Monday, September 02, 2013

Machnasei Rachamim and Selichot: Jewish Angel Liturgy at the High Holy Days

Whenever a congregant reads something I have written, or I share a bit of Jewish esoteric tradition from the pulpit, I inevitably have some say to me, rather emphatically, “Jews do not do that!” To this I always respond, “In 3000 years, living on 6 continents, some Jew somewhere has done everything.”

One need go no further than the Selichot prayers for the days leading up to the High Holy Days. For here we encounter the prayer Machnisei Rachamim, “Conveyors of Compassion.”  This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makes of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

Whoa, stop right there. “Jews do not do that!” Well, there is ample case that that opinion is correct. The rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately.” (T.Y. Berachot 9.1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha'Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on.

In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory.  

The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet…At least one midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (Shir Hashirim Rabba to 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words “barchuni l’shalom…”, “bless me with peace”, when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem.
Here I quote a wise gentile:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" – Emerson

Some defenders have argued that this behavior reflects our lowliness at this time of the year; we feel unworthy to address God directly.

Being historically minded, and noting that this prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, I suspect it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

Whatever the rationale, a traditional Jew has to grapple with this odd bit of our angelic tradition.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon.http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books


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