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Thoughts on V’yitein L’cha

For many, Shabbat provides a much-needed respite in the midst of a very busy weekday schedule.  It can be a time for rest and relaxation, an opportunity to get together with family and friends and catch up a bit, and, of course, it provides occasions for spiritual activities as well: prayer, study, and reflection.  Shabbat may bring with it special meals and favorite foods; we welcome the Sabbath Day as an honored guest to our table.  Shabbat has been seen by many people as a special gift by the Almighty to the Jewish people and from the Jewish people to the rest of the world as well.  That said, we must admit, that particularly in the long summer days, it sometimes seems like Shabbat will never end.  For those who have plans for Saturday evening, Havdalah, the ceremony which marks the end of Shabbat, can’t come too soon.


Nonetheless, our sages looked at Shabbat quite differently.  They took every opportunity to extend Shabbat beyond the setting of the sun.  While one may begin Shabbat before sunset and we purposely light candles to inaugurate the day, at least eighteen minutes beforehand, on the other end, we add a bit more time to indicate reluctance to see the Sabbath depart.  Nightfall does not occur until Tzeit HaKochavim, until the stars “come out.”  That means not just any old star, but at least three medium sized stars must appear in the heavens.  How does one gauge which are medium sized stars, you may ask. The answer: one waits to see the small stars and then compares them.  On a cloudy night, we’re told one waits until all doubt is removed from our mind that it is now dark outside.  While some people today still prefer looking for natural signs, for centuries now, people have relied on mathematical calculations and sunset charts instead.  Nowadays you might consult an app on your phone to see when the stars are due to come out.  Not surprisingly, the app on my phone provides two different opinions on the matter, separated by about 30 minutes.  There are multiple views on how long one should extend Shabbat.  Incorporated into these calculations is something called “tosefet Shabbat” an add-on to make certain that one does not violate the laws about working on Shabbat and also to show our reluctance to let Shabbat go.


Along with these mathematical calculations, the sages also employed some liturgical stalling tactics as well. Part of thisthey claimed was for the benefit of latecomers to the evening prayers, providing extra time for them to catch up and go home with the rest of the congregation because of safety concerns.  The other explanation is based on midrash, rabbinic imagination, which claims that on Shabbat even the fires of Gehinnom intended to punish the sinners, are banked for the day.  We purposely draw out our prayers on Saturday night out of compassion for the wicked who will be sent back into the Inferno for more punishment immediately after Shabbat ends. (The midrash pictures their vengeful anger when someone dares to light a fire prior to Havdalah, shortening their respite.)


We previously saw a similar stalling tactic employed for weekday services when we looked at the additional, fifth blessing added to the normal four blessings surrounding the evening Sh’ma.  Those additional verses and a closing blessing allowed latecomers to catch up and leave the synagogue with everyone else.  In some places this may have reflected concern for human attackers, muggers or highwaymen, while elsewhere, in medieval times, it was concern for demonic forces out and about at night: sheidim, demons.  On Saturday night, MotzaeiShabbat, at the departure of the Sabbath, in most traditional services we add the 91st Psalm, Yoshev b’seter Elyon, that we looked at as part of the P’sukei d’Zimrah prayers on Shabbat and festivals.  This Psalm speaks of divine protection and, you may recall, that we also recite it as we accompany the dead to their burial place.  This Psalm is followed by the Kiddusha d’Sidra, that lengthy passage that occurs at the end of our weekday morning prayers prior to Alenu and shows up at the beginning of Mincha on Shabbat as well.  It includes verses of the Kedushah in Hebrew with an Aramaic translation following.  Traditional prayerbooks add to all of this, either after the recitation of Havdalah over a cup of wine or, more likely nowadays, before that Havdalah ritual, a passage extending over three pages or so that begins with Isaac’s blessing intended for Esau, butintercepted by Jacob.  Its opening words are “v’yitein l’cha He-Elohim mital hashamayim umishmanei ha-aretz,” “May God give you dew from heaven and from the richness of earth.”


This passage varies in length and in content in different traditions, but most importantly, it includes many of the words of blessing that are mentioned throughout the Torah.  Aside from any stalling benefit it may serve, these many paragraphs are filled with hope and expectation that God may bless all ofour endeavors in the week ahead. We do not know who introduced this practice, but we do know that it was already well-established by the 11th century, for it appears in full in the Machzor Vitry of Rashi’s school, though there are two variations of it appearing in different manuscripts of that early work.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that today there are varying customs on the number of verses and their order.  He points out the Sephardic version and that of Chabad is somewhat shorter than the Ashkenazic version, focusing primarily on verses of blessing and peace.  This is true of the Yemenite version as well which has other additions from the book of Numbers included.  The Italian tradition also varies a bit, adding some Psalms and some aggadic passages praising the sages.  As for the Ashkenazim, he notes, the custom to utilize a lengthy version including verses of blessing, redemption, and salvation, the departure from trouble and words of peace.  It concludes with an excerpt from the Talmud and a short Psalm.  Regardless of which liturgical tradition one follows, clearly our intent is to voice our hopes for a week of blessing and peace.


Some people may be surprised to learn that this lengthy passage at the end of the Saturday evening service appears in most of the prayerbooks of the Conservative movement until the most recent.  You can find it in the old Silverman prayerbook that many of us grew up using.  Siddur Sim Shalom also contains this prayer and the revised Sim Shalom in two volumes still has a slightly shortened version in the Shabbat volume.  I have rarely been in a congregation, however, that takes the time to read this lengthy passage of blessing.  I do recall that it was read at B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, OK, when I served as Associate Rabbi there in the early ‘80s.  There is no surprise about thatthough; the senior rabbi was Orthodox and so was the siddur in use at that time.  I did find, however, one tradition about V’yitein l’cha, that suggested that one might take the time at home, after services, to read through these blessings rather than rushing through them as one tries to reach the end of the service.  When I turned to the end of the service for the conclusion of Shabbat in the most recent Conservative siddur, Lev Shalem, I found only a single verse, the opening line, included as a kind of farewell blessing as worshippers leave the sanctuary.


My late colleague, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, does provide an interesting commentary to the passages of this prayer in his two volumes on the prayerbook entitled Or Hadash, which is printed as sidebars around the text of the revised Siddur Sim Shalom. He suggests that we view this series of blessings as the equivalent of the Kabbalat Shabbat at the beginning of Shabbat.  Just as we welcome the Sabbath into our midst as the sun sets on Friday night, we escort Shabbat on its way, as the stars appear in the sky on Saturday night.  Some communities even hold a special post-Shabbat celebration called a MelavehMalkah, escorting the queen, the Sabbath.


The passage of V’yitein l’cha opens with a  combination of the two blessings that Jacob received from his father Isaac: the blessing of material prosperity intended for Esau and that of the spiritual gifts of the covenant that was always intended for him.  These two excerpts lead into the blessing given years later by Jacob himself to his children on his deathbed.  This is followed by other blessings that vary in order including the blessing that Jacob gave his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, as well as verses from the blessing Moses conveyed to the people Israel found in Deuteronomy 28.  From these blessings in the Torah the passage moves now to verses from the prophets that focus on redemption and salvation.  Quoting Isaiah, we read, “I have wiped away your transgressions like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to Me for I have redeemed you.”  Other prophetic verses follow including a few verses that appear also in the Havdalah prayers speaking of our future redemption.  Siddur Sim Shalom jumps from this collection to the conclusionof the passage with Psalm 128.  That Psalm ends with the words, “May God bless you from Zion.  May you see Jerusalem prosper all the days of your life.  May you live to see children’s children. May there be peace for the people Israel.”  The Hebrew words that end this Psalm may be familiar to some readers because they were part of a popular Israeli song some years back. “Y’varech’cha HaShem miTziyon ur’ei b’tuv Yerushalayim koly’mei chayecha.  Ur’ei vanim l’vanecha shalom al Yisrael.”


The traditional Ashkenazic prayerbook, however, is not done yet.  They present another page and half of biblical passages, some more familiar than others, taken from the prophets and  Psalms, emphasizing God’s redeeming power and our prayers for peace. This passage then leads to a citation from the Talmud of Megillah in which Rabbi Yochanan teaches that God’s greatness is manifested through His humility. He cites prooftexts from the Torah, the prophets, and the Psalms.  Before reaching Psalm 128, there is another series of verses offering us blessing once more, “May the Lord our God be with us, as He was with our ancestors.  May He never abandon us or forsake us.  You who cleave to the Lord our God are all alive this day.  For the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her ruins; He will make her wildeness like Eden, and her desert like a garden of the Lord.  Joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.  It pleased the Lord for the sake of Israel’s righteousness to make the Torah great and glorious.” From here we come to the concluding Psalm that I mentioned earlier, Psalm 128, one of the Shirei HaMaalot, the Songs of Ascent, with its closing blessings, “Shalom al Yisrael.”  May there be peace upon Israel.


Indeed, it is our hope that the new week, every week, may be filled with blessing and peace.  The rabbis’ fondest hope was to extend Shabbat far beyond nightfall, to the day they envisioned, “Yom shekulo Shabbat umenuchah, A day entirely of Shabbat and rest.”.  

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