Archive for the ‘Jewish History’ Category

From Medieval Ashkenaz Techinah Supplication to Iconic Segulah: The Chasidic Transformation of G-d of Abraham – השינוי החסידית של גאט פון אברהם: מתחינה אשכנזית מימי הביניים לסגולה מפורסמת

September 18, 2015

In many siddurim and bentchers nowadays, one encounters a supplication at the conclusion of Shabbos called גאט פון אברהם (God of Abraham) (GFA).  It is often accompanied by words stating that it is from the Chasidic leader Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (RLY), and that it is a great segulah for success (such as with פרנסה), and should be recited three times by men, women, and children.

While on the surface it seems a simple matter, it actually is quite a bit more complicated, as a number of questions may arise if one thinks about it, such as 1) why is a Yiddish prayer in the standard Hebrew (לשון קודש) siddur?, 2) why is it specifically promoted as a potent segulah?, 3) why the emphasis and detailed instruction that men, women, and children recite it?

Medieval Ashkenaz Origin

Firstly, it should be mentioned that GFA is originally an old Ashkenaz תחינה (supplication) in the vernacular that goes back to hundreds of years before the time of RLY, who was in the early years of the Chasidic movement. See this interesting related discussion at the Musings of a Jewish Bookseller blog, which includes illustrations of the prayer in pre Hasidic printed works. A more clear rendering of an old Ashkenaz version can be seen in a recent siddur here.

However, as a vernacular (Judisch-Deutsch, or Yiddish) תחינה supplication, it is not as formal and set in stone, so to speak, as, for example, sections of the main body of the סידור התפלה. Therefore, there were numerous versions of the prayer extant in Europe in the past. The contemporary scholar and researcher ר’ יחיאל גולדהבר , in his fine work מנהגי הקהלות (v.1, p.267-8), has a discussion of it, in which he cites a work printed a little over a century ago in Warsaw with twenty two versions of it. In many places it was basically a women’s prayer seemingly.

To better understand this, we need some context. Centuries ago, the state of Jewish education for the masses was not at the high level it is at today for some, ב”ה . There were women (especially) that were not proficient in Hebrew. For them, a Yiddish-vernacular prayer was something they might better understand and relate to than one in Hebrew – לשון קודש. Men were typically better learned, so they were more connected to more standard Hebrew prayers, but even among them, due to various pressures, many were weak in Hebrew and Torah learning. So perhaps we could say that it was a supplication with a special connection and appeal to the less educated, who were more comfortable with the vernacular of Yiddish as opposed to Hebrew.

Chassidic Transformation of  Old Supplication

There are some additional discussions online of the topic, which shed much light on it. Firstly, is a page with information from a Rav Gershon Kitzis in לשון קודש, which is very helpful. Also helpful is a discussion at an online forum here. Both of them I credit for helping greatly in researching the topic, from which are drawn the understandings below.

The Yiddish composition of GFA gives it a folksy, informal, populist feel, which fit in well with the populist, anti-establishment, and anti-elitist aspects of the Chasidic movement, especially in its early years. RLY was one of the most popular Chasidic leaders, who spoke to G-d directly and in Yiddish, as seen in some of his other famous legacies, such as ‘א דין תורה מיט הקב”ה, דודאלע, וכו. Anyway, it seems that RLY  or someone else in early Hasidism, took the old GFA and transformed it, by adding aspects related to and stressed by the nascent, early Hasidic movement, such as אמונת חכמים, דבוק חברים טובים, ודביקות בהקב”ה. Though people nowadays may not realize it, those are themes very important, integral to, and stressed by the Chasidic movement, especially in its early days, when RLY lived, when it was under strong attack by its Rabbinic opponents. RLY suppposedly instructed that it should be recited 3x (something seen with some other recitations as well, especially with Chasidic or Kabbalistic connection), by not just women, but rather men, women, and children (‘everyone’). This could be seen as part of Chasidic outreach to the less educated masses, as well as an expression of Chasidic identification and solidarity. The term אמונת חכמים could be understood as referring to Chasidic leaders, while dveykus and dibbuk chaveirim are also well known major Chasidic themes.

Supplication to Segulah

Putting together the above pieces of the puzzle, the above background may solve the mystery of why specifically this prayer (the Chasidic version) was touted as a great segulah. Perhaps it was that basically switching over to (similar to Chasidim changing from נוסח אשכנז לנוסח ספרד perhaps), or saying the Chasidic version of the תחינה (rather than an Ashkenazic version, or not saying it at all) was a way of identifying with, expressing support for, and praying on behalf of the Chasidic movement, something very close to the heart of RLY. That is why he (or whoever it was) assured people that it would be a great segulah. On the other hand, non Chasidim who didn’t go along with that, were/are making a statement as well in terms of their allegiance religiously, as remaining faithful adherents of the great pre Chasidic Ashkenazic path.

As time passed, this background of the prayer became obscured and forgotten. Many Jews didn’t primarily speak Yiddish anymore, and some even translated it into other languages. But the appeal of a great segulah attached to the name of a famous personality still persisted to many.

The Ashkenazic, non-Chasidic versions also continue on as well. Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger שליט”א has a tune for an old version that he sings with it.


I hope you found this exploration as fascinating as I did.

In the zechus of our following in the ways of our great ancestors, and the גדולי אשכנז זי”ע, may we be zoche that the G-d of our ancestors, אברהם, יצחק, ויעקב protect and bless us.

Thanks to my dear friends for their support.

חתימה טובה, א גוט געבענטשט יאהר

Christians join hands with Rabbi to put kibosh on mixed dancing

March 27, 2011

Twentieth century America? No, eighteenth century Alsace was the setting for this riveting tale.

The other day, I came across a very interesting account of a battle royal over mixed dancing that took place approximately two hundred and fifty years ago in Alsace.

Rav Yosef Steinhart, soon after arriving in Nieder Ehnheim to assume the Rabbinate there, heard that a local custom was to have dances on Yom Tov, with young men and women dancing together. He promptly ordered on erev Yom tov that such be banned, and that violators be fined.  The reply from the dance group was that they had already received permission from the government, and that he would not be able to stop it, since the government gained revenue from the accompanying  sales of great quantities of wine to the attendees. When the Rabbi refused to back down, he was slandered to the authorities.

Whereupon the Rabbi was summoned by the government, with great respect, to explain his action. He explained that the dancing was a serious sin and against the Jewish faith. The local ruler, a devout Christian who had a Bible at hand, heard a detailed discourse from Rav Steinhart, proving from various Biblical verses that mixed dancing was not countenanced by the Torah, which won him over. However, he still wanted to consult with a colleague on the matter as well, which he proceeded to do. The colleague evidently was a philo-semite, and wrote him that the Rav’s words were true and faithful, because Jews are holy, and praised highly their faith and customs. Verdict – Rabbi wins by KO. 😉

Responsa literature (שו”ת) can be very interesting at times, but unless you are the type that goes through it a lot, it is likely that you are missing out on some very enjoyable and historically informative pieces. Sometimes we need someone else to point us to such highlights. הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא (Volume II, p.138, 140) brought this interesting tale to my attention.

More juicy details can be seen in the account in שו”ת זכרון יוסף, starting here.

Jewish usage of non-Hebrew numerical systems – History and propriety

March 24, 2011

Hebrew numerals. Roman numerals. Arabic (Indian) numerals.

What numbers can a Jew use? What numbers should he use?

How should pages in a  ספר קודש be numbered?

הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא relates (volume II, p. 116-118) that the number system that is widely used nowadays, generally referred to as Arabic numerals, came relatively late to Jewish use. Rav Yaakov Emden was a pioneer in utilizing them in a sefer kodesh, by doing so in his famed siddur, the first volume of which, עמודי שמים, was printed in 5505 (1745 C.E.) in Altona. This page in the siddur is one illustration.

Some Hungarian Rabbis opposed such usage, even going so far as to say that it was אסור, as it did not come down to us from הר סיני, as R. Shaul Brach argued.

However, the author notes, they have become widely accepted nowadays, and are seen in many seforim. He also comments in a footnote, that they can be seen at times in works of the Chasam Sofer (of חדש אסור מן התורה fame) himself.

The first sefer (ספר קודש) with modern footnotes

March 23, 2011

Another interesting historical nugget that I just came across in הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא, (Volume II, p.115), is re the first sefer (ספר קודש) to use modern, numbered footnotes.

It is stated there that modern, numbered footnotes first appeared in the writings of Western scholars in the beginning of the 1600’s C.E., but they did not appear in ספרי קודש until close to two hundred years later, when the sefer מעין החכמה, of Rav Chaim Zvi Harsch Berlin, appeared.

One can gaze at this חידוש with ease here, with a click or two of a mouse, courtesy of the great site.

So according to the above, we are only a few years away from the bi-centennial of footnotes in ספרי קודש.

Is it proper for a Rav to leave his kehillah during a time of danger (e.g. wartime ר”ל)? A historical perspective from the חתם סופר and נודע ביהודה

March 22, 2011

In recent times, especially in the wake of Churban Europe in the WWII period, a hotly debated topic has been whether it is proper for a leader, esp. a spiritual leader such as a Rav or Rebbe, to leave his kehillah in time of danger.

Interesting historical perspective can be gleaned from what I recently read in הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא, חלק ב.

In the chapter on Rav Chaim Zvi Hirsch Berlin, it is related (p.83)  that during the Napoleonic wars, when he was Rav and Rosh Yeshiva in מגנצא (Mainz), the heads of the Mainz kehillah, in concern for his safety, spirited him away to Frankfurt.

רבש”ה then cites the words of the חתם סופר discussing this question (bottom of right column in Chasam Sofer).

The Chasam Sofer says that he he heard that when Prague was under siege some sixty years earlier, the Noda biYehudah (NBY), R. Yechezkel Landau, wanted to escape, but the leaders did not allow him to do so. He continues, that  the NBY’s wanting to leave was understandable, as we know that one should not stay in a place of danger (סכנה), so that ones זכויות not be diminished (at least, if not for other reason as well). The leaders not allowing him to leave is also understandable, as they wanted their shield (the great Rav and tzaddik) with them, and so it is fitting for a leader of Yisroel, to give himself for his nation….and not leave them in danger and save himself alone.

However, he continues, many dispute this, as when Mainz was besieged a number of years ago, they sent their Rav, the Gaon Rav Chaim Harsch זצ”ל to Frankfurt, and so did the leaders of Koblenz with their Rav….as Frankfurt sent my teacher the הפלאה…(elsewhere)….as even (after being moved for safety) elsewhere (these great leaders) could daven for the kehillah and protect them as possible…so why do they need to suffer….So what emerges from this, is that there is a machlokes between the leaders of the kehillah of Prague and the other kehillos mentioned.

Interestingly, רבש”ה in the footnotes states that a friend of his brought to his attention the words of the son of the NBY (toward the bottom of the right column, ד”ה רחב לבב), who wrote that in 5517 (1756 or 1757 7 C.E.), when the city was in danger, the NBY, in contrast with many of the notables, did not leave his flock, not exactly what it reported above. As an aside, it is not clear (at least to me) if both accounts are describing the same situation, or if they pertain to different episodes.

Anyway, it seems that the חתם סופר comes down on the side of the מנהיג staying with the ציבור. However, it is not phrased as absolutely unequivocal halachic pesak, rather he uses terminology such as ראוי and נראה יותר הגון. One should also keep in mind that it appears in דרשות חת”ס and not שו”ת חת”ס.

Anyway, since no two situations are exactly the same, perhaps each case needs a separate pesak.

והשי”ת ירחם עלנו ויגן עלנו ממקרים כאלו, אכי”ר

Harsh, Hirsh, and Hersh (Harsch, Hirsch, and Hersch) – Names in הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא

March 17, 2011

Another interesting thing that I saw a short while ago in הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא (volume II, p.60).

It states that the name הירש, which is the vernacular כינוי and translation of the popular Hebrew name צבי, was actually pronounced in אשכנז as Harsh (or Harsch), as if there was a פתח under the ה. The חתם סופר felt strongly about this and stated as much. One can see in many places in his writings, in accordance with this, that he spells the name הרש, without a yud, which he felt (inclusion of) led people to pronounce it incorrectly. However, he states that in Poland, it was pronounced Hirsh (Hirsch), with a חיריק.

And nowadays there are others who pronounce it Hersh (Hersch) as well – as if the spelling was הערש, which one actually can see too. I am referring to those whose pronunciation is to say lecht instead of licht, e.g. in the term ליכט בענטשען/צינדען

That is just one elaborate example of a nice amount of material in הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא related to onomastics in general, and Jewish onomastics in particular. The author frequently uses נקודות to help the reader handle obscure and extinct names that come up in the narrative, which likely are not familiar to them.


The meaning of “Shomrim Laboker” – שומרים לבקר

March 4, 2011

Another interesting thing I came across in the sefer הישיבה הרמה בפיורדא has to do with the meaning of שומרים לבקר. The words come from Tehillim 130:6 and mean those who await the morning. I know that there are/have been Shuls with the name Shomrim laboker. But what exactly does it mean? Just a group of early risers? Insomniacs?

In volume I, p.486 in a footnote, it is explained that there was an order of selichos that were said year-round on weekdays in those early hours, first printed in Lublin in 5307, and there were שומרים לבקר groups who recited them together.

I hope to find out more about it, but now I have a better understanding of this matter, a practice which seems to have basically disappeared (?), at least in that form. Of course, we have early risers in Shul today too, but they seem to be doing various other things, such as learning, davening vosikin, preparing for a later minyan…