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Thoughts on the Opening of the Evening Service

The main elements of our daily worship services are the recital of the Sh’ma with its surrounding blessings and the Amidah which is in place of the daily sacrifices of ancient times.  The Sh’ma and its blessings are said “when you lie down,” i.e., as part of the evening service (Maariv or Arvit) and “when you rise up,” during the morning service (Shacharit).  The Amidah is part of both of those services as well as the main component of the afternoon service (Minchah). In the morning, prior to the main section of the service, as we’ve seen, we have a rather lengthy section, mainly comprising Psalms, to put us in the proper frame of mind for worship, this is the P’sukei d’zimrah, literally verses of song.  At Minchah, we precede the Amidah with the recital of Ashrei, Psalm 145 with some verses added on.  On Friday evening, at our Shabbat worship, since the 16th century, we have introduced the Maariv service with the Kabbalat Shabbat Psalms, six Psalms for the days of the work week, the L’chaDodi hymn, welcoming Shabbat, and then the Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92 (and 93).  What about the other days of the week?  Do we just jump into the Sh’ma and its blessings or should there be some preparatory reading to put us in the proper frame of mind?


That. It seems, depends on a couple of factors.  In many congregations, it is customary to combine the Minchah and Maariv services around sunset.  Since both services are rather brief, it is easier to gather people once for those prayers as theyreturn home from work rather than arranging two separateservices, one in the middle of the afternoon and the other after dark. In such a case, Minchah serves to put the worshipers in the proper prayerful mood for the Maariv which follows and there is no need for another kind of warmup. If, however, one recites Maariv as a standalone service as was the case in my Seminary days, when we said Minchah right after lunch and recitedMaariv only after the library closed at 10:00 pm, then it is customary to recite at least a verse or two before we say the evening prayers. You may notice that in many prayerbooks, prior to Maariv on Saturday evening, one finds two Psalms, Psalm 144 and Psalm 67, followed by the recital of the ChatziKaddish. This is certainly not required and many synagogues do not practice it at all, but It is considered, as Siddur Aliyot Eliyahu puts it, “minhag yafe,” a nice custom, and one might even consider saying other Psalms as well, he suggests.  By these comments, it is clear that he regards it as optional.


Less well known is a practice mentioned in the Mishnah Berurah, the 19th century update, by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chayim) on the section of the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) that deals with prayers and holidays, Orach Chayim. He notes that in some places, because of the desire to read the Sh’ma amidst other words of Torah, it is customary to recite the brief Psalm 134, which is one of the Shirei HaMaalot, Songs of Ascent prior to Maariv.  It begins, appropriately, “Bless the Lord, all you who serve the Lord, you who stand in the Lord’s house by night.” It continues with words of blessing, “Lift up your hands toward that which is holy(toward the Temple) and bless the Lord.  May the Lord bless you from Zion, who made heaven and earth.”  This custom is first mentioned by the 16th century commentator known as Shiltei Giborim (Rabbi Yehoshua Boaz ben Shimon Baruch), in a commentary on the Talmudic tractate of Berachot. Apparently, the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the pre-eminentKabbalistic authority in Safed in the 16th century, preferred three other familiar verses for this purpose, each of which begins with the name of God. “The Lord of Hosts is with us, Jacob’s God is our stronghold. Lord of Hosts, happy is the man who trusts in You. Lord, save us.  May our king answer us when we cry out.”  So, of course, in typical Jewish fashion, in those Ashkenazicprayerbooks which follow this custom, you will find bothpassages, one after the other.  Nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon, thepre-eminent 18th century Rabbi, Elijah ben Solomon, opposed this custom and did not add additional Psalms and verses here or in many other places as well. Apparently, the Sephardic traditionadds a few other verses to these as well.


Regardless of whether one follows these various customs, the weekday Maariv, is preceded by two verses even when Minchahis said right before it.  It is suggested that since at Shacharit and Minchah, the Amidah takes the place of the regular morning and afternoon sacrifices of the ancient Temple which brought atonement for sin, it is necessary to reassure worshipers at Maariv that they too may depend on God’s compassion and forgiveness.  So we say, “V’hu rachum y’chaper avon, He (God) being compassionate, wipes away sin, v’lo yashchit, and will not wreak destruction. V’hirbah l’hashiv apo v’lo ya’ir kol chamato, for again and again God acts with restraint, refusing to let rage become all consuming.” (translation from Lev Shalem).  The second line, in some congregations was treated as a congregational response, though in most places the reader simply continues, adding it onto the opening line, “Adonayhoshiah, Hamelech ya’aneinu b’yom koreinu. Lord, help us – surely our sovereign will answer us in the hour of our calling.”


Some have noted that the opening line, v’hu rachum, has thirteen words corresponding with the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy.  There are those who propose reciting this line three times giving us 39 words, equivalent to the maximumnumber of lashes applied to a sinner to achieve atonement, in the days when the court applied corporal punishment. The words thus take the place of the punishment.


There is a lovely melody for this passage which I was taught years ago, that sets the mood for the evening worship and leads into the call to prayer, the Barchu, which follows, opening the evening recitation of the Sh’ma and its blessings. We looked at the Barchu in detail some months back.  When there is a minyan, we recite that call and response before continuing with the blessings before the Sh’ma.


While I mentioned the opening blessing of the Maariv quite some time ago when we examined its counterpart in the morning service, it bears a closer look at this point, within the framework of our evening worship. Both the Yotzer Or blessing at Shacharit and the Maariv Aravim at Maariv, celebrate God’s acts of Creation and emphasize that all of Creation is God’s handiwork.  Contrary to much of the belief among people in Babylonia at the time of the Talmudic sages, that there were separate deities in charge of light and darkness, good and evil, we reaffirmthrough this blessing and through the Sh’ma, the unity of creation. We believe that God creates both light and darkness and is responsible for both the good and the bad that we perceive in this world. Both prayers, Yotzer and Maariv, focus on these concepts and, though they are very different pieces of liturgy, in the days when they did not yet have fixed wording, the rabbis tell us that even if you mixed up the two prayers, it was all right, provided that one concluded with the right ending: “yotzerhameorot” who forms the lights, in the morning, and “hama’arivaravim,” who brings on the evening at night. Otherwise, the two prayers emphasize the same idea, that both light and darkness come from the one God.


As we saw, the Yotzer blessing is quite extensive and is even longer on Shabbat when we add in the hymn of El Adon. By contrast, Maariv Aravim is relatively brief.  The Yotzer provides us with images of angelic choruses praising the Almighty.  It includes a section of Kedushah, the verses from Isaiah and Ezekiel, whose visions of angels provide us with special words of praise that are recited at several points of the service.  On Shabbat, the author of Yotzer even imagines the Sabbath dayitself singing God’s praises, “Tov l’hodot ladonay,” it is good to give thanks to the Lord, understanding Psalm 92 not as a Song for the Sabbath day, but the song of the Sabbath day, sung by that holy day itself.


Maariv Aravim opens with the traditional words of everyblessing.  The other three blessings surrounding the Sh’ma in the evening service are linked to it and therefore do not require this opening, only a closing blessing formula. Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe or, if you prefer “HaOlam” can also have a temporal meaning and thus give us “Eternal Sovereign” or its equivalent.  God is seen as Ruler of all of time and space, the space-time continuum, if you will.


The words that follow are not to be taken literally, even if we believe that our ancestors saw them that way. “Whose word brings the evening dusk,” reminding us of the Creation story in Genesis chapter one where everything is created simply through God’s words, “there was evening and there was morning, one day.”  Yet the author of this prayer also depicts the more hands-on approach that we see in chapter two: “whose wisdom opens the gates of dawn, whose understanding changes the day’s division, whose will sets the succession of seasons and arranges the stars in their places in the sky, who creates day and night, who rolls light before darkness and darkness from light.  Adonai Tzevaot (Lord of Hosts) is Your name.”  There is a lot of activity up there, behind the scenes, as day and night are rolled out and stars are arranged in their appropriate place.


In “My People’s Prayerbook,” under “Theology,” Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes of how our conception of the nature of the various heavenly bodies has developed over centuries and how we continue to discover new insights into the movements of stars and planets.  However, he urges us not to consider rewriting the paragraph to reflect modern science.  “Liturgy’s purpose,” he writes, “is frequently metaphorically suggestive, rather than literally descriptive, of natural processes. We maintain the traditional description of evening as a poetic metaphor of what actually happens.  This is a good example of an important liturgical principle; do not commit the genetic fallacy.  That is, do not limit the meaning of any piece of liturgy or ritual to thepurpose it originally served. Since ritual attracts new meanings over time, the proper criterion for evaluating what to keep and what to change is the significance of the particular, liturgicalphrase of ritual to us now, with all the new meanings that term has taken on.” Dorff compares phrases like “gates of dawn” to Homer’s “fingers of dawn.” Liturgy is intended to capture our feelings not to necessarily describe our scientific reality.Consider the opening of doors and the rolling of heavenly bodies to be poetic language for a more complex reality.


The same anthology of commentaries provides also what is labeled “A Woman’s Voice,” written by Dr. Ellen Frankel.  Rather than focus on the awesome creation of the universe, Dr. Frankel, gives us another image to consider. She writes, “How does this prayer depict the heavenly alternation of day and night? Not as the dance of the planetary spheres nor a cosmic clock, nor a grand celestial drama – but rather as a domestic scene: God opens the gates, changes the seasons, orders the stars in their courses.  Like an efficient baleh busteh, (“homemaker”), God airs out the house each day, letting in the cool night air; changes the sheets, makes the beds, puts things to rights.  Each day God rolls up the blinds of night; each night, rolls them down again. How comfortable it is to inhabit a world that is so well-tended.”


After this description, the next line of the prayer is a petition regarding the Lord, “El Chay v’Kayam,” the living and enduring God. “Tamid yimloch aleinu l’olam vaed,” “May He always rule over us forever and ever.”  This line does not appear in every version of the Siddur.  Some Sephardic prayerbooks as well as the standard Chabad siddur omit this line.  It also is missing from some Reform prayerbooks, particularly in Great Britain.What it seems to be implying is that having described the well-ordered universe that God has created, it is now our prayer that He continue to manage the laws of nature that He has established and maintain the functioning of the cosmos. As we affirm in the Yotzer prayer, God renews creation every day.  He did not abandon his stewardship over the functioning of the world at the time of the Big Bang, at the moment of Creation.Yet, in our time, we have come to recognize that more than ever we play a role in the maintenance of our environment.  Our prayer then is for God’s continued support of our efforts to save our planet.


We conclude the blessing with the chatimah (literally, the seal), Baruch ata Adonay, HaMaariv Aravim.  Praised are You, Lord, who brings on the evening.  God takes on the title of “Evener of the Evening” if there were such a term.  Hebrew’s flexibility means that “maariv” can be both a verb and a noun at the same time even if we do not seem to have a separate term in English for both “making it evening” and “the maker of evening.”  It is particularly significant though that the root of the word “maariv,” ayin, resh, vet, has multiple meanings. Arev can meansomething sweet, Erev is evening, a time of darkness, L’arevmeans to create a mixture, to mix things up.  Out of this, I’d say this blessing praises God who is the creator of all things, the sweet times and the dark times, and we are reminded that life is a combination of both. God mixes the sweet and the bitter, light and darkness, good and evil – He creates it all. In both this blessing each night and in the Yotzer blessing each morning, we acknowledge that the gift of life is indeed a mixed blessing, and, as the sages remind us, we are to praise God for both the good and bad, for indeed, only God is the Judge of Truth, Dayan HaEmet. We cannot fully appreciate all that occurs in the world and its purpose.  We may only acknowledge the Creator and trust in God’s compassionate care of us and the world.

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