Thursday, December 26, 2013


The Lowly Tasks

Our sages tell us that the rod Moses used to bring the plagues upon the Egyptians was carved with the names of the six mothers of our people (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah), the twelve tribes, the ten plagues, and the great name of G‑d.
Certainly, the noble and lofty ideas and ideals represented by the matriarchs and the tribes of Israel are “worthy companions” for G‑d’s name on Moses’ rod. But the lowly tasks of bringing frogs, lice and boils upon the Egyptians seem an incongruous “match” with the Almighty’s ineffable name—
Until we call to mind the principle of G‑d’s particular providence and watchfulness over every detail of the universe. G‑d is concerned not only with lofty generalities, with the world as a whole or an entire species as a whole, but also with “lowly matters” (such as punishing the Egyptians) and with the smallest details.
Some individuals feel that their purpose in life is to revolutionize the world, to revamp society. It is not worthwhile to devote their superior talents to correcting “small matters.”
In particular, there are some rabbinical leaders who declare that their attention is devoted exclusively to matters of great import. In Torah study, they explore only the most esoteric and abstruse discussions. In the area of service of G‑d, they ponder profound axioms of philosophy encompassing the entire Torah. In the field of communal affairs, they attempt to show how all of humanity’s ills could be remedied by application of the principles of justice. In the arena of worldly affairs, their sermons eloquently explain the need for global democracy; they comment on nuclear warfare, and stress the need for summit meetings of the world’s leaders.
The “simple” matters of Shabbat laws and Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, the laws of marital life or the details of blessings to be made over food do not befit their exalted status. Such “lowly tasks” are best left to the gabbai, the synagogue warden, or at best to the assistant rabbi, for the duty of a great rabbi is to address himself exclusively to matters of global nature, to attract attention with startling new statements and to make front-page news.
Let these rabbis content themselves with emulating their Creator! If the Almighty interests Himself and watches over even the smallest detail of the universe; if bringing lice and hail upon the Egyptians is not too “lowly” a task to be associated with G‑d’s great name—then he too should give attention to the smallest detail. It is precisely in the “simple tasks,” teaching the Torah laws pertaining to day-to-day living, that G‑d’s kingly presence finds expression.1
1. Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 6, p. 305.

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism Paperback

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism Paperback

Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism

Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism
JEWISH MYTH, MAGIC, AND MYSTICISM is devoted to all aspects of Jewish esoteric traditions and occult lore. It is the official blog for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. The JMMM has been recognized as one of the top 50 Jewish blogs on the internet in 2010

Monday, September 02, 2013

Machnasei Rachamim and Selichot: Jewish Angel Liturgy at the High Holy Days

Whenever a congregant reads something I have written, or I share a bit of Jewish esoteric tradition from the pulpit, I inevitably have some say to me, rather emphatically, “Jews do not do that!” To this I always respond, “In 3000 years, living on 6 continents, some Jew somewhere has done everything.”

One need go no further than the Selichot prayers for the days leading up to the High Holy Days. For here we encounter the prayer Machnisei Rachamim, “Conveyors of Compassion.”  This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makes of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

Whoa, stop right there. “Jews do not do that!” Well, there is ample case that that opinion is correct. The rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately.” (T.Y. Berachot 9.1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha'Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on.

In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory.  

The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet…At least one midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (Shir Hashirim Rabba to 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words “barchuni l’shalom…”, “bless me with peace”, when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem.
Here I quote a wise gentile:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" – Emerson

Some defenders have argued that this behavior reflects our lowliness at this time of the year; we feel unworthy to address God directly.

Being historically minded, and noting that this prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, I suspect it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

Whatever the rationale, a traditional Jew has to grapple with this odd bit of our angelic tradition.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon.

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LocationTexas, United States
IntroductionGeoff Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and teaches Kabbalah and Rabbinic Literature in the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas. He is the author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, a 2007 National Book Award finalist, and recipient of an Honorable Mention for the 2007 Jewish Library Council Book Award. He has written numerous articles. The most recent, "Purity and Transformation:The Mimetic Performance of Scriptural Texts in the Ritual of Taharah," is in the Journal of Ritual Studies 26 (1), 2012.
InterestsMovies, Mythology, History, Home Improvement, Blacksmithing, Books, New Mexico, Israel, Spirituality, Mysticism, Food
Favorite MoviesGlory, Casablanca, The Incredibles, Ghostbusters, The Man Who Would be King, Zulu, Jacob's Ladder, Master and Commander, Pulp Fiction, A Touch of Evil, Adaptation, The Day the Earth Stood Still (original), Bladerunner, Get Shorty, Dark Star, Harold and Maude, Blazing Saddles, The Chosen
Favorite BooksTaNaKH, Lord of the Rings, Accidental Journy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Shakespeare's plays, Beowulf, The Dance of Genghis Cohen, Their Eyes Were Turned to God, Killer Angels, God in Search of Man, Lamb, The Essence of Judaism, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Prophets, Hornblower Series, Blood Meridian