David Walk
David Walk

Highest heaven

We Jews love our forebears. They remain a part of who we are, even after our attempts to recreate that effect for our progeny. So, it should come as no surprise that we have been reciting YIZKOR (remembrance for the departed) prayers since the time of the Geonim (550-1000 CE). However, a bit surprising is the fact that the E-L MALEH RACHAMIM (God full of Compassion) prayer is only from the beginning of the 1600’s, and is still mostly recited by Ashkenazic Jews. I’d like to share an idea about that very emotional component of our liturgy. 

Originally, that the recitation was only for individual family members, but in the middle of the seventeenth century came one of those horrendous episodes, all too common to Jewish history. The Ukranians rebelled against their Polish overlords. This uprising was led by Bodan Chminitzski (1595-1657).  That Cossack warrior founded a Ukrainian state, and is, therefore, a hero to Ukrainians. However, on the road to that victory over 100,000 Jews were massacred, as Polish collaborators. This terrible period is known a TACH-TAT (based on the Hebrew letters of the numbers describing the years 1648-49). Then an E-L MALEH was written for those victims. There are still people who fast on Sivan 20, which is the anniversary of the greatest slaughter of our people in the city of Nemirov, the 17th century’s Babi Yar. 

So, to this day we recite versions of E-L MALEH for departed shul members, Holocaust victims, and, of course, those who fell in defense of our modern State of Israel. When we remember: 

the souls of the men and women of the Israel Defense Forces who met their deaths in the wars of Israel, in action of defense, retaliation and security, while fulfilling their missions and during their service, and to the souls of all the fighters of the underground organizations and the fighting units in the nations battles, and all the men and women of the intelligence community and the security and police forces who gave their lives in the sanctification of God’s Name and, with the help of the God of the armies of Israel, brought about the rebirth of the nation and the state and the redemption of the Land and the City of God, as well as all those who were murdered, in Israel and abroad, by murderers of the terrorist organizations. 

But, like all Jewish issues there’s an argument. The Maharal M’Prague (Rav Yehuda Loew, 1512-1609) claimed that the correct wording of the prayer should be: TACHAT KANFEI HA-SHECHINA (under the wings of the Divine Presence), because that phrase appears in the Talmud describing the new status of converts. While the Shela (Rav Yeshayahu HaLevi Horowitz, 1555-1630), asserted that the correct wording should be: AL KANFEI HA-SHECHINA (above the wings of the Divine Presence). Over time the position of the Shela has become more popular. 

When I recite this prayer for my beloved parents, I prefer the original version propounded by the Maharal. I do this because it sounds more emotionally satisfying. When someone is under the Shechina’s wings, it feels like they are being embraced and protected. I like that image. 

However, when I recite the E-L MALEH for the IDF, I always use the version of the Shela, above the wings of the Shechina, because only God’s Divine Throne is higher than the souls who died so that we can have ERETZ YISRAEL. 

There is no greater merit that I can think of than providing the Jewish People with their proper homeland. It was the ultimate sacrifice of these holy ones that has built MEDINAT YISRAEL. For the first time in 2743 years, a majority of Jews are living in our national home and not in exile.  Thank you to each of the 23,928 holy ones. May that number never grow, and may their memory be a blessing forever.   

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
Related Topics
Related Posts