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The Nahem Controversy: A Brief Summary by Shlomo Brody

July 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts

Particularly since the Six-Day War, there has been an ongoing discussion within Israel regarding the propriety of stating the Nahem prayer during Mincha of Tisha Be’av.  Below I provide a brief summary, adapted from my Jerusalem Post Ask The Rabbi column, which, because of editorial complications, will only appear in the paper this coming Friday. 

Why do Jews continue to commemorate Tisha Be’av if Jewish sovereignty has been restored to Jerusalem?

The 9th of Av (Tisha Be’av) fast day is the bookend of a three week mourning period that also begins with a fast on the 17th of Tamuz.  Amongst other tragedies, the primary events attributed to these dates relate to the loss of political sovereignty and the destruction of the Temples (Ta’anit 4:6). The rites of mourning include refraining from festive celebrations, haircuts and shaving, and consuming meat.

With the return to political autonomy in 1948, and particularly after the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, some began to question whether such mourning remained appropriate.  Based on Zechariah’s prophecy (8:19), the Sages believed that when peace returns to Israel, the minor fast days – including the 17th of Tamuz, 10th of Tevet, and fast of Gedaliah – will become holidays (Rosh Hashanah 18b).  Some commentators minimally defined the requisite conditions as the removal of Gentile rule over the Jewish people (Rashi). Others, asserted that the days will become festivals only with the rebuilding of the Temple (Ritva).  The Talmud further asserted that if the Jewish people found themselves under the non-violent rule of Gentiles, these fast days would be optional, even as Tisha Be’av would remain obligatory because of the gravity of the day’s tragedies.      

Following the reunification of Jerusalem, the Masorti movement made these fast days optional, while a group of Orthodox academics shared a le’chaim together at the Western Wall on the 17th of Tamuz!  The Orthodox rabbinate, however, has universally affirmed the continued necessity of the fast (Machatzit Ha-Shekel 550:1), contending that after centuries of observance, the community accepted upon themselves this fast as binding until the rebuilding of the Temple (as affirmed already in medieval times – see Tshuvot Geonim Sha’arei Teshuva 77). Greater dispensations, however, are issued for pregnant and nursing women and the minorly ill. 

As Dr. Yael Levine has documented (Techumin 21), some questioned whether the new political reality mandated a change to the recitation of “Nahem” (“Comfort Us), the special Tisha Be’av insertion into the Amidah mourning the destruction of Jerusalem.  Originating in the Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 4:3), the text and time of its recitation has evolved over the centuries, including the substitution of its opening word, “Rachem” (requesting compassion).  Today, Askhenazim recite it exclusively in the afternoon amidah, while many Sephardim recite it in each prayer, with minor textual discrepancies between their versions. 

The prayer describes Jerusalem as a “city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate,” destroyed and conquered by because foreign armies and idolaters.  In August 1967, then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren altered the text in the IDF prayerbook to reflect the new reality.  Basing himself on historical textual variants, he removed the depictions of a Jerusalem “scorned and desolate” while “sitting in mourning like a barren childless woman.”       

The non-Orthodox movements adopted the more comprehensive changes of Prof. Epharim Urbach, who altered the text to a plea for compassion (rachem) for Jerusalem “which is being rebuilt upon its ruins, restored upon its ravage, and resettled upon its desolation.”  It also included a reference to those who died in the Holocaust and in Israel’s wars, as did the alternate version penned by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, who further included a plea for vengeance and the ingathering of Jews back to Zion. Netanya’s Chief Rabbi David Shloush changed the bulk of the text to refer exclusively to the lack of religious worship on the Temple Mount (Chemdah Genuzah 21).

Most Orthodox scholars did not accept these changes, for various reasons.  While refusing to condemn those who recited alternative texts, Rabbis Tzvi Y. Kook and Shaul Yisraeli believed that such changes were not appropriate as long as the Temple remained destroyed.  Similar sentiments were added by Chief Rabbis Isser Unterman and Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’at 1:43), who further noted the continued presence of non-Jewish worship on the Temple Mount and Israel’s general spiritual depravity.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik added his general opposition to ritual emendations, particularly with regard to prayers (Masorah 7).  Indicative of this trend was Soncino Press’ decision to remove Rabbi Rosenfeld’s alternative version after it purchased the rights to his Tisha Be’av prayerbook used in many Diaspora synagogues. 

Proponents of the emendation retorted that this prayer’s text has always had fluidity, allowing for certain alterations, especially if the crucial concluding blessing formula remains intact.  They also contended that a failure to change the text made our prayers dishonest, while further insinuating that the opposition stems from polemical concerns for appearing like Reform movement innovations.   

The most modest proposal was offered by Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Hayyim D. Halevi (Aseh Lecha Rav 2:36), who suggested merely amending the depiction of Jerusalem to past tense (“was in sorrow”).  While seconded by Rabbi Shear Y. Hacohen, this change has not received popular acceptance, leaving the prayer’s ultimate fate for a future era.    

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