Enthusiastic handshakes, accompanied by the Hebrew greeting "Yasher Koach," are the standard expression of congratulations for those who have had the merit of participating in the public worship of the synagogue, especially the reading of the Torah.
The words "Yasher koach" translate literally as "May your strength be firm." A benediction of this sort is always timely, but it is a curious one to be introducing on these particular occasions. Are we really concerned that an individual's powers will have been significantly drained after having mounted the lectern and mouthed some blessings?
The origins of this practice are linked to those of a similar blessing that is recited on rarer occasions; i.e., the congregational declaration "Hazak hazak venit-hazek" that follows the conclusion of each of the five books of the Pentateuch. The meaning of that Hebrew phrase is analogous to that of "Yasher koach": "Strong, strong, and let us be strengthened!"
From various descriptions of synagogue customs from the medieval period, we learn that the original practice was to wish each participant in the Torah reading Hazak hazak upon the conclusion of his `aliyah. The reason for this, it appears, was a practical one. According to the ancient procedure, the Torah had to be read while it was standing upright and its text visible to the congregation. The reader therefore had to physically support it by taking hold of its posts. Sephardic Torah scrolls are normally housed in as special box that can stand safely on the reading table, but to keep an Ashkenazic-style sefer Torah straight and not allow it to fall demanded some serious exertion.
It is therefore understandable that by-standers would do their best to encourage the reader to maintain the requisite vigor.
As often occurs in the evolution of religious customs, certain routines stubbornly persist even after their original reasons have ceased to be applicable. Though the Torah is now allowed to lie horizontally on the lectern, we still insist that the reader "support" it by symbolically grasping its wooden posts, and the people next to him continue to pray that the reader's strength will suffice for the task.
Thus we have found ways to preserve the remnants of two different customs: The saying of Hazak has been relegated to the ceremonious conclusions of entire books, possibly owing to a misunderstanding of an old instruction that it be recited "when one finishes reading the Torah."Yasher koach, on the other hand, has been adopted as the informal congratulatory formula for the normal `aliyah.
The customs we are describing date back to Talmudic times, and are attributed there to the heroes of the Bible. When God exhorted Joshua to take over Moses' mantle of leadership, he instructed him that "this book of the Torah shall not depart out of thy mouth... be strong and of a good courage." Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai deduced that the wording "this book" implies that Joshua was actually holding a Torah scroll at the time. The Rabbis discerned in this episode a precedent for saying Hazak to anyone who is grasping a Torah.
Similarly, when Moses declared "Cursed be the one who does not uphold all the words of this Torah," the Talmudic Rabbis understood this as alluding to the obligation to offer verbal support to the person who is holding up a Torah scroll.
Indeed the fear of inadvertently dropping a sacred scroll was not the only fear that troubled participants in the synagogue services. Midrashic tradition speaks of the grave perils that were felt to threaten a person--whether from a hostile Satan or from the person's own carelessness--when he accepted the momentous responsibility of praying on behalf of the congregation.
An interesting twist on this theme is contained in a midrashic interpretation quoted by Rashi in his very last comment to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. When God (in Deut. 10:2) spoke to Moses about "the first tablets which [Hebrew: asher] you broke," the Rabbis read this as if God were saying to Moses "Yasher koach for breaking the tablets" in reaction to the people's worship of the Golden Calf.
This midrash takes on a powerful poignancy when we bear in mind that the normal meaning of Yasher koach is "May you have strength not to cause the Torah to fall." In this midrashic exposition, the usage is ironically reversed, as God reassures Moses saying: You have done the right thing in showing the strength and courage to hurl the Torah before a people that has proven itself unworthy of it.
At any rate, we hope for the strength to uphold both the scroll and its contents.
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