Words From the Rabbi

Weekly Reflections by Rabbi Edward Friedman

A Thought on Yigdal 

May 20, 2020

          I was invited to speak this week, via Zoom, in the congregation in which I grew up in Bridgeport, CT, Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Thanks to the difference in time zones, I can speak there at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time and be back in time to lead our worship here in Aurora at 9:30 a.m. Central time. Returning to Rodeph Sholom triggered all sorts of memories of my years growing up in that shul which gave me a strong foundation in Hebrew language and Judaic studies. I recall my first time leading a prayer on the bimah at age 9, when I was expected to chant the Yigdal as the concluding hymn at my cousin Jerry's bar mitzvah. It was the family tradition that the next in line for bar mitzvah got to do the Yigdal and that task fell to me as the fifth of six male cousins. Due to the baby boomer generation, we had double bar mitzvahs in our shul back then and Jerry shared his bar mitzvah with Sam Rost, so I shared the Yigdal with Sam's younger brother Jordan. It was kind of interesting since Jordan who was a year ahead of me had learned Hebrew with the Ashkenazic pronunciation, while my class was the first to switch over to Sephardic pronunciation that is used in Israel. I'm not sure, but I think ultimately I had to adapt to Jordan's Ashkenazic Hebrew to make it work.

           Though the Yigdal has a lovely melody which I've heard in Christian churches as well under the title of “O Praise the Living God,” a rough translation, its content seems a little advanced for a fourth grader. It is basically a list of thirteen theological principles that are the foundation of Jewish belief, at least according to the great 12th century sage, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, also known by his acronym, the Rambam. The Rambam didn't write the Yigdal per se, but the principles included in it were enumerated in his Commentary on the Mishnah, in the introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin. The chapter begins by stating that all Israel has a place in the world to come and then proceeds to list some exceptions. Maimondes tries to clarify what we mean by heresy by outlining thirteen principles which we are supposed to affirm to secure our place in the world to come. The first five deal with the nature of God and the relationship of humans to the Almighty, four more deal with revelation, the Torah and prophecy, particularly the unique status of the prophecy of Moses, and the final four cover divine providence, reward and punishment, the coming of the Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead. Very serious matters indeed.  Subsequently, some unknown author decided to formulate these thirteen principles of faith as a credo to be recited daily by Jews. Each of the principles begins with the words, “Ani maamin be-emunah shelemah” “I believe with perfect faith...” Of course, Jews being of so many diverse opinions, not everyone is that comfortable affirming anything with perfect faith and some of Maimonides' principles were and remain sources of controversy to this day. Perhaps that is why this credo is relegated to the end of the morning service, as a kind of appendix, usually ignored by most people. The best known line from it is the 12th principle which purportedly was sung defiantly by some of the victims of the Holocaust as they entered the gas chambers: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and even though he tarry, I will continue to wait for him.”

            In spite of the disagreements over some of these principles, a poet by the name of Daniel ben Yehudah who lived in Italy in the 13th century, took those thirteen principles and rewrote them in poetic form as the Yigdal which we sing joyfully each week as if we accepted every principle with perfect faith. Yigdal appears at the beginning of the morning service in most traditional prayerbooks. However, already in the early 17th century, a well-known German collection of customs, Yosef Ometz, indicates that Yigdal was being used as a closing hymn in synagogues in that community. Our practice generally is to sing it at the end of our Friday night worship.

            The prayer is sung in couplets and thus the thirteenth line is repeated to even things out at the end.  In some Sephardic prayerbooks a 14th line is added instead summing up the content of the prayer: “These are the 13 principles, the foundation of the Torah of Moses and his prophecy.” The first eleven principles are phrased as words of praise to God while the last two are formulated as prayers of hope for the future.

            We begin by praising the Living God whose existence we affirm and whom we believe transcends time. He is one and unique and there is nothing comparable to God's uniqueness. God is incorporeal; He has no body or semblance of a body.  He preceded all creation; He was the first and nothing preceded Him. He is the Master of the Universe to whom all praise is to be directed.

            The middle section now turns to the revelation of the Torah.   God revealed His will through a flow of prophecy to His people.  Among the prophets there was none like Moses who had a clear vision of God.  Through Moses, God revealed His Torah of truth.  God will never amend or change His law for any other throughout eternity.  

            Finally the last four principles are stated. God knows our hidden secrets and the outcome of all of our actions.  He rewards us with kindness according to our deeds and repays the wicked according to his wickedness. So we pray that God will send His messiah at the end of days to redeem those who long for His final salvation. May God revive the dead in His abundant kindness and we conclude, Praised forever be His blessed name.

            I always get a chuckle when I sing that final verse, for I recall as a child, that this verse came right before the closing benediction and the rabbi would always motion for the congregation to rise as we sang, “May He revive the dead in His abundant kindness.” And sure enough, they were aroused and got up.

            As mentioned, throughout the centuries scholars and rabbis quibbled over some of these points, disagreeing with the formulation or understanding some of these matters differently. In spite of that, as with a number of our prayers, we often sing the words as we wrestle with the concepts they embody. People say that if the Bill of Rights were brought to the floor of Congress today, it would never pass. Maimonides' thirteen principles may be somewhat similar, yet we join together as one people to affirm our basic beliefs in the one God, His gift of Torah, and Divine Providence to which we look every day. We joyfully end our worship with a spirited rendition of Yigdal rarely contesting its words of faith.

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