.

After having discussed  the importance of the Targum, we are ready,at last, for the subject of this writing,the Piyut or liturgical poem know as Yetziv Pitgam. Recited immediately following the chanting of the first verse of the Haftara of the second day of Shavuot, Yetziv Pitgam is a beautiful composition written in Aramaic, the language of the Targum. Thematically, Yetziv Pitgam is similar to Akdamut, the Aramaic panegyric performed immediately prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot; the inadequacy of human language to praise God, the beauty of creation and a plea for God’s support and salvation. Also similar to Akdamut, this poem is an acrostic of the name of its author, in this case Yaakov ben Meir Levi. There is some controversy as the identity of Yaakov Ben Meir. Ismar Elbogen, the celebrated authority on Jewish liturgy, identifies the Yaakov Ben Meir of our poem as the twelfth  century Talmudic  luminary Rabbenu Tam, a foremost scholar and arbiter of Jewish Law.  He was the grandson of the most well know of all Biblical and Rabbinic commentators, Rashi. Others such as the author of the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Rabbeinu Tam, claim that there was a different poet named Yaakov Ben Meir who was in fact the author of our poem.

The Piyut has a very strict metrical structure with the second and fourth word of each line rhyming and each line ending  with the syllable “een.” Yiziv Pigam is chanted according to a unique ancient melody that can be found in Chanting The Hebrew Bible by Joshua Jacobson. Here is  a link to a quick recording of Yetziv Pitgam I made on my iPhone.

Not only is it an inspirational liturgical poem, but the placement of Yetziv Pitgam is reminiscent of the ancient practice of interleaving the chanting of the biblical text with the Aramaic Targum as mentioned above. In fact as Rabbi Richard Wolpe notes Yitziv Pitgam pays tribute to Jonathan son of Uzziel, the author of the Targum on the Prophets:

“…explicit in the passage “Yehonatan gvar invetan” [for Jonathan, meekest of all men] where the translator is mentioned by name. … Yetziv Pitgam is in the language of the Targum because it serves as a poetic segue into the Targum.”

On Shavuot, when we are so mindful of the place of the Biblical text in our lives, we remember that our great scholarly ancestors built a vernacular translation into the process of reading the Bible so all could clearly understand its Holy message. As we gather in synagogues on Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah, we are cognizant of the tradition that every Jewish Soul was present to receive the Torah personally. What a wonderful time to affirm this connection by learning to read the Torah according to the ancient art of cantillation or by embarking on a corse of Torah study!  Yetziv Pitgam reminds us in structure and in content that having a clear understanding of the language of the Torah enables us to comprehend the blueprint that provides the possibility of a close personal relationship with the God that loves us so much that He gave us our most precious possession, the Torah.

Hag Shavuot Sameiach 

Here is  link to the text in Hebrew and English

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 Krausman

Share a Prayer: Akdamut

Hi

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.

The festival of Shavuot is recognized in the Bible as the second of the three pilgrimage festivals. While it is also known as the festival during which the first fruits were brought to the Holy Jerusalem Temple, we are most familiar with Shavuot as the time of the giving of the Torah. It is traditional to stay up all night on the eve of this festival and study – reenacting the excitement and trepidation of our ancestors as they anticipated receiving the Torah. Preoccupation with the Torah and the majesty of the Holy One Blessed Be He is continued into the services of the first day of Shavuot, with the chanting of the epic hymn, Akdamut, which is said just prior to the reading of the first verse of the Torah portion.

“Were the sky of parchment made,
A quill each reed, each twig and blade,
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
Were every man a scribe of skill,

The marvelous story
Of God’s great glory
Would still remain untold;
For He, Most High,
The earth and sky
Created alone of old.”   

Akdamut, is a rich and extremely complicated tapestry woven in tooth-breaking Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, by  the 11th century Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai in the city of Worms, Germany. Rabbi Meir who was the son of Hazzan Isaac Nehorai and a contemporary of the great biblical commentator, Rashi, used lines beginning with each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twice through. The Rabbi also added, the letters of his name, his father’s name and of a short blessing asking for strength (which he no doubt needed after this huge work). The resulting composition is a 90 verse panegyric proclaiming the majesty and greatness of The Creator, the beauty and wisdom of the Torah and praise and hope for the Jewish people. Each verse of the opus contains exactly ten syllables and always ends with the syllable,’TA’.

Akdamut is usually recited responsively. The melody used for Akdamut (click to hear an example) is an ancient chant that is characterized by a downwardly cascading motif (very short musical phrase) that occurs at the end of the first of each of the pairs of verses that characterize the Hymn. Interestingly, the music for Akdamut, which is not found any where else in our liturgy, is sprinkled throughout the Festival Kiddush.

It may be said that the reasons for emulating the Biblical Israelites night long vigil and for reciting Akdamut with its ancient melody are identical: We are invited to share the excitement of our ancestors at the foot of Mount Sinai together with the passion of Rabbi Meir over G-d, his Torah and of the life that the Torah conveys. Perhaps, by looking through the eyes and hearing through the ears of our predecessors, we will, in our hearts, minds and bodies feel, understand, and emulate their steadfast commitment to Torah and the Jewish way of life.

Hag Shavuot Samayach

Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at cantor@sinaihollywood.org.

To learn more please check my Ehazzan Blog and subscribe to my Tephila Tips Podcast: https://ehazzan.wordpress.com/

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman