Shiur #22: Reciting Va-Ykhullu on Friday Night

  • Rav Amnon Bazak




            The story of Creation concludes with the following paragraph (Bereishit 3:1-3):


And they were completed (Va-ykhullu): the heavens and the earth and their entire host.  And God completed, on the seventh day, the labor which He had done; and he rested (shavat), on the seventh day, from all of the labor which He had done.  God blessed the seventh day, and He sanctified it, for on it he rested from all of the labor, which God had created to do. 


It is not surprising that this passage finds its way into our Shabbat liturgy.  What is unusual about the custom of reciting "Va-ykhullu," as these three verses are known, on Friday night is the three-fold repetition of the passage: during the silent Amida prayer by individuals, before the "me-ein sheva" blessing by the cantor and the congregation, and before Kiddush at the meal.  In this shiur, I wish to clarify the reasons for this repetition and examine various laws related to the recitation of this passage.


            The source for reciting Va-ykhullu is a passage on Shabbat 119b:


Rava said, and some say it was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: "Even an individual who prays on the eve of Shabbat must recite Va-ykhullu;" for Rav Hamnuna said: "He who prays on the eve of Shabbat and recites Va-ykhullu - Scripture treats him as though he is made a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One, Blessed be He) in Creation, for it is said: 'Va-ykhullu' — read not 'Va-ykhullu' ('And they were completed'), but: Va-ykhallu (And they completed)."


Rabbi Elazar said: "How do we know that speech is like action?  Because it is said: 'By God's word were the heavens made' (Tehilim 33:6)."


Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: "He who prays on the eve of Shabbat and recites Va-ykhullu, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him: 'And your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged' (Yeshayahu 6:7)."


            These three statements raise several questions: Is there a connection between them, and if so, what is it?  What is the meaning of the term "a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in Creation"?  Why does the recitation of Va-ykhullu lead to atonement?  We shall address these questions below.




            The Tur (Orach Chayyim 268) records a position that is later codified by the Shulchan Arukh (268:7):


And some say that it is the customary practice to recite it out loud and standing, because it is testimony about Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu regarding Creation.  And it is written (Devarim 19:17): "And the two men shall stand," and we expound (Shevuot 30a): "These are the witnesses, who must testify together and standing."  It is therefore necessary that [the congregants] stand and recite it together.


            This law is brought by several Rishonim, without mention of the source for viewing the recitation of Va-ykhullu as testimony about God regarding Creation.  The source for this assertion seems to be a variant reading of the passage in Shabbat, cited by the Rosh in Pesachim (10:15):


He who recites Va-ykhullu on the eve of Shabbat – it is as though he is testifying about Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, Who created His world in six days and rested on the seventh day.


            Indeed, most Rishonim understand the custom of reciting Va-ykhullu on Friday night as testimony to God's creation of the world in six days.  The most important law stemming from this understanding is the obligation to stand while reciting Va-ykhullu, as one must stand while giving any testimony, but this approach has other halakhic ramifications as well.


1)         The Repetition:


We have already noted the unusual feature of the practice of reciting Va-ykhullu – its three-fold repetition.  While some Rishonim account for the repetition with a variety of incidental reasons, others draw a connection between the importance of the testimony offered through the recitation of Va-ykhullu and the repetition.  For example, the Ra'avan of Lunel (Sefer Ha-manhig, Hilkhot Shabbat 5) writes:


And that which we recite it again out loud [is] in order to discharge the obligation of one who is not proficient [in saying it on his own], because it is important testimony.


            The Ra'avan relates to the recitation of Va-ykhullu before the "me-ein sheva" blessing.  Rashi follows the same approach when he explains why we recite Va-ykhullu once again before Kiddush at home: owing to our fondness for the testimony, we testify once again at the table.  (Sefer ha-Pardes, ed. Ehrenreich, p. 309)


2)         Understanding "And your iniquity is taken away":


We asked above about the connection between the recitation of Va-ykhullu and atonement.  Some explain the connection in light of Va-ykhullu's status as testimony:


It might be suggested that inasmuch as when a person recites Va-ykhullu he testifies to Creation, he must recite it standing, in accordance with the law of giving testimony…  Were he not to recite Va-ykhullu, he would be withholding testimony and violating a negative commandment by failing to testify.  Therefore, when he recites Va-ykhullu, we say to him: "And your iniquity is taken away" – you are not of those who withhold testimony.  (Shiltei Ha-gibborim 44b in Alfasi, 1)


            The Eliyya Rabba (268:6) goes in a different direction:


We say in Even Ha-ezer (Seder Ha-get 2) that we tell the witnesses to a divorce that they should mentally repent first, because a wicked person is disqualified from giving testimony; therefore we say to him: "And your iniquity is taken away."


3)         "A partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in Creation":


As we saw above, the source for the understanding of Va-ykhullu as testimony is the Rosh's reading of the Talmudic passage in Shabbat.  There are, however, those who understand even the standard reading of that passage in light of this approach.  The Orechot Chayyim asks: "What is good about being a partner?  Surely any duality or partnership is a disgrace to God!"  He, therefore, explains the matter as follows:


It may be suggested that this is the purpose of reciting Va-ykhullu: he shows that he accepts everything written in the Torah regarding the creation of the world, that he fully believes it as if he had seen the act of Creation with his own eyes and as if he had been a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in the work; for he has no qualms about anything, large or small, in the act of Creation.


            According to this, "partnership" involves demonstrating one's certainty in God's creation of the world.


4)         An individual reciting Va-ykhullu:


As cited above, the Tur rules that inasmuch as the recitation of Va-ykhullu serves as testimony, "it is therefore necessary that [the congregants] stand and recite it together."  Based on this, the Taz (no. 5) writes:


An individual who prays does not repeat Va-ykhullu, because an individual cannot give testimony, and we require a full congregation — that is, ten people — to testify about Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu.  If an individual wishes to recite it, he should not have in mind that he is giving testimony, but as if he is reading from the Torah.


            The Mishna Berura (ibid., no. 19) also writes: "It is best to say it together with a congregation [of ten]… and in any event, there should be two people."  This ruling is widely followed in yeshivot, though there are many who cast doubts about it for a variety of reasons.


5)                  A woman's obligation to recite Va-ykhullu:


The Kaf ha-Chayyim (268:36) records a controversy among the Posekim whether women are obligated to recite Va-ykhullu.  It is possible that this question depends on whether Va-ykhullu is treated as testimony, as women are disqualified from testifying.


I wish to conclude the discussion of this approach with the words of the Roke'ach (486), who notes that the final letters of the last three words of Va-ykhullu, "bara Elokim la-asot" ("which God had created to do"), are the letters alef, mem and tav, spelling "emet," "truth," just as we conclude legal documents with the phrase "sharir ve-kayyam" ("binding and established").  This too gives expression to the approach that understands Va-ykhullu as testimony about God's creation of the world.




            Several Rishonim, such as the Or Zarua (II:20), cite a passage from the Midrash Shocher Tov that is not found in the standard editions, connecting the recitation of Va-ykhullu to the para adumma (red cow), the ashes of which are used to purify one who has been defiled by a corpse.


Whoever recites Va-ykhullu three times [achieves] atonement for all his iniquities and is treated as if he has observed the entire Torah.  The word "asher" ("which") appears three times in Va-ykhullu, and it appears three times in the verse, "that they bring you a para adumma" (Bamidbar 19:2).  Just as the para atones, so too he who recites Va-ykhullu three times achieves atonement.


This midrash, which connects the recitation of Va-ykhullu to atonement, is reminiscent of the passage in Shabbat that notes that when a person recites Va-ykhullu the ministering angels say (as reported by Yeshayahu, 6:7): "And your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged."  Indeed, we find an anonymous midrash, cited by the Abudraham (Ma'ariv shel Shabbat, s.v. Ve-omer) that connects the two statements:


He who recites Va-ykhullu on the eve of Shabbat, the two ministering angels place their hands on his head and say to him: "And your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged."  From where do we [know this]?  There is a terminological analogy (gezeira shava) from "asher" to "asher": The word "asher" appears three times regarding the para adumma and it appears three times in Va-ykhullu – just as a para adumma atones, so too Va-ykhullu atones.


            The question, however, remains: What is the connection between the Va-ykhullu passage and atonement?  Is the connection between Va-ykhullu and the para adumma merely technical, or is there also an essential connection that leads us to a gezeira shava?


            It seems that these questions can be answered in light of the statement made at the beginning of the Talmudic passage: "Scripture treats him as though he is made a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in Creation."  We have already noted the difficulty presented by this statement and the understandings that have been suggested to resolve it, but there might also be another explanation.


            In Midrash Tehillim (86:1) it says:


Rabbi Abba said in the name of Rabbi Alexandri: "Whoever hears his own degradation and remains silent — though he has the ability to object — is made a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, for He hears the nations of the world cursing Him and remains silent."


            We learn from here that the expression "is made a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu," has another meaning: walking in the ways of God.  The importance of imitating God and walking in His ways is emphasized by the Sages in several places.  The words of the Gemara on Shabbat 133b are well known:


Abba Sha'ul says: "'Ve-anvehu' (Shemot 15:2) — be like Him; just as He is gracious and merciful, so too, you must be gracious and merciful."


            Similarly, we find on Sota 14a:


Rabbi Chamma be-Rabbi Chanina said: "What is that which is written: 'You shall follow Lord your God' (Devarim 13:5) – is it possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence?  But surely it has already been stated (ibid. 4:24): 'For Lord your God is a consuming fire!'  Rather, follow the traits of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu: just as he clothes the naked… so too, you must clothe the naked.  Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu visits the sick… so too, you must visit the sick.  Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu comforts mourners… so too, you must comfort mourners.  Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu buries the dead… so too, you must bury the dead."


            In light of these midrashim, we may suggest that with respect to the creation of the world as well, a person is asked to walk in the ways of God, and thus to be His "partner" in Creation.  Just as God 'works' for six days and 'rests' on the seventh, so too, man is called upon to toil for six days and then rest on the seventh.  Based on this, we understand the words of the Mekhilta De-Rashbi (Shemot 20:9):


"Six days you shall work" (ibid., v. 8) – Rabbi says: "This is another decree, for just as Israel receives the positive commandment of Shabbat, so too they are commanded about work."


            The Sages (Bereishit Rabba 3), however, emphasize that the narrative of Creation is merely an external description of what happened:


Rabbi Berekhya opened in the name of Ri ben Rabbi Simon: "'By God's word were the heavens made' (Tehillim 33:6) – Ri ben Rabbi Simon said: 'Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu did not create His world with toil and effort, but rather "Let there be light" (Bereishit 1:3) – and there already was [light].'"


            Thus, the world was created by God's word, not through His toil and effort.  The lengthy description in Sefer Bereishit, which gives the impression of work, comes only to pass on an educational message:


Reish Lakish said: "As it were, a word issued from the mouth of Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu – 'By God's word were the heavens made,' and it is written (Bereishit 2:3) 'He created' (as if He toiled)!  Rather, [it is the justification] to punish the wicked, who destroy the world which has been created through toil and effort; and to reward the righteous, who maintain the world which has been created by God's word.  (Midrash Tanchuma Yashan, Bereishit 1:1)


            Our passage expresses the perspective according to which the world was created by God's word alone, for it too asks: "How do we know that speech is like action?  Because it is said: 'By God's word were the heavens made.'" The novelty in the passage is that with respect to this as well, man is called to walk in the ways of God and create His world through speech alone: "He who prays on the eve of Shabbat and recites Va-ykhullu - Scripture treats him as though he is made a partner with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu in Creation"!


            According to this explanation, we can well understand the aspect of atonement in the passage.  We often find that when a person begins a new stage in life, he achieves atonement for all his sins: a convert and a sage – "Just as a convert is pardoned for all his sins, so too a sage who has been appointed is pardoned for all his sins" (Yerushalmi, Bikkurim 3:3); a position of greatness – "A person does not rise to greatness unless all his sins are pardoned" (Sanhedrin 14a); a sick person who has recovered – "A sick person does not recover from his illness unless they pardon him for all his sins" (Nedarim 41a); a groom – "A bridegroom is pardoned for all his sins" (Yerushalmi, ibid.); and others.


            In a similar fashion, each week on Shabbat, when a person walks in the ways of God, becomes God's partner in the creation, and creates His world anew by the utterance of his mouth – all of his sins are pardoned.  In this context, this new creation is similar to one who contracts the most serious ritual impurity, through contact with a corpse, and then returns to a new life, by way of the living waters into which the ashes of a para adumma are mixed.  As the midrash says, "just as the para atones," so too, Va-ykhullu atones.


            Echos of this approach, which sees the recitation of Va-ykhullu as a renewal of creation that achieves atonement, can also be found in the Posekim and in various halakhot:


1)         The repetition: According to this approach, we well understand the three-fold repetition.  According to the midrash cited by the Or Zarua and Abudraham, the repetition of Va-ykhullu does not stem from technical reasons or because of a fondness for the subject matter; rather, it is rooted in the very comparison of Va-ykhullu to the para adumma.  Owing to this midrash, the Ra'avya (I:196) notes that it 'overrules' the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 8:1; Pesachim 10:2) which indicates that Va-ykhullu need be recited by the congregation only if there is no wine to make Kiddush (so they will miss the chance to say Va-ykhullu at home):  


Nevertheless, the people have the custom to recite Va-ykhullu even in a place where there is wine, because they rely on the aggada that a person is obligated to recite Va-ykhullu three times on Shabbat.


2)                  Standing: According to the atonement approach, there seems to be no reason to stand while reciting Va-ykhullu, as the whole idea of reciting Va-ykhullu according to this approach is to reconstruct the world through speech alone, without any toil or effort.  There might be an allusion to this point in the words of the Shibbolei Ha-leket (66):


And my brother, Rabbi Binyamin, writes about our custom to say it standing, that this is because [the congregation] has just now finished the silent prayer and are already standing, and they must stand again for the "me-ein sheva" blessing — not because of testimony.  One who recites it sitting loses nothing.


3)         When the passage is recited: An original position regarding where the passage is recited is found in a responsum of the Rambam (no. 178):


Instruct us regarding the holy congregation of Israel… who have been accustomed from days of old and bygone years to recite Va-ykhullu on the even of Shabbat after "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat," "A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day,"(Tehillim 92).  A Torah scholar came and objected, saying: That which you are reciting Va-ykhullu – it is forbidden to say it, and you sin with it! 


The holy congregation, may their Rock protect them and grant them life said: "This is the custom of our fathers; we shall not change or abolish it…"  Instruct us, should the congregation persist with their custom or not?


            The Rambam answers:


They are permitted to continue with their custom, on condition that they read Va-ykhullu after the evening prayer… as is obligated by custom.


            How are we to understand the unusual custom of reciting Va-ykhullu immediately after "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat"?  There seems to be a conceptual connection between the two, for, according to the Sages, this psalm too expresses the idea of repentance and atonement in creation:


Adam encountered [Kayin], and said to him: "What shall we do about your judgment?" 

He said to him: "I repented and was pardoned." 

Adam began to slap himself in the face and said: "This is the power of repentance, and I did not know!"  Adam immediately stood up and said: "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat." (Bereishit Rabba 22:28)


            Similarly, we find in Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 629):


Four psalms which should have been said by Adam were said by David…  "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-Shabbat" – for Shabbat released him from judgment. 


4)                  Preparation: The Orechot Chayyim, which brings the midrash which ties Va-ykhullu to the para adumma, draws from it the following halakhic conclusion:


Therefore a person must purify himself on Friday and cut his nails and hair, so that his demerits be cut off.  We therefore say Va-ykhullu, so that there be atonement for Israel like that of the para adumma.  (Seder Tefillat Shabbat, 10)


5)                  An individual: While those who view Va-ykhullu as testimony question an individual's recitation, this concern is irrelevant according to those who see Va-ykhullu as an act of atonement.  Indeed, the Eliyya Rabba notes that, according to them, even an individual can say Va-ykhullu.




            There are two approaches with respect to the recitation of Va-ykhullu, which appear to be based on two different readings of the gemara in Shabbat.  One sees Va-ykhullu as testimony to one's belief in God's creation of the world in six days and His resting on the seventh.  The other sees it as a reenactment of God's creation of the world through His word, whereby one can achieve atonement for one's sins.  The first approach is the more prevalent one among the Posekim and serves as the basis for various laws on the matter, though the second approach also finds expression in the Posekim and sheds new light on the subject.  In practice, "both approaches are the words of the living God" (Eiruvin 13b), and by reciting Va-ykhullu every Shabbat, we give expression to both.



(Translated by David Strauss)


* This shiur appeared in Alon Shevut 146.  It was edited by Shaul Bart, but it has not been reviewed by Rav Bazak.