Thoughts on the Y'kum Purkan Prayers
Following the reading of the haftarah on Saturday morning and prior to the return of the scroll of the Torah to the ark are a series of prayers, some of which we have looked at in earlier pieces, such as the prayer for our country and the blessing for the new month. Before either of these prayers, at least in traditional prayerbooks, one finds two prayers in Aramaic and a third in Hebrew. The first seems rather strange and anachronistic and the second and third seem almost to duplicate one another. The Reform prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah, simply has replaced them all with an English prayer for the congregation. The Conservative Lev Shalem, has omitted the first Aramaic passage, and kept the other two prayers, making some significant modifications in the Hebrew prayer. The Israeli Masorti prayerbook has removed the prayers completely and replaced them with two appropriate Hebrew prayers for the congregation, both utilizing some of the same phrases as in the standard version. Let's take a closer look at these prayers and see what they may say to us in their varying forms.
The Aramaic prayers seem to come from the period of the Geonim, the post-Talmudic sages in Babylonia who flourished in the 7th to 11th centuries. These were the heads of the major academies of learning, the successors to the authors of the Talmud, whose influence continued for centuries over the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, all the way to Spain and Portugal. Their teachings also were known by the sages who came up from Italy into France and Germany as well. Thus there was great reverence for these scholars throughout the Jewish world. The problem it seems for us is why should we continue to pray for the welfare of a community and its leaders who have long since disappeared. Perhaps there is an element of nostalgia and a hope that in praying for the scholars of Babylon of the past, as well as for those in the land of Israel, we too may continue the line of tradition and foster scholarship and learning in our own communities. We may see ourselves as the extension or continuation of the Babylonian Diaspora and in praying for the great teachers of the past, we offer our prayers for the great teachers of today and of the future. The fact that the list of officials that are mentioned in this prayer is so specific to Babylon may interfere with this notion a bit, and explain why some siddurim today have removed this prayer from the liturgy, yet in traditional prayerbooks, we continue to pray for all who have maintained our ancient traditions..
We pray, “Y'kum purkan min sh'maya, may salvation arise from heaven: grace, lovingkindness, and compassion, long life and ample sustenance and heavenly help, physical health, enlightenment of mind, living and thriving children who will neither interrupt nor cease from the words of the Torah.” So far, so good. But who is to be the recipients of these abundant blessings? “To our masters and teachers of the holy communities in the land of Israel and Babylon; to the leaders of assemblies.” These twice annual assemblies known as yarchei kallah, were held for scholars and lay people to gather at the academies to hear the teachings of the sages on a given topic each year They are only a memory of the past at this point. “and the leaders of the communities in exile (an office that has been discontinued)” - the secular leaders were known as the Rashei Galuta, the heads of the exile. “the heads of the academies (no longer in existence) to the judges in the gates” reminiscent of the biblical courts held in the gates of the city; “to all their disciples and their disciples' disciples, and to all who occupy themselves in study of the Torah.” In a sense, even though the leaders are gone, each generation that has followed are in fact the disciples of the disciples and even in our generation there are still those who engage in the study of Torah. It is to those remaining in this pursuit that this prayer ultimately comes to be directed. Those who recite this prayer apparently are praying for scholars of Torah wherever they may be even if there are few to be found in what once was Babylonia and even if the ancient academies are no more, their impact continues to our day..
As the prayer continues, we call upon the Sovereign of the Universe, “May He bless them, prolonging their lives, increasing their days, and adding to their years. May they be redeemed and delivered from all distress and illness. May our Master in Heaven be their help at all times and seasons, and let us say: Amen.”
The second prayer which follows after it in the traditional prayerbook, at first glance seems to be a repeat of the first paragraph. There is an old joke about an Interfaith gathering attended by the leaders of the world's great religions. At this conference, as incredible as it might seem, for the sake of world unity, these leaders seemed willing to abandon some basic principles of their faiths to join together as one. When the Jews were asked what they were willing to give up, the sages met for seven days and seven nights and came back and with great pain, announced that they were willing to dispense with the second Y'kum Purkan.
That second Y'kum Purkan begins precisely as does the first one, at least for the first several lines where it lists the various blessings requested from on high. However, as we continue, we see that this prayer is directed not to some other group or to academies no longer extant, but specifically “to all this holy congregation, great and small, women and children.” It is a prayer for us and our community institutions. The rest of the prayer is the same as the first prayer except that while the first prayer is offered in the third person, this one is in the second person, “May the Sovereign of the Universe bless you...” As mentioned, Siddur Lev Shalem, the most recent Conservative prayerbook, leaves out the first Y'kum Purkan and retains only this one for our own present-day congregations..
The Machzor Vitry, the 11th century work of Rashi's student Rabbi Simchah of Vitry, includes the Y'kum Purkan in pretty much the same language we have today, but incorporates the second one into the first prayer and has a somewhat more elaborate ending. It is in the Machzor Vitry that we first find the Hebrew Mi Sheberach prayer for the congregation that we have in our siddurim today as a third paragraph. The Goldschmidt edition of the Machzor Vitry brings two versions from different manuscripts of the machzor, one more elaborate than the other. Here is a rough translation of that longer prayer:
“May He who blessed Abraham and Isaac and Israel, our fathers, and the first pious ones (Chasidim HaRishonim), may He bless all holy congregations and all of this congregation, they and their wives and their sons and their daughters and all that is theirs, and all who have established synagogues for prayer and those who come into them to pray, and those who provide lamps for light and wine for kiddush and for havdalah and bread for wayfarers and tzedakah for the poor and those who welcome wayfarers into their homes. And all those who engage in the needs of their community. May the Holy Blessed One give them their reward and remove from them all sickness and heal all their bodies, and forgive all their sins and bless the work of their hands at every time and season and let us say: Amen.”
This version is very close to the version we still find in traditional siddurim. The Chasidim rishonim, which might possibly refer to the Chasidei Ashkenaz of that era, are not mentioned anymore in current traditional siddurim, however. The local congregation is mentioned before all the other holy congregations in our version. The inclusion of those who host wayfarers in their own homes is missing from our text and the ending has been changed to “together with all Israel their brethren,” and there are other minor changes, but on the whole the prayer has remained much the same for a thousand years. I note the changes however as granting permission, I believe, for later authors and editors to modify and tweak this prayer as they see appropriate.
The version in the old Conservative Silverman siddur dating to the mid-40s added to the phrase “all those who engage in the needs of the community” another phrase “and in the building of the land of Israel in faithfulness.” This addition remained in the Siddur Sim Shalom even after the birth of the State of Israel and there we see that the names of the matriarchs have been added to the names of the three patriarchs. In addition, since both men and women are considered members of the congregation nowadays, it changes the phrase “they and their wives and their sons and their daughters” and makes it simply “they and their sons and their daughters.” The more recent siddur, Lev Shalem, further changes this simply to “they and their families.” When listing some of the mitzvot that one may do in providing the needs of the community, Lev Shalem adds two more items that one may provide, “bread for the hungry” and “shelter for the homeless,” two areas where many congregation have become more active in recent years, supporting soup kitchens and shelters. In concluding the prayer and asking for blessings along with “the entire people Israel their brothers” they add as well “and their sisters.” These changes are in line with our more egalitarian attitudes over the past forty years or so.
Lev Shalem also provides an alternative version of this prayer in one of its sidebars. After a more or less traditional opening, the prayer goes on to pray, “May it be Your will to bless us, to hear our voices raised in prayer, and to protect us from any trouble and difficulty. Spread over us the divine canopy of peace and plant within us love and unity, peace and friendship; banish all hate among us. May the words of Torah be fulfilled, 'Do not wrong one another, but fear your God...that you may dwell upon the land securely.” This is an interesting counterpoint to the original version which seems outer directed to the needs of others in the community, while this version focuses more on the internal needs of the congregation, bringing people together in harmony, often a more difficult task.
The Israeli Masorti siddur Va-ani Tefilati, as I mentioned earlier, dispenses with the traditional Y'kum Purkan and Mi Sheberach and begins with a prayer for those who have been called to the Torah a few moments before: “May He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless all who have come up to the Torah [for aliyot], to lift it and to wrap it, and those who have read from the Torah and from the prophets, who have benefited the public through their reading, and all of this holy congregation, they and their families and all that is theirs, and all who engage in the needs of the community and in the building of the land of Israel in faithfulness, may the Holy blessed one, give them their reward, and send blessing and success to all the works of their hands along with all of Israel, and may this be God's will. Let us say: Amen.”
This blessing is followed by a second blessing which incorporates some of the other thoughts from the traditional version of the prayer. It begins again by invoking God who blessed the patriarchs and matriarchs and who blesses all holy congregations, “may He bless this holy congregation, great and small, men and women, our sons and our daughters, and all that is ours. May it be His will, that the sovereign of the universe bless us and hear the sound of our prayers, and save us from every trouble and affliction. May the Lord be our support and protect us and may He spread the tabernacle of His peace over us and plant among us love and fellowship, peace, and companionship (ahavah v'achvah, shalom v'reut – words taken from the marriage blessings), and remove pointless hatred (sinat chinam – the sin which brought the destruction of the Second Temple according to the sages) from among us, and fulfill in us the words that are written: 'May the Lord, God of your fathers increase your numbers one thousand fold and bless you as He has spoken to you' and may this be His will. And let us say: Amen.”
Finally, turning to the Reform Mishkan Tefillah, one finds as is usual in Reform prayerbooks a variety of possible readings, but the one most closely approximating the traditional prayers we have been considering is found in a section entitled “Prayers of our Community” and headed by the title “For Our Congregation.” This short prayer reflects on the various participants in our worship service and states, “Source of all being, may the children of this community learn these passions from us; love of Torah, devotion in prayer, and support of the needy (these are the three traditional pillars cited in Pirke Avot on which the world exists, Torah, divine worship, and acts of kindness). May we guide with integrity, and may our leadership be in Your service. May those who teach and nourish us be blessed with satisfaction, and may we appreciate their time and their devotion. Bless us with the fruits of wisdom and understanding; and may our efforts bring fulfillment and joy.
The prayer concludes in Hebrew with the closing blessing from the ancient version of the R'tzei blessing in the Amidah, which the Reform siddur prefers to the version generally used in the traditional prayerbook. Baruch ata Adonai, she-otcha l'vadcha b'yirah na'avod. Praised are You, Lord, whom alone we serve in reverence.
We all seek God's blessing. These prayers in their various forms introduced into the Shabbat worship after we listen to the words of Torah and the Prophets, seek to remind us of the values that are most precious in our communities and urge us to go forth from this service in the week ahead and to apply these values of Torah in our daily lives, working for the benefit of the community, continuing to learn and to teach, and reaching out to others to bring peace and harmony, friendship and love to those we meet. May all of us enjoy the many blessings of heaven and may we bring our own blessings into this world inspired by these prayers each week.