Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

On this Fast Day – Remember to Recite the Prayer for Epidemics

G-d please now heal the sick of the flourishing vine

Embarrassed and disgraced and of weakened fruit

Redeem her from the pit or from a wet wound

Answer us as You answered Avraham on Mount Moriah

We turn to G-d and ask him to be healed.  Invoking the oldest and perhaps most famous prayer for the sick, we begin with Moshe’s prayer on behalf of his sister, 5 pithy words 11 letters long, which captures the basic level of our request – Please, G-d, heal us now.[1]

The flags of the nation who were redeemed with the outstretched hand

Save them from plague and not be torn apart

And answer our call, yearn for the creation of Your hands

Answer us as You answered our ancestors at the Sea of Reeds

This prayer, a short, compact seven stanzas, finds its inspiration in one of the oldest recorded post-Biblical prayers, the ones recited on communal fast days in the second temple period, recorded in Taanit 15a.  Its theme is the seven Biblical figures who turn to G-d and called out to Him – and amazingly G-d answered their call all seven times!  We, echoing our ancestors at the time of the second temple, connect ourselves to those ancestors saying “Answer us, just as You answered them” as the final line of each stanza: Abarahm on Moriah, the Jewish people at the splitting of the sea, Joshua in Giglal (the night before the defeat of Jericho), Elijah on Carmel.  The location of the prayers of the past  becomes the rhyme for each stanza: Suf, Gal, Mel, Gah.

In the merit of the hewn stone (Avraham) reveal for us today

Keep us from anger, and lead us in a straight path (26:7)

Purify our impurities, and reveal our eyes to the light of your Torah

Answer us as You answered Joshua in the Gilgal

The stanzas consistently invoke our ancestors and their merits.  The conclusion of each verse refers to a specific ancestor who prayed and was answered, carefully selecting figures whose Biblical stories refer explicitly to prayer (Joshua 6, Nechemiah 9:6), answering/Aneini (Melachim 1:18:37) or both (Shmuel 1:7:9, Yona 2:3).  The start of each verse also invokes other ancestors – the merit of Avraham and Sarah, the cornerstones of our nation (based on Yeshayahu 51:1), the ashes of the almost-sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah, Yaakov the simple and perfect, Moshe saved from water, and Aharon known as the pious one “Ish Chasidecha” (Devarim 33:8).  We do not face danger alone, we do so armed with the merit  of our righteous ancestors.

Hashem – see the ashes of the bound one, and sprout a cure for us

End plunder and breaking, wind and storm

Teach us and make us wise through your refined word

Answer us as You answered Shmuel at the Mitzpah

This prayer is clearly focused on a time of sickness and a need for healing.  The first verse began with the words of Moshe praying for his sister’s healing, and this fourth verse begins with the explicit request for a cure.  Of course, like any prayer on any occasion, other forms of danger and calamity are sprinkled in – the attacks of our enemies, the dangers of a storm.  There are references for forgiveness from sin and pleas to inspire us through Torah study.  But the focus is on healing and sickness, and it is is generally recited at times of an epidemic.

Do not wither the roots of the one who was perfect from the womb

Cleans our stains and let us not be destroyed

Support us and we shall be saved, and we will receive the paths of your kindness

Answer us as You answered Eliyahu on Mount Carmel

The prayer is written in first person plural.  The third line of each stanza begins with a word with a third person suffix (Kriyateinu, Tumateinu, Lamdeinu, Saadaeinu, Yeshuateinu, Shuveinu), and the echo of the “-nu,” “us” throughout the song reminds us that we are not praying for a theoretical salvation of a distanced or detached danger – we are praying very much for ourselves.  As we crawl through the entire alphabet in the initial letters of each line, and the wide sweep of Jewish history, from the Biblical figures that begin each stanza, to the prophetic figures that end them, through the prayers of the second temple period Jews all the way until today – we remember that we are asking for us, for our needs, for something so very urgent.

Encourage us on account of the righteousness of the one drawn from water and forgive intentional and unintentional sin

Redeem us from the tumult of death and may we not falter backwards

Command our salvation and may we not melt from our sins

Answer us as You answered Yona from the innards of the fish

Our congregation, Maimonides, has recited this prayer during the Mincha prayer of Yom Kippur each year since our inception, and I recall reciting it on each fast day in the calendar when studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion as well.  But many siddurim print these beautiful words in small print indicating that they are only recited on fasts during an epidemic.  Of course, we are now in the middle of an epidemic, and we all should recite this prayer this year on the 17th of Tammuz.  The words echo in my heart, having said them over hundred times in my lifetime, but I realize they might be new to some Jews who have never said them before.  This year is a good time to start, of course.

Recall the holiness of the pious one [Aharon] for the nation of lovely footsteps (Shir ha-Shirim 7:2)

Awaken your mercy for we have been punished double! (Yeshayahu 40:2)

Return us – O Strong One – to the fear of You, and may we not be embarrassed

Answer us as You answered David, and Shlomoh his son, in Jerusalem

Parents and children are a major element of this song, from the first stanza to the last.  The first line focuses on the illness to the fruit of the vine.  Later, we refer to Yitzchak at the moment of Akeidat Yitzchak, when he was the younger child, his father praying on his behalf.  We conclude with David, and Shlomoh “his son” – treating the first and second kings of Israel not as individuals, but as a parent-child unit that both prayed on behalf of our nation at times of illness (David, during the three day plague in Shmuel 2:24:17, Shlomoh in his prayer in Melachim 1:8:37).  The fear of illness is felt most acutely when parents fear for the well-being of their children, hoping that they be spared tragedy and instead see a life, nice and full.

G-d, we turn to you on this fast day, on this day of prayer.  Heal us and our families!  Protect us and our children!  Just as you heard our ancestors and answered them when they cried to You, so many times before.

[1] The word “Na” appears often in the Bible; at times appearing to mean please and at time now; Ibn Ezra and Rashi often disagree which of those two translations is most appropriate in each specific context.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.
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