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Av Harachami

by David 
Av Harachami
Av Harachami
Av Harachami
Av Harachami

Also known as the "Requiem for Martyrs", it is said only on the Shabbats preceding Shavuoth & TishaB'Av. It was composed soon after the First Crusade in about 1096 and is only said in the Ashkenazi Rite & was to commemorate the Martyrs who laid down their life for the Faith, "for the sanctification of the Divine Name"- the counterpart of Chilull Hashem-the profanation of the Divine Name by deed or word.


It is thought that it was the prelude to the reading of the names of those who lost their lives for the sole reason that they were Jewish. This resonates down the ages to the Shoah. Up to the verse Venukum Yushiv Lezuruv vechiper udmatuv umo, the name of the writer is not known. The subsequent verses are of texts. Av Harachamin quotes from Vayikra Chapter 32 v43, Joel 4:21 and then from Psalms 79, 9, 110 respectively. It is believed that some of these texts were later additions. The inclusion of a text from the Prophet Joel is most interesting.


His writings include a lament over a drought and great locust plague, comparing the locusts to the army of Hashem, and tying this into Av Harachamin, the judgment on our enemies: or is it Revenge? I will discuss this later. There are problems with reading Av Harachamin on a Shabbat. We often say "the Shabbat prevents us from crying out", when we read other pleas and Azkara, so why do we recite what is in essence "A Cry" just before Shavuoth, that most joyful of festivals, should it not be consigned to TishaB'Av?


An explanation is that we are nearing the end of the sefira - the counting of the Omer-a time between Pesach & Shavuoth, noted for its suffering-the death of 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva is, of course, marked during that period. Also remember that it was written by an unknown author in 1095 CE when the Jewish communities along the Rhine were decimated by Christian Crusaders, (the word "Crusader" itself means "taking the Cross"), on their way to Yerushelayim as a prelude to the First Crusade, whipped up into a frenzy by the Church in their zeal to chase out the so called infidel. The Church had been preaching that everyone is born with original sin, and it took upon itself the ability to grant absolution. It was preached that anyone who goes to the Crusades is granted forgiveness from their sins. So to go on its holiest mission the Crusades attracted criminals and sadists, not exactly the chivalrous knights of literature!


So if going on a so called religious mission, why wait until they reached the Muslim heartlands. They had so called non-believers in their midst: the Jews. The communities of Mainz, Speyer and Worms were devastated. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered and others forcibly converted, mainly in the First Crusade by the almost exclusively French Frankish knights. It is thought that something like 25,000 of our co-religionists met their end. Pro-rata, and given the number of Jews at the time, it is comparable to the Holocaust of the 20th Century. The Church itself was ambivalent. It often depended on the local bishop or cardinal as to whether they protected the Jews (often for hard cash) or encouraged the mobs.


Fifty years later, when it is thought that most of the Scriptual additions were added, came the Second Crusade, and as with the First, the pilgrims and armies set out during the Omer period. So the timing of the composition is apposite, and it is as if it were written in blood.


Countless dirges were written at the same time, but only Av Harachamin made it to the Shabbat liturgy. Public mourning is generally forbidden on Shabbos, it interrupts a Shiva - a mourner is still greeted on the Day - but the wholesale loss of whole communities had a cataclysmic effect on middle European Jewry and the forces of memory catapulted this elegy on to central stage, and at one time it was read far more regularly....pause for thought: should we use this Requiem to honour the victims of other losses, or should something more specific be inserted? And how frequently should it be read and does it conflict with the peace of the Shabbat?


But reading the text, and in particular the extracts from the Torah, and the chosen Psalms, it is more than a simple requiem. We call upon the Almighty to punish the perpetrators, with a blood curdling call for retribution. But according to Chief Rabbi Hertz in his commentary on the Requiem, reference to "the righteous of the world" is to the righteous amongst the followers of other Faiths!. So the author did not apportion blame other than to the actual perpetrators and so considers and praises the "Righteous Gentile". So it is incumbent on us to recall the likes of Schindler, Frank Foley and others. A good example is Don Gaetano Tantalo, an Italian parish priest who saved 7 Jews, the members of 2 local Jewish families from deportation and murder in Tagliacco Alto, Italy, harbouring them from 1943 in his Church and subsequently in his home at great personal risk, supplying them with ingredients to bake matzo for Pesach and determining the dates of all the Festivals. We saw a small plaque commemorating him when we were in Italy on holiday last year.


Rabbi Hertz quotes from someone called M. Joseph (whose provenance I have been unable to ascertain) who says that these words were 'wrung from a people's agony' and 'vengeance was prayed for and left to G-d.' As a personal preference, I always prefer the Hertz to the Artscroll Chumash due to the breadth of its knowledge of non-Jewish sources, and using them either as a support or to demolish attacks on our beliefs and liturgy. I think it is disappointing that his Commentary on the Siddur & the Daily Service, and which I can commend for its fascinating insights never really caught on, and unlike his Commentary on the Chumash, is quite rare and I believe no longer in publication. In my opinion it is far more "modern" than the Artscroll and has a greater intellectual resonance for our sort of Community. But the Art Scroll does impress others and this is a discussion for another time. Anyway, I digress!


Showing his great depth of sources Rabbi Hertz says that this is not irreligious and he goes as far as to quote from Milton's elegy to Christian Protestants by Roman Catholics in his famous lines:


'Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints, whose bones Lie scattered on the alpine mountains cold'


Rabbi Hertz goes further; he says that Jews are not pacifists, that our suffering exceeds that of the Christian Protestants, 'it is our sacred duty to pray for the destruction of the iniquitous authors of calculated inhumanity.' He then goes on to say that, 'alas the end is not yet' and quotes from Zunz in the second chapter of his 'synagogal poetry of the Middle Ages' where he says, 'if there exists a ladder in suffering, Israel has reached the highest rung. If the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne ennoble, the Jews may challenge the aristocracy of any land. If a literature is called rich, which possesses a few classical tragedies, what place then is due to a tragedy lasting fifteen hundred years written and acted by the heroes themselves.


So we have the memory of the crusades followed by the joy of Shavuot. But for German Jews the Shabbat before Shavuot is called 'the black Shabbat,' Or as many still call it "shvartze Shabbos"..not to be confused with the what was also called "Black Shabbat", namely June 29th 1946 when British soldiers and police raided several dozen cities, kibbutzim and settlements arresting 2,700 Zionists including Moshe Sharrett, Yizhak Rabin and others. There were incidents of people in the kibbutzim being herded into cages and a minority of British soldiers scrawling swastikas on the walls while conducting searches. So perhaps there is some connection between the two separate dates with the same epithet!


So, returning to Shavuoth, former slaves accepted the Torah and enter into a covenant which we celebrate joyously. Yet these Ashkenazi communities commemorate the decimation of their community immediately before this Chag to turn despair into joy just as at the apex of our joy at the Chuppah we break a glass. It was Napoleon that once said of the Jewish people 'a nation that mourns the destruction of its empire from thousands of years ago will certainly see its eventual rebuilding.'


But what troubles me in this requiem, and notwithstanding its praise of the righteous gentile is its reference to revenge. It doesn't however propose revenge indiscriminately quoting from the Prophet Joel that he will hold the heathen innocent. Although the translation by the Chief Rabbi here , does not refer to the innocent.


In Kedoshim we read 'you shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge,' and in Shoftim we learn of proportionality, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' Conversely, Yaakov's silence at the revenge inflicted by the two brothers Shimon and Levi following the attack on Dina is worrying. On the face of it, this seems more than proportionate. On the subject of revenge Rashi gives an example of a person who asked to borrow his neighbours axe but his neighbour refused. When the neighbour asked the following day to borrow his axe, it is prohibited to refuse to do so. Rashi only criticises the second incident. The Bechor Shor and Chizkuni explain that if a person values his possessions he has no obligation to allow others to use them, but if that refusal is motivated by hatred for the other, then that is prohibited - so perhaps it is the motive that is important.


Revenge is portrayed in the requiem for the terrible afflictions by the crusaders. But the requiem leaves the revenge as G-d's. It is not for us to be motivated by hatred but neither are we obliged to be pacifists. The Torah asks us to carefully distinguish between justice and vengeance. It is perhaps just too easy to say that Shimon & Levi's response to Shechem was disproportionate, but it's harder to say how they should have acted to hold the perpetrators accountable and deter further violence. Perhaps it's because of this dilemma that Ya'akovs silence on the act itself and the other brother's inaction is telling but perhaps I now digress and this is for another day....

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