Monday, December 29, 2014

The popular practice of resurrecting esoteric prayers

Marking the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (6 Tevet), and recognizing the popular trend of adding prayers that come from mystical or otherwise esoteric sources, here is a translation of a segment of Rabbi Reischer's Shevut Yaakov (2:44).

Rabbi Reischer, writing in the late 17th or early 18th century, was discussing a group that had taken upon itself to rise early to pray regarding the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. He was known for expressing himself boldly, and he does not disappoint here:

[The question:] "Let our master teach us: Recently, certain special people have accustomed themselves… to gather in the synagogue at the start of the final third of the night, and to lament the destruction [of the Temple]. Challengers have risen against them, and those who have concluded that this activity is not good and proper, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, 'Not all who wish to take upon themselves the title [of righteousness] may do so.' (Berachot 16b)"…

Response: I will begin with his final point, in which he wrote, "We will add that they are a group, and so there should be no concern for [the appearance of] self-righteousness." In my humble opinion, the opposite appears more likely. An individiual, specifically, who reveres Heaven and wishes to be strict for himself, and walks privately, is certainly remembered for the good, and there is no concern for self-righteousness… And even an individual, if he would act unusually in public, would have concern for self-righteousness; it would be appropriate for him to do everything privately…

Aside from all of this, it appears to me that there should be concern regarding doing this communally, since the sages already enacted the order of three [daily] prayers, parallel to the sacrificial offerings. Therefore, one who would add a communal prayer would violate the prohibition against adding. Although we follow Rabbi Yochanan's legal positions, and he said, "I wish that one would pray all day (Berachot 21a)," that referred to an individual taking on a voluntary prayer, if he could say something new therein…

For this reason I have always protested against initiators who have newly arrived, publishers who publish in the siddurim pleas and requests from the book Shaarei Zion and the Shelah, so that people recite these prayers in the community as well. In my humble opinion this is incorrect, and it involves violation of "Do not add" [and] "crossing the border established by the early ones," the order of prayers. There is also concern for Gittin 3a, "If you add words, people will come to remove" from the established prayer, enacted by early authorities. Especially one whose Torah is his trade, he certainly has concern for loss of Torah when increasing prayer inappropriately… If one wishes to add prayer, he may recite Tehillim, which is like involvement in Torah and which holds great power…

מה ששאל עוד וז"ל ילמדינו רבינו באשר שמקרוב התנהגו איזה יחידי סגולה... להתאסף לבה"כ בראש האשמורה השלישית של הלילה ולקונן על החרבן וקמו עליהן עוררין ומסיקין דמסקו אדעתייהו דלאו יאות ושפיר עבדי כדאיתא בפרק ב' דברכות דאמר רשב"ג לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יבא ויטול...

תשובה הנה במה דסיים אפתח שכת' "ונוסיף ע"ז דהם ציבורא דלית ביה משום חשש יוהרא" ולע"ד נראה יותר להיפך דדוקא יחיד ירא שמים שרוצה להחמיר על עצמו והצנע לכת ודאי זכור לטוב ואין בו משום יוהרא... וכן אפי' יחיד שעושה דבר בפרהסיא מה שהוא שלא כדרך העולם יש חשש יוהרא כי ראוי להיות הכל בהצנע...

ובר מן כל דין נ"ל דיש חשש לעשות כן בציבור כיון דכבר תקנו חכמים סדר תפילות בכל שלש פעמים כנגד הקרבנות נמצא דהמוסיף איזה תפילה בציבור עובר משום בל תוסיף. ואף ע"ג דקי"ל הלכתא כר' יוחנן הלואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום היינו ביחיד ובתורת נדבה אם יכול לחדש בה דבר...

ומהאי טעמא כל ימי אני קורא תגר שחדשים מקרוב באו המדפיסים והדפיסו אצל הסידורים תחנות ובקשות מספר שערי ציון ושל"ה וע"י כן מתפללין כן בציבור ולע"ד אין זה נכון ואיכא משום בל תוסיף על גבול שגבלו ראשונים סדר תפלות ואיכא למיחש למה דאיתא בגיטין אי מפשת דיבורא אתי למגזיה בתפלה הקבוע מה שתיקנו ראשונים. ובפרטות מי שתורתו אומנותו ודאי יש חשש ביטול תורה להרבות בתפלה יותר מדי... ואם רוצה להרבות בתפילה יוכל לומר תהלים שהוא כעוסק בתורה ויש בה סגולת הרבה...


  1. The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked why he didn't say late night prayers for the Beit HaMikdash. His response was that when he ate dinner, bentsched and said the bracha for Jerusalem in bentsching, that was when he prayed at night for the Mikdash!

  2. The real objection seems to be to communal use of the optional prayers, not to an individual's voluntary prayers, whether authored by him or found in a sefer.

  3. imho the important question to ask is why the "consumer demand" for such prayers? IMHO the answer is also driving the neo-chassidus trend
    Joel Rich


  4. Daniel-
    Fits well with other quotes I have heard in his name; thanks.


    I would tend to agree, although I think that neo-chassidus is but one of many possible responses to the need.

  5. We should avoid attributing magical qualities to the recitation of any unofficial prayers too lofty for us to understand, that Tzaddikim composed for their own use. Just saying the words is very unlikely to have the desired effect.