Thoughts on Avinu Malkenu
Our relationship to God reflects our differing concepts of divinity. Sometimes we think of God in abstract terms as a power that brought about the creation of the world or that continues to govern the world. God may simply be shorthand for the forces of nature, the transcendent power beyond comprehension that spoke and the world came into being. Alternatively, we can see God as a very intimate part of the world, an immanent deity, who formed the world with His own hands and planted the trees and shrubs. This is a caring God whom we can turn to in time of sorrow or trouble. On the High Holidays we something think of God as this intimate figure, like a parent and address Him as Father. Other times, we see Him in a more distant and formal relationship as our Sovereign, the transcendent Ruler over time and space, Melech HaOlam. In this prayer which is a familiar passage on the High Holidays, though it is also read on fast days, we combine the two and address our petitions to Avinu Malkenu, Our Father, Our King. This also is an indication that while we think of God as a just ruler and fair judge, we also believe that He is merciful and forgiving.
The combination of Avinu and Malkenu is somewhat original. It doesn't appear in the Bible or other early documents of Judaism. The two terms do appear separately in different parts of the book of Isaiah. In chapter 63:16, for example, we read, “Surely You are our Father.” We find Malkenu in chapter 33:22, where it says, “The Lord shall be our King.”
This prayer, in its most basic form, originates in the Talmud in the tractate of Taanit which deals with fast days, particularly those associated with periods of drought in the land of Israel. While the period from the fall (Shemini Atzeret) to the springtime (Pesach) is considered to be the rainy season. When the rains failed to appear as scheduled, the rabbis would institute a series of fast days of increasing severity on the assumption that the drought conditions were a consequence of the sins of the people, as stated in the Torah . As the drought continued, stricter measures were taken as described in some detail in the Talmud including the offering of an enhanced Amidah including an additional six blessings added to the regular eighteen. Once, we're told, when Rabbi Eliezer offered these prayers and they failed to bring the desired result, Rabbi Akiva stepped forward and offered this prayer: Avinu Malkenu, ein lanu melech ela ata. Our Father, Our King, we have no sovereign but You. Avinu Malkenu, l'maancha rachem aleinu. Our Father, Our King, for Your sake show compassion to us.” At this point, the rains began to fall.
There are other versions of this story which add a couple of additional Avinu Malkenus to these original two, including the line which we generally begin with, Avinu Malkenu chatanu l'fanecha. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You. The Machzor Vitry from the school of Rashi in the 12th century indicates that since this prayer was so effective, it has been established that we should recite it on “Days of Repentance”. Thus it is customarily recited during these Ten Days of Penitence morning and evening, and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and throughout the year on various fast days.
The list of petitions in the Avinu Malkenu varies greatly among the various sources. The earliest authority to give a list of these prayers is Rav Amram Gaon who includes it in his siddur, the earliest we have, from the ninth century. Rav Amram includes 25 petitions. In the Machzor Vitry there are 35. Contemporary traditions vary among the different communities: Western Ashkenaz, 38; Polish Ashkenaz, 44; Sephardic, 31; Yemenite, 27; and the Italian Rite, 30. Our Mahzor Lev Shalem has just 32 lines,while my chosen daily prayer book, edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, adopts the Polish tradition of 44 Avinu Malkenus.
The most important lines after the initial confession of sin and the accepting of God's sovereignty, seem to be the middle lines chanted aloud, in our tradition, by the chazan, and repeated by the congregation. They begin with a prayer to “return us to Your presence, wholly penitent.” Then we ask, “send complete healing to the sick among Your people.” A third plea is simply, “remember us favorably.” This is followed by five lines in which we ask to be inscribed in various books of blessing, “Inscribe us for good in the Book of Life, inscribe us in the book of redemption, in the book of sustenance, the book of merit, and in the book of forgiveness.” On fast days, instead of requesting to be “inscribed,” we ask to be “remembered” in those various books.
Another series of verses follow and the conclusion is the line sung to the familiar melody which we all sing, “Avinu Malkenu, choneinu va-aneinu, ki ein banu ma'asim.” “Have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, and redeem us.”
Only in the Ashkenazic version do we find mention of the martyrs of our history in several lines, “Act for the sake of those who were killed for Your holy name, for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming Your unity, for the sake of those who went through fire and water to sanctify Your name” and finally, “Avenge before our eyes the spilt blood of your servants.” These lines reflect the experience of the Jews of Germany and France at the time of the First Crusade in 1096, when many communities were massacred by the mobs heading off to kill “infidels” in the Holy Land. They figured, why not get some practice by killing local infidels as well?
Though we recite Songs (Psalms) of praise, Hallel, on most holidays, we do not do so on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Talmud explains this omission simply, “Is it possible that the King is sitting on His throne of judgment with the books of life and death open before Him and Israel should sing songs? “ According to the Shibolei HaLeket, by the 13th century Italian sage, Zedekiah ben Avraham, the Avinu Malkenu is said in place of the Hallel.
There exist a variety of traditions about when to say Avinu Malkenu. In some communities it is customary to recite Avinu Malkenu on Mondays and Thursdays as part of the expanded version of Tachanun, the prayers of supplication offered right after the Amidah and that is where you will generally find it printed in daily prayer books. There is some difference of opinion as to whether it is appropriate to say Avinu Malkenu on Shabbat.Our custom is to omit it, but in some communities it is said even on Shabbat. The rationale for its omission is that since the rabbis have omitted all the petitions in the Amidah on Shabbat, all the moreso should we set aside these additional petitions. That really doesn't explain why it is said on Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when they fall on weekdays. For we still omit petitions then. One assumes that the fact that they address the same issues as the High Holidays, we may say them then as long as it is not Shabbat. In some traditions the line about sinning before God is omitted on Rosh Hashanah and recited only on Yom Kippur, while others include it then as well.
Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe, the author of the Levush, states that Rabbi Akiva offered the Avinu Malkenu prayers in place of the thirteen petitions that we find in the middle of the weekday Amidah. Indeed, it is possible to connect each of those blessings with an appropriate line in the prayer and some commentators have made tables showing the verses that match up with each petition. This being the case, all the more reason to omit this prayer on Shabbat when we already omit the regular petitions from the Amidah. When Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, we also omit it for most of the day. However, it reappears at Neilah as the day draws to a close. At Neilah, the lines that read Kotveinu, inscribe us, are changed to Chotmeinu, seal us, for we assume that the decisions have been rendered and we have already been inscribed in the book of life and now wish to be sealed there for good.
Just as there are different numbers of petitions included in different traditions, so the order of the prayers varies as well. Even so, Rabbi Issachar Jacobson in his work on prayer, Netiv Binah, takes the western Ashkenazic version and groups the petitions in ten sections as follows: (1) Introductory prayers, (2) one line requesting a good year, (3) several lines requesting the annulment of severe decrees against us, (4) prayers for good health, (5) prayers for forgiveness, (6) prayers for remembrance or for inscribing us in the books of blessing at this season, (7) prayers for salvation and redemption, (8) asking that our prayers be heard and answered, (9) mention of the merit of our martyrs, and (10) the concluding lines that we all sing together.
At this season, as we begin a new year, we turn to our Father, our Sovereign, and seek divine blessing. May God fulfill all the worthy wishes of our hearts and may we all enjoy a year of blessing, good health, prosperity, and peace.