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Why do Some Jews Recite a Special Verse at the End of the Amidah? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 4, Issue No. 5, April 2010

Prayer and Synagogues
Responsa by David Golinkin
Synagogue Life

In memory of the soldiers and civilians who fell defending the State of Israel, whose names we remember on Yom Hazikaron.

Question: There is a custom to recite a special verse at the end of the Amidah (the Silent Devotion) which begins with the first letter of one’s Hebrew name and ends with the last letter of one’s Hebrew name. Where can one find a list of these verses and what is the origin of this custom?

Responsum: A list of these verses can be found in many different siddurim after the Amidah (seeSeder Avodat Yisrael edited by Seligmann Baer, Rodelheim, 1868, pp. 106-107; Otzar Hatefilot by Aryeh Leib Gordon, Vilna, 1928, pp. 380-382;Tzlota D’avraham by R. Yaakov Werdiger, Tel Aviv, 1958, Vol. 1, pp. 328-331; The Artscroll Siddur, New York, 1984, pp. 924-926; as well as many other siddurim).

I) A Homiletic Explanation

Rabbi Shlomo Zvi Schick (Siddur Rashban, Vienna, 1894, fol. 11a which is based on his book Takkanot Utefillot, Munkatsch, 1890, 14:4) gives a very complicated explanation for this custom: It says in Esther Rabbah (Chapter 7, ed. Vilna, fol. 13a) that Mordechai asked three schoolchildren in Shushan to quote verses which they had learned in school. They quoted respectively “al tira mipachad pitom” (Proverbs 3:25), “utzu eitzah … ki imanu el” (Isaiah 8:10), and “ani hu…va’ani esbol va’amalet” (Isaiah 46:4). Rabbi Schick says that the children were taught verses which begin and end with the first and last letters of their Hebrew names so that if they were kidnapped they would know that they are Jewish. Thus, according to Rabbi Schick, the three children in the story were named AvrahamImanuel and Elishafat. This is a very clever explanation but, as we will see, not at all related to the original explanation.

II) The Concept of Hibbut Hakever

The original explanation is as follows. At some point in the Middle Ages there developed the idea of Hibbut Hakever (literally: beating the grave), that after a person dies, the Angel of Death beats him in a terrible fashion for his sins. This idea is hinted at by the following medieval rabbis:

1) In Seder Rav Amram Gaon written by Ram Amram Gaon who died in Sura in the year 875 (Hilkhot Seudah, ed. Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 41, parag. 78) in the list of Harahaman verses at the end of Birkat Hamazon we read: “Harahaman yatzilenu mei-hibbut hakever”, “May the Merciful save us from Hibbut Hakever”. However, it should be noted that according to Goldschmidt (ibid., pp. 10, 21) and many other scholars, the text of the prayers in Seder Rav Amramreflect the text of the later copyists and not of Rav Amram himself.

2) Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) mentions Din Hakever (the judgment of the grave) and Hibbut Hakever in hisHanivhar Ba’emunot U’vadeot, Chapter 6, parag. 7, ed. Kafih,, Jerusalem and New York, 1970, p. 213, but as Rabbi Kafih points out in note 90, Rav Saadia could not possibly have seen Massekhet Hibbut Hakever (see below) which is from a much later period.

3) Rashi (France, 1040-1105) mentions Hibbut Hakever in his commentary to Sanhedrin 47b: Rav Ashi says there that atonement for the dead begins when there is a “little pain of the grave”. Rashi explains: “a little pain of hibbut hakever”.

4) Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (1180-1250) wrote in his Or Zarua (Part 2, Zhitomir, 1862, Hilkhot Aveilut, parag. 424, s.v. amar leho: “And what they explain that the pain of the grave is hibbut hakever, I don’t know what it is”. In other words, he had heard of the concept but did not know what it meant.

5) Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293), who was a pupil of Rabbi Isaac ben Moses, was asked whether making aliyah to Israel can save one from Hibbut Hakever. He replied: “And regarding what you asked if a person is absolved from Hibbut Hakever in Israel? I do not know.” In other words, the questioner was familiar with what it says below in Massekhet Hibbut Hakeverthat living in Israel can save one from Hibbut Hakever, but Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, the most important halakhic authority in Germany in the 13th century, was not familiar with this idea. (Responsa Maharam, ed. Berlin, 1891, p. 5, No. 15 = Rabbi Aaron Hakohen of Lunel, Orhot Hayyim, parag. 73, ed. Schlesinger, Part 2, Berlin, 1899, p. 612 = Kol Bo, ed. Lvov, 1860, fol. 97d, parag. 127, s.v. katav hara”m).

6) Rabbi Joseph Alashkar (Spain and Tlemcen, Algeria, ca. 1500) mentions Hibbut Hakever in Mirkevet Hamishneh, his commentary to Pirkey Avot (3:1) “as the beginning of the first judgment of the body” (and cf. his commentary to Avot 6:10). He may have already been familiar with Massakhet Hibbut Hakever which we shall quote below.

III) Massekhet Hibbut Hakever

1) In Sefer Hassidim attributed to Rabbi Judah the Pious (Regensburg, 1150-1217; ed. Maragaliot, parag. 30. p. 93) we are told that “after death there is Hibbut Hakeverand after that the bitter judgment of Gehinom (Hell)”. We are also told in parag. 32, p. 95 that a person “who loves deeds of loving-kindness, welcomes visitors and prays with the proper kavanah (intent), even if he lives outside of Israel, will not see the judgment of Hibbut Hakever”. This is apparently the earliest quotation from Massekhet Hibbut Hakever (see the Higger edition cited below, lines 129-131). We are also told in parag. 1134, p. 566, that the righteous “are afraid of the Angel of Death and of Hibbut Hakever”.

2) In Sefer Hokhmat Hanefesh by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, who was a disciple of Rabbi Judah the Pious (1165-1235; Lemberg, 1876, fol. 7, quoted by Zlotnick p. 217, note 1), we read: “When a person passes away from this world, the Angel of Death comes and sits on him and says to him: what is your name? And he says: I don’t know”. This too is an early quotation from Massekhet Hibbut Hakever which we shall quote below. (Cf. Higger, Horev 1 [5694], p. 100 who refers to Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, Yoreh Hataim = Sefer Hakapparot, Venice, 1589, fols. 21a, 22b)

3) That Massekhet was included in Sefer Kaftor Vaferach written by R. Eshtori Haparhi in Eretz Yisrael in the year 1322 and published in Venice, 1549, Chapter 10, fol. 50b (= ed. Jerusalem, 1997, Vol. 1, pp. 237-238).

4) It was also included by Rabbi Elijah Bohur (Italy, 1468-1549), in his Sefer Hatishbi, s.v. Hibbut Hakever, Isny, 1541, pp. 105-107

5) It was also included by Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham Akrish (Turkey, born 1530) at the end of his bookIggeret Ogeret, Constantinople, ca. 1570

6) It was also included in Reishit Hokhmah by Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, Shaar Hayirah, end of Chapter 12, which was completed in Safed in the year 1575 and printed for the first time in Cracow in 1593. Reishit Hokhmah was an extremely popular book of Mussar (morals) which was reprinted at least 40 times until 1970.

7) It was also included by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (Amsterdam, 1604-1657) in his Nishmat Hayyim, Maamar 2, Chapter 24, ed. Amsterdam, 1652, fols. 84a-85a

8) Finally, Massekhet Hibbut Hakever was reprinted by a number of modern scholars (A. Yellenik, Bet Hamidrash, Volume 1, Leipzig, 1853, pp. 150-152 and cf. Volume 5, Leipzig, 1873, pp. 48-51; Yehudah David Eisenstein, Otzar Hamidrashim, New York, 1915, pp. 93-95; Michael Higger, Massekhet Semakhot, New York, 1931, pp. 253-261). We read there (ed. Higger, lines 113-117):

Rabbi Eliezer’s pupils asked him: how is the judgment of the grave? He said to them: when a person dies, the Angel of Death comes and sits on his grave and hits him with his hand and says to him: tell me what is your name? [The person] says to him: My name is obvious and well-known before He-who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-being… At that moment, the Angel of Death inserts his spirit and soul in his body and stands him up and puts him on trial…

There follows a very graphic description not of a trial but rather of physical punishments: he is hit by arrows of metal and arrows of fire, his limbs disintegrate, his bones disintegrate and so on.

So how can one avoid these terrible punishments after burial? According to Massekhet Hibbut Hakever itself (lines 128 ff.), “the Sages taught: he who lives in Eretz Yisrael and dies on Erev Shabbat and is buried before sunset when the Shofar is being sounded [to herald the beginning of Shabbat], does not experience Hibbut Hakever…”.

IV) The Connection Between Hibbut Hakever and the Special Verse at the End of the Amidah

1) Rabbi Yosef Elimelech, Sefer Ben Zion, Amsterdam, 1690 (Helek Hoshvey Sheimot, at the end of the book, quoted by Bar-Levav, note 15) gives a list of verses as mentioned above so that when the Angel of Death asks “What is your name?”, the person will be able to remember his name after death and be saved from Hibbut Hakever. He attributes this idea to Sefer Kavanot Ha’ari by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Safed, 1534-1572) but I have been unable to find such a reference.

2) Rabbi Elijah Shapira (Prague, 1660-1712) says in hisElyah Rabbah to Orah Hayyim, end of parag. 122 in the name of B”Y (this might be a corruption of Ben Zionquoted above): “It is good to recite one verse from the Torah or Prophets or Writings which begins or ends with his name before he says ‘Yihiyu L’ratzon’ ”. He does not give a reason for this custom.

3) Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Prague, Poland, Israel 1565-1630) published a famous work entitled Shnei Luhot Habrit in Amsterdam in 1649. In 1693, Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Germany, d. 1706) published an abbreviation of that work in Fuerth entitled Kitzur Shnei Luhot Habrit which appeared in many different versions which are not identical. In at least one of the versions of the Kitzur Shelah (Lemberg, 1862 or 1864, fol. 101 at the end of the book, copied by Zlotnick, pp. 223-224 and Rozen, p. 154 = 144-145) we find the following paragraph:

It is known what is written above in matters related to Gehinom (Hell), and so it is in the Sefer Hakavanot [of the Ari] regarding Hibbut Hakever, evil people do not know their names in the grave and they beat them cruel beatings. But he who says during his life a verse which begins with the same letter as his name and ends with the same letter as the end of his name… e.g. Yitzhak he must begin the verse with Yod and end with Kof, and so on. How much the more so for a person whose name is in the verse itself such as Shalom or Dan or Reuven, that he does not need to end the verse with the letter from his name. And whoever says the verse as above, it is a remedy not to forget his name [after death]. And in Sefer Ben Zion the names of people are printed, therefore I decided to copy them here to bring merit to the many. And he should say it in the Shemoneh Esreh before Yehiyu Leratzon at the end of the Amidah.

It is not clear if this paragraph is from Kitzur Shelah in 1693 or from a later edition in 1862, but some of theSiddurim which include the verses refer to the Kitzur Shelah as the source of the custom. It should also be noted that Baer’s Avodat Yisrael mentioned above, which includes the list of verses, was printed in 1868, just a few years after this edition of Kitzur Shelah.

4) In 1699, nine years after the publication of Sefer Ben Zion, Rabbi Shmuel Delugatch published an edition ofNakh (the Prophets and the Writings) with Rashi in which he added various comments in square brackets in Rashi. On the verse in Michah 6:9 “v’tushiyah yireh shmekha”, “Then will your name achieve wisdom”, Delugatch added in brackets: “[V’tushiyah yireh shmecka, From here that whoever says every day a verse which begins and ends like his name begins and ends, the Torah saves him from Gehinom.]” Clearly, Rabbi Shmuel Delugatch was aware of the custom of reciting a verse either from Sefer Ben Zion published in 1690 or from Sefer Kitzur Shelah published in 1693 (providing that this custom is found in one of the early editions). Thus, this custom began in the late seventeenth century as a means of avoiding Hibbut Hakever after death.

V) Should we observe this custom today?

In light of the above, one could easily say that this is a superstitious custom from the seventeenth century based on a strange Kabbalistic belief, so why should we observe it today? I believe that this is a genetic fallacy. Frequently, a Jewish custom which arose as a result of a superstitious belief became popular until today for entirely different reasons.

Thus, for example, expensive glasses were originally broken at weddings in the Talmudic period in order to scare away evil spirits which come to harm people on joyous occasions such as weddings. In the fourteenth century, rabbis reinterpreted the custom as a way of remembering the Destruction of the Temple. In time, the original explanation was entirely forgotten and only the secondary explanation is known and loved. (SeeBerakhot 31a; Kol Bo, Laws of Tisha B’av, Lvov, 1860, fol. 25d; Sefer Minhagim D’vei Maharam, ed. Elfenbein, New York, 1938, p. 82; Rabbi J. Z. Lauterbach, HUCA 2 [1925], p. 375 and note 36)

Therefore, I believe that modern Jews should adopt this custom of reciting a special verse at the end of theAmidah which begins with the first letter of one’s Hebrew name and ends with the last letter of one’s Hebrew name. There are two good educational reasons to adopt this custom: Many modern Jews outside of Israel barely know and never use their Hebrew names. They also know very few Hebrew verses by heart. This custom is a wonderful way for modern Jews to remember their Hebrew names and to memorize a Hebrew verse from the Bible.

David Golinkin

Jerusalem

Yom Hazikaron 5770


Bibliography

Avriel Bar-Levav, Assufot 9 (5755), pp. 191-192

Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 8, col. 464, s.v.Hibbut Ha-Kever

Michael Higger, Massekhet Semahot, New York, 1931, pp. 7, 93-94, 253-261 and in Horev 1 (5694), pp. 100-104

Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, p. 385, s.v. Hibbut Hakeber

Avaraham Levi, V’yikarei Shemo B’yisrael, Jerusalem, 2008, pp. 261-264

Dov Rozen, Shanah B’shanah, 5742, pp. 151-154 =Tehumin 10 (5749), pp. 143-145

Mishael Rubin, Korey Shemo, Hevron, 2002, pp. 265-270

Hayyim Schauss, The Lifetime of a Jew, New York, 1950, pp. 282-283

  1. Shlomo Zvi Schick, Siddur Rashban, Vienna, 1894, fol. 11a
  1. Yaakov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim, Jerusalem, 1913, to Orah Hayyim 122, parag. 11
  1. Yishayahu Zussya Wilhelm, Kuntress Ziv Hasheimot, Brooklyn, 1984, pp. 112-115
  1. Yehudah Leib Zlotnick, “Bnei bli shem”, Edot 2 (5707), pp. 217-225

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

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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