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Thoughts on Ana B’khoach

There are a number of prayers that one finds in the Siddur that have been added to the traditional liturgy by the Kabbalists, Jewish mystics, over the past several centuries.  Ana B’khoach is one of them and we might note that while it does appear in our current prayerbook, Lev Shalem, published in 2016, in the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, and also in its immediate predecessor, Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (the so-called “Slim Shalom”) (2003), it did not appear in the earlier Siddur Sim Shalom that came out in 1985.  It is speculated that the increased interest in Kabbalah in recent years may have been one factor in the decision to add it to recent Conservative prayerbooks in this country as well as to the Israeli Masorti volume Va-ani Tefillati.  In most Orthodox prayerbooks, nowadays, it does appear after the 29th Psalm (Mizmor L’David Havu Ladonay) and before L’cha Dodi. In the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers. In the Koren Siddur, with the translation and commentary by the late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it appears with the notation “The following is said in some congregations.”  Thus its omission in earlier Conservative volumes and, as far as I am aware, from Reform siddurim, is not surprising.  However, in most Orthodox siddurim, one finds this prayer not only in Kabbalat Shabbat, but it appears as well in the Korbanot section (the laws of sacrifices in the introductory prayers) as well as in the prayers recited following the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot.  It seems appropriate as we recall the rituals of ancient Israel whether the sacrifices on the altar or the counting of the omer, that we call upon God to bring redemption, the main theme of this prayer.


Siddur Sim Shalom calls it a “Prayer for Deliverance.” Lev Shalem labels it “A Meditation” and in fact, in our congregation, we generally skip over it on Friday nights, though on occasion I have sung it to a melody I heard a congregation in Israel singing during my last visit in 2009.  According to Sim Shalom, “Ana B’khoach forms a bridge between the awesome majesty of Psalm 29 and the reassuring anticipation of redemption in L’kha Dodi.”  The seven lines of this poem are of unknown authorship, though they are traditionally linked to the late first century - early second century sage Rabbi Nechuniah ben Hakanah.  Modern scholars do not accept that authorship, but would date it to the early Kabbalistic period, perhaps to the 13th century, the time of the Zohar’s publication.


The poem is based on the tradition found in the Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) of a 42-letter name for God.  There it says, “Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “The 42-letter name is transmitted only to one who is humble and modest and is half-way through life and does not get angry or intoxicated and does not insist upon his rights.  Anyone who knows this name and is careful with it and guards it in purity is beloved above and treasured below and fear of him is cast upon all creatures; and he inherits two worlds, this world and the world to come.”  Obviously this name, like the 72-letter name of God that I mentioned some time back when we looked at the Hoshanah prayers for Sukkot, seems somewhat mysterious and even magical.  Ana B’khoach is one of a number of poems comprising 42 words each beginning with one of the letters of this 42-letter name.  The name seems virtually impossible to pronounce whether one follows the tradition that it is made up of 7 elements with six letters each or 14 with three letters each.  One six letter group, however, is readable and that is the second line of Ana B’khoach, whose words begin with the letters of  “K’ra Satan,” tear up Satan, the adversary.  We saw these words on Rosh Hashanah used as an acrostic for the verses read prior to the sounding of the shofar during the Torah service, again a mystical touch.


In Psalm 29, which tradition links to the events surrounding the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we find the word “kol,” voice or sound (of God), appearing seven times and thus linked to the seven lines of this poem which follows just before L’cha Dodi.  Since the forty-two words of this passage represent one of the divine names, we follow the seven lines with the same verse that follows the opening line of the Sh’ma, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed.”  Again, because it is seen as representing the name of God, the custom is to rise when one recites this passage.  Since the 29th Psalm is often recited standing as well, we would just continue to stand until the end of this passage and then be seated for L’cha Dodi The word ko-ach in the opening line of the poem connects this passage to the mention of “Kol Adonay bakhoach” “the voice of the Lord with its power” in the Psalm.  


The poem is seen as a plea on behalf of the congregation by the cantor that our prayers be accepted before God.  Each line of these seven verses contains six words.  We begin “Ana b’khoach gedulat yemincha tatir tzrurah.”  Rabbi Sacks translates this line as “Please, by the power of Your great right hand set the captive nation free.”  The word “nation” does not explicitly appear in the Hebrew.  Lev Shalem chooses to paraphrase this first line as, “If You would, may Your mighty right hand undo the knot that ties us up.”  The commentator on that page explains that the “knot” may refer to the exile in both its physical and spiritual sense.”As we enter Shabbat, we pray that all that has kept us physically and spiritually constrained give way; instead, we hope to begin experiencing the gentle expansiveness of Shabbat.”  The mystics believe that the powers of judgment, constriction, and negativity should not have authority on Shabbat.


“Yemincha,” Your right hand, reminds us of the Song at the Sea where we read of God’s right hand that is “glorious in power,” nedari bakoach.  The traditional understanding of this line is that we are calling on God to release us from the captivity of the Galut, the Exile, from our homeland in the land of Israel.  An alternative understanding is that the people of Israel following the destruction of the Temple feel abandoned by their Heavenly spouse, like an Agunah, a woman deserted by her husband, but still bound to him in marriage.  We pray here to be released from these bonds and returned to our prior condition of an intimate connection to the Lord, to no longer be abandoned by the Almighty.  The metaphor of marriage between God and Israel is particularly emphasized in Kabbalah, where the Shechinah strives to be reconnected with the higher sefirot, particularly with Tiferet, known as the Holy Blessed One.


The next line reads:  “Kabeil rinat amcha sagveinu tahareinu nora.”  “Accept Your people’s prayer. Strengthen us, purify us, You who are revered,” is the reading in the Koren Siddur by Rabbi Sacks.  Lev Shalem renders this line similarly as “Accept the prayers of Your people, You who are revered, raise us up, cleanse us.”  Our prayers are for the ultimate redemption of the world.  Currently we feel despised and unclean, hence our prayer that God purify us and raise us up once more to our previous state, preparing us for the redemption.


We continue:  “Na Gibor dorshei yechudecha k’vavat shomreim.”  “Please, Mighty One, guard like the pupil of the eye those who seek Your unity.” (Rabbi Sacks) “Almighty, if You would, guard as the apple of Your eye those who seek Your unity.” (Lev Shalem)  Bat ayin, the pupil of the eye, is a metaphor for something most precious, i.e. God’s treasured people, am segulah, one would think.  We not only seek God’s unity, but proclaim it twice daily in the Sh’ma.  At the end of every service, as we say Alenu, we quote Zechariah, looking to the end times, “on that day, the Lord shall be One and His name One.”


The next line: “Borcheim, tahareim, rachameim, tzidkatcha tamid gomleim.”  “Bless them, cleanse them, have compassion on them, grant them Your righteousness always.” (Sacks)  Lev Shalem is almost the same for the beginning of this line, but concludes, “Always act justly toward them.”  Because of our loyal seeking of God’s unity, we call upon His compassion and righteousness to grant us blessing and to bring us to the ultimate day of redemption.


We continue, “Chasin, Kadosh, b’rov tuvcha naheil adatecha.”  “Mighty One, Holy One, in Your great goodness guide Your congregation.” (Sacks) Lev Shalem makes “adatecha” “your people.”  Chasin is a rather unusual appellation for God, though it does appear in Psalm 89, where we read, “Mi chamocha Chasin Yah.”  “Who is like You, Mighty God.”  Kadosh is much more familiar, we find it constantly as a term for God, the Holy One.  In Leviticus, He tells us, “You shall be holy because I the Lord am holy.”  When we speak of God guiding His congregation or His people, the term “naheil” implies that He is leading us somewhere.  Where?  Back to the Holy Land, of course, the Land of Israel, as the fulfillment of the promise of ingathering of the exiles.  Isaiah uses this verb as he describes God “coming in might,” where he speaks of the Lord, “Like a shepherd He pastures His flock: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in His bosom; gently He drives (y’naheil) the mother sheep.”  God is powerful, yet gentle, as He brings about the hoped for redemption.


“Yachid ge’eh l’amcha, p’nei zochrei kedushatecha.”  Rabbi Sacks reads, “Only One, exalted One, turn to Your people, who proclaim Your holiness.”  In Lev Shalem we read, “Alone exalted, turn to Your people who invoke Your holiness.”  We earlier mentioned the Jewish people as “dorshei yichudecha” “seeking God’s unity.”  Here He is proclaimed, Yachid, Only One.  Ge’eh calls to mind once again the Song at the Sea which begins, “Ashira Ladonay ki gaoh ga’ah,” “I will sing unto the Lord for He is greatly exalted.”  Just as we alluded earlierto the daily recitation of the Sh’ma, here we speak of the Kedushah, where we recall Isaiah’s vision of the angelic hosts proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory.”  Not only do we recall the angelic chorus, but we proclaim, that we shall sanctify God’s name here on earth, “k’shem shemakdishim oto b’shmei marom,” “Just as He is sanctified in the highest heavens.”


The final line of this prayer reads, “Shavateinu kabeil ush’ma tza’akateinu, Yodea ta’alumot.”  “Accept our plea and heed our cry, You who know all secret thoughts.” (Sacks)   In Lev Shalem, similarly, we read, “Listen to our pleas, hear our cries, knowing the hidden depths within us.”  Up till now, the cantor, the leader of the prayers, has offered these supplications on behalf of the people of Israel. Here, in the climax of the prayer, the people itself turn toward God and cry out, “accept our prayers, hear our cries.” As we find in the book of Exodus, “If indeed you cry out to Me, I will certainly hear your cries.”  Here God is called “Yodea ta’alumot” the One who knows all the secrets, everything hidden within us.  This expression is found in Psalm 44 and appears in various places in our liturgy, particularly on the High Holidays.  “God knows the secrets of the heart, “Yodea ta’alumot lev.”  There have been many attempts to calculate when the final redemption of the world will come.  There have been many false messiahs.  However, only God knows the secrets and only He knows when the final redemption will come.


As mentioned earlier, we append to this prayer the words proclaimed by all the people of Israel when they would hear the High Priest pronounce the ineffable name of God on Yom Kippur, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed,” “Praised be the name.of His glorious kingdom forever and all time.”  This, of course, is also the line introduced into the opening paragraph of the Sh’ma, right after we proclaim God’s unity and before we continue with V’ahavta.


Thus in this prayer, we ask for many things, but all are really one combined prayer for redemption of a people so often oppressed through the years of exile and yearning to return to their homeland and attain a level of spiritual intimacy with their God once more.  It is significant that the prayer opens with a reference to “Koach gedulat yemincha” the power of Your great right hand.”  In Kabbalistic thought, right and left are important terms, the right hand represents Chesed, God’s loving kindness, as opposed to the left hand of judgment, Din.  We seek the application of chesed to our situation as we call upon God in this passage to bring redemption.  In the L’cha Dodi hymn which follows, the author describes the awakening of Jerusalem personified, shaking off the dust,  putting on clothes of glory to greet the Messiah. “Hitor’ri, histor’ri ki va orech, kumi ori.” Quoting Isaiah, “wake up, wake up, for your light has come; rise and shine.”  Our prayer, as encompassed in this entire ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat, designed by the mystics of Safed, is to experience that ultimate day “Yom shekulo Shabbat umenucha,” the day that is entirely Shabbat and rest, the great and awesome day of the Lord.

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