World of the Sages: Shabbat requests

Since we generally do not voice our individual requests on Shabbat, why then do we recite this prayer asking for personal goodness?

Shabbat is a special time. We dress differently and we eat differently; we walk differently and try to talk differently. Everything about Shabbat is different when compared to the other days of the week. On Shabbat we even pray differently: The tempo, the tone, the tunes and the text are all Shabbat appropriate. One of the main changes to the Shabbat prayer texts is that we do not ask for personal requests. Thus the text of the Shabbat Amida is altered so that the many requests that we ask for thrice daily - health, wealth, knowledge and more - are not part of it. In this light, it is surprising that Rav's personal prayer addendum requesting manifold blessings for life has been canonized in the Ashkenazi prayer rite as the text recited on the Shabbat that precedes Rosh Hodesh (first of a new month). As part of the prayer that heralds the coming of a new month, we recite Rav's words (B. Brachot 16b): May it be Your will, God our Lord, that You give us long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, a life of wealth and of honor, a life in which we will have a love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which You will fulfill for us all our heart's desires for good. While it is easy to connect to the requests expressed in this prayer - who wouldn't be grateful for a life filled with all these blessings? - the decision to insert it as part of the Shabbat prayer service perplexed some commentators: Since we generally do not voice our individual requests on Shabbat, why then do we recite this prayer asking for personal goodness? Among Karlin Hassidim, the prayer is part of the service as elsewhere, though there is one significant difference. Karlin Hassidim are renowned for their powerful vociferousness; one who enters a Karlin synagogue should be prepared for supplicants screaming their prayers with all their might. Strangely, Rav's prayer is recited silently without fanfare by Karlin Hassidim. Perhaps this aberration, perhaps this comparatively silent recital, is recognition that requests for physical needs are inappropriate for the holy day. One codifier - the Russian authority Rabbi Yehiel Michel Halevi Epstein (1829-1908), author of Aruch Hashulhan - felt strongly about the unsuitability of this prayer to the Shabbat service. In his version of the Code of Jewish Law he wondered who had permitted the introduction of this new prayer into the Shabbat rite. True, the talmudic sage Rav had recited this text, yet he had offered the requests during his weekday prayer; how did this text intrude into the Shabbat service? The Aruch Hashulhan's concerns were so strong that he concluded his discussion by declaring that if he had the power, he would excise the prayer from the Shabbat service! The Aruch Hashulhan, however, acknowledged that the force of accepted custom was close to insurmountable and hence any change to the accepted text was highly unlikely. The hassidic master and halachic authority Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937) was also troubled by this prayer, acknowledging that at first blush it was hardly appropriate for Shabbat. The Munkatcher Rebbe explained that there was an exception to the rule banning personal requests on Shabbat: Personal requests for spiritual well-being are permitted. Thus at the conclusion of the Amida prayer - on Shabbat just as during the week - we turn to the Almighty and request assistance in checking what we say and in grappling with those who speak evil of us. Indeed this may justify some of the requests in the pre-Rosh Hodesh prayer, such as "a life in which there is fear of sin" and "a life in which we will have a love of Torah and a fear of heaven." Alas, this approach hardly explains all the requests; we can scarcely construe requests for "a life of sustenance" and "a life of physical health" as asking for matters of the spirit! The Munkatcher Rebbe therefore creatively suggested a different approach. In the hassidic tradition, at the end of the prayer we append the words bizchut tefillat Rav, in the merit of the prayer of Rav. Many commentators grappled with this strange addition - we generally do not acknowledge the authors of prayers when reciting the texts they penned and bequeathed to us. The Munkatcher Rebbe suggested that this addition may have been an attempt to come to terms with the personal nature of the prayer: By adding these words we turn the prayer into a quote from the talmudic passage, and thus avoid the appearance of asking for individual needs on Shabbat. Another halachic authority, Rabbi Shimon Sofer (1850-1944) of Erlau (today Eger, Hungary) distinguished between prayers and blessings: Personal prayer requests are inappropriate for Shabbat, yet blessings that have a fixed text are an accepted part of the service and undoubtedly permitted, even if there is an apparent personal element to the prayer. Indeed a close examination of the service reveals numerous prayers that include personal requests. The prayer that heralds the coming of Rosh Hodesh should therefore pose no problem. Perhaps we could add a further dimension: While Shabbat is not the time for individual requests, the community is permitted to ask for its needs. The pre-Rosh Hodesh prayer should not be viewed as the prayer of an individual asking for his or her own well-being. It is a communal prayer recited while all stand. In this sense, the congregation declares that the welfare of the community is dependent on the well-being of its constituents. Thus Rav's prayer - when said not as an addendum to personal prayer, but as a communal recitation - is a prayer for the well-being of the community and is therefore justifiably part of the Shabbat prayer rite. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.