Friday, March 20, 2009

Vayakhle-Pekudei (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog, at March 2006.

“Blessed is the Name of the Master of the Universe”

A few weeks ago we discussed Kegavna, a Zohar passage familiar to worshippers in shteibels or synagogues that follow the Hasidic prayer rite. This week’s Zohar contains a prayer found in almost every traditional Siddur and thus familiar to almost all synagogue goers: Brikh shmeih de-marei alma, “Blessed is the name of the Master of the Universe,” recited when the Ark is opened for the Torah reading.

The context is interesting. Elaborating an early verse in the parasha referring to the Sanctuary—“Take from among you an offering to the Lord” (Exod 35:5)—the Zohar enters into a length discussion of prayer (today’s form of “offering to the Lord”), both of weekdays and Shabbat, interpreting various elements of the prayer liturgy, including the three prayers of the Shabbat day, the three meals, the Torah reading, the special meaning of Shabbat afternoon, etc. Due to restrictions of time (there is also a lengthy Supplement to follow), I cannot present these passages with any depth, but will mention one or two ideas and images that particularly struck me. On II: 205b, the Zohar singles out Nishmat kol Hay, described as the “Hymn of the Souls” (תושבחתא דנשמתא), and then refers to El Adon as “the Hymn of the World to Come” (תושבחתא דעלמא דאתי). This appellation relates to the contrast between it and its weekday counterpart, El barukh gadol de’ah, which is likewise an alphabetical acrostic (both these prayers are very ancient, hearkening back to those Byzantine paytanim influenced by the sensibility of the Merkabah school). But whereas the latter , having one word for each letter of the alphabet, is known as “the praise of the small letters, “ El Adon, which has one strophe for each letter, is the prayer of אתוון עלאין קדישין, the “supernal holy letters.” The letters of the Hebrew language are central mystical symbols in their own right which, God willing, we will discuss in detail another time.

The passage continues by focusing on two high points of the Shabbat prayers: the Kedushah recited at Musaf (which begins with the word Keter: “Crown”), the “praise of all Israel… that reaches to the holy throne… the praise that raises up all praises”; and the Amidah of Shaharit. This prayer begins with the same blessing as on weekdays, the blessing of Abraham (“the essence of the patriarchs”; עקרא דאבהן), but then turns to the phrase Yismah Moshe, “Moses rejoiced”—i.e., in the Torah—and enters into a discourse on the unity of the Written Torah, which is very high and sublime, and hence is written without verse divisions, vowel marks, or cantillation, and the Oral Torah (=Binah, the supernal feminine), as yet another of the supernal unifications that occurs on Shabbat.

The Zohar then turns to the public reading of the Torah, its laws and its significance. Zohar II: 206a:

In [reading] the Torah scroll, there must be only one voice and one speech, whether reading the Order [i.e., parasha] to the holy people on this day, and on other days. A throne is prepared, called the Teivah [reading-desk], to which one ascends by six steps, no more, as in the verse, “and there were six steps to the throne” (2 Chr 9:18: referring to the royal throne in Solomon’s palace), with one step [i.e., the horizontal dias] above on which the Scroll of the Law may rest, and where it may be seen by the whole congregation. As soon as the Book of the Law is placed thereon, all the people below must assume a posture of awe and fear, of trembling and quaking, and turn their hearts as though they were at that moment standing beneath Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They should be attentive and bend their ears; one is not permitted to open one’s mouth, even [to say] words of Torah, and all the more so other matters—but all must be in awe and fear, as if they had no mouth. As we infer from the verse, “And when he opened it, all the people stood up” (Neh 8:5), and “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (ibid, v. 3: these verses describe Ezra’s public reading of the Torah to the returning exiles, an event that serves as a paradigm for public reading of the Torah).

First, regarding the rule that only one person should read. The Zohar reiterates these ideas immediately after the text of the prayer that is to be recited on this occasion: “One should hear naught but one single voice and not two voices, for the holy tongue stands alone… and if two were to read simultaneously in the Scroll of the Law, it would be a lessening of the secret of Faith and of the honor of the Torah…. “

The Torah reading itself is conceived as a kind of reliving or re-experiencing of the Sinai epiphany. The six steps leading to the Bimah (rarely seen in recently built synagogues, even in those with a raised central Bimah) make it comparable to a royal throne, while the Torah, both as an abstraction and in its physical embodiment in the scroll, are a kind of apotheosis of the Divine King Himself. The six steps also represent the six central sefirot, while the dias on which the scroll itself rests corresponds to Malkhut—seven in all. (An aside: While writing these words, I wondered whether the image here is of a Torah read vertically, like those Sephardic Torah scrolls housed in round containers, or horizontally, dressed in garments removed during the reading, as customary among the Ashkenazim.) The seven steps, like the seven aliyot of Shabbat, are a number of wholeness, completeness, representing the seven lower sefirot.

In contrast to the Zoharic view of Torah reading as replicating Sinai, even to the detail of the raised Bimah being the mountain and the people standing below, Rav Soloveitchik (in one of the chapters in Shiurim le-zeker Abba Mori z”l), entertains two divergent interpretations of the Torah reading: the Sinai paradigm, and the study paradigm, in which it serves the more pragmatic, educational-instructional function, of insuring that the people hear the contents of the Torah regularly.

Interestingly, standing during Torah reading is not explicitly mandated here, although it is perhaps implied. It is a widespread practice today, primarily in Lithuanian yeshiva circles, based on the custom of R. Meir of Rothenberg, repeating the posture of the people at Sinai. Hasidim and Sephardim sit during the reading. Can one sit with fear and trembling? An interesting question.

We now come to Berikh Shmeih itself, one of the few or even the only place in the Zohar in which R. Shimon specifically instructs the people to recite a specific prayer in a specific setting. The prayer itself is not especially Kabbalistic, but seems to me that it could be the prayer of any pious, believing Jew:

R Shimon said: When the Book of the Law is taken out to be read before the congregation, the mercy-gates of Heaven are opened, and the attribute of Love is stirred up above, and every person should recite the following:

Blessed is the name of the Master of the Universe; blessed is Your crown and place. May Your favor accompany Your people Israel forever, and the redemption of Your right hand may manifested to Your people in Your Sanctuary, so that we may enjoy Your goodly light, and You accept our prayers with mercy. May it be Your will to prolong our life in goodness, and that I, Your servant, may be counted among the righteous: that You may have mercy upon me and guard me and all that is mine, and all of Your people Israel. You are He that nourishes all and sustains all, You are ruler of all, You are ruler over kings, and the kingdom is Yours.

I am the servant of the Holy One blessed be He, before Whom I bow and before His glorious Torah at all times. I put not my trust in man, nor do I rely upon angels, but upon the God of heaven, who is the God of truth, and whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are true prophets, and Who does much goodness and truth. In Him do I put my trust and to His holy and glorious name do I sing all praises. May it be Your will to open my heart to Your Torah, [and to grant me male children who shall do Your will: this phrase is omitted in many Siddurim], and may You grant the desires of my heart, and of the heart of all of Your people Israel, for good, for life, and for peace. Amen.

—based on Soncino Zohar, IV:198-200, with extensive revisions


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