Last week we concluded our study of the meaning and relevance of the Tachanun prayer, its relationship to Shemoneh Esreh and the laws of Nefilat Appayim.
This week we will continue our study of the prayers recited immediately following Shemoneh Esreh, including "Ve-Hu Rachum," recited on Monday and Thursday mornings with Tachanun; "Ashrei;" "La-mnatze'ach;" and "U-va le-Tziyyon."
The Tur, and subsequently the Shulchan Arukh, cite the custom to recite "Ve-Hu Rachum" — a series of supplications, many based on Scriptural sources, starting with Tehillim 78:38 — on Mondays and Thursdays. Interestingly, while the laws of Tachanun are brought in Chapter 131 of Orach Chayyim, the custom to recite Ve-Hu Rachum, often viewed as an integral part of Tachanun, is not recorded until Chapter 134, together with the laws of hagbaha, the lifting and displaying of the Torah scroll! Apparently, the supplications recited on Monday and Thursday, days associated by the Midrash and Kabbalistic sources with both din (justice) and ratzon ([good]will), may be thematically similar to Tachanun but fundamentally separate. Indeed, while Ashkenazim recite Ve-Hu Rachum BEFORE Nefilat Appayim, Sephardim recite it afterwards.
The Kol Bo (18), as well as other Rishonim, cite an ancient tradition regarding the origin of Ve-Hu Rachum. The tradition relates that this prayer was authored shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., by three elders who were exiled from Yerushalayim. Upon arriving at a certain port, the local ruler decided to subject these three elders to a trial by ordeal, similar to the experience of Chananya, Misha'el and Azarya (Daniel 3:24-30), by casting them into a fiery pit.
The elders requested thirty days, to which the governor agreed. The elders spent these days fasting. In addition, each morning, anyone who had a dream would relate it to them. At the end of the thirty days, a pious, simple old man described a verse he had seen in his dream. Since he was barely literate, he could only make out a few two-letter words, so they consulted with an older rabbi. He explained that the verse was Yeshayahu 43:2:
"Even if you pass through the water, I am with you, and in the rivers you will not be washed away; if you go in the midst of fire, you will not be singed, and the flame will not burn you."
The company concluded that this was a sign that the old man who merited this vision would be saved from the fiery pit. When the governor prepared the fire, this same old man entered, and the flames separated into three parts; from them appeared three saints who greeted the old man. Each of the three elders uttered a praise, these praises being the three segments of Ve-Hu Rachum.
According to this story, Ve-Hu Rachum is nearly two thousand years old! In any case, as the prayer first appears in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (d. 875), Ve-Hu Rachum can definitely be traced back over 1100 years.
The Shulchan Arukh (134) writes that Ve-Hu Rachum should be recited out loud and while standing. The Rema argues that it should be recited quietly.
The Tur (131) relates that it is customary to recite "Ashrei" — consisting of Tehillim 145, prefaced by 84:5 and 144:15 and followed by 115:18 — a second time, after Tachanun and the Torah reading. Seemingly, this practice serves to invoke the Talmud's praise for one who recites Ashrei thrice daily (Berakhot 4b):
Whoever recites Ashrei three times daily is sure to inherit the World to Come.
What is the reason? Shall I say it is because it has an alphabetical arrangement? Then let one recite, "Happy (Ashrei) are they who are upright in the way" (Tehillim 119), which has an eightfold alphabetical arrangement!
Is it because it contains the verse, "You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with goodwill"? Then let him recite the Great Hallel (Tehillim 136), where it is written (v. 25): "Who gives food to all flesh"!
Rather, the reason is because it contains both.
This gemara encourages us to recite Ashrei three times each day, as it contains both an alphabetical arrangement and a verse referring to divine sustenance.
Many question the uniqueness of Hallel, especially in light of the Gemara's distinction between Pesukei De-zimra (most likely referring to Ashrei, its centerpiece) and Hallel.
[Rabbi Yosei said:] "May my portion be of those who recite the entire Hallel every day."
Is that right? Did not the Master say that one who recites Hallel every day blasphemes and reproaches [the Divine Name]?
Indeed, we are referring to Pesukei De-zimra.
What exactly is the difference between reciting Hallel daily, which is perceived as blasphemous, and reciting Pesukei De-zimra, the Verses of Praise? Furthermore, what is so special about Ashrei that it is worthy of the Sages' praise?
One should not err and forget that God is the creator, organizer and supervisor of the natural order. One should not think, out of routine, that nature is independent; one should not separate it from its Creator. Therefore there are, on occasion, miracles… the purpose of which is to bring the wonders of nature to the attention of mankind, as it is all from His hands and pure providence.
Therefore, those who recite the Great Hallel every day — which indicates that it is ONLY appropriate to acknowledge the miraculous actions of God [as described in this psalm], but the natural order, once created, is detached from its Creator — are blasphemers. On the other hand, one who recites Ashrei daily, which speaks of the natural order, is worthy of the World to Come… That is the significance of the alphabetical arrangement of Ashrei, which hints of the natural arrangement of the world, without skipping, from alef to tav…
The second Ashrei, therefore, is recited towards the conclusion of the morning prayers, and the third is recited before reciting Mincha.
The Mishna Berura (65:9), citing the Magen Avraham (ibid. 3), writes that one who hears a congregation reciting Ashrei should say Ashrei with them (the same applies to Keriat Shema and Aleinu). The Arukh Ha-shulchan (ibid. 6) relates that it is customary to join the congregation ONLY for Shema and Aleinu.
Interestingly, some insist that the second Ashrei should be recited while sitting, as the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 9:5) writes, comparing the cantor and the congregants during the recitation of Ashrei: "He stands, and they sit and recite with him."
Continuing the string of supplications, we recite after Ashrei "La-mnatze'ach mizmor le-David" (Tehillim 20), a prayer that "God answer you in a day of trouble." The Acharonim disagree as to the relationship between Tachanun and this psalm. While Sephardic practice is to omit "La-mnatze'ach" whenever Tachanun is not recited, the Rema (131:1) and the Mishna Berura (ibid. 35) rule that Ashkenazim should recite this prayer even on days when Tachanun is omitted. However, they should omit "La-mnatze'ach" on Rosh Chodesh, Chanukka, Purim, Erev Peach, Erev Yom Yippur, Tisha Be-Av and in the house of a mourner.
Next week we will study the next prayer, "U-va le-Tziyyon," and the laws of Kaddish.