Tefillah Tuesday: א’ל מלא רחמים

On this week of the horrifying massacre at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, I will devote this Tefillah Tuesday post to א’ל מלא רחמים/El Malei Rachamim, the Ashkenazi memorial prayer, to honor those who were murdered: Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, may their memories be blessings.

This prayer text is relatively young liturgy, and reflects many small variations. [For instance, some versions speak to God in the 2nd person, while others are phrased in the 3rd person.] It is associated with memorializing the victims of the Cossack marauders of Bogdan Chemelnitsky in 1648. (So it’s only maybe 350 years old – a comparative baby in the siddur.) Since then, Jews repurposed El Malei from referring specifically to martyrs to a memorial said at any funeral or yahrzeit ([Yiddish] literally: “anniversary” of a death). This week, perhaps, its original context makes more sense.

Like most Hebrew prayers, El Malei Rachamim borrows and adapts Bible phrases. Its main theme is that “God full of mercy” should guard the souls those who experienced death in torment, bring them to paradise and absorb them into eternal divine life. We pray for the deceased that they be granted מנוחה נכונה/menucha nekhona, “true peace” either beneath [תחת] or upon [על] the divine wings. We hope they become like stars in  זהר הרקיע/ Zohar harakia, the radiant heaven, an image borrowed from Daniel 12.3, which seems to reflect a belief that the eschatological reward for the righteous is to become a star.

Two phrases in the prayer particularly catch my heart as we davven them. First, is the image of being wrapped in God’s protection: הסתירהו בסתר כנפיך לעולמים/hastirehu [or hastireha] beseter kenafekha le’olamim, “hide him/her within your robes [or wings] eternally.” This is borrowed from Psalm 61, where the psalmist praises God for rescuing him from many trials. “O that I could dwell in Your tent eternally [עולמים], may I hide within your robes [בסתר כנפיך אחסה]!” I summon up a homespun image to help me davven this phrase: a parent putting children to bed or taking them from the bath, wrapping them in towels and blankets. We over-sophisticated religious people might look askance at religious images of God as parent. But I love them, because they help me feel God’s parental love – not as a child, but as God’s co-parent. I know above else how infinitely I love my children, and that helps me dimly imagine God’s infinite love. I imagine myself wrapping my children in care, and I pray for God and for the deceased soul that Hashem embrace their souls in love.

Next, the phase צרור בצרור החיים את נשמתו / tzeror bitz’ror hahayyim et nishmato [or nishmata], “may You bind his/her soul to the bond of life.” This phrase comes from I Samuel 25, where the wise woman Abigail wishes well to the future King David, who at that time was working a protection racket among the shepherds of Carmel. In the biblical context, it simply means that she wishes David long life and divine protection. But over the centuries this phrase acquired a more metaphysical cast, suggesting that God is [or maintains] a kind of nucleus of life force for the universe. Each of us is alive only in finite terms as an individual. One day, I will die, and death will overcome me. But that is not the end of the story. To be a religious person is to recognize a surpassing and transcendent and infinite life beyond death. Maybe you believe in the endurance of the individual soul beyond the grave; maybe you don’t. But I suspect that every religious spirit senses that we participate in a life beyond our own. When I davven this phrase at someone’s funeral or when remembering them at a yahrzeit, I try to imagine that while the individual life of the human being I knew has ended, that life force is re-absorbed into the cosmic “bond of life.” Or to borrow an image favored by mystics: your life is like a cup of water taken briefly from the ocean, ultimately to be poured back into the ocean.

Finally, one local note about the use of the El Malei: At Ansche Chesed in the sanctuary service, we recite memorial prayers on Shabbat for those whose yahrzeits fall on Shabbat or in the upcoming week. That is unconventional in most Ashkenazi synagogues today, but the practice is common in Sefardic communities, where they use a related but different text, and call it hashkava, or “laying down.” The practice of mentioning the dead during Shabbat has old roots. The 13th century Italian sage R. Tzidkiah b. Avraham HaRofe, known as Shibbolei HaLeket (ch. 81) records this practice, and it is later cited by the R. Yosef Karo [Beit Yosef OH 84], R. Moshe Isserles [Shulhan Arukh OH 284.7] and later writers. Today most Ashkenazim feel this practice is bad form for Shabbat, too much like a public display of mourning for the holy day. But others defend the custom, including R. Moshe Feinstein, who argued in a 1959 responsum that saying El Malei on Shabbat – while a minority custom –was not necessarily wrong [Iggerot Moshe OH 2.74].