Following surgery, I had occasion to write about my newfound appreciation for the bracha of asher yatzar, which one recites after using the restroom, an activity that most of us take for granted.
Pursuant to that, in part 1 of this article, I wrote about some more blessings and prayers that may be underappreciated, specifically, the brachos of Shehakol and Hodaah (popularly know as “Modim”).
I concluded part 1 by promising to share what I believe to be the most undervalued prayer in the entire siddur. The time has come.
When I mentioned the theme of this two-part article to a colleague, he guessed that the most undervalued prayer in the liturgy was Aleinu. This is, in fact, my runner-up.
According to popular theory, Aleinu was authored by Yehoshua (the Biblical Joshua). This is an idea expressed by Rav Yehuda HaChasid and repeated by other Rishonim. (This opinion is also found in the writings of Rav Hai Gaon more than a century earlier, but there are those who question its authenticity.) One of the supports for this idea is the fact that Yehoshua’s given name, Hoshea, is encoded backwards in the initial letters of the verses, though there are also reasons to question this hypothesis. The Talmud Yerusalmi (Rosh Hashana 1:3) attributes the prayer to the Amora Rav. Either Rav wrote Aleinu or, if Yehoshua wrote it, Rav inserted it into the Rosh Hashana service as the introduction to the Malchiyos section, which discusses God’s dominion over the world.
Aleinu is a sublime praise to God. It begins:
It is incumbent upon us to praise the Master of everything; to ascribe greatness to the One Who formed creation.
The prayer goes on to describe a future world in which all mankind is united in the service of God.
The recitation of Aleinu is one of the most inspiring moments of the “High Holiday” services. As we say the words, “We bend our knees, bow down, and express thanks before the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He,” the entire congregation prostrates upon the ground – something we only do otherwise when reenacting the Temple service as part of Yom Kippur’s musaf prayers.
In 1171, in Blois, France, 34 Jewish men and 17 Jewish women were burned at the stake for refusing to renounce Judaism. It is reported that they went to their deaths singing Aleinu, to the astonishment of their executioners. While some suggest that this event was the impetus for Aleinu’s insertion into the regular liturgy, Aleinu can be found in daily services that predate the Blois martyrdom. Whatever the reason, this beautiful and moving acknowledgment of God’s glory and our dependence upon Him was established as the closing prayer for each of our three daily prayer services.
The problem is that familiarity breeds contempt, or at the very least, taking something for granted. Saying Aleinu three times a day, every day, takes some of the awe out of it. We don’t open the aron when we recite it during the year, and we certainly don’t prostrate upon the ground. Instead, people are taking off their tallis and tefillin while they recite it, or inching their way towards the door. Aleinu – one of the high points of the Days of Awe – is certainly undervalued by many during the year.
And the Winner Is…
In my opinion, though, the single most undervalued prayer in our entire liturgy is…
The exact origins of Tachanun may be unknown but it is based on Biblical precedents. I Kings 8:54 and Daniel 9:3 each refer to “prayer and supplications” (tefillah and tachanunim), from which we learn that prayer – i.e., Shemoneh Esrei – should be followed by supplications – i.e., Tachanun.
The prayer is referenced in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b). You may recall the story in which Rabbi Eliezer disagreed with the Sages regarding the ritual purity of a particular type of oven. To prove his point, Rabbi Eliezer called upon a carob tree (which walked across the yard), a fountain (which ran backwards), the study hall walls (which bent) and the very Heavens themselves. When a Heavenly voice proclaimed Rabbi Eliezer’s rightness in this matter, Rabbi Yehoshua replied that the Torah is no longer in Heaven (Deut. 30:12), meaning that once the Torah was given to man, it is up to the Sages to rule in such matters. When most people recount this incident, this is where they stop but there’s more.
The Sages voted to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for failure to follow the majority rule. This was not a move undertaken likely, given Rabbi Eliezer’s greatness. Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, cried out to God that He knows that the action was taken only for His honor, in order to avoid factions forming among Jewry.
Rabban Gamliel happened to be the brother of Rabbi Eliezer’s wife. Every day following Rabbi Eliezer’s excommunication, she would not allow him to “fall on his face” after Shemoneh Esrei. (Nefilas Apayim – falling on one’s face – is the “official” name for Tachanun.) One day, she neglected to stop her husband from reciting this prayer. Some say that she thought it was Rosh Chodesh, on which Tachanun is not recited; others say that she went to the door to give a needy person some bread. In any event, she returned to find Rabbi Eliezer on his face, reciting Tachanun. “Get up!” she screamed, “You’re killing my brother!”
The reason that Rabbi Eliezer’s wife did not permit him to recite Tachanun following his excommunication is because of its great power. He felt wronged by Rabban Gamliel. Gamliel’s sister knew that even if her brother acted for God’s honor, that wouldn’t protect him if Rabbi Eliezer were to cry out, reciting this prayer in his distress.
The Tachanun proper begins with a verse from II Samuel. The prophet Gad told King David that he had to choose a punishment from God: seven years of famine, three months of enemy conquest or three days of pestilence. Choosing the pestilence, “David said to Gad, ‘I am greatly distressed. Let us fall into the hand of God, for His mercies are great, and let me not fall into the hand of man’” (24:14). Tachanun continues with verses from Psalm 6, which David composed while he was in physical and emotional anguish.
On Mondays and Thursdays – traditionally recognized as days of particular Divine compassion – we recite additional supplications (tachanunim). This extra section – V’Hu Rachum – and the usual section of Vayomer David are collectively known colloquially as “long Tachanun.” Because it’s long. Really long. Long enough that it can be difficult for some people. Hold that thought.
Tachanun is unique in that it is not recited on many special days of the year, including Chanukah, Purim, Rosh Chodesh, Tu b’Shevat, Lag b’Omer, and many others. Tachanun is not recited the entire month of Nisan, nor is it recited in a shiva house, in the presence of a groom during the week of sheva brachos, or in the presence of the father, sandek or mohel on the day of a bris. There are numerous other exemptions.
Between long Tachanun being a difficult prayer and the plethora of exemptions that exist, people tend to look for reasons not to say it. (There is a practice not to recite Tachanun on the yahrtzeit of certain great rabbis. Someone I know used to announce the day’s yahrtzeits every day after minyan, ostensibly as an ex post facto reason we shouldn’t have recited Tachanun that day.) Such an attitude towards Tachanun was not always the case.
The Mishnah Brurah rules (131:26) that a groom should not attend shul during the week of sheva brachos because his presence would prevent the congregants from being able to recite Tachanun. When asked if this halacha reflects our practice, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l replied that that halacha only applies when the congregation would be saddened to have their recitation of Tachanun impeded. Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find such a minyan! This is a shame when one considers the history and impact of this powerful prayer. What could we accomplish if we recited Tachanun with the heartfelt emotion of a Rabbi Eliezer?
And In Conclusion
This article and the previous one reflect some of my own thoughts on various brachos and tefillos. Each of us is different. Each of us may have certain tefillos that speak to us and other tefillos that we take for granted. The best way, in my experience, to develop an appreciation for the liturgy as a whole is to familiarize oneself with the tefillos. Understanding the words is just the first step. A fuller appreciation will blossom upon investigating such things as the Biblical precedent and historical development of our prayers.
May God grant us understanding in this matter!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.