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18.09.2017 15:54    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  holidays  rosh hashana  

“Avinu Malkeinu, for the sake of the martyred”

Why in the prayer Avinu Malkeinu are some of the requests we make of the Lord, “Our Father, our King,” in parentheses?  The answer to this question provides us a glimpse at the way prayers of supplication developed through the years.  From the wide variety of subjects raised by the supplications in this prayer, I shall focus on the evolution of four specific lines:

Our Father, our King, do for the sake of those who were slain for Your holy Name…do for the sake of those who were slaughtered for your Unity…do for the sake of those who went through fire and water for the sanctification of Your Name…avenge before our eyes the blood of Your servants that has been spilt.

The most ancient source for saying Avinu Malkeinu appears in the Talmud (Ta`anit 25b) in connection with praying for rain in time of drought.  First Rabbi Eliezer prayed that it would rain, and his prayers were not answered.  Then “Rabbi Akiva stepped down [before the Ark] and exclaimed, ‘Our Father, our King, we have no King but You; our Father, our King, for Your sake have mercy upon us,’ and rain fell.”

Several centuries later a longer list of entreaties in the form of Avinu Malkeinuappeared, and the question is asked there, “‘Our Father, our King,’ that we recite, is this how it proceeds to be arranged?” (Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Goldschmidt ed., p. 138).  We may conclude from this that Rabbi Akiva’s practice survived for many generations.  This is also attested by Rashi, some two hundred years after Rav Amram Gaon.  He writes: “Avinu Malkeinu has been regularly recited since the time of Rabbi Akiva” (Siddur Rashi, par. 180).

What was it exactly that was said?  We do not know whether or not it was only the original two supplications, “We have no King other than You” and “for Your sake have mercy upon us.”  Rashi says, “When they saw that this prayer was answered, they added to it from day to day, and established it as a prayer for the Days of Repentance” (loc. cit.).  This raises the question whether, as Rashi seems to indicate, these supplications were said daily.  Since we have found no source that says explicitly that they were said daily, we presume that Rashi meant to say that in the wake of the troubles that frequented the Jews other supplications were added, and these were regularly recited during the Days of Repentance.  The earliest formulation of these supplications appears in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, where the prayer is comprised of twenty-five supplications, or twenty-three plus another two in parentheses (according to the Frumkin edition).

Otzar ha-Geonim mentions saying Avinu Malkeinu but does not list the supplications.  Dr. Yaakov Rothschild, in his survey article on the subject, counts the number of lines in different versions.  Rashi’s disciple, Rabbi Simhah of Vitry, has thirty-five supplications in the Vitry Mahzor.  As mentioned, the prayer was founded on Rabbi Akiva’s supplication, and over the generations various other supplications were added as necessary; hence the variety of formulations.

Today Avinu Malkeinu is customarily said in various communities during the Ten Days of Repentance and on public fast days,[1] but it is not clear that this was the practice in the past.  Tur does not mention Avinu Malkeinu being said (Tur, Hilkhot Rosh ha-Shanah, 584).  Beit Yosef makes an interesting comment there: “In several places it is customary to say, ‘Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You,’ after the Amidah prayer on Rosh ha-Shanah.”  Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Karo does not mention saying Avinu Malkeinu (Shulhan Arukh, 584), but Rema notes (loc. cit.): “It is customary to say Avinu Malkeinuaccording to its arrangement” (par. 584.1).  Note, however, that the Shulhan Arukh does mention saying Avinu Malkeinu on the Day of Atonement (622.3).

One of the striking differences between the custom of Ashkenazi communities and that of Yemenite and Edot Mizrah communities is in the four verses mentioned above.  Seder Rav Amram does not have the supplications about those slain and slaughtered, which are first mentioned in the Vitry Mahzor.  Rothschild et al. surmise that these lines were said in the wake of the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, and that as Rashi says, “they added to it from day to day,” apparently for the reason I suggested, namely on account of the troubles facing them daily.  This seems to be the setting for changes in formulation and for the many lines in parentheses, reflecting geographical differences and the nature of the troubles facing the community.

Why, one might ask, were three separate supplications established:  for those slain, for those slaughtered, and for those passing through fire and water?  Rabbi Yedidyah Weil, son of the author of Korban Netanel says (Levushei Badim, Jerusalem 1988, p. 188):

It appears that in times of persecution people would gather, men and women, and slaughter themselves and their sons and daughters, shouting Shema Yisrael so that their soul would depart on Ehad…and this was the prayer, “for the sake of those slaughtered for Your Unity,” since they would slaughter themselves for their monotheistic faith, saying the Lord is one.

In like manner he characterizes each group:  those who were slain, those who were slaughtered, i.e., slaughtering themselves (he brings testimony from the elegies for the Ninth of Ab composed in Ashkenaz), and those who went through fire and water in the First and Second Temple periods.

Rabbi Issachar Shlomo Teichl, martyr and author of the monumental diary, Em ha-Bannim Semehah, characterizes those “slain for Your holy Name,” distinguishing them from those who gave up their souls on “One.”  He writes (Emunah Tzerufah be-Kur ha-Shoah, 2000, Part II, p. 191):

We pray, “for those who were slain for Your holy Name,” i.e., for those who were slain for that alone, for they bear Your holy Name, that is, the name of Israel; for even though they may have sinned, His holy Name is upon them.

Rabbi Avraham Sofer, author of Ktav Sofer, in a Yom Kippur sermon, relates to the formulation in the present—“those who are slain,” not “who were slain.”  I conclude with his remarks to the IDF soldiers who put their lives on the line every day (Ktav Sofer, Jerusalem 2006, p. 52):

But my fellows, there are indeed those who do not pray with full concentration these days, but chat with one another in the middle of the service, at a point where one’s prayers must not be interrupted.  That being so, we have not the merits of prayer to stand us in good stead, so what we have left only to cry out to the Lord, “do for the sake of those who are slain for Your holy Name.  Do for those who are slaughtered,” etc.

This does not mean those who were slain and slaughtered in the past, for then it should have said, “do for those who were slain and were slaughtered,” rather, the intent is that the Lord remember to our merit the righteous of this world—for we are still the Lord’s people—those who stand ready to give up their lives for sanctification of G‑d, like Rabbi Akiva, who wondered all his days, “When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?”  (Berakhot 61b); and like King David, who said in Psalms 43:23:  “It is for Your sake that we are slain all day long.”  Insofar as the Holy One, blessed be He, considers intentions the same as actions, when we pray, “do for those who are slain and are slaughtered,” we are asking that on the merits of those ready to lay down their lives the Lord deliver us, and that He heed our prayers and grant us expiation for our sins.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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