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Theological Truths vs. Spiritual Vibes: Nigunim, Heresy, and Machnisei Rachamim

September 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Philosophy, Prayer


Theological Truths vs. Spiritual Vibes:   Nigunim, Heresy, and Machnisei Rachamim

By Shlomo Brody

I would like to write about the latest development in a long-standing debate over the propriety of asking angels to bring one’s prayers to God, known as intercessory prayers.  In particular, I refer to popularization of singing machnisei rachamim to the tune of R’ Chaim Benet, which has been popularized by Mordechai Ben David.  If I am correct, we are dealing with a potentially disturbing phenomenon relating, in my mind, to a lack of appreciation of Jewish theology and an overemphasis on “spirituality.”

The controversy over the recitation of intercessory prayers has a long history, which has been well documented by Rabbi Shlomo Sprecher in the rabbinic journal Yeshurun, Vol #3, p. 496-529.  Allow me to summarize and analyze my understanding of the debate.

Intercessionary Prayers in Judaism

A number of penitential prayers, stated in selichot and in the High Holiday prayers, request angels to serve as intermediaries and assist in delivering our prayers to God.1 The most famous of these prayers, Machnisei Rahamim, is recited every evening toward the end of selichot.  It reads,

מכניסי רחמים הכניסו רחמינו, לפני בעל הרחמים. משמיעי תפלה השמיעו תפלתנו, לפני שומע תפלה. משמיעי צעקה השמיעו צעקתנו, לפני שומע צעקה. מכניסי דמעה הכניסו דמעותינו, לפני מלך מתרצה בדמעות. השתדלו והרבו תחנה ובקשה, לפני מלך אל רם ונשא

“Angels of Mercy, usher in [our petition for] mercy before the Lord of mercy… Intercede [for us] and multiply prayer and entreaty before the King, the most high God.  Mention before Him, and let Him hear of the [observance of the] Torah and of the good deeds [performed] by those who repose in the dust.” 2

Other similar prayers are scattered throughout the selichot, including one that appears in the Neilah service of Yom Kippur.  The most common hymn that might request angelic assistance is the 3rd paragraph (Barchuni Le-Shalom) of the Friday night song, Shalom Aleichem, which states, “Bless me for peace, O angles of peace…”3

Numerous Talmudic passages, as plainly interpreted by Rashi, support the permissibility (and even necessity) of such prayers.  The Talmud further suggests that people should prepare their prayers properly to facilitate angelic assistance (Shabbat 12b, Brachot 60b, Sanhedrin 44b).  Many rishonim supported this sentiment, including R Elazar of Worms and R. Isaac Bruna.

Rambam:  Intercessory Prayer is Heresy

Rambam, however, believes that any form of intercessory prayer is heretical, as stated in the 5th of his 13 principles of faith.  All prayer must be addressed directly to God, without the use of stars, angels, and other celestial bodies.  This position is powerfully supported by Yerushalmi Brachot 9:1.

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת ברכות דף סג/א

רבי יודן אמר משמיה דידיה בשר ודם יש לו פטרון אם באת לו עת צרה אינו נכנס אצלו פתאום אלא בא ועמד לו על פתחו של פטרונו וקורא לעבדו או לבן ביתו והוא אומר איש פלוני עומד על פתח חצירך שמא מכניסו ושמא מניחו. אבל הקב”ה אינו כן אם בא על אדם צרה לא יצווח לא למיכאל ולא לגבריאל אלא לי יצווח ואני עונה לו מיד. הה”ד כל אשר יקרא בשם ה’ ימלט.

Rambam further contends that intercessory prayer is illogical, as stars, angels, and other celestial entities have no free will.  As such, they have no power to decide whether or not a person’s prayers should be accepted or not.  This philosophical point, also emphasized by the Vilna Gaon, is frequently overlooked.  The objection is not merely theological (i.e. this is inappropriate worship in its own right, and could easily lead to avodah zarah), but also philosophical. 4 A similar sentiment is expressed by Ramban5, the Maharal, and by many other leading figures.

Machnisei Rachamim:  Taking the Issue Seriously

Regarding the specific prayer of Machnisei Rachamim:  For many centuries, there has been an ongoing battle whether or not it should be defended and recited (Shibbolei Ha-Leket, Seder Rosh Hashanah 282), excised from the prayer books (Gr”a and R’ Hayyim of Volozhin), or seriously re-interpreted and edited to be more theologically acceptable (Maharal Netivot Olam I, Netiv Ha-Avodah Ch 12).6

In my mind, this was a glorious debate, in which each side recognized the severity of the question at stake:  What are the appropriate and inappropriate ways to stand before God in prayer?  If you think that intercessionary prayer is heretical – then you can’t say it, no  matter how long the prayer has been in print or how great its author might have been -  because you cannot faithfully (in all senses of the term) stand before God and beseech Him for mercy while committing a heretical act.  Similarly, if one is convinced that angelic assistance will indeed help your prayers be heard, then the Rambam and his (incorrect?) dogmas are irrelevant.

Existential Qualms:  Am I Worthy of Standing Before God?

The debate, however, seemingly extends beyond theological perplexities and halakhic questions into existential qualms.  Any person standing in prayer asks him or herself a basic question: Am I worthy of standing before God?  Does God care about my pleas?  This feeling is especially strong when the major themes of our selichot are confessions of shame and pleas for mercy.  Take, for example, the verses that begin Selichot each night, which should be recited like a fretful rhapsody.

לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה, וְלָנוּ בּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים. מַה נִּתְאוֹנֵן וּמַה נֹּאמַר מַה נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה נִּצְטַדָּק. נַחְפְּשָֹה דְרָכֵינוּ וְנַחְקֹרָה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֵלֶיךָ, כִּי יְמִינְךָ פְּשׁוּטָה לְקַבֵּל שָׁבִים:

לֹא בְחֶסֶד וְלֹא בְמַעֲשִֹים בָּאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ, כְּדַלִּים וּכְרָשִׁים דָּפַקְנוּ דְלָתֶיךָ. דְּלָתֶיךָ דָפַקְנוּ רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן, נָא אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ רֵיקָם מִלְּפָנֶיךָ. מִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ, כִּי אַתָּה שֹׁמֵעַ תְּפִלָּה:

Having an angel to call upon, in such a moment, deepens one’s feeling of unworthiness – why else does one need an intermediary? – but at the same time assures one that their prayers will be heard.7  Rambam’s approach, however, asserts that all people, no matter how troubled or shamed, should feel that they can directly call out to God.  This is a different existential mentality, emphasizing the intimacy and urgency of prayer, and God’s willingness to keep the connection with Him open.

Two Important Changes:  Re-Interpreting the Prayer

Naturally, one of the factors that played a role in the debate was the fact that the prayer’s recitation for many centuries gave it an entrenched status within minhagei Yisrael.  While we don’t know exactly when the prayer was written, it clearly was around by the middle of the 10th century.  Nonetheless, even after centuries of use, scholars felt both empowered and inspired to remove the prayer, or at the very least, to edit or reinterpret it to become more theologically acceptable.8  That is to say, the antiquity of the prayer did not prevent a series of gedolim from stating, “This is a theologically and halakhically unacceptable prayer, and should be removed from our liturgy.”

The prayer’s antiquity, of course, was a good reason to try to justify or reinterpret it, and certainly inspired a number of its defenders.  Its claim to being a “minhag,” however, could not justify the otherwise unjustifiable.  Instead, they chose to interpret the passage in a more neutral manner, arguing:  a) the passage acknowledges God clearly as the ultimate source of mercy; b) the angels are understood as mere pipelines that transmit the prayers to God, but not as independent agents; c) the prayer intends to merely create an appropriate sense of unworthiness in the worshippers.

Given the long history of defenses offered for intermediary prayers, these interpretations remain difficult.  Yet they reflect an honest attempt to bring a long-standing prayer in line with mainstream theology.  This certainly would not be the first or last time in which a well-entrenched prayer or source was re-interpreted to fit within different theological or halakhic criterion.


An additional change occurred in the 19th century, when early Reform leaders such as Abraham Geiger wished to excise all intercessory prayers, amongst other liturgical reforms.  At this stage, it appears that greater hesitancy emerged, at least amongst some, to avoid any liturgical emendations, lest it be taken as a precedent or support for more radical emendations.  The Chatam Sofer,9 for example, stated that he agreed with the Maharal that one should not state Machnisei Rachamim, but he did not stop his congregation from doing so, and instead chose for himself to inconspicuously skip the passage by saying an “extended nefillat apayyim.”  Similar sentiments were expressed by R. Akiva Eiger.  A more striking formulation is offered by R. Yehuda Assad (Shu”t Yehuda Ya’ale OC 1:21).  There he minimizes the objections of earlier sources10, and further claims that the scholars only privately objected to such prayers, but would join in with its public recitation.  This, of course, was not true of many sages, such as the Maharal and the Sefer Kol Bo (Siman 10), and there is no indication that this is the case within the Korban Netanel.

He then glorifies the ancient writers of the prayer and those who follow them, asserting,

ולע”ד מקורן של ראשונים כמלאכים טהורי לב מיסדי נוסחות אלו בפזמונים מפורש כן יוצא מהש”ס בסנהדרין פ’ נגמר הדין היערוך שועך לא בצר א”ר יוחנן לעולם יבקש אדם רחמים שיהי’ הכל מאמצין את כחו ואל יהו לו צרים מלמעלה. ועיין מג”א סי’ ס”ח. וכן אנחנו נוהגים כרבותינו עונים ואומרים באהבה יהיה חלקינו עם כל עובדי ד’ המתפללים סליחות ואומרים פזמונים הנ”ל כי ישרים דרכי ד’ וצדיקים ילכו בם כו’ והדברים עתיקים כו’ דברי חז”ל קיימים וחיים ונעימים למבינים ככתוב מבקשי ד’ יבינו כל

I do not doubt that these sentiments were deeply held.  Indeed, given the issues at stake, it would be a surprise if scholars did not take a passionate opinion on the matter.  Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that the threat of Reform clearly made many sages hesitant to object to liturgical problems, and more respectful of ancient customs and writers (in this extreme case, comparing the composers themselves to angels!) I further suspect that many sages hoped that over time, these prayers would subtly and quietly disappear from the scene, much as the Maharatz Chajes (19th century) contended that it was preferable in his times to let the halakhically-problematic yotzrot prayers disappear by inertia rather than actively removing them through a public brouhaha.11 Unfortunately, the polemical issues sidelined the larger theological debates.  More pressing was the ability to confront Reform and prevent greater dissolutions of traditional normative behavior.

It is also important to note that despite these two factors (reinterpretations, Reform), many recent gedolim, coming from very different perspectives, continued to object to reciting machnisei rachamim.  To take a few different examples: R. Yitzchak Weiss (Shu”t Siach Yitzchak 411), various members of the Soloveitchik family, including the Rav, and Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl.12

The Status of the Debate in Recent Times

These two factors, I suspect, brought us to the contemporary situation, in which the prayers remain in our selichot machzorim, but almost always with the editor adding that a) many gedolim did not historically state these prayers, and that b) one who does say them should have in mind the more neutral interpretations. 13 This is an awkward phenomenon – how many other times do we find in the siddur statement along these lines? 14  The undetermined resolution of this controversy has engendered ambiguity, and to a certain extent, confusion, especially for those not familiar with the controversies surrounding these selichot.15  It also, however, reflects the fact that the debate was, at least until the last few years, left at a standstill.

The Recent (and Lasting?) Fad

Admittedly, there is no scientific data on how many people or congregations recite machnisei rachamim.  However, in the past few years, I have noticed (and been told of) an increasing number of shuls (at least here in Israel) where the entire congregation now sings Machnisei Rachamim together.  Why?  The answer is very simple:  There is a beautiful niggun, made popular by Mordechai Ben David, which many congregations now sing to add a little spirituality to the end of a long selichot.16  Let’s face it:  We all know that at the end of selichot, a good niggun can go a long way.  This niggun, moreover, is quite riveting, and could lift you into another world.  I myself would love to sing it – if it wasn’t for the fact that I fear reciting these words might deny me a place in the Next World.  Yet it appears that the song’s continued recitation, both during selichot and in concerts, will usher this prayer’s long and controversial history into a new era of acceptance.

Is this a Bad Thing?

Admittedly, one might respond, “Fascinating, but is this really such a bad thing?  After all, there are many gedolim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 5:43) and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (as quoted in Halichot Shlomo: Tefillah), who justify its recitation, and especially if people recite it with the more neutral interpretation that they and others have proposed, there is nothing wrong with it.  Moreover, isn’t this better than a situation in which people are left without clear instuction?”

I understand this argument, but I cannot help but feeling that this is a horrific way to resolve a long-standing dispute related to central issues of prayer, dogma, and our relationship with God.  I would much rather leave things at a standstill – reflecting the clash of values at stake – rather that resolve this issue in such an adhoc manner.

Should a niggun change one’s perspective on this matter?  Indeed, over the past weekend, two bona fide talmidei chachamim mentioned that they (and their distinguished rebbeim)  previously refrained from reciting machnisei rachamim, but since the niggun has emerged, they (although not their rebbeim) now say it.  (One went so far to suggest that perhaps the niggun is a sign from Shamayim!)  I admit, I am firm follower of Rambam on this matter, and am biased against any hints of intermediaries in our prayers.  To me, one of the most riveting aspects of tefilla is our ability to stand directly before God.  (I recently delivered a sichat mussar on this topic.) For this reason, I also don’t particularly enjoy any form of prayer that involves tzaddikim or cemeteries.  Yet I understand – others far greater than me have felt otherwise, and hence the long-standing debate.  But should the coincidence of a good niggun resolve how we stand before God?  Is this the current state of Jewish theology?17

  1. Sprecher documents 22 such prayers, some currently found in our siddurim, and others in manuscripts. []
  2. Translation taken from Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, p. 80.  Shapiro, also relying in part on Sprecher’s work, has a concise summary of the figures who advocated, or at least defended, intercessionary prayer []
  3. Both the Gr”a and R’ Chaim Volozhin found this last example problematic, and did not recite it.  Others, however, interpret the prayer more innocuously and recite it, even as they omit Machnisei Rachamim. []
  4. A number of sages and scholars over the generations, however, have noted that certain Talmudic passages indicate that angels can exercise a certain amount of prerogative.  This topic is discussed in Marc Shapiro’s book, cited above. []
  5. Commentary to Shemot 20:2 []
  6. These examples are mere representatives of larger trends. See the Sprecher article for greater detail, including his account of a particularly spirited debate in Italy []
  7. Indeed, one of the many approaches adopted to re-interpret Machnisei Rachamim in line with the Rambam’s theology asserted that the prayer is just a figure of speech intended to display our downtrodden state.  See Shu”t Mahari Bruna 275 and Shu”t Divrei Yetziv YD 191, for example. []
  8. See the earliest challenges to this specific prayer in Simcha Emmanuel’s brief article. []
  9. Shu”t Chatam Sofer OC 1:166 []
  10. In this case, Korban Netanel, end of 1st chapter of Rosh Hashanah 1, letter gimel []
  11. Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, Vol 1, p.338. []
  12. personal communication []
  13. In general, one should not underestimate the influence of siddur editors in determining contemporary norms.  The excitement and discussion over the publication of the Koren/Sacks Siddur and the forthcoming revised RCA/Artscroll siddur exemplify how people subtly understand that the ideological orientation of the editors will somehow impact the siddur. []
  14. Let us keep in mind that there have been other long-standing controversies in our siddurim (yotzrot and le-shem yichud/heneni muchan, to take 2 obvious examples), and little is mentioned of them in our contemporary siddurim.  I suspect, however, that intercessory prayers posed a particularly difficult problem for editors.  As opposed to machnisei rachamim, which can easily be skipped without a beat, certain other “intercessory selichot” form an intergral part of the structure to each night’s selichot. Editors, not desiring to enter the fray and choose replacement selichot, instead chose to keep the controversial selichot, adding the attached note.  However, the “warning note” usually only appears before Machnisei Rachamim – although this perhaps because this is the most famous example.  This is mere speculation, and a careful examination of printed selichot machzorim needs to be done to resolve this issue. []
  15. Many rabbis, moreover, do not provide firm instruction to their congregations on the proper practice. []
  16. Lest anyone think otherwise, I am by no means against singing during davening in general, or in selichot in particular.  Those looking for a more suitable nigguin (at least if you use Nusach Lita) might try Eitan Katz’s powerful song, Lemancha. []
  17. I am trying to think of other examples of similar phenomenon, with two coming to mind. 1)  The recitation and singing of leshem Yichud / hineni muchan before Sefirat Ha-Omer.  This prayer engendered much controversy, with many denouncing it.  To the best of my knowledge, most people do not recite it before other mitzvoth, and it does not appear in most siddurim before Kiddush or Birkat Ha-Mazon, for example.  Yet at Sefirat Ha-Omer, people recite it.  Is that because of the great niggun? 2)  Aruch Ha-Shulchan 620:1 contends that the mysterious excision of the 13 midot/Selichot during Yom Kippur Shacharit and Mussaf occurred to save time lost by Chazanim dragging out the davening with their singing!   If anyone has more examples in mind, I would appreciate them leaving a comment []
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