Category Archives: Nusach haAri z”l

Visiting the Grave of a Righteous Person


Visiting the Grave of a Righteous Person
My Visit to the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch

Most of you know that for the most part, I’m a bookworm. Rarely do I escape the house to spend much face-time with people. As my health has been fragile for a long time I spend most of nervous energy working on these Torah learning projects and the transcription of the siddur. But this weeks blog is like no other, because it is taking us outside of the books and into the real world. In fact we are going on a quick tour of one of the most moving sites I have ever visited in my life, the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch, the New York resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbes. We are also going to briefly discuss the significance in Jewish tradition of such a graveyard visit, and its personal significance for me as well. This is a glimpse into the one end of this deeply religious world that many people are never fortunate to see.

Actually before I get started I want to say that my friend and I who came on this trip are observant, but not frum. I have not considered myself full-fledged Orthodox for several years. However, I have a deep connection to Chabad chassidus because it was through it that I learned the most about myself and Jewish life. The teaching and the legacy of outreach started under the tutelage of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, the Rebbe or grand-rabbi of the Lubavitch chassidim. Under his leadership he took a small group of faithful Chassidim from Russia who were struggling for their survival in Brooklyn and turned it into a world-wide movement. In the general Jewish community we are now so used to the presence of Chabad in the furthest reaches of the world we are known to chime in when discussing them, “Where ever you find Coca-Cola you’ll find Chabad.” I am one of the people who has benefited throughout my life because of Chabad’s outreach and easy-going approach helping people find their way in our tradition.

I like most people who have received so much from the teachings and work of the Rebbe, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I was too young and was not yet frum when he lived and passed away in 1994. “The Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th and final Lubavitcher Rebbe was laid to rest in a monument known as the Ohel, the resting place of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Shneerson, of blessed memory; they rest side by side. I remember the day The Rebbe passed, seeing the television announce the horrible news, even in my ignorance I knew we had lost a great light of Torah truth in this world and my heart ached. As my learning grew in Torah and I gained so much from his published speeches the feeling grew that I needed to pay my respects to someone I had come to admire greatly.

On some weeks, in fact on some days, there can be thousands of visitors to his grave to show their respects and pray at the graves of the Rebbes. If you don’t believe me all you need to do is see the entire site covered with letters of needs and prayers of people left in hopes that they be answered in the merit of our righteous deceased. People who would ordinarily seek out the advice of the personal rabbi still bring requests of guidance and requests for blessings to him at his resting place.

I was also coming with requests this time, some of my own but also baring the prayers of other friends who had desperate needs. But namely I was coming out of gratitude that just a few years ago I was literally on my deathbed and people came to Ohel to ask for a blessing of healing for my body. I always promised that if I was blessed with life and the physical strength I would visit the site and pray there myself.

Now this tradition of asking advice of the Rebbe was not started by “The Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Shneerson. It was a tradition that he himself did engage in, by visiting the same Ohel regularly to seek the guidance of his predecessor Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, the Freidiker Rebbe. It is also true that he encouraged others to also bring their written prayers with the confidence that “the Rebbe will find a way to answer.” Even then he was not the first to do this, he followed the formula of the “Ma’aneh Lashon” (“The way one should speak….”) a guide for mourning and addressing the dead. The text he utilized was a slightly stylized version of the one edited by Rebbe Dov-Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe, second Lubavitcher Rebbe. He didn’t create anything, he merely encouraged a long-standing tradition of visiting the grave sites of righteous people and praying in their merit, even encouraging people to do so according to the Chabad minhag.

We know that the custom of visiting the graves of holy men even predating chassidut and was also a well established tradition held by their fellow Lurianic kabbalists, and Sephardim, prior to this. They would visit the tombs of rabbis with the same respect they showed our patriarchs tombs. Actually the history and content of the Ma’aneh Lashon gives us indication of how far back this tradition goes. The order of cemetery visits was originally contained in a larger work compiled Jacob Ben Solomon Darshan in 1615 in Prague, his work titled Ma’aneh Lashon also had prayers for the sick and considering other tragic occurrences. They presented some of the first guides on how to act with decorum in a tragic situation. The sections related to the visiting of the cemetery was composed of blessings, psalms, readings from the Zohar, and prayers of repentance. The kabbalistic Yichud (unification) prayers were added later by Rabbi Aharon Berechiah ben Rabbi Moshe of Modena, who printed them in Mantua in 1626. Later the content was edited and made more concise for the use of visiting the Chabad rebbes in the late 18th to early 19th century by the Mitteler Rebbe.

Now it is obvious that the readings from the Zohar do predate this, and they are a pretty clear explanation of the reasons that a person should visit the graveside of the righteous. It suggests that it is in order to repent. That a person may come with weeping to the graves of the righteous, and if possible after fasting and with the intent to changing their ways. They can make their requests heard, but they must also come with the intent to change something about themselves for the better. (see Zohar Arachei Mot 90b) So this practice has to go back as far as the Zohar, which is arguably the early Middle-ages at the very least if not all the way back to the days of the Talmud itself.

In it the Zohar indicates that Rav Yossi the sage of the Talmud provides us the reason that we can ask and say psalms as prayers in the merit of the righteous who came before us. He quotes the verse of Isaiah 37:35 to support his claim:

“Rabbi Yossi stated:

The righteous shield the world

in their lifetime,

and also after their death

even more than in their lifetime.

This why it is written [in the scriptures]:

‘I will defend this city,

saving it for my own sake

and the sake of my servant David.’

But this was not written about him in his lifetime.”

אמר ליה רבי יוסי |

צדיקייא מגינין על עלמא |

בחייהון |

ובמיתתהון |

יותר מחייהון |

הדא הוא דכתיב |

וגנותי על העיר הזאת |

להושיעה למעני |

ולנען דוד עבדי |

ואילו בחיוהי לא כתיב.” |

Zohar haKodesh, Acharei Mot

The Zohar is making an interesting point in order for us to understand the process of asking for blessings for the sick and praying in the merit of the dead. We ask prayers in their merit, trying to connect to their righteous example and seek guidance for the situation at hand. But even more than this, the Zohar explains that G-d does show gratuitous mercy to people, to save them from catastrophe merely for His own sake. Even more interesting it shows that G-d shows mercy by saving a whole city from impending disaster merely out of consideration for the merit of King David! Rabbi Yossi also states that despite all the psalms we say, this praise of David’s merit to influence mercy for his people Israel was not said about him while he lived. Rabbi Yossi states that the prayers and influence of the saint upon G-d does not end with their demise, in continues on and it influences His decisions in respect to their memory.

Expounding upon this thought the text of the Zohar continues in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, that G-d shows gratuitous mercy to people for their sake and G-d also displays gratuitous mercy in the honor of righteous people as well. He continues on by saying that we cannot say that people are on par with G-d, but the souls of the honorable departed such as David are completely connected to the Unity of G-d’s existence and we connect to G-d in their example, that G-d alone be blessed forever and ever. We seek to have that oneness with G-d that the saints did in their life, and that they enjoy even more so in their afterlife as uninhibited souls. All is connected, Rabbi Yehuda would contend; we just need to find a way of connecting and we can often do that through the example of great people.

Now before I move on I need to touch on one very important point about this tradition, that if not answered can confuse people. Most people are aware of how careful we are to worship G-d alone in Judaism and no other being or manifestation, but here are praying at tombs and invoking the names of our dead. Are we praying to our dead instead of G-d?

Lest we come to any false conclusions I present you with the prayer that is said before we are to leave the cemetery:

“May it be Your will, Hashem my G-d

and G-d of my ancestors

that all that I have asked of You

be in Your eyes like an incense offering.

Deal with me leniently,

beyond the measure of the law,

for You, merciful One,

listen willingly to the prayer of Your servant.

For this reason I have come before You,

for I have no mediator

to intercede with You on my behalf.

Do not turn me away

empty-handed from Your presence,

for You listen to prayers —

for the sake of all the righteous

resting here

and for the sake of Your great glory.

Blessed be He who hears prayer.

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart

be acceptable before You,

Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

יהי רצון מלפניך יי אלהי |

ואלהי עבותי |

כל מה שבקשתי לפניך |

יהיה העינך כקטורת |

ותעשה עמי לפנים |

משורת הדין |

ואתה רחמן |

שומע ברצון תפלת עבדך|

ובעבור זה באתי לפניך |

כי אין לי מליץ |

להליץ בעדי לפניך |

ונא אל תשיבני |

ריקם מלפניך |

כי אתה שומע תפלה |

בעבור כל הצדיקים |

השוכים בכאן |

ובעבור תפארתך הגדול |

ברוך שומע תלפלה. |

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי |

והגיון לבי |

לפניך, |

יי צורי וגואלי: |

Ma’aneh Lashon, Final Prayer

In our tradition, especially those of us of the mystical schools, we hold the memory and the legacy of the righteous departed as a living thing. Our holy rabbis were so close to the other world in their physical lives already, but now in their spiritual lives they still are sources of inspiration to us and empower us with the strength of generations. For this reason the religious do not speak of our rabbis as “Rashi said…” or the “The Rambam said…” instead we say “The Ramban says…” or “The Baal haTanya says…” They continue to live on through their lessons to us, their merit rising higher and higher as their example helps others reach greater spiritual heights. In this way our saints are still with us.

My Visit to the Ohel Chabad – October 28th, 2012

It’s seems almost ironic that the Zohar text should really center around this one verse from Isaiah about G-d defending this city and saving it for His own sake and that of His servant David. My dear friend and I had come up from North Carolina, I was joining him and making my second leg of the journey from California on my first visit to the Ohel. We had been warned a few days before that hurricane Sandy was approaching off the coast of North Carolina. But having already planned our trip, and considering the fact that hurricanes were common to the warm south and not the cool Northeast we continued on with our trip without much concern. I had vowed before we arrived “I must visit the Ohel, we will do this rain or shine.” Oh how I would be tested in that respect, as it soon became evident that the storm was following us up the coast and was now set to land in New York City in just another day.

As we arrived in the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery we were thrilled to find parking right away, as the wind and darkness was already dominating the sky. Likewise when we came into the welcoming-center building we passed just a few people going about their business. A couple was writing out their prayers on the tables set there just for that purpose. Comfortably out of the cold we sat and watched videos of the Rebbe’s speeches as we transcribed the prayers we were bringing. Some of my friends had dire health situations, others asked a blessing for a relative, and still others to deliver a message in memory of their dearly departed loved ones.

At first I was a bit worried that we would be too far out of our element. It’s one thing to attend your local Chabad, its a totally different situation to step foot in their most holy shrine. And here I came, dressed like a typical Brooklyn hipster, skinny jeans and all. Honestly, people didn’t even give us a second look. Actually my friend and I, being the only non-Orthodox looking people around, were very concerned about not wanting to show any form of disrespect. As we made our way into the complex that is immediately before the entrance to the cemetery we were greeted by a young man who was giving reception and information for the visitors. We explained that it was our first time and asked if there was any customs that we should be mindful of. He relayed the common custom of not wearing leather shoes as a sign of mourning and humility. This is since leather is considered a form of vanity that has no place in the memory of the righteous. Luckily we came prepared with canvas shoes and with our heads covered as a sign of respect.

Now there is a sense of decorum that has surrounded the visiting of the site. When one comes into the cemetery and up the path one can bring a candle with them to light in the anti-chamber of the Ohel. The Ohel itself, which literally means “a tent,” is an edifice that is built as a permanent mourning tent of stone that offers a place of sanctuary to the faithful who come to pray there. In the anti-chamber one will also find copies of the Ma’aneh Lashon and books of Psalms for people to pray from when they go into the second, inner chamber. Men and women each have their own entrance to the main vault of the Ohel. Before one enters into this burial place it is the custom of many to knock first as a sign of respect for the timelessness of our teachers.

As one enters into the inner chamber you cannot help but be struck by the amazing sight of our two Rebbe’s laying side by side, to the right is Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and the left is the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Surrounding their graves and headstones is an enclosure filled with countless thousands of prayers. Though it is the custom to say the Ma’aneh Lashon and Psalms for the people that you are praying on behalf of, on many days there are lines of people waiting to get a moment of prayer there. Under crowded conditions sometimes visits are limited to a mere two minutes. One does not have to recite the entire 50-page liturgy and many Psalms if they are not able to. But it is suggested that one should at least recite the Psalm 111 which is the Psalm of correspondence to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and also a Psalm relating to ones own age (for example: I am 35 years old, if I was in my first year of life I would start with Psalm 1, but since in am 35 years old I recite Psalm 36). After one says their Psalms, and they make their prayers heard with tears in their eyes, they quietly read their prepared letters, rip them up, and place them in the enclosure. As one exits it is the custom to do so walking backwards as a sign of respect.

With all the needs heavy on my heart and so much to be thankful for in my life I found it very easy to lay my prayers out with tears. I was also very shocked by the appropriateness of the Psalms for my needs and how they offered guidance that I was not expecting. As I exited I backed out of the Ohel and the anti-chamber in order to collect myself, my friend was still inside praying. As I looked up and over to my right my attention was drawn to a couple extraordinary headstones. I realized as I read the name Chaya Mushkah that I was staring at the resting places of the Rebbetzins, the wives of our Rebbes. At their sight I became overwhelmed with emotion once again, contemplating the exemplary character and compassion they possessed in their holy lives. I placed a pebble on the headstone of the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka before leaving.

As my friend exited we once again took to collecting ourselves and commented on the wonder of the experience to finally pray at such a holy place, how palpable the sense of spiritual strength that is pooled together by the prayers of the righteous there. We were among the rest who emerged with true tears in our eyes.

But the visit was not completely somber. For me it was very joyful, and I shared with the other people who were there on their visit why someone not the least bit chassidish looking would come to pray there. I explained how a few years before I was literally dying, I was in the hospital suffering complications from treatment for full-blown AIDS. I was not expected to live, but people had come to the Ohel and prayed for the healing of my body. I was there to keep my promise to daven there if I lived, not for just myself but also for others, because I believed in the power of the prayer in the merit of the righteous that deeply. It wasn’t just something theoretical to me, it was a great source of strength in my life and I was here to extend the blessing and show my gratitude. As I explained not only did everyone become excited, but the shluchim that were there were grateful that I shared my story with them because very few times do people remember to come back after their life improves, people only tend to come when things are bad. I walked away caught up in the rapture of the power of prayer and with a sense of communion with the life-lessons of our beloved teachers.

As got in the car to leave and began to calm our excitement over being able to actually make our seeming pilgrimage to this site we began to become aware that we were in the midst of a truly phenomenal storm. I had kept my vow, to come rain or shine. But by the time we were leaving there was not much sunlight left, and though it wasn’t raining the sky was unusually dark with storm clouds lingering. Wind had become so fierce that few people would venture out that day, making our access to the Ohel very quick and easy. And then during our ride back from Upper Queens to lower Brooklyn we became aware for the first time that we needed to get in on the final search for fuel gripping the city and get to cover because the city of New York and all surrounding roads were closed to traffic because hurricane Sandy was barreling towards the Northeast. We hunted for gas and after a few tries were able to fill up with high-end fuel. But still excited we made a quick stop in Crown Heights, to the former residence of the Rebbe and the headquarters the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Our visit had to be quick because the wind was picking up so quickly by the time we arrive most people were fully engaged in trying to keep standing upright and hold their kippot and hats from flying away. But we were thrilled that we just got to be there, and we made our way back to our hotel for shelter.

Within 24 hours we would find ourselves still trapped as the storm flooded and battered the region. Though in another seemingly miraculous event my friend and I were able to escape the disaster region the morning immediately after the storm and to that safety of North Carolina which had escaped the full wrath of hurricane Sandy. We drove the entire way from New York City to North Carolina on empty roads except for emergency and electrical crews racing towards the disaster zones. The next morning I was also miraculously able to fly across the country all the way back to the safety of Los Angeles, all within less than 36 hours after the storm. As I write this people are barely getting their power restored in the disaster zone and gasoline is still in unavailable at the pumps as people wait in line for miles. My prayers are with you from here, the only way I can explain my safe return is that G-d was aiding us in our travels because we came faithfully to keep our promise. That must be the power of determination and prayer. May G-d continue to bless you all, as I have seen with my own eyes His hand displayed in the great spirit of charity you all have shown to each other in this time of crisis.

Reflections on a Cemetery Visit

Several years ago I found myself in a mess of a situation. As a result of bad decisions and the weight of some emotional turmoil I had found myself outside of religious observance. My Jewish partner and I were both hooked to heavy drugs and really lost in life. After his subsequent arrest one odd night for possession of drugs I was released by the officers to the sidewalk. During my wait for someone to pick me up I was really confused and felt lost as to how my life had come to this point. Wanting to avoid the attention of the police or other lowlifes I needed to get off the streets.

As I walked I looked up and saw a cemetery, noticing a huge Jewish section. I collected myself and went in. The Mexican gardeners kind of stared at me, why was a punk in the cemetery? As I walked and looked at the names I saw the relatives of some people I knew among the many others I had never met. Noticing that some hadn’t been visited for a while I began to clean the graves and people just let me be, soon I was the only person left except for one woman over to the far left of the cemetery.

“You don’t seem like the type to hang out in graveyards,” she stated without looking up. She was taking a charcoal etching of a shiny and beautiful headstone. She explained that it was her mother’s headstone, and asked me to come over and help her get the etching of the inscription. As we worked on getting the face of it transferred on to the paper I explained that I needed to find a place to clear my head and reflect on how things had gotten to this point in my life.

I explained that when I was religious a rabbi once taught me that a cemetery isn’t necessarily a dreary place. Actually, it’s a holy place he contended. He explained to me that when we pray or make vows we often do so on a sacred object. It could be a Torah or even an object that a mitzvah was done on; any sacred object counts. He also explained that in the lack of mitzvah items to make a vow one could make a vow upon their body, in fact a vow was taken by one merely laying their hand on the body part of Abraham upon which a mizvah was performed (see Genesis 24:2, “under his thigh”). The body is miraculous and awesomely created object by G-d. When we cannot find another place of sanctuary and holiness then one may come to a graveyard that holds the bodies of His holy people. We believe that their souls remain close by in order to rejoin their resuscitated body one day; a cemetery isn’t dreary at all, it’s a lively place.

“Why do you need to find a place of sanctuary? Why do you have no place else to turn?” she inquired. As we finished the transfer on to the thin paper she began to listen to my story and ask so many questions that helped me think out my situation. She showed real concern for my needs. After some time of talking and us needing to both get on our way, she turned to me and told me that if I ever needed anyone to talk to then please come and visit her mother. That her mother would have really liked me and would be there to listen.

To this day when I get a chance to pass through that obscure neighborhood I like to stop and pay my respects for the person that was there to listen when I didn’t feel I had anyone in the world on my side. That was a real turning point in my teshuvah, my personal repentance and turn around.

Related links:


Tikkun Chatzot


Tikkun Chatzot
Do we say the Midnight Rite During Spring and Summer?

When I originally wrote “Tikkun Ḥatzot: Getting Right at Midnight: Introduction to the Midnight Rite as a scholarly and historical piece to accompanist the release of the Nusach haAri z”l (Chabad) Prayerbook text I explained that many people take on this practice during the winter when the nights are long. But I failed to answer the question of how we apply this during the spring and summer when nights are shorter; mostly because this was answered in the actual siddur release itself. I didn’t keep in mind this would not be shown by most search engines, so I’ve received a lot of requests for an explanation.

To help answer this I am posting the actual instructions (with only one additional line of advice from the Tanya, in bold near the end; this will appear in all future editions to be released, bizrat hashem) from the Open Siddur Project release below (written by yours truly). Also see the links below to download your copy today! Hopefully before the seasons change again I will be able to translate a fresh English translation. For a detailed description of the rite, refer to the aforementioned introduction.

There are some general rules to keep in mind, we do not recite Tikkun Rachel on days the Tachanun confession is not said (this applies to the entire month of Nissan, as it is an entire month of celebration). This applies to Shabbat and Festivals – including Pesach and Pesach Sheini, Lag b’Omer, and the period from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until seven days after Shavuot. In the fall/winter months this will also apply from Erev Yom Kippur until the end of Tishrei, all of Chanukah, Tu biShevat, Purim and Shushan Purim. It is the custom of many Sephardim to not say Tikkun Rachel at all during the Sefirat haOmer. Some also choose to omit Psalm 20 and Psalm 51 from Tikkun Leah. On Tisha B’Av most Sephardim say Tikkun Rachel while omitting Tikkun Leah.


“It is, however, appropriate for anyone who is G-d-fearing, and all people of valor whose heart has been touched by Hashem, to rise at midnight and devote a little time to mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Divine Presence.”

Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav, Mahadura Batra – Hashkamat HaBoker, 1:2
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, The Baal HaTanya

The scriptures tell us “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches, pour out your heart like water, facing the Presence of G-d.” (Lamentations 2:19) It is the custom among the pious to rise up during the night and pray for the rebuilding of Temple and the redemption of Jewish People.

The ideal times appointed for saying this devotional prayer is at the true celestial midnight; which is the actual midpoint of the night. This will vary depending on the season and location. The Baal HaTanya (S.A.HaRav; MB, Hashkamat HaBoker, 1:8) teaches us to calculate this as 12 hours after high noon, when the sun is directly overhead; this is agreed upon by many authorities including the Ben Ish Chai (Vayishlach §4). If one finds they cannot say Tikkun Chatzot at the appointed time then it is appropriate to say it at the first third of the night, or the second third of the night; or the end of the night, up until 1 hour before sunrise. There are various automated Zmanim resources available online, such as at Chabad.org or MyZmanim.com, that will calculate the halachic times for your location.

“The main devotion of the Israelite man is, in winter, to be vigilant to rise for the midnight prayer.And in summer, when the night is very short, less than six hours, and hence we do not rise at midnight, then he should be careful to rise in the morning early at dawn.”

Likutei Etzot, Chatzot §6
Reb Natan of Breslov

If one rises to say these prayers and has slept during the night then one should say “The Morning Blessings” and the “Blessing of the Torah.” If one woke up before it’s time, one should wait until chatzot (true-midnight) to say these blessings. However, if one cannot sleep and has awoken early then one may say the “Blessing of The Torah” and study until chatzot, then say “The Morning Blessings” and repeat the “Blessing of the Torah” together at that time. One will not have to repeat these blessings later, even if they return to sleep; their requirement to say them for that day has already been fulfilled.

Additionally, we should also keep in mind the urging of the Baal haTanya who stated: “Whoever cannot do this nightly should maintain an absolute minimum of once every week, before the Shabbat.”. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya: Iggeret haTeshuvah §10)

The prayers of Tikkun Chatzot are divided into two sections, Tikkun Rachel and Tikkun Leah. The central theme of Tikkun Rachel is mourning over exile and distress, and therefore is not appropriate to say on days of celebration. However, Tikkun Leah carries the theme of praise and longing for the Presence of G-d.

Tikkun Rachel is only said on days in which Tachanun is said; it should not be said on days of celebration, including Shabbat and Festivals. Tikkun Leah, according to the Ashkenzi tradition, may be said on days even when Tachanun is not said; including Shabbat, Festivals, minor holidays, etc. (it is the custom of Sephardim to not say Tikkun Chatzot at all on Shabbat or Festivals).

When saying Tikkun Chatzot, it is the custom to sit close to a door that has a mezuzah affixed to it. It is to be said in a solemn tone, being sang according to the melody of Lamentations or merely read aloud.


Download:

The Tikkun Ḥatzot of Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (from Siddur Torah Ohr, 1803) graciously hosted by the Open Siddur Project:
PDF | ODT | TXT (v.3.0)



Blessings for Chanukah: The Festival of Lights


Chanukah: The Festival of Lights
The Blessings for Kindling the Chanukah Lights

Download: Blessings for the Chanukah Lights, Nusach Arizal (Chabad)

Do you need the blessings to light up for this brilliant and joyous holiday? Look no further! We have them right here for you; along with English translations and instructions provided by yours truly. Click on the image to download it in a simple PDF format so that its ready to print out or read from your notebook with no fuss!

Those with a keen eye will notice that the blessings are exactly the same in all customs, except that we do not include the word “shel.” Though ordinarily we would use the word “shel” while saying the blessings for Shabbat lights. Sephardim, Chassidim and Kabbalists do not when we are saying the Chanukah blessings. This is because ordinarily we are lighting Sabbath lights in order to enable us to do our Sabbath duties by; thus they are lights for (shel) Shabbat. Making Shabbat in the home is the mitzvah, not lighting candles. However, during Chunukah “lehadlik oseh mitzvah / the kindling is the mitzvah.” (Shulchan Aruch 673:2)

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!


Sheviti Hashem: The Unspoken Declaration


Sometimes The Siddur Has Silence that Speaks Louder Than Words

If one was to ask a class of observant Jewish students what the first prayer in the siddur (hebrew prayerbook) is just about every hand would go up in the air. It’s seems like an obvious answer for most of us. But of course, if this was a real classroom I would be pulling a Lisa Simpson and complicating the matter by pointing out some geeky fact that turns the questions on its ear. You know the type, the preschool kid that tells the teacher she’s wrong because it was Copernicus that proved the world was round. No one likes a know it all. But, truthfully the answer is not quite as cold cut as it seems. And my reason for pointing out my odd fact is not to be an intellectual elitist, holding on to some more stringent view. Let me explain. First off, it would be helpful if before we start talking about liturgy we understand what we are discussing.

The Development of Liturgy

Liturgy has always existed within our tradition. The most published portion on the holy scriptures, probably more so than any book, is the Book of Psalms which is clearly written as a collection of musical and liturgical standards. Repeating holy scriptures was our first stab at formal prayer, and in some cases fixed prayers later became enshrined in holy scripture. The influence went both ways as scriptures and Temple prayers developed.

When the Temple era came to an end, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. prayers took center stage as prescribed in Isaiah chapter 1, to offer sacrifice of the lips instead of animals. Fixed prayers from the Temple were now elevated in significance, and new prayers were added over time to deliver something worthy of saying for just about every occurrence and season. But the siddur, the prayerbook we know today would not make its rise until around the 15th century at best and not widely available as a complete work until the mid-to-late 19th century. For most of our history people have just repeated prayers they knew from their common recurrence in our life-cycle events. And when in doubt people would turn to their rabbis for advice. Through out the ages we have learned these prayers like one learns a song, that is our liturgy. The tune and delivery I use my be different from yours, but that’s the nature of song. But no matter how it’s delivered, it’s a homelike tune we all relate to on some level.

The Development of the Nusach Ha-Ari z”l

As the treasury we know today as the siddur was being developed, so too the school of Jewish mysticism was on the rise. The mystics were a group of elite rabbis who collected prayers, but for a different reason than to just know what to say on a given occasion. They knew the prayers by heart, they didn’t need a script. Prayers collected by the kabbalists were incorporated in their own siddurim, but these books mostly served as commentaries on selected prayers. The commentaries contained many diagrams and instructions on how to focus the mind in a meditative way though kavannot (Heb. “Intentions”).

As I briefly touched upon in my last weeks look a the kavannah of Psalm 67 for the Sefirat ha-Omer, the Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – was one of the first of the great rabbis to really take the mystical traditions of the Lurianic kabbalists (the followers of the ARI Z”L, the great mystic of the 16th century) and present their customs in a complete liturgical work for congregational prayer and daily devotion. The Baal haTanya’s siddur was intended to teach the common man how to pray, a much needed aid that was starting to take root during the late 18th century in Europe. His simplification came by focusing on documenting the things that needed to be said, and leaving out silent meditations.

The Baal haTanya provided his chassidim with a siddur that made full use of the richness of Jewish prayer that Eastern European Jews enjoyed and carefully conformed it to the teachings of the ARI Z”L. The text the holy Ari adopted and taught from was the Sephardic tradition, the liturgy documented by the Jews of Iberia and intern favored by the Jews of the near-east. The Baal haTanya conformed his text to that style and incorporating many of it’s unique prayers.

However, interestingly, prayer books like Eastern Europeans enjoyed were not at all common in Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities. There was more documentation about their prayers and customs in classical legal works and kabbalistic commentaries they called “siddurim” than in any book dedicated to how to say your prayers or lead a service. Simply put, it wasn’t as needed because there was greater familiarity with the Hebrew prayers for the Jews of the near east. In the end as Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews began to formulate true prayerbooks for their prayer services like Ashkenazim (Eastern Europeans) invented, they brought in the silent meditations presented with their highly involved diagrams. Why? Partially because of their familiarity with them. Secondly because, in the days before the prayer books the diagrams were often enlarged and displayed in synagogues and holy shrines for one to use as prayer aids. It just seemed right that they belonged.

The Shviti: Placing Hashem Before Us

Those of you who have visited any Jewish shrines know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention charts and mystical diagrams. We call them Shvitis, they often take on the form on an enlarged writing of the Four-Letter name surrounded by verses of Psalms or prayers. The most famous of these is probably in the form of the Psalm 67 menorah. Others incorporate many mystical ways of reading Divine Names, but that are not meant to be pronounced. Why do we call them Shvitis? Because they usually bear the words of the Psalm that says:

“I have set

Hashem

before me at all times.”

| Sheviti

| Hashem

| l’negedi tamid

שִׁוִּיתִי |

יְהוָה |

לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד |

Psalms 16:8

Now one might ask, how intrusive into the text of the siddur can these mandala like meditations be? I mean, if they are useful why are they left out of the Baal haTanya’s siddur? You might say, who is he to leave out these things that are so authentic and sacred? Well, if we use a siddur as a seder (an order) of prayers and devotions, and go through it from waking up to going to sleep, then the first occurrence of shviti is at the beginning of the siddur. That’s right. When one wakes up they are to immediately have in mind this verse “I have set HASHEM before me at all times.” For this reason in many Sephardic and Edut haMizrach siddurim the first words you will see is these words “sheviti Hashem l’negedi tamid.”

If this was a real classroom I would hear just about every western, observant Jew gasp. This is problematic because at this point in history we all accept that the first words of out of our mouth and before we open our eyes is the prayer Modeh Ani, that we greatly thank G-d. Of course we also obsess over the different customs of washing among the different sects of Judaism, but we all accept in unity that we don’t intone the Four-Letter Name of Hashem in the first prayer we say of the day and instead wait until we get around to taking care of our business. So we all start with this prayer that refers to G-d, but without explicit use of the Four-Letter Name (יהוה).

So ingrained is it into the mind of observant Jews that this prayer is taught and known by the children as some of their first words. Really, before some Jewish toddlers can tell you answers to simple questions they already know how to say this prayer by heart. Though in our different communities we might truncated the prayers to make them easier to say for children at first, Modeh Ani is not one of them as we want them to learn it in full. This is our first confession of the day. I don’t want to spend too much time of it, as we will get to this prayer next week, and I’ve already taken us the scenic route to the point of all of this.

At this point, many would say “Oh, okay, I understand now why the Baal haTanya would leave it out. You don’t want to confuse people so that they might say the words of sheviti Hashem. Good thinking.” But still there will be the few who will grumble, and whisper to each other “See I told you those sephardim, chassidim, and kabbalsists are playing fast and loose with orthodoxy.” Considering myself to be the product of all of the above I would ask someone to cough up their copy of the Shulchan Aruch for a second. I’d hold it up and make the point that there is nothing more Orthodox than the Shulchan Aruch, which would become known to anglos as The Code of Jewish Law. I wouldn’t even site the words of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the Sephardic Kabbalistic master known as the Maran who first authored the work. Ironically I’d cite the words of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserelis – who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses to the work:

“I have placed Hashem before me

at all times:”

This is a paramount principal

of the Torah

and attribute of the steps of the righteous

who walk before G-d.

שויתי הלנגדי |

תמיד:” |

הוא כלל גדול |

בתורה |

הורה ובמעלות הצדיקים |

אשר הולכים לפני האלהים: |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

We don’t need to turn far. If we take “the book” when it comes to Jewish practice and turn to the very first reference page and paragraph, and here we have it. This would also be repeated by the Baal haTanya in the Shulchan Aruch haRav, Mehadurah Batra 1:5, just with the quote of our biblical verse at the end instead of being the leading words. According to the “code” the first thing we are supposed to think in our mind at the start of the day is “I have placed Hashem before me at all times.” Here the Rema is himself quoting the Rambam – Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic scholar, master rationalist, and first exhaustive codifier of Jewish law (see Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed 3:4)

Now, there is probably a reason other than just typesetting that explains the juxtaposition when the Baal haTanya repeats this law; to make it clear to his reader that this is a thought and not a statement he moves it to the end and adds the words “k’umo shekavut / as it is written.” He wants his chassidim to know this is a thought, it’s not spoken words. Like it’s written, it remains written but not said. As I have pointed out, when he created his siddur the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L known as Siddur Torah Ohr (the precessor to Siddur Tehillat Hashem) he focused on the spoken words and not the meditations. However, if you look closely, it was not a forgotten point. It just became mentioned in the notes (which are exact quotations from his Shulchan Aruch).

Nusach ARI Z”L as a Process, Not a Possession

And this is primarily the differences between the Nusach ha-Ari (Chabad) tradition and the Nusach ARI Z”L siddurim of either Sephardic or other Chassidic origins. The nusach of the Sephardim/Mizrahim and other Chassidim have been heavily influenced by the teachings of the ARI Z”L and following his teachings so their prayers are Nusach ARI in their own right as well. However these other texts tend to contain many meditations and silent things that are not meant to be spoken out loud, and contain local variances and customs. This pretty much sums up the differences. The ARI Z”L never wrote a siddur of his own, and for that matter never wrote any writings for himself. Instead we learn of his wisdom through his student Rabbi Chaim Vittal and his other disciples, so we all just copy his teachings. Thus no one can lay claim to having “the” Nusach ARI. The Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L is a way, not a thing.

I say all of this because as we start to step into the study of the siddur I am going to be presenting the text according to the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L. This is most often going to be based on the text of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, the text I have adopted and utilize in my daily prayers. Though at other time I will mention the Nusach Edut haMizrach, the tradition of the Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews; which is my tradition by birth. I do this to be intellectually honest, I can only share what I know. This is what I understand so that’s all I feel free talking about. But I will try to touch on other unique aspects of the different traditions when possible. But I hope we all understand that when we talk about the siddur we are talking about a growing and living thing that we all need to be flexible and giving towards. Because it’s something different to us all. And that is okay and possible, without compromising anything! Nachon, got it?

The Kavannah: How to Sheviti Hashem

Now on to the fun part. As we have discussed, the generally universal tradition today is to always start our day with a prayer of thanks; this is the Modeh Ani. It is the custom to not open one’s eyes nor say any other word in the morning until we give thanks. But we don’t say any Divine Name until we wash out of respect of G-d and in respect of our need for self-care right away. However, before we open our eyes it is a good practice for us to mentally make ourselves aware that Hashem is before us at all times. We can even visualize the Four-Letter Name (יהוה), but not say it. This is something we should all be able to agree on, it is appropriate.

But why should we do it? If it’s a kavannah – an intention – what is it’s purpose? What do we want to achieve or recognize by this? To find the answer lets continue looking at the text of the Shulchan Aruch:

“For the manner that a person sits,

moves and conducts himself

when he is alone in his house,

is not the manner one sits, moves and deals

when before the presence of a great king.

Likewise, in the way one chats openly as

he wishes while he is among his household

and relatives, is not the same way as when

he speaks in the court of a king.

How much more, if a man strongly takes

to heart that the great king,

The Holy One, blessed be He,

whom the whole earth is filled with His glory,

stands over him and observes his deeds.

As it says, “If a person hides

out of sight, will I not see him” says Hashem.

[Considering] this he will respect

and surrender to awe

of the Holy One, blessed be He,

and be bashful before Him always.

One should not be ashamed

before people

who mock his service to Hashem.

Even secretly when lying in ones bed

know before whom he is lying.

Immediately arouse oneself from slumber

with agility to serve the

praised and exalted Creator.”

כי אין ישיבת האדם |

ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לבדו בביתו, |

כישיבתו ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לפני מלך גדול; |

ולא דיבורו והרחבת פיו |

כרצונו, והוא עם אנשי ביתו |

וקרוביו, כדיבורו |

במושב המלך. |

כל שכן, כשישים האדם אל |

ליבו שהמלך הגדול, |

הקבה |

אשר מלא כל הארץ כבודו, |

עומד עליו ורואה במעשיו, |

כמו שנאמר: “אם יסתר איש |

במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה‘”, |

מיד יגיע אליו היראה |

וההכנעה בפחד |

השית |

ובושתו ממנו תמיד. |

ולא יתבייש |

מפני בני אדם |

המלעיגים עליו בעבודת השית. |

גם בהצנע לכת בשכבו על משכבו |

ידע לפני מי הוא שוכב |

ומיד שיעור משנתו, |

יקום בזריזות לעבודת |

בוראו יתברך ויתעלה |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

The Rema, does such a great job of explaining this concept so it’s hard to top that. But he gives us a lot to think about. Everyday as we consider this the meaning of it grows. Let’s take a few minutes to walk through some of these thoughts together, these are just a few ideas of what we can think about:

Make The Name of G-d Apparent – even before we have opened our eyes or moved to get up we are to think about G-d. Placing G-d before us means that we make a mental commitment to act as though we are in the presence of G-d. Just like if we were in the presence of a king or judge we would want to behave becomingly, we should recognize our lives are watched over by G-d. This comes with a benefit, on one hand we have G-d looking out for us to administer liberty and justice. But we also have a responsibility, to recognize that G-d demands that we behave as decent people in our dealings even when we think that no one else is watching. Before we open our eyes, we determine to behave as noble and dignified people in our dealings; both in public and private. If we can do it in our private lives we won’t have slip ups of bad actions in public.

Choosing to Use Noble Speech – what’s funny about the wording that the Shulchan Aruch uses is that it describes a person that is in their own home, among their own guests and surrounded by their own family and feeling free to speak openly he just “blabs” with his mouth widely letting loose whatever he feels like without regard. Before we say a single word we determine to employ noble and becoming speech. One of the terrible things about lishon hara – evil speech – is that most of us would never allow ourselves to say the types of things publicly that we say privately, we would be too ashamed. So we should think about being in the presence of the greatest King, G-d Himself, then we would watch what comes out of our mouth and speak in a dignified way. This means, even in the way we speak to ourselves in our thoughts. Think about it, some of us say demeaning things about ourselves that we are too considerate to ever say to another human being

Consider Where G-d Is At In Our Lives – the entire world is filled with G-d. We understand, in kabbalistic principal, that G-d is the Ain Sof; without limits, without end. But that also means that though G-d is not one thing or a person, His very sustenance and glory fill the entire universe. G-d’s glory exists in everything and everywhere, no matter how much any of us try to take credit or mold things our way. We need to consider that there is nothing outside of His realm of influence or where His rules of goodness need not apply. We need to think, how would we act if G-d was a person standing over us and observing our deeds? It’s not that G-d is watching over us like a prison guard waiting for us to slip up. Actually, the relationship is one in which G-d is given credit for everything we enjoy and every opportunity we have through a blessing. In order for us to do something that is wrong most people out of seeming shame decide that they will not say inappropriate blessing for whatever action or item they are illicitly enjoying. But just because we don’t mention G-d doesn’t mean His ways don’t exist; that’s as silly as pretending your spouse doesn’t existing if you turn around their portrait. We should discipline ourselves to know that godliness is displayed through creation, progress, wisdom, prosperity, etc. Everything we see is a manifestation of G-d’s order, if we understood that then everything we see will begin to remind us of G-d and His ways.

Be Bashful Before G-d – often times when people speak in the English vernacular we refer to this concept as being “ashamed before G-d.” Though this is not a mistranslation, it’s not exactly a one-for-one rendering. Even before we get up out of bed and out of the sheets we need to understand that we are completely exposed before G-d. But its more than that. As we begin to engage in our daily needs and we assess the day we can stand amazed at how brilliant the Creator is. Everything we begin to do and enjoy has blessings traditionally associated with them. Sometimes the truth of it just hits us, we just have to say “wow, it really is amazing that all these things necessary for life work out for me day after day.” Life is a complex function, with many dependencies for us to just to wake up let alone get through the day. G-d  is called Chai haOlamim – The Life of the Worlds – all the universe and  life within it is an extension of Him and sustained by His will. Even us. We are just a small part of this big universe, yet even as simple people we benefit from so much that we can be humbled. We feel so small before G-d and the universe that we become like a child with a surprise gift that is so bashful for being remembered that they want to hide shyly. We should always try to retain this type of wonder with the world.

But Don’t Be Ashamed Before Men – even before we move from bed, to get out from under the sheets we make a conscious choice to not feel embarrassed or foolish for our wonder of life and our respect to honor the little things in life, realizing that all these small things when they come together make our world so much better. There is nothing mature or smart about taking for granted the gift of life and the wonders of the world as the self-proclaimed intellectuals of our age like to flippantly do. They say that nothing you do as an individual matters that much. Some suggest that religious people thinking G-d considers their needs and betterment to be egotistical. Others suggest a faithful person is needlessly groveling and that his humility is a sign of mental weakness. Either way, it can be hard to face the world some days because people are so jaded that many will attack your devotion for reasons of humility or ego; you just can’t do anything right. But we aren’t supposed to hide from the world, we are called to transform it. That mean’s we also aren’t to conceal our service to G-d and pride in being our true selves, because it is through those things that we exemplify the truth of our values. Our actions speak louder than words.

Wake Up With Enthusiasm – if we really took to heart the idea that G-d watches over us then we would realize that we are laying before the Great King. Just as people jump up from bed with excitement if an important guest suddenly showed up, we need to wake to the day in order to serve G-d. We wouldn’t leave a king waiting at the foot of our bed, no we would jump up quickly and honored to be of service. How do we do accomplish this? By arousing ourselves to get up and wake the day. It means more than just getting up. The battle of our day starts even before we open our eyes or say a word, it starts when we actually wake. We should arouse ourselves to wake with all the agility and excitement that a youth would show toward their beloved.

When we begin the day by placing Hashem before us we recognize that G-d is present. As the day and world unfolds before us we begin to see that G-d is present in the world, in our deeds, and in our happenings. If we want to encounter G-d then we need to get up and see Him in action. As we lay there without saying a word we begin to arouse ourselves to rise up and meet G-d where He is, emulating G-d’s passion to be active in the world. This gives meaning to the scriptures when it says “has kol basar mif’neh Hashem ki naior mim’on kadsho / be silent all flesh before Hashem, for He is aroused out of His holy habitation.” (Zechariah 2:17)

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Sefirat haOmer: The Kavanah of Psalm 67


To Focus on a Purpose Greater Than Us Alone

The counting of the omer is one of the most mystical rituals in Judaism. It’s reflection on the elements of burnt offerings, as with all offerings and sacrifices, has been interpreted as a symbol of spiritual elevation. Both the topics of sacrifice and ecstatic spirituality so much turned off modern and “enlightened” people that many communities had abandoned the omer all together. Interestingly though, in recent years the resurgence of interest in mysticism has caused such a demand for these type of prayers that you will now find them in the siddurim (prayerbooks) of just about every movement of Judaism. The other prayer making an amazing comeback is the Ana Bekoach, which is usually paired closely with Psalm 67 in Chassidic and Sephardic siddurim.

The Ari z”l himself instituted the inclusion of Psalm 67 and the Ana Bekoach into the daily prayers and when performing special mitzvot. However, the method that was related from the Ari z”l through his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital in how to recite these prayers was presenting in very detailed kavannot (focused mediation) that were very complicated and involved. Psalm 67 is a great example, because the method most often used to meditation on this verse was not to just read the text, but instead to imagine the 49 words being a 7 branched menorah, with each of the 7 branches containing a verse of the Psalm. Each of the branches relates to one of the 7 sefirot that are active in the physical world, just as with each of the 7 lines of the Ana Bekoach does as well.

The Nusach Arizal as presented by The Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – though it is a kabbalistic prayerbook, was purposefully freed of nearly all the kavannot in order to focus on creating a prayerbook that was appropriate for users of all skill levels. Complicated diagrams and pages of meditation material interspersed within selections of actual prayers were put to rest. Instead his text was complete yet concise, as well as clear and understandable as a true liturgical work. Though the Baal haTanya did not include the meditating upon the form of the menorah, he did prescribe a reading of Psalm 67 and some interesting kavannot relating to it. What made these kavannot so meaningful that he felt compelled to include them?

It is quite standard for most traditional siddurim to include the reflection upon the names of the sefirot relating to the day. Less common is the meditation of assigning one of the word or names of the Ana Bekoach to each day, though this sometimes appears in the Sephardic and oriental texts. However, in addition to including a plain reading of Psalm 67 after the counting of the omer, along with the prescribed words for declaring the day’s count one is also provided one word of the psalm and one letter of verse 5. Psalm 67 contains 49 words, and verse 5 of that same chapter contains 49 letters. There are 49 days counted in the sefirah period, so each day one focuses on one pieces of the picture for what we hope to achieve during this time of personal reflection.

When it comes to the reason this chapter and this verse is chosen for meditation, the reason does not appear as clear as the reason we include the Ana Bekoach which contains supplications for the removal of sin and purification. This is in line with the tone of the season. Instead Psalms 67 starts out with a request, not a humble confession that we would normally expect during a season of personal refinement. We read the words:

“G-d be gracious to us, and bless us;

May he cause his face to shine upon us.

Selah.”

| Elohim y’chanainu viybar’cheinu;

| ya’air panav itanu

| selah.

Psalms 67:2

Now lets looks at verse five alone. When we read it we find something seemingly completely unrelated at first glance:

“The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For you will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.

Selah.”

| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| selah..

Psalms 67:5

Here we see that this second meditation, upon verse five, seems to be a related to conceptualizing human equality and the pursuit of happiness. So we have prayer for the blessings of the nation of Israel, and a reflection upon the goal of universal betterment. For a start, we see that it is a good practice to be as concerned about the welfare of all people just as much as we are concerned for ourselves. It is balanced.

That’s a nice idea, and rings true. However, the message goes deeper than that, as it is clear if we read the rest of the chapter in context. Yes, this request seems different in tone than we would expect. But it is not a a brazen request for divine favor just for the purpose of our own security. If your asking yourself why this request of verse 2 is so bold, we find our reason in the next immediate verse. It also answers for us why we find ourselves considering the People of Israel, as well as all the nations of the earth in these meditations. It asks for blessing for a special reason:

“To make Your way known upon the earth,

and your salvation among all the nations.

| Ladaat ba’aretz dar’kehcha;

| b’chol goyim, yishuatecha.

Psalms 67:3

The topics are not unrelated. They are completely related because we are people in need of blessing, just like the rest of the nations of the earth. However, it asks for blessing for Israel not merely for our own contentment but in order to enable us to make the ways of godliness known to the people of the world. It asks for blessings so we can share it with others and model graciousness. We ask for the face of G-d to shine upon us so that it can reflect off us, that we be spotlighted as an example of salvation.

There are plenty of people out there who say that this dream is impossible to achieve, and therefore foolish to consider. But being able to show this truth through the example of our own experience is the type of truth people cannot easily deny. In fact we see a few times in verses 4 and 7 that when this happens the people will then be able to “yoducha” which means to admit and acknowledge, as well as give thanks. That people will see the goodness of this way of godliness for themselves though our lives. Then the nations will even become glad, knowing that there is hope for themselves.

So the request isn’t as self-centered as it sounds. It’s not necessarily a request for prosperity or even success, you will never find such hopes directly expressed anywhere in this chapter. What it does ask for is for us to be blessed, which we all know in Hebrew means to be set apart for a special purpose. When we bless something we take an ordinary thing, and by doing a special mitzvah with this object the item becomes special because it was a part of doing something sacred. The item was ordinary before, but now merely because it was used to do something special it becomes recognized and designated for that special purpose. This item isn’t better, it’s just purposeful now and worthy of being respected accordingly. How can I be certain of this? Near the end of this short chapter we read,

“The earth has yielded her produce,

May G-d, our own G-d, bless us.”

| Aretz, nat’ena y’volah;

| y’evracheinu elohim eloheinu.

Psalms 67:7

Now we have a good clue as to why this verse is appropriate for this season of harvest, because it references this good fortune of the reaping already taking place. And yet it still asks for being blessed, which only makes sense in the classical sense of being consecrated and not according to the misconception of blessing as random fortune.

When we think about it this way, these meditations become a beautiful way of looking at why we are going through this time of personal reflection and development during the omer period. The reason the children of Israel went through this process of development for the 49 days after the exodus was to be prepared to receive the Torah. We all know and recognize that. But what we are doing here in these meditations is deeply focusing on the reality that the Jewish people are blessed with Torah in order that all the peoples of the world benefit from it.

The two meditations, one for blessing Israel and the other for the betterment of the nations of the world are not unrelated. This is what our purpose should be, to be worth of being blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Our fate is very much tied to that of the rest of the people on the earth, so we need to get serious about becoming better people because we aren’t the only people that need to benefit from our enrichment. During this season we become better people so we can be better to others! That’s why the last verse sums it up simply:

“Bless us, our G-d;

so that all the ends of the earth will be amazed by you.”

| Yebar’chainu elohim;

| veyir’u oto, kol af’sei aretz.

Psalms 67:7

It is very easy for us to just scan Psalm 67 and quickly dismiss it as arrogant and nationalistic. Or we might lazily just look at it, then simply conclude that their incorporation into the siddur was only because the body of the text has 49 words and coincidentally a verse with 49 letters as well; just like the sefirah period counts 49 days. Though others might say it was just a pretty random pick, chosen because it quickly mentions the reaping of the earth’s produce. That might be an easy assumptions for scholars and even some general Hebrew speakers I suppose, because a simple reading brought these ideas to mind even for me. First, read it all; be patient with the process. Second, remember that as people who practice Judaism everything we read has to be thought of as a way to help us make tikkun olam – reparation of the world. If it doesn’t then we are reading it wrong!

During the Sefirat haOmer we have a moment everyday for nearly 50 days to pursue personal growth in order to be a better example of goodness, and be a favorable display of Torah powered chesed (kindness, goodness). If we follow through we are assured results that will amaze everyone, maybe even ourselves!

Ready to make it happen? You can download the blessings for the Sefirat haOmer hosted HERE or also graciously hosted  by The Open Siddur Project HERE, as well as find all other related liturgical transcriptions.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

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The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count


Download: The Blessings for the Omer

As we enter the spring holiday season we begin a journey of the soul with the Sefirat haOmer – the counting of the sheaves. From the second day of Pesach until the night before Shavuot we engage in the Biblical mitzvah of counting the omer (Leviticus 23:15-16). From this day on the people could begin enjoying the fruits of the spring harvest, which was recognized by offering up barley in the Temple for 49 days. On the 50th day from Pesach the harvest of new wheat would be brought to the Temple and offered up as a grand culmination to this seven week period of celebration (Deuteronomy 6:9-10).

What was so special about this return to offering fine wheat flour in the Temple that the people would wait in vigil for it’s ripening and feel moved to celebrate it? Though barley was an important grain that the nation relied upon, it was not the choicest of grains. Barley was most often used as feed for animals. However wheat was the main food staple for humans. During the Exodus the barley took on the symbol of being coarse and unrefined, it reminded people of their animistic urges. Conversely wheat represented finer characteristics of human dignity and civility, which we should all desire to have.

Though we no longer offer meal offerings in the Holy Temple, we nonetheless still recognize this period for personal accounting for our souls. We try to refine our personal midot (traits, habits) in preparation for the receiving of the Torah, which is commemorated on Shavuot.

If we don’t actually offer or weight out any grains, why do we still count it? In Psalm 90, a psalm attributed to Moses, we see the most interesting request asked of G-d:

Teach us to count our days, that we may acquire a heart

of wisdom.”

| Limanot yameinu, kein hodah; v’navi, l’vav

| chachmah

Psalms 90:12

Our sages teach us that the children of Israel were brought out of Egypt for the purpose of receiving the Torah. If Pesach is the celebration of our liberation, then Shavuot is the celebration of our receiving the Torah as our constitution. It wasn’t enough for G-d to set us free, He also gave us a new way of life with liberties spelled out in the Torah. During the seven week sefirah period the people anxiously awaited the giving of this Torah, counting down the days in restless anticipation and engaging in self-development in order to be worthy of receiving this great gift.

Ibn Ezra tells us that not only are we taught by this verse to count the days, we are also shown the principal that wise people make each day count. Everyday we should do a little bit of work on improving ourselves.

During each week of the omer period we focus one of the seven sefirot (Divine Forces of G-d’s Nature) that are active in the physical world. Each day of the week we focus on one specific attribute of these sefirot, to focus on correcting one small part of our character. Self-development doesn’t require one to focus on lofty and ethereal concepts, nor does it demand grueling struggle. All we need to do is decide to make real world improvements in our character, a little bit each day.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!


Prayers for The Three Festivals – Shelosh Regalim


Prayers for The Three Festivals
Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot

Download: Prayers for The Three Festivals

As part of my ongoing commitment to transcribe the Nusach Arizal (Chabad) liturgy, I am pleased to present the prayers for the Shelosh Regalim – the three pilgrimage festivals.  This text contains the Festival and Chol haMoed Amidah, Mussaf, Kiddush, and additional learning material for Mincha (The Pesach Offering). This text also includes Yikzor (Memorial Prayers for the Departed) and the Birkat Kohanim (The Priestly Blessing for Festivals – The Duchan).

You can download the PDF, ODT or TXT version HERE at the Open Siddur Project, as well as find the rest of the related Nusach haAri transcriptions generously hosted by them.

As we move into the holiday season we are actually beginning the “spiritual new year,” it is my hope that all of us find new joy and meaning in this “zman cheiruteinu,” the season of our freedom.

I wish you all a happy and kosher pesach!

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!


Blessings for the Megillat Esther


Download: Blessings for the Megillah Reading

We are quickly coming upon the Jewish holidays, we enter in the season of joy and celebration with the commemoration of the salvation of the Jewish people during the Persian empire at the time of Queen Esther; in the celebration of Purim. Here are the blessings according to the Nusach Arizal (Chabad) for the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther.

I find the story of Purim to be an especially moving in the modern era. Let’s think about it for a second.

Here is a story about someone that is anti-semetic, specifically because he hated one person in particular; Haman hated Mordechi, who was a Jew. But his hatred grew until his way of getting his satisfaction encompassed the slaughter of the entire Jewish people. So often in my experience I have seen that  hatred starts with a grudge against just one person, and as the hatred grows so does that blind spot until just about anything is justifiable.

The actions Haman took against the Jewish people was not an overt attack, it was an attack under the auspices of lawfulness and good citizenship. All his acts were wrapped in insincerity that cared for no one’s interest but that of Haman and his ego.

The Megillah at Matan

The Megillah at Matan (Photo credit: RahelSharon)

The reading of the megillah should really ring true for the modern reader and even for the non-religious. Quite notably, there is not a single mention to the Divine Name in the whole of Megillat Esther. It is not a book about waiting for Divine intervention. It’s not about long religious discussions. It’s about someone standing up and saying “your not just talking about some abstract idea, your talking about me because I’m a Jew.” Queen Esther stands up and makes it known that Jews are a part of the society and contribute on every level to the betterment of the world, including in the royal house itself with her presence.

In this way G-d’s salvation does not come through some supernatural act. Nor did it come by the hand of the the highly religious and pious. It does not mean that G-d is not there in our distress, nor that the religious are ineffective. It’s that G-d needed someone with special skills to be willing to  partner with Him and bring reason to the situation. Salvation came though Hashem giving the opportunity and the fortitude of spirit to one person to stand up, come out of the closet and be counted.

We all, no matter what our level of observance is, have a role in being the voice of godliness and humanity in this world. I believe this is the lesson of what it means to be a Jew, and why in this book we see the term yehudi (Jew) used for the first time in the scriptures.

May G-d comfort the mourners of Israel, and may His Nation remember for blessing the souls of the Fogel family; Udi (36) and Ruth (35), children Yoav (11), Elad (4), and baby Hadas (1 month old); and bind the wounds of those surviving children Tamar (12), Roi (8) and Yishai (2).


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