June 21, 2024
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Some Insights Into the Tachanun Prayer

The Tachanun chapter in Rabbi Jachter’s “Bridging Traditions” (2021) inspired me to better understand the origin of this prayer. Before I read Rabbi Jachter’s book, and having only davened in Ashkenazic shuls, I had assumed that that all of Jewry recited psalm 6 (“Hashem, al beapecha”) and that this has been the practice since time immemorial. The truth is quite different.

I am going to focus on the sections that Ashkenazim are נופל for. They are found in The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz edition), page 132. (If one is interested in the expanded version recited on Mondays and Thursdays, see the article by Rabbi Zvi Ron in “European Journal of Jewish Studies 12.”)

At the Complete ArtScroll Siddur, page 132, we see:

“Vayomer David el Gad …,” a verse from Samuel II, 24:14.

Two further statements that are not verses: “Rachum vechanun … ” and “Hashem malei rachamim … ” (The first four words “Rachum…” are found long ago in the Tachanun in the siddur of Rav Saadiah.)

Psalm 6 (with the omission of its introductory verse).

The earliest Tachanun text with the verse from Samuel is only from the 17th century (see I. Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisrael, page 116.) The verse has the phrase “niplah na veyad Hashem,” but the context there is not David praying. An explanation for its recital would be that the verse was added as a wordplay to allude to the fact that by the 17th century the ritual involved falling into one’s arm. But the context of the verse fits as well. David was making a decision in which he chose to rely on God’s compassion, and we are similarly asking for God’s compassion. See the comments in The Complete ArtScroll Siddur. (But Vilna Gaon opposed the recital of Samuel II 24:14, as its context was punishment. See Maaseh Rav, section 49.)

As background to Tachanun, we need to first discuss the origin of Elokai Netzor. Here the issue was, after the Amidah was composed, what did people do when they wished to add their own prayer?

One option was insertion in the body of the Amidah in “Shomea Tefilah.” But another option was the recital immediately after the Amidah. See Avodah Zara 8a, view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. At Ber. 16b-17a, the Talmud records 11 different Sages and their unique post-Amidah prayers. (There are more in the Jerusalem Talmud.) Eventually, in Geonic times, the prayer of Mar son of Ravina, Elokai Netzor, became the widely accepted one. So a time that was supposed to be for a personal prayer became a time with another fixed text.

Outside the Amidah context, there are sources which refer to prayers recited with the “nefilat apayim” posture. See Megillah 22a and Bava Metzia 59b. There are other passages which refer to prayer in other special positions (e.g., turning one’s face to one side). See Megillah 23a and Jerusalem Talmud, Avodah Zara 4:1.There is a reference at Ber. 29b to people who are accustomed to reciting “tachanunim” after their Amidah.

It seems that our daily Tachanun/nefilat apayim section began as a portion of the daily shacharit, after the Amidah, set aside for optional, personal prayers recited with an unusual posture. (Perhaps those prayers at Ber. 16b-17a were originally nefilat apayim prayers.) (The story at Bava Metziah 59b is that Rabbi Eliezer had been put in cherem by Rabbi Gamliel after their famous dispute. Subsequently, during his nefilat apayim prayer, Rabbi Eliezer prayed for Rabbi Gamliel’s death and Rabbi Gamliel was stricken immediately. It has been observed that this story shows the efficacy of prayer said with nefilat apayim.)

Of course, we lack siddurim for early periods. But we are lucky enough to have a fragment from the Genizah of the nefilat apayim prayer of Pirkoi ben Baboi, a disciple of Rabbi Yehudai Gaon in eighth century Babylonia. For a description of this prayer, see the article by Freehof below.

The earliest siddur we have, that of Rabbi Saadiah (10th century), has a nefilat apayim prayer. It begins with the words “rachum vechanun chatanu lefanecha.” (Those words, but not the rest of Rabbi Saadiah’s material, are still recited in our ritual. See above.) Note also that Rabbi Natronai (9th century) is quoted in the Tur, OH 131, as stating that the recital of “nefilat apayim” after the Amidah is merely “reshut.”

An early Ashkenazic work is “Machzor Vitry,” by a student of Rashi. The earliest manuscript of this work dates from the second quarter of the 12th century. Here it presents a choice of texts: both psalm 6 and psalm 25 are included as possible texts for recital (along with other material).

The Zohar (end of Bamidbar) advocates for psalm 25. (It gives a strange reason, based on the lack of a “vav” verse in this acrostic psalm. The scholarly view dates the Zohar to 13th century Spain.) The Zohar insists that when reciting this psalm in the context of nefilat apayim, one must be wholeheartedly committed to sacrificing one’s soul for the sake of God. If one is not sincere in one’s recital, this will cause an early death.

In the 19th century, Ben Ish Chai (Iraq, died 1909) advocated abandoning the nefilat apayim position when reciting psalm 25, because of the Zohar’s warning. Most of the Sephardic world followed this approach. They continued to recite psalm 25 but without the special position. They do not add anything else with the special position.

Ashkenazim seemed to have abandoned the recital of psalm 25 altogether, perhaps based on the Zohar’s warning (see Magen Avraham, Oruch Hashulchan 131:5).

Rambam (died 1204, Egypt), Hilchot Tefilah 9:5, writes merely “veyitchanen” without giving a text. But in his “Seder Tefilot Kol HaShanah” (end of Ahavah), he does provide a list of a few- verses. He adds that sometimes all of these are recited and sometimes only some of them are.

Rabbi Aharon HaLevi (13th century Spain) would recite psalm 51 (see his commentary to Ber. 31a). Psalm 51 is stated (at 51:2) to be what David recited after being rebuked for his sin with Batsheva. Tur (early 14th century), who lived first in Germany and then Spain, writes merely “veshoel kol echad bakashato—every individual makes his own request.” See similarly Ha-Eshkol (Albeck edition), page 48 and Kol Bo, section 11.

Abudarham (writing in 1340, Spain) first writes that people recite psalm 25, but then adds that there are individuals who are “mitchanenim mizmorim acherim; kol echad veechad kefi retzono vedaato.” In his Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Caro does not mention what is recited for Tachanun. Rema writes merely “vechol makom umakom lefi minhago.” (In his Beit Yosef, Rabbi Caro had mentioned psalm 25 and the Zohar.)

So how long has the Ashkenazic world been reciting psalm 6? An important modern work on the liturgy by Scheindlin (see below) writes that it was introduced only 150 years before. But he was not aware that psalm 6 is one of the texts found for Tachanun, in the earliest manuscript of Machzor Vitry. (Psalm 6 was not included in the standard printed Machzor Vitry, which was based on a later manuscript.) Thus, perhaps, psalm 6 was one of the texts recited over the many centuries by some Ashkenazim since at least the 12th century, just that we cannot sufficiently document this. I would like to discuss the ancient idiom “nefilat apayim” and the posture for Tachanun, but that will have to wait for another column.

For further reading, see the article by Ruth Langer in “Seeking the Favor of God,” volume 3, eds. Mark Boda et al (2008) and Solomon Freehof in HUCA 2 (1925). Langer analyzed the Tachanun ritual in fragments from the genizah. Such fragments generally date to the 10th-to-13th centuries. See also Raymond Scheindlin, “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History” (1993), pages 67-69.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He enjoys reciting Psalm 6 as it includes many difficult words.

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