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The Liturgical Dilemma of the Nahem Prayer on Tisha B’Av

Fast Days
Prayer and Liturgy
Shavua Tov @ Schechter
Theology

The Nahem prayer is one of the most important prayers of Tisha B’av. It offers a solemn plea to God to rebuild and reunite Jerusalem. However, after the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, the Nahem prayer no longer reflects reality, presenting us with a liturgical dilemma every year since 1967.

Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin offers three different theological liturgical reactions to the Six-Day War and this prayer.

Read the full article below:

 

In a few days we will mark the fast day of Tisha B’av. The second most well known fast day of the Jewish year. 

In June 1967, the city of Jerusalem was miraculously reunited in the Six-Day War and religious Zionists had a dilemma when Tisha B’av fell just a few months later. Because the Nahem prayer, one of the most important prayers of Tisha B’av, which is recited by Ashkenazic Jews at  Mincha and by Sephardic Jews at all of the services on Tisha B’av, was no longer true. 

This is the traditional wording of the prayer: 

Lord our God, console the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem and the city that is bereaved, destroyed, scorned and desolate. 

Bereft of her children, destroyed of her building, scorned of her glory and desolate of her inhabitants. 

She sits with her head covered like a woman barren and childless, legions have devoured her, idolaters have plundered her. 

They have cast your people, Israel to the sword and purposely killed the devoted ones of the most high. 

Therefore, Zion weeps in bitterness and Jerusalem raises her voice: ‘My heart, my heart breaks for those they killed! My insides, my insides ache for those they killed!

For you, Oh Lord, with fire consumed her and with fire you will somehow rebuild her, as it is said: ‘Blessed are you Lord consoler of Zion and builder of Jerusalem. 

The religious Zionists no longer wanted to recite this prayer, because it wasn’t true. Thank God the city of Jerusalem was reunited, the city of Jerusalem was no longer desolate, and so on and so forth.  

I would like to present three theological liturgical reactions to the Six-Day War and this prayer: 

    1. The traditional reaction of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in his responsa Yechaveh Da’at that was written sometime not long after the Six Day war. The responsa states that we are not allowed to change the liturgy; the liturgy according to one passage in the Talmud was stated by the men of the Great Assembly in the fifth century BCE, therefore, we have no right to change anything. He also tries to come up with some apologetics about why the wordings of Nachem are still appropriate even though we had reunited the city of Jerusalem. This is the approach followed by almost all orthodox siddurim, for example, the Koren Siddur, edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in 2009 and the new RCA siddur, which was just published in 2018. Both have retained the original wording of Nahem first found in the Talmud Yerushalmi and not changed anything.
    2.  The next was a middle-of-the-road approach of Rabbi Haim David HaLevi, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and he quotes an expression, “you are not allowed to recite something untrue before God.” He is, no doubt, also hinting at a passage in the Talmud in tractate Yoma 69B, which says that our ancestors were not afraid to change the wording of the prayers in order not to say something false. What did Rabbi Haim HaLevi do? He said he changed two words in Nahem. Instead of saying: The city that is desolate it says: The city that was desolated. He goes on to say: She doesn’t sit with her head bowed down, rather, she sat with her head bowed down. Therefore, by changing these two words, he has made the prayer more truthful in light of the miraculous reunification of the city of Jerusalem.
    3. There are at least four rabbis who rewrote the prayer of Nachem in light of the miraculous victory of the Six Day War: Rabbi Urbach, Rabbi Avraham Rosenfeld, Rabbi Jules Harlow and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. I would like to only mention in detail the prayer composed by Rabbi Professor Urbach who was a famed Talmud scholar who died in Israel about 30 years ago, and that very Tisha B’av, right after the Six Day War, he composed a new version of Nahem, which is called Rahem:

Have mercy, with your great mercy on your people, Israel, on the city of Jerusalem, which is being rebuilt from its ruins which is being set up from its ruins and which is being, once again, inhabited from it’s desolateness…

The prayer goes on to lament those who were killed in the Six Day War who fought and died in order to reunify the city:

…And may the city which you save from legions be an inheritance to the Jewish people, may there be a sukkah of peace and a river of peace. 

Blessed are you our God, who rebuilt Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem. 

This prayer of Rabbi Urbach was adopted in the siddur of the Reform movement in Israel and in the siddur of the Conservative Masorti movement in Israel. 

I think you have a classic debate here about what to do with a prayer that may longer be true and three ways of dealing with this liturgical dilemma. Thank God, we now live in a reunited city of Jerusalem, and I, personally, recite the version composed by Rabbi Urbach in 1967.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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