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

 

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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: Sim Shalom; a Prayer for Peace

After several months of hiatus, I am pleased to submit this new edition of “Share a Prayer.” In the time since my last post, both personally and professionally,  I have experienced the gamut of feelings – from disappointment to despair, to discomfort to apprehension to anticipation to appreciation. I have, in the process, made a somewhat bumpy journey from Hollywood FL to Omaha NE in order to join my wonderful new congregational family at Beth El Synagogue. Now that things are starting to “normalize,” I hope to continue to post on my E-Hazzan blog with some regularity. So, that having been said, I will begin as I did in the beginning:  

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 more so than any other supplication, prayers for peace remain foremost in the hearts of those who seek to communicate with their creator. Not only does the core of every formal prayer service contain prayers for peace, but even the Kaddish, an Aramaic elegy that is often recited by mourners, concludes with requests for peace in both Aramaic and Hebrew. In fact, as Dr. Joseph Lowin, noted author and scholar points out in his book of insights into Hebrew language, Hebrewspeak, “Peace is such a fundamental value in Jewish Culture that the capital of the Jews, Jerusalem [city of Peace] is named for peace.”

It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word for peace, “Shalom” is derived from the same root as the word “Shalem” or “complete.” Peace, then, according to the Jewish understanding, is much more than the absence of war, strife or conflict. Shalom conveys a notion of completeness or wholeness; a state in which there is no sense of yearning for that which is missing.

At the core of every formal prayer service is the Amida, a series of 7-19 blessings. The last blessing of every form of the Amida, weekday, Sabbath or Holy day, is always, the prayer for peace. In the Morning and Additional (Musaph) services the prayer for peace is preceded by the Three Part Priestley Benediction or Birkat Kohanim: “May Adonai bless you, and keep you; May Adonai make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May Adonai lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” This blessing, originally recited in Biblical times by Aaron the high priest, (Numbers 6:24-26) began to be offered as part of the liturgy during the time of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. In some communities it is customary to have the Kohanim, the descendants of Aaron the High Priest, formally bless the congregation using the ancient Biblical text during morning services in the context of the public repetition of the Amida. While Sephardi rites have the priests offer the Formal Blessing on a daily basis, the Askenazi rite reserves the Formal Priestly Blessing for the Musaph (additional) service of the Pilgrimage Festivals and the High Holidays. This mysterious and moving ceremony evokes memories and traditions that originate hundreds of generations ago.

The idea of a standalone prayer for peace grew out of the last words of the Priestly Blessing, “… and give you peace.”  Thus, prayer for peace or Shalom concludes with the formula, “…Ha’mvorech et Amo Yisrael Ba Shalom, Who blesses His People of Israel with Peace.”  The text of the prayer for peace that precedes the concluding formula has a few variations.

During the morning and additional services the oldest form of the text beginning with the words “Sim Shalom, Grant Peace” is used. This reflects the fact that the prayer for peace originally flowed from the conclusion of the priestly blessing as noted above.  Ismar Elbogen a foremost authority on Jewish liturgy notes that the evening and afternoon version of the text of the prayer for peace beginning with the phrase, “Shalom Rav, a Great Peace…” is original to the Ashkenazi rite. Shalom Rav is not found until a 11th Century reference to the prayer by the Talmudic scholar and author of liturgical poetry, Eliakim of Speyer. During the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the paragraph, “B’seifer Haim, [inscribe us] in the book of life,” is appended to our prayer during all services. The concluding formula during this holy period is, “… Oseh Ha Shalom, Who makes peace” which, according to Elbogen, is the original concluding formula of the Prayer for Shalom.

An additional variation from the traditional form of the Prayer for Peace can be found in introduction into the text of the word “Ba’Olam, in the world.” This appearance is found in Siddur Sim Shalom, the Conservative prayer book published by the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Rueven Hammer, a premier authority on Jewish Liturgy, in his commentary on the Conservative Siddur, explains that this addition was inspired by the works of the classic scholar and liturgical poet Sa’adia Gaon. The editors of the Siddur felt that rather than focusing on just the people of Israel as is in the case of the Priestly Blessing, their rendering of the prayer for Shalom should evoke the prophetic vision of universal peace.

Shalom, Peace is the most compelling and meaningful of all Blessings.  Machzor Lev Shalem, the new Rabbinical Assembly High Holiday Prayer Book, encapsulates the power of this Bracha in a beautiful and succinct fashion:

“When the blessing of shalom is lacking, however much we have of other blessings– wealth or power, fame or family, even health– these all appear as nothing. But when shalom is present, however little else we have somehow seems sufficient.
Shalom means “peace,” of course, but it means so much more as well: wholeness, fullness, and completion; integrity and perfection; healing, health, and harmony; utter tranquility; loving and being loved; consummation; forgiveness and reconciliation; totality of well-being.
And even all of these together do not spell out sufficiently the meaning of shalom. But though we cannot accurately translate or adequately define shalom, we can experience it.”
–HERSHEL J. MATT

Here is a beautiful setting of Sim Shalom by the renowned American composer Max Janskowi performed by one of the greatest Hazzanim of our time Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi together with the choral group Selah.

This video is from a live concert with the Zamir Chorale of Boston at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA, June 3, 2007 of Jeff Klepper & Dan Freelander and their world famous setting of Shalom Rav.

Here is 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.

May we always be recipients in abundance of the Blessing for Peace.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Featured Link: The Cantors Assembly, the largest body of Hazzanim in the world, is the professional organization of Cantors which serves the Jewish world.

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: Search for Hametz

Contrary to the common misconception, the primary mitzvah of Pesach is not to eat enough matzah to commit gastric suicide. Rather, we are commanded “V’ Higadita L’Vincha…you shall tell this story to your children.” Indeed, the Seder with all of its experiential components is the quintessential family education program, empowering parents to pass on our precious  heritage, replete with family history and customs, to the next generation. 

Before the Seder begins, however, there is a wonderful ceremony that not only, illustrates the concept of removal of Hametz (leavened products) in an experiential fashion, but  involves everyone in climax of Passover preparation. This ceremony is called Bidikat Hametz, the search for leaven. 

How do arrive at this point? On Pesach, the Torah commands us to avoid all contact with Hametz – any item which has been allowed to rise for more the 18 minutes. This includes  products containing yeast, Se’or –  items made with a sourdough process, grains that have been allowed to ferment and other similar products. Rabbinic tradition has understood this to mean we can not have benefit in any way or even posses these items or anything that may contain even the smallest trace or crumb of Hametz. So we dutifully scrub and clean every crevice of our homes lest we miss a tiny particle of Hametz and violate this injunction. Thus, it is traditional to shun the dishes,pots and pans etc. that we normally use and replace them all with  dedicated Passover dishes  and utensils. Despite all of our cleaning, however, we still would own the “non-Passover” kitchenware not to mention alcohol, fine china and other products that would be very expensive to replace if we had to dispose of them. There are great stories told by employees and residents of institutions in Israel that housed newly arrived immigrants from Ethiopia who were awakened in the middle of one of the nights leading up to Pesach by a cacophony of crashing dishes emanating  from the communal kitchen. They discovered to their shock and disbelief the their  Ethiopian brethren were “helping” the residents get rid of the non-Passover dishes by destroying them in preparation for the holiday.  

Fortunately, our sages alleviated  the need for such draconian measures( although my kids are always ready to smash dishes) by instituting a process known as Mecirat Hametz, which allows for the temporary sale to a Gentile of forbidden items that would cause too much of a financial hardship to us if we had to destroy them or eliminate them from our homes.A special bill of sale is drawn by which the Hametz reverts back to the original owners and the deposit is returned unless the buyer wishes to pay an exorbitant price based on the market value of all of the Hametz included in the original deal. 

As I noted above the Torah specifically states ” No Hametz shall be found in your homes…[or] within your borders.”(Ex. 12:19; 13:7) However none of us is perfect. It is possible that a microscopic particle of Hametz may remain for example, one Cheereo or morsel of Captain Crunch or a tiny crumb  may be stuck to the bottom of the fridge or somewhere similar. Therefore, our sages devised a formula by which we can declare any Hametz that we have unwittingly left  un-sanitized  null and void “as the dust of the earth.”  

Rabbi Joseph Elias writing in the Art Scroll Haggada explains that just evoking a formula seems a bit insincere, can we really just declare our homes devoid of Hametz? So, in order to insure that we  can honestly certify to the best of our knowledge that our homes are Hametz free, the search for Hametz  using the following process was instituted.    

We begin our search on the evening of the day before the first Seder. The text and detailed instructions can be found below or in any good Haggadah. You will need a candle to guide your search, a feather to sweep up Hametz a wooden spoon to receive the Hametz and a paper bag to collect the Hametz. This year we are following a custom of using the Lulav or Palm branch left from last sukkoth in place of the feather. It is customary to strategically hide morsels of Hametz, some use 10 as it has mystical significance, in your home. I often use breakfast cereal as it is easily to scoop and doesn’t cause too much collateral damage i.e. crumbs. In order to make it more exciting for the kids, I have them stay in a bedroom while I hide the morsels of Hametz. The children ideally take turns holding the spoon, feather, candle and bag although your mileage may vary, especially with the candle. 

After the Hametz has been hidden, (make sure you remember were it all is or you could be in for a nasty surprise in the middle of Pesach) we turn off all the lights, gather together  and recite the Blessing thanking God for making us holy with the Mitzvot and commanding us to remove ( i.e. burn) all Hametz. We then search throughout the house (I tend to confine the hiding places to the public parts of the home as opposed to the bedrooms just to be on the safe side) scooping up the offending pieces of Leaven and collecting them in the paper bag. After all the Hametz is in the bag, we add the feather, spoon and candle (extinguish the candle first) and recite the Hametz Nullification formula in Aramaic and or English. The excellent Feast of Freedom Hagadah  produced by the Rabbinical Assembly, notes that this text is first found in the writings of Rabbi Issac Ben Jacob Alfasi of Fez ( 1013-1103)

” all Hametz in my possession which I have not seen or removed, or of which I am unaware, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

The bag of Hametz and the associated contaminated utensils are carefully set aside until morning. In the morning after breakfast but before the deadline for eating Hametz passes, usually about 2.5 hours before midday, all the Hametz is gathered together and burned. Usually a metal trash can will work for this purpose or an old Barbecue that you do not plan to use for Pesach. We complete the Hametz search and destroy mission with the following declaration, recited after the burning is finished, again in Aramaic and or Hebrew.

“All Hametz in my possession,whether I have seen it or not,whether I have removed it or not, is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

Of course we are familiar with the biblical origin of the requirement for eating Matza. The Israelites in their haste to leave Egypt did not allow sufficient time for the dough to rise and so they baked flat cakes of Matza instead of bread. But why the total obsession with Hametz? Perhaps this is a good topic of discussion for our family as we go through the Hametz eradication process. 

Rabbi Alex Israel  of the Pardes Yeshiva in Jerusalem suggests three possible reasons for the prohibition against Hametz. Whereas Egyptian worship involved the usage of leavened bread in the context of sacrificing to their various deities, the Torah, wanting to avoid any similarities between  the  idolatrous practices of the Egyptians and our service to God, permits only unleavened bread in the Israelite Sacraficial Services. Secondly, Rabbi Alexander cites a source that points out that leavened bread requires human technology, i.e. the introduction of yeast or sourdough to work. Since the Exodus was accomplished only by the Divine Hand of God with no human input, we eat Matza which is made with out the benefit of this human ingenuity. Rabbi Israel’s final point is based on the fact that while as mentioned above, with all other sacrifices there is a prohibition against any Hametz, the offering for Shavuot is an exception, it requires the inclusion of loaves of leavened  bread. Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah on Mt Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt. The children of Israel, upon leaving Egypt, were a primitive group of escaped slaves. It was only after receiving the Torah that we grew  from a gang of former slaves  into a definitive nation with a direction and purpose under God. Therefore, Rabbi Israel teaches, we eat the plain bread of slaves on Peasch but eat the enhanced loaves of the bread of God’s chosen emancipated nation on Shavuot. 

Experiences such as the search for Hametz help to create the lasting memories that are the building blocks of family history. Like the Seder, it is a wonderful way to pass on our rich and beautiful heritage to the next generation in a concrete fashion. By including the search and burning of Hametz in our Passover tradition we are empowered to teach our  children about the fundamental  meaning of the holiday and are thereby enabled  to fulfill the primary mitzvah of Pesach –  “V’higadita L’vincha Ba Yom ha Hu, and you shall teach these lessons to your children on that day.”

Best wishes for a Zissen  (sweet) Pesach to all.

Click here for the text for the search for Hametz in Hebrew and English. Taken from Feast of Freedom Hagadah  produced by the Rabbinical Assembly,

For some interesting ideas on how to make your Seder even more appealing as well as some musical enhancements, click here.

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- Geulah; The Prayer for Redemption

Bridging the recitation of the morning Shema and the Amidah, a series of 7-19 blessings that constitute the core of each formal service,  is the blessing of Geulah – redemption. So powerful is the link between these quintessential prayers that the first word of the Geulah Blessing, “Emet“;  “it is true” is appended to the last line of the Shema, “Adonai Eloheichem; The Lord is your God” resulting in the  phrase, “The Lord is your God, in truth.” This new combination serves as a powerful affirmation of the truth of the Shema and by extension, the Torah from which the Shema is drawn. Similarly, at the other end of this sturdy bridge, tradition has forbidden any interruption between the concluding formula of the Geulah Blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai,Ga’al Yisrael; Blessed are You  Adonai, the redeemer of Israel” and the opening blessing of the Amidah. This injunction is so strong that traditionally the prayer leader chants the concluding formula of Geulah in an undertone so as not to evoke a response of “Amen” from the congregation which may be perceived as an interruption.

Since part of our cultural DNA draws us to the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt as the  primary example of God’s saving power, it is natural for tradition to mandate the mention of this watershed moment in Jewish history in the context of any discussion of redemption. Our attention is drawn sharply to the redemptive power of the Almighty in this context by quoting from the Song of the Sea – an ode sung by the children of Israel as they miraculously crossed the Sea of Reads unscathed, while their Egyptian pursuers perished. “Mi Chamocha Ba Elim Adonai …. Who is like unto you amongst gods, Adonai?…”  Similarly, the Geulah prayer also refers to God’s sparing of the first born of Israel while the first born of Egypt was slain.

Interestingly, there are several elements of this prayer of redemption that are thematically connected to either the Shema at one end or the Amidah at the other end. Such connections serve to fortify the bridge between these two vital components of our service. Rabbi Reuven Hammer the outstanding commentator on our Siddur, notes some of these elements. Referring to God in the Geula Blessing as, Malkeinu, our King, for example, brings to mind the first paragraph of the Shema which is know as Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamim; acceptance of the Sovereignty of God. Similarly, by using the passage, “Ein Elohim Zulatecha; there is no god other than Our God,” a quotation form King David in the biblical book of 2nd Samuel, the author of our prayer suggests an overriding theme of the Shema; the Oneness of God.

On the other hand, the notion of giving us credit because of the Merit of our ancestors, the opening theme of the Amidah, is reflected by the prayer for redemption by reffering  to God  as “Goaleinu V’goel Avoteinu; our redeemer and redeemer of our ancestors.” This notion is also very strongly expressed  in the opening phrase of the concluding section of this prayer, “Ezrat avoteinu Ata Hu L’Olam;You are the eternal help of our ancestors – the the shield and savior to their children in every generation.”

Geula, the prayer for redemption invites each of us to re-live the exhilarating experience of our ancestors as they crossed the Red Sea. Rabbi Hammer cites a beautiful Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 22:3) which summarizes the power of the Geula Prayer – the Prayer for Redemption  which serves to transport the worshipper from the Faith Affirming Biblical passages of the Shema to the personal “face time with God” that is afforded by the Amidah.

“Because of their faith [i.e. the children of Israel] they were privileged to recite the Song[of the Sea] and the presence of God rested on them. Therefore one should join the prayer for redemption to the Amidah, just as they recited the Song immediately after the splitting of he Sea and their attainment of faith. And just as they thus purified their heats before reciting the Song, so must we purify our hearts before reciting the Amidah.”

In jewish Liturgy there is a principle that the M’ein or essence of the prayer must be reiterated at the conclusion of the prayer. This is accomplished in Geulah by the passage, Tzur Yisreal; Rock of Israel. The  Almighty God who’s private chamber we are about to enter is clearly identified to us: “Goaleinu, Adonai Tz’vaot Shemo…, Our Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is His Name, the Holy One of Israel.” We travel across this bridge, replete with a better understanding of the nature of this God for whom we yearn who “humbles the proud and raises the lowly, frees the captive and redeems the meek.” Imbued with the love and devotion we have drawn from the biblical passages of the Shema, fortified by the recollection of our eternal connection to God through our Ancestors and confident in God’s power of redemption, we are prepared to to pour out our hearts to our Creator through the words of the Amidah. Praised are You Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Here is  link to the prayer in Hebrew and in English.

Here is a link to a wonderful setting of Tzur Yisrael by the pioneering Jewish Rock Group, Safam.

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/141011/Share%20a%20Prayer/04%20Tsur%20Yisrael.mp3]

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