The Blessing of "Yer'u Eineinu": A Test Case Regarding Customs

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein




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Shiur 20: The Blessing of "Yir'u Eineinu": A test case regarding customs





            In the previous shiur we discussed the general background of the creation of customs, and especially those connected to the liturgy, so that we could better appreciate the Gra's daring when he came to abolish sections of the prayer book that had become deeply rooted over the generations. Let us now examine a particular example that might shed light on the various operative factors and forces with respect to this issue.


            Outside of Eretz Israel it is customary to this day to recite as part of the weekday evening service, following the "Hashkiveinu" blessing, a series of verses that begin with "Blessed is the Lord evermore" ("Barukh Ha-Shem le-olam") and add the blessing: "May our eyes behold and our hearts rejoice… Blessed are You, O Lord, the King who constantly in His glory will reign over us and over all His works for ever and ever" ("Yir'u eineinu"). The Gra opposed this practice.[1] What stands behind these conflicting positions?


            Reciting "Barukh Ha-Shem le-olam" in the evening service is not mentioned anywhere in either of the Talmuds, and one who learns the laws of prayer from the words of the Tannaim and Amoraim is likely to be puzzled by this custom. "Inserting" a new blessing into the service is problematic for a variety of reasons. First of all, the Mishna establishes that in the evening service, there are "two blessings after it," i.e., after the evening Keri'at Shema. Who then granted us permission to recite a third blessing? Surely, this involves a change in the liturgical order ordained by the Rabbis! Second, are we permitted to add blessings to those which the Sages obligated us to recite? Is this not an instance of a blessing recited in vain – the very serious infraction called "berakha le-vatala?" And finally, we must keep in mind the binding principle of "joining redemption to prayer," that is to say, juxtaposing the "Ga'al Yisrael" blessing to the Shemoneh Esrei prayer. Does not the addition of such a long blessing interfere with this principle?


 The basis for resolving this last difficulty is found in the Gemara in Berakhot. With respect to the "Hashkiveinu" blessing, the Gemara asks how is it that we can insert an additional blessing between the blessing of redemption and the Shemoneh Esrei prayer? The Gemara answers that this blessing is considered "a prolonged redemption"; that is to say – the "Hashkiveinu" blessing constitutes a continuation of the "Ga'al Yisrael" blessing. Nevertheless, there is nothing in the Gemara to suggest that were other blessings to be inserted at this point, they too would fall into the category of "a prolonged redemption," rather than being an interruption between the redemption blessing and the Shemoneh Esrei prayer.


In short, there are more than enough reason to challenge this practice, based on the early halakhic sources. But before we examine the Gra's position on the matter, let us present a picture of the situation during the period of the Rishonim.


A disciple of Rabbeinu Yona, who wrote a commentary on the Rif's Halakhot to tractate Berakhot, writes as follows:


It may be asked: What does the world rely upon to add afterwards the verses of the "Ha-Melekh Bi-khevodo" blessing, which [the Rabbis] did not say is "like a prolonged redemption" and is therefore an interruption? And indeed some Sages refrained from saying it. This was also the custom of my teacher, the Ramban. But my teacher Rabbeinu Yona gave a reason for the custom followed by everybody to say it…


            We clearly get the impression that the prevalent custom followed by "everyone" was to recite these verses. It was only "some Sages," with their heightened Halakhic sensitivity, who understood that this was a custom that is difficult to justify based on the sources, and therefore they refrained from reciting these verses. On the other hand, Rabbeinu Yona is cited as one who justified the common practice. Who were these Rishonim who rejected this custom? Rabbeinu Yona's disciple explicitly mentions the Ramban as their representative. According to other sources, also the Rashbam, grandson of Rashi, objected to this practice.


            One of the most important Poskim, the Taz - author of the Turei Zahav on the Shulchan Arukh – was ready to take into consideration the minority position of those Rishonim who had reservations about the practice, in order to establish a certain leniency:[2]


If somebody arrived in the synagogue after the congregation had begun to pray… and the congregation is beginning to recite the evening [Amida] prayer, he may immediately pray with them and the verses of "Barukh Ha-Shem le-olam" he can say afterwards. Since there are great authorities who were accustomed not to recite them at all, one can rely on them and skip them in order to pray together with the congregation, and recite them afterwards.


That is to say, if someone arrived late for the evening service, he can rely on those who did not recite the additional verses at all, and omit them for the time being, in order to recite the Shemoneh Esrei together with the rest of the congregation, and then afterwards fill in what he had omitted.


We now come to the Gra's position. In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim (236:2), he refers us to the Taz, and then adds a brief note:


See the Taz; and the view of the Rashbam and the Ramban is correct.


            That is to say, whereas the Taz was ready in specific circumstances to take into consideration the view of those who objected to the recitation of "Barukh Ha-Shem Le-olam" – the Gra maintained that as a matter of principle the Halakha follows that position, and that lekhatchila one should act accordingly and refrain from reciting those verses.


            Additional testimony has reached us concerning the Gra's position on this issue. This testimony appears in the book, "Ma'aseh Rav," a collection of the Gra's actual practices. There we find:


A person should skip "Barukh Ha-Shem Le-olam, Amen ve-Amen" if that is necessary in order to enable him to recite the [Amida] prayer together with [the rest of] the congregation, and he does not recite it afterwards. He (i.e. the Gra) himself would never recite "Barukh Ha-Shem," in order to join the [blessing of] redemption to the [Amida] prayer. But the congregation that was with him and the prayer leader would say it.


            This passage is very surprising. Nowhere else in "Ma'aseh Rav" is the Gra's custom brought in such a qualified fashion.


            The Gra's point of departure is the Taz's ruling. It is first stated that if because of these verses a person will not be able to recite his Amida prayer together with the rest of the congregation, he should skip those verses – as argued by the Taz. Only that in contrast to the Taz, here it is stated that he need not fill in afterwards what he had omitted. And in the end it says that even though the Gra himself would never recite these verses, everyone else in his Beit Midrash would recite them, in accordance with the general practice. Let us try to imagine the situation - the Gra alone kept silent, while the rest of the congregation (comprised of his disciples) recited these verses. The author of "Ma'aseh Rav" himself adopts an intermediate position, while noting that the Gra's view was more extreme.


            This passage teaches us two things. First of all, it attests to the fact that in the world of the Mitnagdim it is possible for a noted Torah authority – even the revered Gra – to issue a ruling and institute a new practice, without the community of his adherents following after him. In the Chassidic world the situation is different – when an Admor establishes some new practice, his entire community immediately adopts his novel conduct.


            Second, the conduct of the community teaches that the recitation of these verses was so deeply rooted that changing the practice was impossible even in the Gra's "home court."


In light of this, the question arises – what is the source of this deep-rootedness?




            I shall now explain why this custom can serve as a test case, as was intimated in the title of this shiur. Despite the problematic nature of the practice from a Halakhic perspective, we seem to be dealing with a custom with special force. It rests on strong and ancient authority that is not limited to Ashkenazi Jewry. Reciting this passage as part of the evening service encompassed the entire Jewish world, both east and west. The challenge raised by the Gra against the custom teaches us how willing he was to adopt an independent position even against such a deeply rooted institution. What is more, an examination of the acceptance or non-acceptance of the novel position promoted by the Gra, will help us understand the limits on changes that can be introduced into the liturgy, or at least on changes that are justified exclusively on Halakhic grounds.[3]


            The recitation of these verses and the blessing that follows them was introduced already in the period of the Geonim, as is evident from the Tur (Orach Chayyim 236):


As for the customary practice to interrupt with the verses "Ve-yir'u eineinu" and Kaddish – because in ancient times, their synagogues were in the fields, and people were afraid to tarry there until the time of the evening service. It was therefore instituted that they should recite these verses which contain 18 names of God corresponding to the 18 blessings in the evening service, and then conclude with Kaddish. And even though now they once again recite the evening service in the synagogues, the earlier custom was not abolished. Nevertheless, one should not interrupt with other things….

Rav Natronai writes that according to the words of the Sages, in the evening service, we only recite two blessings before and two blessings after [Keri'at Shema]. And since the Halakha is in accordance with Rav who said that the evening service is optional, the later Sages instituted that after one says "Shomer et amo yisrael la-ad," he says verses that contain song and praise, and after them he recites a blessing and ends with Kaddish, as if to say: The service has come to an end; he who wishes to leave, may do so.


The Tur offers two explanations of this practice: 1) When the Amida was not recited in the evening service, because it was impossible to gather together in a synagogue at such a late hour, these verses served as a substitute for the Amida service. 2) The practice is based on the assumption that the evening Amida prayer is not obligatory, and therefore the recitation of these verses serves as a sign that one is permitted to leave. The mention of Rav Natronai Gaon's name in this context confirms that the Geonim were familiar with the practice, and apparently even initiated it.


The author of the "Shibbolei Ha-leket" (52) regards the second explanation as the primary one:


For this reason the heads of the Yeshivot in Babylonia added the verses "Barukh Ha-Shem Le-olam, Amen ve-Amen," and concluded with [the blessing] "Barukh ata… Melekh…," to indicate that it is optional and that it is not necessary to join [the blessing of] redemption to the [Amida] prayer. And corresponding to the prayer they established these verses with the concluding blessing, for they contain 18 names of God corresponding to the 18 blessings. And they sent them to the people of Eretz Israel and established them. And therefore he (the prayer leader) says Kaddish, thus saying that this is the end of the prayer service, and he who wishes to leave may leave.


            It is explicitly stated here that it was the Babylonian Geonim who instituted this practice, and it was by their authority that the custom was established even in Eretz Israel.


Of course, the reasons offered for the institution of this practice rest on certain historical conditions and Halakhic assumptions, namely, that the evening Amida prayer is optional, and that the evening Amida was not recited in the synagogue. The Rishonim noted that in practice the evening Amida service was accepted as obligatory throughout the Jewish world, and so too it was common practice to recite the Amida as part of a communal service even at night. The grounds for the custom were thus eliminated, In practice, however, the ordinance remained in place. Thus, for example, the Shibblolei Ha-leket concludes:


And now everyone regards the evening [Amida] service as obligatory. And it is necessary to join the evening [blessing of] redemption to the evening [Amida] prayer… And even though we interrupt with "Hashkiveinu" and with verses, they are regarded as a prolonged redemption, about which we are not concerned.


            The argument of "prolonged redemption" is exploited in order to "rescue" the practice, and at the same time to join the redemption blessing to the Amida prayer. As may be recalled, the Gemara introduced this principle to account for the "Hashkiveinu" blessing, but nothing more.


            We have seen the antiquity of this custom, something that certainly adds to it force and strength. It is therefore not surprising that in the period of the Rishonim we find the custom prevalent not only in Europe, but among eastern Jewry as well. We see this in a halakhic responsum written by the Rashbash. The Rashbash, who lived in Algeria in the fifteenth century, was asked as follows:[4]


You have further written that it is customary practice in the east to recite the "Hashkiveinu" blessing without a blessing. And they conclude with "Yir'u eineinu." And you said that they told you that the Sage Rav Yosef instituted this practice in the east. And when they related the matter to Rav Avraham the son of the Rambam, he praised them for this.


            The Rashbash received a report about a new practice that had been introduced into the prayer service by several eastern Rabbinic authorities. It should be noted that it had never entered their minds to stop reciting the verses and the blessing that follows them. But they proposed a new and original solution for the problem of the interruption. They suggest omitting the concluding formula, "Barukh Ata Ha-Shem," at the end of the "Haskkiveinu" blessing, and leaving the "Yir'u eineinu" blessing as it is. In this way, the two blessings are combined into a single blessing, sort of an expanded "Hashkiveinu" blessing, and thus we fulfill the original Halakha of "two blessings after Shema" and we also join the redemption blessing to the Amida prayer. The Rashbash was not in favor of this change, and he preferred to leave the practice as is:


And they instituted saying this, as it has 18 names of God, because their synagogues were far from town, and they were afraid to tarry there until after the evening service. And therefore they instituted it for them corresponding to the eighteen blessings of Shemoneh Esrei. And when they were in their houses, they recited the Shemoneh Esrei. And once they instituted this for the aforementioned reason, even though the reason no longer applies, the institution remains in place… Therefore the [prayer] text should not be changed, even though the reason no longer applies…


            From all that has been stated, it follows that this practice was a firmly established institution throughout all of Israel, and that despite the reservations of two important Rishonim, it continued in practice in all Jewish communities. Thus, when the Gra came out against the practice, he was taking on a quite formidable opposition.




            It is fascinating to note that already in the period of the Rishonim, the practice under discussion was viewed as a "test case" with respect to the power of customs in general. The relevant source is found in "Sefer ha-Pardes, an early work based on rulings and responsa of Rashi, but including also sections from other early authorities.


            In the previous shiur, we discussed the dispute regarding the recitation of piyyutim; this issue also arose in the Pardes (229). The author brings one of the arguments against saying the piyyutim that were added to the blessing of Shema: Surely the Tosefta refers to a list of "blessings that are drawn out," thus implying that one is forbidden to draw out a blessing without explicit authorization! The author rejects this argument with an irrefutable argument:


For surely a third blessing was added to the blessings recited after Keri'at Shema, and there is none longer than that.


            That is to say, we see that the post-Talmudic Sages added a third blessing, and so it goes without saying that it is permissible to expand upon existing blessings. You might argue that the institution of the third blessing itself is dubious. Therefore the Pardes continues:


Come and hear, for they said in the West: If a law is unclear in the Talmud, and you do not know which way it leans, go out and see how the community is acting, and act [accordingly]. For example, take the case of the Mishna: "In the evening, he recites two blessings," and we do not know[5] whether two is precise or not precise, perhaps it is a minimum but not a maximum. We see that the community is accustomed to add to the two, hence we infer that there is no maximum. And so we act in the case of an unclear law, at the command of our Rabbis, for this ruling is binding. We deduce that the practice of the later authorities has the force of Torah. As it said: "Abandon not the Torah of your mother."


            It is clear to the author of the Pardes that there is no room for challenging the "Yir'u eineinu" blessing, as this is a simple application of the rule, "Go out and see what the people are doing." He apparently relies on the blessing's universal acceptance, being recited even by those who reject the piyyutim. Relating to this blessing as a model for other customs and changes in the liturgy attests to its clear and unequivocal force.




            Despite the difficulties initially encountered by the Gra's position, today, in Eretz Israel, it is the accepted practice in almost all synagogues to omit the additional blessing and the verses that precede it. What brought about this change? On the one hand, the mechanism seems to be simple – the Gra's disciples filled a leading role in the revival of Jewish settlement in modern times, and their decisive weight allowed them to establish the norms of custom and prayer without encountering significant opposition. This is true about the matter at hand, as in other cases. There is, however, cause for further examination, for all of the above notwithstanding, even in Eretz Israel the practices of the Gra were not all accepted in sweeping fashion. It must therefore be asked whether in our case there were additional factors that contributed to the acceptance of the change. In fact, such factors can be identified. If we examine parallel developments in Sefardic communities which were not directly influenced by the Gra, we will see that there too the situation did not remain static.


            We saw above that in the fifteenth century it was customary practice to recite the "Yir'u eineinu" blessing in Sefardic communities. In Responsa ha-Chida, however, we read:


We have seen that his honor has asked about the new practice that some congregations have adopted to conclude with the blessing of "Hashkiveinu," and then conclude with the verses of "Yir'u eineinu." And this practice seems difficult to you. Let it be known to his honor that we have examined the matter in the books of the righteous that we have in our possession, early and late. And we have concluded that it is certainly the custom of Eretz Israel and all the cities of Turkey to say only the "Hashkiveinu" blessing and its concluding formula, and nothing more. This is correct according to the truth of the revealed and the hidden law. However, those who are accustomed to recite "Yir'u eineinu" – the correct order of this new practice is that this third blessing was instituted in the days of the Geonim. We have dealt with this at length elsewhere… Chayyim Yosef David Azulai…


            The Chida wrote this responsum while he was in Egypt, that is to say, not later than 1781 (the year that the Chida settled in Leghorn, where he remained until the end of his life). The person who raised the question attests to a "new custom" that had been adopted in several communities to recite the "Hashkiveinu" blessing and then say an additional blessing – "Yir'u eineinu." The Chida confirms that this is a new practice, and that there is no trace of it in all of Eretz Israel and Turkey. But he adds that those who introduced this new custom are in fact resurrecting an ancient custom that goes back to the days of the Geonim. We see then that already in the days of the Gra, and unconnected to him, the old custom had declined among Sefardic Jewry to the point that in important communities it was not known at all.


            What brought about the uprooting of a custom that was instituted by the Babylonian Geonim? The Chida writes that it is correct not to say "Yir'u eineinu" – "according to the truth of the revealed and the hidden law." He argues that there are types of considerations that support pushing aside the Geonic practice – considerations based on the revealed Torah and considerations based on the hidden Torah. We have already see that considerations based on the revealed Torah, as strong as they may have been, had little practical effect, and the custom flourished throughout the period of the Rishonim. It appears that the situation began to change because of considerations based on the "hidden" Torah. The influence of such considerations was strongly felt in broad sectors of the Jewish community beginning in the sixteenth century, primarily by virtue of the Ari, z"l. Indeed, the Ari removed the verses of "Barukh Ha-Shem le-olam" from the siddur. In the first siddurim that were printed in Europe with the kabbalistic intentions of the Ari, it is possible to see that the intentions are associated with the entire evening service, with the exception of the third blessing following Keri'at Shema. The printers retained the blessing itself, so as not to veer from accepted practice, but the absence of "intentions" emphasizes the downgrade that the blessing suffered as the influence of Kabbala grew across the Jewish world.


In any event, when the Gra's disciples arrived in Eretz Israel, they encountered Sefardic communities in which the ancient custom had long been forgotten. It stands to reason that this situation, which was based on the growing influence of Kabbala, reinforced the drive that was led by the Gra and his disciples to restore the original Halakha as it follows from the plain sense of the words of Chazal. This combination left its mark with the creation of a new Halakhic reality.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] A personal aside: As a young man living in Chutz La'aretz, I decided to rely on the Gra and refrain from reciting these verses. Otherwise, I would have great difficulty keeping up with the general pace, and I was liable to miss out on reciting Shemoneh Esrei together with the rest of the congregation. I am thankful to the Gra to this day for his invaluable assistance.

[2] Taz, Shulchan Arukh 236, 2.

[3] In contrast to changes stemming from other reasons, e.g., the introduction of piyyutim into the liturgy, or the Chassidic change of the entire prayer rite.

[4] Responsa Rashbash, no. 255.

[5] Note the curious "doubt" created here by the author of the Pardes. Why should we think that "two" is not "precise"? In any event, the role of this doubt is to turn the law into one that is "unclear," which enables us to invoke the rule of "go out and see what the people are doing."