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:
of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
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
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.