The Significance of Vehu Rachum
“I was once told that there are places in the long Vehu Rachum prayer where one should stop and wait to hear keriyas haTorah. What are they, and why?”
“Why is the prayer Vehu Rachum recited only on Monday and Thursday?”
“In some shullen that I attend, there is often a bang on a shtender with an announcement that today is the yahrzeit of some great rebbe, and therefore we will skip Tachanun. What is the source of this practice?”
This week, since we begin reading about the Mishkan, the forerunner of the Beis Hamikdash, of which it says ki beisi beis tefillah yi’karei, I am sending an article about the special prayer that we say on Mondays and Thursdays that begins with the words Vehu Rachum. The original article was written many years ago for parshas Shemos, and I am including the original introduction.
Our parsha mentions that when the king of Mitzrayim died, vayei’anchu bnei Yisrael min ha’avodah, vayiz’aku, vataal shav’asam el haElokim, that the Jewish people sighed and cried out, and that their cry for help (shav’a) rose to Hashem. Three different terms for prayer are mentioned in this verse. Indeed, the Hebrew language has almost twenty words to describe different types of prayer. This week is a good time to study a special prayer of ours – one that represents a different type of prayer.
What is the significance of the special prayer that begins with the words Vehu Rachum?
Vehu Rachum is the lengthy prayer recited on Monday and Thursday mornings on days when we say Tachanun (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 134:1). There is a very moving story concerning the origin of this prayer. After the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, a boatload of fleeing Jews was captured by a cruel, anti-Semitic ruler. Discovering that they were Jews, he decreed that he would throw them into a fiery furnace, just as Nevuchadnezzar had cast Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship idols.
The unfortunate Jews requested thirty days to prepare themselves for their fate. During those days, one of the older Jews dreamt of a pasuk that mentions the word “ki” twice and the word “lo” three times, but he could not remember it. A wise elder realized that the pasuk was Ki sa’avor bamayim itcha ani, uvaneharos lo yishtefucha. Ki seileich bemo eish lo sikaveh, velehavah lo siv’ar boch, “I will be with you when you pass through water; the rivers will not overcome you. When you pass through fire, you will not be singed, and flame will not burn you” (Yeshayah 43:2). The elder declared that this was clearly a sign from Hashem that just as they had been saved from the sea, so they would be saved from the conflagration.
After thirty days, the wicked ruler ordered that a huge fire be lit, and the old man entered it first. The fire separated into three sections, and three tzaddikim appeared. The first began to recite a prayer to Hashem beginning with the words Vehu Rachum, ending with the words melech chanun verachum attah. (In most printed editions that I have seen, these are the first three paragraphs of the prayer.) The second tzaddik added an additional prayer, beginning with the words Anna melech, chanun verachum, again ending with the words melech chanun verachum attah. (In the siddurim, these are the next two paragraphs of the prayer.) The third tzaddik completed the prayer. The fire remained split in three and no Jews were harmed. The prayers recited by all these three tzaddikim is the Vehu Rachum prayer that we recite on Mondays and Thursdays (Kolbo #18).
We can now answer one of the questions asked above:
“I was once told that there are places in the long Vehu Rachum prayer that one should stop and wait to hear keriyas haTorah. What are they, and why?”
Presumably, it is preferable to stop, if possible, at a place which is the end of one of the original three tefillos.
Why is this prayer recited on Mondays and Thursdays?
What sets apart these days from the rest of the week?
Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second set of luchos on a Thursday, and returned with them forty days later on a Monday. Hashem’s decision to give Moshe these luchos clearly implied that the Jewish people were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. As a result, Monday and Thursday became etched into the calendar as days of repentance and divine favor for the Jewish people. This is why these days are chosen for fasting and special prayers in times of need, such as during a drought or during Bahab, the three fast days observed a few weeks after Pesach and Sukkos.
What is the order after Shemoneh Esrei?
Ashkenazim recite Chapter 6 of Tehillim while “falling Tachanun.” After this, they say the prayer Shomer Yisrael, while still sitting, and then they begin the prayer Va’anachnu lo neida. The first three words, Va’anachnu lo neida, are recited sitting, after which one stands up to recite the rest of the prayer. On Monday and Thursday mornings, Vehu Rachum is recited while standing before Tachanun is begun.
According to Sefardic (Edot HaMizrach) custom, Shemoneh Esrei is followed by Viduy (confession) and then by the Thirteen Attributes of Hashem’s mercy (Hashem, Hashem, Keil, Rachum…). These are both said standing, and then one sits down to recite Chapter 25 of Tehillim, which is the primary part of Tachanun. On Monday and Thursday mornings, the Vehu Rachum prayer is recited after the Tachanun.
In nusach Sefard (the custom of those descended from Eastern European Jewry based on Hassidic influence), Shemoneh Esrei is followed by Viduy and by the Thirteen Attributes of Hashem’s mercy. These are both said standing, after which one sits down to recite Chapter 6 of Tehillim while “falling Tachanun.” This is followed by the prayer Shomer Yisrael, which is said while still sitting, and then by the prayer Va’anachnu lo neida. On Monday and Thursday mornings, the Vehu Rachum is recited between the Thirteen Attributes and Tachanun.
Is it more important to say Vehu Rachum or to say Tachanun?
What happens if there is insufficient time to recite both Vehu Rachum and the rest of the Tachanun together with the tzibur?
It seems that one should recite Tachanun with the tzibur and “Vehu Rachum” after davening.
It should be noted that the commentaries dispute what is included in the takanah of reciting Vehu Rachum. Some contend that the takanah is to say Vehu Rachum, and to say it while standing (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 134:1), whereas others explain that the takanah included only reciting Vehu Rachum, but did not require one to stand (Levush). (They all agree, however, that one should recite Vehu Rachum while standing.)
Vehu Rachum should be treated with the kedusha of the Shemoneh Esrei (Magen Avraham). Therefore, there are those who contend that it should be said quietly (Rama 134:1). However, the Beis Yosef rules that one may say Vehu Rachum aloud, as is the custom of many people.
When do we omit saying Vehu Rachum?
Vehu Rachum is omitted on days that we do not say Tachanun, which include Yomim Tovim and minor festivals.
The Gemara mentions that Tachanun is not recited on Rosh Chodesh (Bava Metzia 59b), because it is considered a minor Yom Tov (see Shibbolei HaLeket).
Why is Tachanun omitted on Yomim Tovim and minor festivals?
Apparently, since Tachanun is a very serious prayer, and a person may become overcome with emotion while reciting it, it was felt that reciting it on these occasions would detract from the day’s celebration.
Numerous customs are recorded concerning when Tachanun is omitted. Records of this topic go back over a thousand years. In the time of the Geonim, Rav Amram Gaon’s yeshivah recited Tachanun even on Chanukah and Purim, whereas in Rav Hai Gaon’s yeshivah, they did not (Shu’t Rivash #412). There were places in Bavel where the custom was to recite Tachanun on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Shabbos Shuvah (Shu’t Rivash #412), something that we would find extremely unusual. Every community should follow its custom.
We omit Tachanun between Yom Kippur and Sukkos because the Beis HaMikdash was completed during these days, and there was great celebration (Beis Yosef, quoting Shibbolei HaLeket).
Some communities have adopted the practice of omitting Tachanun on the yahrzeit of a great tzaddik. However, virtually all poskim frown on this practice (Shu’t Shoel Umeishiv 5:39; Shu’t Yabia Omer 3:11; see Chayei Moshe 131:4:4, quoting the Rebbes of Ger, Satmar and Munkach).
It is an accepted practice not to say Tachanun when a chosson is in attendance during the entire week after his wedding. The Magen Avraham (131:12) rules that we omit Tachanun until exactly a week after the moment of the wedding. Some contend that the chosson should not deprive people from saying Tachanun, and therefore rule that a chosson should not come to shul the entire sheva berachos week (Taz 131:10)! This is the way the Mishnah Berurah rules (131:26).
There is also a dispute as to whether we recite Tachanun when a chosson is present on the day ofhis wedding. The Magen Avraham contends that Tachanun is not said, while the Taz holds that it is. Each community should follow its custom or the psak of its rav.
There are many other dates or special occasions when the accepted practice is to omit Tachanun. However, space does not allow us to explain the reasons for each of these customs.
Now that we are aware of the origin of the tefillah Vehu Rachum, we can recite the words with far deeper and greater feeling, knowing how grateful we must be for not having to contend with such intense and trying tests. Let us use the spiritual steps that those tzaddikim built for us to make an effort to internalize the message.