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Thoughts on the Fifth of the Four Evening Blessings of the Sh’ma

One of the names of the central prayer of every Jewish service is the Shmoneh Esreh.  “Shmoneh Esreh” means eighteen and refers to the original number of blessings contained in the Amidah.  However, for nearly two millennia now there have been nineteen blessings in the Amidah, yet we persist in calling it “Shmoneh Esreh.” There is even a Hebrew School textbook entitled “Nineteen out of Eighteen” which teaches children about this section of the service.  On Shabbat and Yom Tov, the name is even more inappropriate, for we omit the 13 central petitions and replace them with a single blessing referring to the occasion, the Kedushat Hayom, leaving only seven blessings in the Shabbat and festival Shmoneh Esreh.   I suspect that our sages enjoyed this kind of ironic numbering of prayers, for it gave them (and me) an opportunity to teach.


Likewise, when it comes to the other major component of our worship, the Kriyat Sh’ma, the reading of the Sh’ma inthe morning and evening services, the three biblical passages that make up the Sh’ma itself are surrounded by seven blessings, three in the morning and four at night.  In both services, there are blessings acknowledging God’s role as Creator, as Lawgiver, and as Redeemer.  To these three themes, in the Arvit, or Evening, service, is added a fourth blessing, Hashkiveinu, seeking God’s protection through the night.  We have examined all of these blessings at some point in previous essays.  There is even a prooftext cited for the number seven.  “Sheva bayom hilalticha, I praise You seven times every day.” (Psalms 119:164)

In spite of this fixed number for the blessings of the Sh’ma, it is customary in most Ashkenazic prayerbooks outside of Israel to add one more blessing to the evening Sh’ma.  This becomes the fifth of the four evening blessings we might say, or the eighth of the seven praises every day.  This is the lengthy passage made up of a series of biblical verses followed by a closing paragraph and blessing that appears just before the chatzi kaddish on weekdays, beginning “Baruch Adonay L’olam.”  It is not added on Shabbat and festivals, nor is part of the Sephardic or Hasidic liturgy and, in Israel, even most Ashkenazim do not add it.  According to some, it need not be said by an individual praying alone, but only in a congregation, while others differ on that point.


As with many of our prayers, it is not quite certain when this passage was first added to the service.  It is clearly post-Talmudic and some theorize that it was introduced by the Saboraim, the sages who put the finishing touches on the Talmud, while others suggest that it was the early Geonim, in the period after the completion of the Talmud who began reciting this prayer.  It is included in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, our earliest surviving prayer book from the 9th century, where there is mention of a Responsum by Rav Natronai Gaon, Amram’s prolific predecessor,regarding it.  According to the Talmud, one is supposed to link the blessing of Geulah, of redemption (Ga’al Yisrael) to Tefillah, the Amidah.  Adding Hashkiveinu to the blessings of the Sh’ma already seemed to interrupt between these two prayers.  However, the Talmudic sages explained that Hashkiveinu might be considered as an extension of the blessing of redemption and not an actualinterruption.  But adding this very lengthy blessing after Hashkiveinu seemed to create a major interruption.  As we will see, there are several explanations for allowing this as well as a couple of reasons given for the addition of this prayer in the first place.


We have explained in the past that the rabbis linked the Amidah (Shmoneh Esreh) to the ancient sacrificial system.  Thus, the Tamid shel boker, the perpetual offering each morning, is replaced by the Amidah during the Shacharit morning prayers.  The Tamid shel bein ha-arbaim, the perpetual offering at twilight, is replaced by the Amidah at Minchah, before sundown.  However, since there was no regular evening sacrifice, some sages held that the evening Amidah was voluntary.  Others linked it to the burning of leftover parts on the altar through the night.  Even though the evening Amidah has become accepted as if it were required, the fact that there is no repetition to fulfill the obligation for those unable to read the prayer themselves and no congregational recital of Kedushah, reminds us that this Amidah is actually a voluntaryoffering.


One reason given for the addition of this blessing was that it was intended to substitute for the Amidah in the evening service.  Thus, the first part of the prayer is made up of a series of verses, mostly taken from Psalms, that include 18 mentions of God’s sacred four-letter name. Y-H-V-H, for the eighteen original blessings of the Amidah.  The assumption that is made is that this prayer from Geonic times was introduced at a period of time prior to the acceptance of the evening Amidah as a required element of the service and used instead of reciting those blessings.  Thus, once it was introduced, this additional blessing after the Sh’ma remained even after it became customary to say the Amidah at night anyway.  I should mention that it is a little tricky to count up those eighteen mentions of God’s name and the fact that there is some variation among siddurim does not help the matter.


A different explanation for this prayer, given by some early authorities, is that the synagogues in an earlier period were located outside of the cities and thus there was concern for latecomers remaining in the building to complete their prayers.  It might be dangerous to walk home alone whether due to human highwaymen or malevolent demons who might be about.  The sages warn that if two people pray in the synagogue and one finishesfirst and leaves the other alone in the building and does not wait for him, his prayer is torn up in heaven. Therefore, they say, this prayer with its many verses was introduced so that latecomers could catch up and pray with the congregation and then leave together.  Rabbenu Asher in the 12th century suggests that field workers recited these verses instead of the Amidah so they could get home before it was dark. The last paragraph of the blessing, “Yi’ru eineinu,” is a prayer for redemption, thus linking geulah, redemption, once more to tefillah, the Amidah.


A third explanation is one we seem to dredge up every time we have some anomaly in our prayers.  Why do we add a passage from the prophets, a haftarah, to the Shabbat or holiday Torah service?  There was a time of persecution when it was forbidden to read the Torah so we substitute a passage from the prophets on the same theme. Why do we repeat the sounding of the shofar during Musaf?  There was a time of persecution when they were forbidden to sound it earlier in the service, but later in the day was not so disturbing to the neighbors.  Why do we add the opening and closing lines of the Sh’ma to the Kedushah in Musaf?  There was a time of persecution when it was forbidden to recite the Sh’ma in the morning service, so it was moved into the Musaf instead when the authorities were less vigilant.  Here too, some use that explanation to explain why this blessing was introduced, because the evening service was prohibited at some time of persecution, so we say these verses instead.  Forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of all these periods of specific persecutions leading to these changes in the liturgy. However, this explanation is often mentioned in these various connections and after the so-called period of sh’mad, persecution, passes, somehow the custom is never reversed, but remains as a reminder of that period.


When we look at the verses themselves, most of them seem rather familiar from other parts of the liturgy.  The first four verses appear as the conclusion of the collection of Psalms we referred to as the weekday Hallel in the P’sukei d’zimrah.  They are concluding verses from the various sections of the book of Psalms.  “Baruch Adonay l’olam amen v’amen. (Psalms 89:53)  Blessed be the Lord forever, Amen and Amen. (135:21) Blessed be the Lord from Zion, who dwells in Jerusalem, Halleluyah!  Blessed is the Lord God, God of Israel, who alone does wonders. And blessed be the name of His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the world, Amen and Amen.” (72: 18 -19) The verses which follow tend to be linked together by common words that appear in adjoining verses.  The next two verses, also from Psalms introduce the passage in P’sukei d’zimrah that precedes the Ashrei, “Y’hi k’vodAdonay l’olam,  may the glory of the Lord be forever; may God rejoice in His creations.” (104:31) “May the Name of the Lord be blessed from now and forever.” (113:2)


For the next two verses we turn to the books of the Early Prophets.  First, we cite a verse pronounced by Samuel as part of his lengthy rebuke of the people for demanding that he anoint a king over them.  After scolding them, he then reassures them: “Ki lo yitosh Adonay et amo, the Lord will never abandon His people, for the sake of His great name, seeing that God undertook to make you His people.” (I Samuel 12:22)  We go from the Book of Samuel to Kings and the dramatic finale of Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal:  “All the people saw and fell upon their faces and proclaimed, ‘The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”(I Kings 18:39)  The next verse is very recognizable, we quote it at the end of the Alenu, at the conclusion of every service.  It is the prophecy of Zechariah, “The Lord shall be Ruler over all the earth; on that day, the Lord shall be One and His Name, One.” (Zechariah 14:9)  The followingverse is the concluding line of Psalm 33, read during the P’sukei d’zimrah on Shabbat and holidays after the Hallel HaGadol and before the Psalm for Shabbat:  “May we enjoy, O Lord, Your faithful care as we have put our hope in You.” (33:22, translation of NJPS)


The next verse also is found in the P’sukei d’zimrah in the opening selection from Chronicles.  As I mentioned when we looked at that prayer, this section in Chronicles is made up of two of our Psalms with some slight variations.  My annotated prayerbook notes that while our version in the evening service is the version from First Chronicles, other prayerbooks choose to use the version from the Book of Psalms which is slightly different.  Chronicles (16:35) reads: “Deliver us, O God, our deliverer, and gather us and save us from the nations, to acclaim Your holy name, to glory in Your praise.”  The version in Psalms (106:47) is slightly different.  There we read: “Deliver us, O Lord our God and gather us from among the nations, to acclaim Your holy name, to glory in Your praise.”  The main difference seems to be that in Chronicles we ask not merely to be gathered in from among the nations, but also to be saved from the nations.  Also in Chronicles we speak of “Elohei yisheinu, God our deliverer,” while in Psalms it was the more familiar, general term, “Adonay Eloheinu, Lord our God.”


Next come a pair of verses from Psalm 86 (9-10) which take us to that future day when: “All the nations You have made will come to bow down before You, O Lord, and they will pay honor to Your name.  For You are great and perform wonders; You alone are God.”  Psalm 79:13 is now cited and speaks of our response to this, “Then we, Your people, the flock You shepherd, shall glorify You forever; for all time we shall tell Your praises.”  By cutting and pasting, we place this verse in a more positive setting than its original placement in Psalm 79, which speaks of God’s retribution upon our enemies. The praises which follow are not biblical quotations, but actual words of praise composed for this prayer. “Baruch Adonay bayom.  Praised is the Lord by day. Praised is the Lord at night.  Praised is the Lord when we lie down and praised is the Lord when we rise.  For in Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead.”  As we near the conclusion, once again we turn to Scripture, this time to the book of Job, where we read a line familiar from the Yom Kippur liturgy, “Asher b’yado nefesh kol chay, In His hand is every living soul and the breath of all mankind.” (12:10) Picking up on this image, we cite Psalms one last time, with a phrase adapted into the Adon Olam:  “B’yadcha afkid ruchi, into Your hand, I entrust my spirit, You redeem me, O Lord, faithful God.”  There is that theme of redemption, even if there is still a gap between this line and the beginning of the Amidah.  This first section closes with a fervent prayer, “Eloheinu shebashamayim, our God in heaven, unify Your name and establish Your kingdom forever, and rule over us forever and ever.”


After these eighteen mentions of the divine name, we offer a closing prayer, “Yiru eineinu v’yismach libeinu, May our eyes see, our hearts rejoice, and our souls be glad in Your true salvation, when Zion is told, ’Your God reigns.’ The Lord is King, the Lord was king, the Lord will be King forever and all time.” This last line is a combination of biblical phrases that is found in several other places in our prayers, most notably when we remove the Torah from the ark. The next line is found also at the end of the Alenu, leading into the previously cited verse from Zechariah.  “For sovereignty is Yours, and to all eternity You will reign in glory, for we have no king but You.”  This fifth blessing now concludes with this bracha, “Blessed are You, Lord, the King who in His constant glory will reign over us and all His creation for ever and all time.” (Koren siddur)


If it is still not clear that the requirement to connect the geulah blessing, the blessing of redemption, to the tefillah, the Amidah prayers, is not necessary at night time, the congregation now rises for the recital of the chatzi kaddish, marking an end to that section of the kriat sh’ma and only afterward, do we recite the Amidah silently. While we have tried to see these lines as an extended prayer for redemption, some of our commentators, based on the idea that this blessing was originally a replacement for the Amidah, simply conclude that once we complete the fourth blessing, the hashkiveinu, we enter this fifth blessing which is actually tefillah, a valid substitution forthe prayers of the Amidah, thus we link geulah to tefillah. Others simply state that since the tefillah is not required at the evening service, the linking of geulah to it cannot be a requirement at night.  Regardless of that fine point of law, clearly, the collection of verses that we’ve gathered provides a powerful message of our hope for the ultimate redemption of the world and one could argue that the Kaddish, too, reflects that aspiration.  Indeed, throughout all of our prayers, there is that eternal hope for a better day, a time when the world will be healed of all its ills, when evil will be no more, and the Lord will reign in glory over all the world.


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