This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

And May God Bless...*

The traditional synagogue service strives for a large measure of uniformity. The standardized prayers approach the Creator in precisely fixed Hebrew phrases, and in the name of the entire community, without adapting the liturgical formulas to the specific personalities or identities of the worshippers .

A rare exception to this norm of standardization is the Hebrew blessing that begins Mi shebberakh: "May the God who blessed our ancestors... bless So-and-so." This formula, most often recited by the gabbai on behalf of someone who has participated in the reading of the Torah, identifies the beneficiaries of the blessings by their Hebrew names and the names of their fathers (and sometimes their mothers) as well indicating their status as Kohanim or Leviim.

Diligent gabbaim will strive to record, whether in their memories or on paper, the Hebrew names and pedigrees of all their congregants. Alternatively, they will pause their rapid-fire declamation at the appropriate moment in the blessing to ask the person in question to supply the relevant information.

The earliest direct evidence we have for the recitation of personalized blessings are in passages like the Aramaic Yekum Purkan, a prayer for the welfare of the talmudic academies in Babylonia and the Land of Israel, and for the Babylonian Exilarch [Resh Galuta]. This prayer is designated to be proclaimed before the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark during the Saturday morning service.

It is characteristic of the Jewish reverence for tradition that this prayer continues to be recited in most communities, in the arcane Aramaic tongue, long after the institutions to whom they are directed have passed from the earth.

In fact it was not until late in the twelfth century that the Yekum Purkan made its first appearance, in French and German prayer books. Ironically, this was at the time when the institutions of the Babylonian Gaonate and Exilarchate were on the verge of extinction.

Shortly afterwards, a similar blessing was composed in Hebrew, on behalf of those who volunteer their time and possessions for the welfare of the community. Versions of that blessing became popular in France, Germany and Spain.

These congregational Mi Shebberakhs provide a fascinating window into the workings of a typical congregation. The tasks that were singled out for communal gratitude and blessing are indeed a representative sampling of the innumerable acts of sacrifice and voluntarism that go into the functioning of a well-oiled Jewish society.

In addition to the obligatory mention of those who have contributed money or property to the synagogue funds, we find for example that Italian communities inserted the following Mi Shebberakh into every Sabbath service: "He who blessed our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, may he bless every daughter of Israel who fashions a mantle or a scarf in honour of the Torah, or who prepares a lamp in honour of the Torah. May the Holy one Blessed Be He pay her a reward and grant her a full recompense. Amen."

The lamps that are mentioned in the above blessing are akin to the "Eternal Light" that is suspended before the Torah arks in the synagogue. In our electronic world, when illumination is achieved through the simple flick of a switch or the changing of a bulb, we do not always appreciate how different matters were in the age of oil lamps, and how much dedication was needed to make sure that those lights were always fuelled and kindled.

The same observation applies to the lighting of the synagogue itself, which demanded regular donations of oil and wicks, and is acknowledged frequently in the Mi Shebberakh blessings.

One old Mi Shebberakh text itemizes the diverse religious articles that can be contributed to the congregation during ones lifetime or as a bequest after death. The list mentions: Torah scrolls, wrappings and crowns; oil for the Eternal Light, money for the local and foreign poor; dowries for orphaned brides, salaries for teachers of poor children, mikvahs, yeshivahs, and books for study.

Items that were omitted from that list can be filled in from other Mi Shebberakhs. Some examples are: the support of burial and free loan societies, taking on penitential fasts; abstaining from ritually doubtful wines or from idle chatter in the synagogue, and the upkeep of the pious scholars in the Holy Land. Conversely, some Jerusalem congregations offered blessings for the Jews of the Diaspora.

For good measure, it was customary in Rhodes to bless the upright tax assessors; while the Jews of Carpentras also recited a Mi Shebberakh in honor of the Pope and the cardinals.

The catalogue of deeds for which Mi Shebberakhs were composed can serve as an exhaustive inventory of the essential tasks that must be fulfilled in order to maintain the communitys viability and vitality: Attending services, studying Torah and performing mitzvot, donating to charities, constructing the synagogues, furnishing lamps, wine and provisions for guests.

 

There is a close resemblance between the oral recitation of Mi Shebberakhs and that other venerable Jewish practice, of acknowledging the generosity of donors and volunteers by means of plaques and inscriptions. In some cases, the connections are nothing short of astounding.

Take for example the mosaic inscription that was found on a synagogue floor in Jericho, dating from the Byzantine period. Its Aramaic text states "Let them be remembered for good, the holy congregation, great and small, who, with Gods help, devoted themselves to work on the mosaic. May He who knows their names and the names of their children and wives, inscribe them in the Book of Life along with all the righteous saints, Peace to all Israel. Amen."

Imagine the surprise of scholars when they discovered that virtually the same formula resurfaces more than a thousand years later in Mi Shebberakhs in prayer books from localities as diverse as Aleppo (Syria), Persia, Crimea, Cochin (India) and Kaifeng (China).

But perhaps there is no real reason for surprise. After all, what we have here is an instance of some elemental human qualities that find their most admirable expression in religious communities.

These qualities include the willingness of the volunteers to contribute time and property for the common good, and the communitys readiness to give public acknowledgment their gratitude.

The combination of these blessings can serve as a guarantee for the continued flourishing of Jewish communities in all times.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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