Thoughts on the Weekday Closing Prayers

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Two groups of prayers are essential elements of the daily service whether on weekdays or Shabbat and holidays, these are the Sh'ma and its blessings and the Amidah. The rest of the service is built around these two major components. I have spent some time in this series looking into the prayers which begin the morning service, the Birchot HaShachar and the P'sukei d'zimrah. We've covered all of the prayers of P'sukei d'zimrah both for Shabbat and weekdays and most of the Birchot HaShachar. We have also studied the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma and the blessings surrounding them as well as the various blessings that make up the Amidah. Following the Amidah, on most weekdays is a section known as Tachanun, Supplications. We have yet to explore that portion of the service, but we'll get there eventually. On Mondays and Thursdays, the ancient market days, and on other special days like Rosh Chodesh and fast days, when people gathered in villages, the Torah was read at this point in the service. Following the Torah reading or on non-Torah reading days, following Tachanun, come a series of concluding prayers which will be our topic for this week.

This closing section begins with the second reading of the Ashrei for the day. If you recall from our study of Ashrei in the P'sukei d'zimrah, we follow Rav Avina's prescription when he states, “Anyone who recites Tehillah L'David (Ashrei) three times every day is assured of a place in the world to come.” The first reading was in P'sukei d'zimrah just prior to the five Psalms we dubbed the daily Hallel, psalms 146 – 150. Since the bulk of Ashrei is the 145th Psalm, Tehillah L'David, it fits right into that group. Now, just before concluding the morning service, we recite Ashrei once more. The third reading introduces the afternoon service, the Minchah later in the day. On Shabbat and holidays, this second reading is recited just before we return the Torah to the ark.

Following the Ashrei on weekdays is Psalm 20, “Ya'ancha Adonay b'yom tzarah, May God answer you on a day of trouble.” This Psalm was already added to the service in the 9th century siddur of Rav Amram Gaon. The Tur, the major law code of Rabbenu Yakov ben Asher, in the 13th century explains that Psalm 20 and Ashrei were added because they contain words of salvation. Rabbi David Abudraham gives a more detailed explanation for the addition of Psalm 20. He cites the Midrash on Psalms where Rabbi Shimon ben Abbah says, “There are 18 Psalms from the beginning of the book of Psalms to this Psalm since Ashrei HaIsh (Psalm 1) and Lama Ragshu hagoyim (Psalm 2) are really a single Psalm [making this Psalm 19]. The first 18 Psalms correspond to the 18 blessings of the Amidah that one prays each day. Just as a person says to his friend 'May your prayers be answered.' So too does King David say after chanting 18 songs of praise, 'May the Lord answer you in time of trouble.'” Because of that reference to the day of trouble, we omit this Psalm on Shabbat and holidays and other occasions when we do not say the Tachanun prayers of supplication. These are days when we do not speak of trouble. The prayerbook provides a listing of those days when this prayer is skipped, with a couple of instances where the customs vary.

There are those who, out of concern that the minyan may have dwindled following the completion of the statutory prayers, see this Psalm with its ten verses as providing a subtle opportunity to indirectly count the assembled once more to make sure there is still a minyan for the concluding prayers of the service, as one reads one verse per person.

This Psalm seems particularly appropriate at this point both as a conclusion to our prayers of petition on one hand, and also as words of support, as one goes off into the workaday world, to fight our battles each day. We may not face actual warfare as did the king of Israel, here referred to as His anointed one, meshicho, but we all have our struggles to face and we like to think that God will support our efforts throughout the day. While the Psalmist sees his strength coming from the service in the Temple, his offering of sacrifices and meal offerings to God, we may see those offerings as metaphorically reflected in the prayers and supplications we have just offered during the course of the morning service. The Psalm continues joyfully, “May we rejoice in Your salvation and celebrate the name of our God. May God fulfill all your requests.” With confidence we assert, “Now I know that God will save His anointed and answer him from his holy heights, with his mighty saving arm.”

The verse that follows is a favorite of mine, because it is my “official” verse. It begins with an alef and ends with a resh as does my Hebrew name, Eliezer. The custom is to insert one's personal verse just before the end of the Elohai n'tzor prayer at the conclusion of the Amidah, as if to enter one's password before pressing “submit” for your daily prayer. The verse states, “There are those [who trust ] in chariots and those in horses, but as for us, we call on the name of Adonay, our God.” The Psalm continues, “They bow down and fall, while we arise and prevail.” There is an old camp song utilizing these two verses which we used to sing energetically in our youth as we acted out the parts of the horsemen and charioteers, holding the reins in both hands and then at first falling to the side and then jumping up as we sang “kamnu 'vnitodad, we arise and prevail. This verse is not entirely accurate, of course. We need to exert our own efforts to defend ourselves, but what we're saying is that we are not dependent solely on our chariots and horses. Our efforts will succeed only with God's help. So the Psalm ends with a plea, “Adonay hoshia, hamelech ya'aneinu b'yom koreinu, O Lord save us, may our King answer us when we cry out.”

Psalm 20 is followed by a lengthy prayer which is known as Kedushah d'sidra, the Kedushah, the proclamation of God's holiness, of the order, that is the daily order of study. According to the Talmud, the world endures because of the Kedushah d'sidra and the Y'hei sh'mei rabbah of the Kaddish recited after study. Rashi sees the importance of the Kedushah d'sidra as the opportunity given to all Jews to study at least a little Torah each day through this passage. Others see its importance in its repetition of the three central verses from the Kedushah, which latecomers may have missed. This time they are recited without a minyan in a less formal way, as each verse in turn is rendered into the Aramaic of the Targum, the traditional Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible. Some commentators believe that this prayer was created as a substitute for the Kedushah at a time when it was dangerous to recite that prayer publicly earlier in the service. When the danger passed, the prayer remained. The emphasis of this closing prayer is on the study of Torah as a path to the ultimate redemption of the days to come. The Kedushah d'sidra is not said as part of the morning service on Shabbat and Yom Tov when we already have lengthy periods of study of the Torah portion and haftarah. On those days it is moved to the minchah service and recited after the third Ashrei of the day.

Some early authorities felt that this prayer, since it includes the verses of Kedushah requires a minyan and should not be recited by an individual praying alone, but the majority ruled that that is not the case, since we are not officially reciting Kedushah with its elaborate framework, but merely repeating the central verses and explaining them.

The prayer begins with the words, “Uva l'tziyon goel, ul'shavei fesha b'Ya'akov n'um Adonay.” “A redeemer shall come to Zion and Jacob's repentant sinners, declares the Lord.” The prayer continues, “This is my covenant with them, says the Lord; neither my spirit which is upon you nor my words which I have placed in your mouth shall depart from your mouth or the mouth of your children or your children's children, says the Lord, from now and forevermore.” This promise of continuity of the teachings of Torah is followed by the recital of the three verses of the Kedushah each rendered into an Aramaic paraphrase in turn. First comes a transitional verse from Psalms, “V'atah kadosh, yoshev tehilot Yisrael.” “You are holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel.” This is a reminder that our praises are more cherished by God than the lofty praises of His angelic choir that we are about to recite.

The vision of Isaiah in which the angels proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory,” is expanded to explain each repetition of the word “holy”. “Holy in the heavens on high, His divine abode. Holy upon the earth, His mighty work. Holy to the ends of eternity is the Lord of hosts.” Ezekiel's verse, “Blessed be the Lord from His place,” is clarified as from the place of His divine abode. The third verse, which is not actually in the Kedushah, is the concluding verse of the Song of the Sea, Adonay yimloch l'olam vaed, The Lord will reign forever and ever. This comes out in Aramaic as the Lord's rule will last forever and ever. Abudraham explains that we use this verse from the Torah which has an Aramaic Targum instead of the usual verse from Psalms which does not have the Targum of Yonatan ben Uzziel. The Aramaic language was the common man's language, their Yiddish so to speak, and thus was used to explain the Hebrew text that they might not be able to understand otherwise.

Much of the rest of this prayer is a collection of verses with an emphasis on the importance of studying Torah. Most of the verses speak of God's righteousness and His faithfulness to save His people. “The Lord of hosts is with us, Jacob's God is forever our stronghold. Lord of hosts, happy is the one who trusts in You.” As we continue in this prayer we praise God, “who created us for His glory, and separated us from those who go astray, and gave us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us. [Phrases from the second blessing recited for an aliyah to the Torah.] May He open us to His Torah, and let us love and revere Him, to do His will and serve Him with a perfect heart.”

As the prayer concludes, we are called upon to trust in the Lord. “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, that the Lord becomes his trust. Trust in the Lord forever and ever, for God is an everlasting stronghold. Those who know Your name will trust in You, for Lord, You did not abandon those who seek You.” We end with the verse from Isaiah, “Adonay chafetz l'maan tzidko, yagdil Torah v'yadir. Adonay delights in His righteous, who render the Torah great and glorious.”

The prayerbook of Rav Sa'adia Gaon gives a shorter version of this prayer, but the version in the earlier Seder Rav Amram Gaon is nearly identical to the version we use today and is missing only a couple of verses from the end of the prayer. It seems that the Kedushah d'sidra was at first the actual conclusion of the service with a final Kaddish after it. Later the Alenu which was at first just the introduction to the Malchuyot section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf was added to the service at this point and the final Kaddish was designated as the Mourner's Kaddish. I've written about the Alenu and the Kaddish in earlier essays in this series. In many synagogues, the Kaddish is followed by the Psalms which the Levites recited in the Temple on each of the days of the week. I have written about three of those seven Psalms, since they appear elsewhere in the liturgy: Psalm 24 for Sunday, is also recited as we return the Torah to the ark on days others than Shabbat, Psalm 93 for Friday and Psalm 92 for Shabbat, are included in the P'sukei d'zimrah on Shabbat and festivals and also in the Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights. I plan to write about the remaining four Psalms in a future piece.

To summarize then, these concluding prayers of the morning service are intended to encourage us to go forth from the synagogue armed with God's presence and the assurance that our efforts will bring about the ultimate redemption. They remind us of the role of the Torah, not only as a text to be studied, but one which infuses our lives with meaning. Through its study we are participating in the work of redemption of the world. These ideas are emphasized at the end of the Kedushah d'sidra and then emphatically repeated in the dramatic prayer of Alenu added to the conclusion of the service. We pledge our loyalty to God and aspire to the day when all the world will recognize the Lord as God. “On that day, the Lord shall be One and His name One.”

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