Taking out the Sefer Torah
The Mishkan surrounds the Aron, which contains the Torah…
Question #1: Confused genealogist asks: Which?
Which Keil erech apayim should I say?
Question #2: Caring husband/son asks: Who?
My wife is due to give birth shortly, and I am saying kaddish for my father. On the days that the Torah is read, should I lead the davening (“daven in front of the amud”), open the aron hakodesh, or do both?
Question #3: Concerned davener asks: When?
When do I recite Berich She’mei?
Prior to taking the sefer Torah out of the aron hakodesh, various prayers are recited, all of which have been part of our liturgy for many hundreds of years. This article will discuss the background and many of the halachos of these prayers.
Reading the Torah, which is a mitzvah miderabbanan, is actually the earliest takkanas chachamim that was ever made. It was instituted by Moshe Rabbeinu in his capacity as a community leader, which placed on him the responsibility of creating takkanos when necessary. As a matter of fact, one of Moshe Rabbeinu’s names is Avigdor, which refers to his role as the one who created fences to protect the Jewish people )see Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 1:3(. In this instance, after he saw what happened at Refidim (see Shemos 17:1), he realized that three days should not go by without an organized studying of the Torah. Therefore, he instituted that the Torah be read every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos (Bava Kamma 82a; Rambam, Hilchos Tefillah 12:1).
Over a thousand years later, Ezra expanded this takkanah to include a reading on Shabbos Mincha, in order to provide those who did not study Torah regularly an extra boost of Torah learning. Ezra also instituted that when the Torah is read, three people are called up, each aliyah contains at least three pesukim, and the entire reading should be a minimum of ten pesukim. (There is one exception to this last rule — on Purim, we read the story of Vayavo Amaleik that is exactly nine pesukim. This is because the topics both before and after this section have nothing to do with the Amaleik incident, and it is therefore better to keep the reading focused rather than add an extra posuk.)
Keil erech apayim
On weekdays, prior to removing the sefer Torah on days that tachanun is recited, we say a short prayer that begins with the words, Keil erech apayim, “Hashem, You who are slow to anger and are full of kindness and truth, do not chastise us in Your anger! Hashem, have mercy on Your people (Israel), and save us (hoshi’einu)from all evil! We have sinned to You, our Master; forgive us, in keeping with Your tremendous compassion, O, Hashem.” The prayer Keil erech apayim should be said standing, because it includes a brief viduy, confession, and halacha requires that viduy be recited standing (Magen Avraham, introduction to Orach Chayim 134).
Am I German or a Pole?
In virtually every siddur I have seen, two slightly variant texts are cited, the one I quoted above, which is usually recorded as the “German custom” or “German version” and a slightly variant version described as the “Polish version.” Some siddurim provide greater detail, presenting the “first” version as the “custom of western Germany, Bohemia and parts of ‘lesser’ Poland,” and the “second” version, as the “custom of ‘greater’ Poland.” In one siddur, I saw the an even more detailed, halachic explanation, describing the “first” version as the custom of the areas in and near “western Germany, Prague, Lublin and Cracow,” and the second text for the areas around “Posen and Warsaw.”
But, if your family came from somewhere other than Germany, the Czech Republic (where Bohemia and Prague are located) or Poland, which one do you recite? Many people are bothered by this question, myself included, since my father was born in Ukraine, as were all my grandparents and greatgrandparents on his side of the family, and my mother’s side of the family was from Lithuania.
A more intriguing question is that both versions of this prayer are in eidot hamizrah siddurim, and their custom is to recite both, “German” version first. I found this or a similar custom mentioned in several rishonim from very different times and places – in the Machzor Vitri, of 11th century France, the Kol Bo of 13th century Provence, and the
Avudraham of 14th century Spain. Some rishonim record a custom of reciting both versions, but having the chazzan recite the first and the community respond with the second (Machzor Vitri). According to either of these approaches, the question is why recite both prayers, since they are almost identical.
The answer given by the Machzor Vitri is that the first version uses the word hoshi’einu whereas the second uses the word hatzileinu. Both of these words translate into English as “Save us.” However, their meaning is not the same; hoshi’einu implies a permanent salvation, whereas hatzileinu is used for a solution to a short-term problem. The Machzor Vitri, therefore, explains that the first prayer is that Hashem end our galus. After asking for this, we then ask that, in the interim, He save us from our temporary tzoros, while we are still in galus.
The facts that these prayers are in both Ashkenazic and Eidot hamizrah siddurim, and that rishonim of very distant places and eras are familiar with two different versions, indicate that these prayers date back earlier, presumably at least to the era of the ge’onim. Clearly, although our siddur refers to a “German custom” and a “Polishcustom,” both versions were known before a Jewish community existed in Poland – earlier than when the words “Polish custom” could mean anything associated with Jews!
In some communities, reading of the Torah is introduced by reciting various pesukim of Tanach, the first of which is Atah hor’eisa loda’as ki Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim, ein od milevado, “You are the ones who have been shown to know that Hashem is The G-d, and there is nothing else besides Him” (Devorim 4:35). The practice among Ashkenazim is to recite the pesukim beginning with Atah hor’eisa as an introduction to kerias haTorah only on Simchas Torah. However, in eidot hamizrah practice, Atah hor’eisa is recited every Shabbos, just before the aron is opened, and a shortened version is recited any time that tachanun is not said. (Essentially, these pesukim are said instead of Keil erech apayim, which is only recited on days that tachanun is said.)
According to the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai, as many pesukim should be recited as people who will be called to the Torah that day. Therefore, on Shabbos, the posuk, Atah hor’eisa, is the first of eight pesukim; on Yom Tov, the first two pesukim, including the posuk that beings with the words Atah hor’eisa, are omitted (Ben Ish Chai year II, parshas Tolados, #15). On weekdays when no tachanun is recited, only three pesukim are recited, beginning with the posuk, yehi Hashem Elokeinu imanu ka’asher hayah im avoseinu, al yaaz’veinu ve’al yi’tesheinu (Melachim I 8:57). The Ben Ish Chai emphasizes that, apparently because of a kabbalistic reason, it is incorrect to recite more pesukim than the number of people who will be called to the Torah that day. Most, but not all, eidot hamizrah communities follow this approach today.
Opening the aron
Having completed the recital of either Keil erech apayim, Atah hor’eisa, neither or both, the aron hakodesh is opened. The poskim rule that the aron hakodesh should not be opened by the chazzan, but by a different person, who also removes the sefer Torah. (In some minhagim this is divided between two honorees, one who opens the aron hakodesh and one who takes out the sefer Torah.) The chazzan himself should not remove the sefer Torah from the aron hakodesh, as it is a kavod for the sefer Torah that someone else remove it from the aron and hand it to the chazzan. The honor is in that the extra people involved create more pomp and ceremony with which to honor the reading of the Torah (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 282:1, based on Mishnah, Yoma 68b).
A minhag has developed recently that the husband of a woman who is in the ninth month of pregnancy should open the aron hakodesh and close it, afterward. The idea that opening the aron is a segulah for a smooth and easy opening of the womb is recorded in eidot hamizrah kabbalistic authorities (Chida in Moreh Be’etzba 3:90; Rav Chayim Falagi in Sefer Chayim 1:5(. To the best of my knowledge, this custom was unheard of among Ashkenazim until the last thirty or so years. As I see it, this custom has value in that it might ameliorate a husband’s feelings that he is at least doing something to assist his poor wife when she goes through highly uncomfortable contractions. And, it also makes his wife feel that he did something for her, so there may be a sholom bayis benefit. As to whether there is any segulah attached to this practice, I will leave that for the individual to discuss with his own rav or posek.
At this point, let us address the second of our opening questions:
“My wife is due to give birth shortly, and I am saying kaddish for my father. On the days that the Torah is read, should I lead the davening (“daven in front of the amud”), open the aron hakodesh, or do both?”
Let me explain the question being asked. Well-established practice is that an aveil davens in front of the amud (leads the services) on days other than Shabbos or Yom Tov as a merit for his late parent. (There are many variant practices concerning which days are considered a “Yom Tov” for these purposes; discussion of this issue will be left for another time.) Based on the above information, our very caring husband/son is asking: since he should not take both honors of leading the services and of opening the aron hakodesh, which honor should he take?
In my opinion, he should lead the services, which is a custom going back hundreds of years, whereas the custom of taking the sefer Torah out of the aron hakodesh is mentioned much more recently, and was not even practiced by Ashkenazim until a few years ago. However, I will leave it to the individual to discuss this issue with his rav or posek.
At this point, we can discuss the third of our opening questions: “When do I recite Berich She’mei?”
The Aramaic words of Berich She’mei comprise a prayer that is recorded in the Zohar (parshas Vayakheil). When we trace back the customs on which days this prayer is recited, we find many different practices:
1. Recite it only before Shabbos Mincha reading.
2. Recite it on Shabbos at both morning and Mincha readings.
3. Recite it not only on Shabbos, but also on Yom Tov.
4. Recite it on Shabbos, Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh, but not on weekdays or fast days (other than Yom Kippur).
5. Recite it whenever the Torah is read.
6. A completely opposite custom — never recite it at all.
Allow me to explain the origins of these various practices.
1. Only Shabbos Mincha
Although I saw different sources mention this practice, I did not see any explanation.
I can humbly suggest two possible reasons for this custom. One is that since the kerias hatorah of Shabbos Mincha was not part of the original takkanah of Moshe, but was established subsequently to provide those who did not learn Torah during the week the opportunity to study some extra Torah while they were in shul for davening, the kerias hatorah represents the entire Jewish people studying Torah together, creating a level of kedusha that justifies recital of the beautiful prayer of Berich She’mei.
Another option: Shabbos has three levels of sanctity, Friday evening, Shabbos morning and Shabbos afternoon. There are several ramifications of these differences, including that the central part of the three shemoneh esrei tefilos of Shabbos — Maariv, Shacharis and Mincha — are three completing different prayers (as opposed to all other days when the main parts of these three tefilos are identical). These three tefilos represent three historical Shabbosos and their spiritual ramifications:
(1) Maariv, or, more accurately, the Friday evening part of Shabbos, represents the Shabbos of creation.
(2) Shabbos morning represents the Shabbos of the giving of the Torah.
(3) Shabbos afternoon represents the future Shabbos of the post-redemption world.
These three aspects manifest themselves also in the three meals of Shabbos, and, for this reason, seudah shelishis is traditionally approached as having the pinnacle of spirituality. This explains why Shabbos Mincha is the time that the prayer, Berich She’mei, specifically addresses.
2. Only Shabbos, but both morning and Mincha
This approach is quoted in the name of the Arizal – presumably, it has to do with a level of kedusha that exists only on Shabbos. (See also Magen Avraham, introduction to 282).
3. Only Shabbos and Yom Tov
4. Only Shabbos, Yom Tov and Rosh Chodesh
These two customs are both based on the concept that Berich She’mei should not be recited on a weekday, but is meant for a day when there is special sanctity. This is based on the words in Berich She’mei, Berich kisrach,“May Your crown be blessed.” In kabbalistic concepts, we praise Hashem in this special way only on Shabbos and Yomim Tovim, and that is why the kedusha in nusach Sefard for Musaf begins with the words keser yitnu, which refers to Hashem’s crown.
I saw this practice quoted in the name of the Arizal and the Chida, and most eidot hamizrah siddurim include Berich She’mei prior to the Shabbos and Yom Tov readings, but not prior to weekday reading.
Many authorities note that those who follow this practice regarding Berich She’mei should also recite it on Rosh Chodesh, since the practice is to recite the words keser yitnu also as part of the kedusha of Rosh Chodesh (Ben Ish Chai year II, parshas Tolados, #15).
This is the common practice among Ashkenazim and in nusach Sefard (Elyah Rabbah, 141; Be’er Heiteiv, Pri Megadim, Machatzis Hashekel, Mishnah Berurah; all at beginning of 282).
The Seder Hayom, an early Sefardic kabbalist, mentions the laws of reciting Berich She’mei when he discusses the laws of reading the Torah on weekdays. From this, the Elyah Rabbah (134:4) notes that the Seder Hayom appears to hold that Berich She’mei should be recited whenever the sefer Torah is taken out of the aron hakodesh. In other words, he disagrees with the approach followed by the other mekubalim mentioned, the Arizal and the Chida.
6. Not at all
In some communities in Germany, the practice was not to recite Berich She’mei at all. There appears to be a historical reason why not, based on the words of the prayer Berich She’mei itself, which states, lo al bar elohin samichna, “We do not rely on the ‘sons of G-d.’” Apparently, some of Shabsai Tzvi’s proponents claimed that the term “sons of G-d” alluded to Shabsai Tzvi, and, for this reason, it was decided to omit the entire prayer. Several sources quote this position in the name of the Noda BeYehudah, although I have been unable to find any place where he wrote this. It is certain that the Noda BeYehudah was strongly opposed to the introduction of kabbalistic ideas into our tefilos; for example, he attacks very stridently the custom, which he refers to as “recently introduced and very wrong,” of reciting lesheim yichud prior to fulfilling mitzvos (Shu’t Noda BeYehudah Orach Chayim 2:107; Yoreh Deah #93).
Those who do recite Berich She’mei assume that this term bar elohin refers to the angels, and they certainly exist, just as it is certain that it is prohibited to pray to them.
When to say it?
When is the best time to recite the prayer Berich She’mei? In a teshuvah on this subject, Rav Moshe Feinstein notes that the Zohar prayer does not mention specifically whether it should be said before the Torah is removed from the aron hakodesh or afterward. However, the Sha’ar Efrayim,authored by Rav Efrayim Zalman Margoliyos, one of the great early nineteenth century poskim, rules that the optimal time to recite Berich She’mei is after the sefer Torah has been removed from the aron hakodesh, and this is the conclusion that Rav Moshe reaches. In other words, it is preferred that the person being honored with taking the sefer Torah out of the aron hakodesh should do so as soon as practical, and then hold the sefer Torah while Berich She’mei is recited. Someone who was unable to recite Berich She’mei then, can still say it until the sefer Torah is opened to lein (Seder Hayom, quoted by Elyah Rabbah 134:4).
In the introduction to Sefer Hachinuch, the author writes that the main mitzvah upon which all the other mitzvos rest is that of Talmud Torah. Through Torah learning, a person will know how to fulfill all of the other mitzvos. That is why Chazal instituted a public reading of a portion of the Torah every Shabbos, twice, and on Mondays and Thursdays. Knowing that the proper observance of all the mitzvos is contingent on Torah learning, our attention to kerias haTorah will be heightened. According the Torah reading the great respect it is due should increase our sensitivity to the observance of all the mitzvos.