09 October 2020

‘So open, we pray, your goodly
treasury of rain, to revive all’

‘O Lord, pour down copious showers from your heavens’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tonight in the Jewish Calendar (9 October 2020) is the beginning of Shemini Atzeret, a holiday that follows the seven joyful days of Sukkot.

Shemini Atzeret is followed by Simchat Torah, a day of joy that begins tomorrow evening and that marks the beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle. Simchat Torah is celebrated with dancing, traditionally following seven circuits known as hakafot, as the Torah scrolls are held aloft. Both days are celebrated with nightly candle lighting and with festive meals at both night and day.

Shemini Atzeret (שְׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת‎) – the ‘Eighth day of Assembly – directly follows the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which is celebrated for seven days, and so Shemini Atzeret is literally the eighth day, considered to be part of Sukkot but also a separate festival in its own right.

The Book of Numbers explains Shemini Atzeret simply: ‘On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations’ (Numbers 29: 35, NRSVA).

The concept of the ‘eighth day’— Shemini — suggests this holiday is part of Sukkot, a final eighth day of the holiday. However, it is not part of Sukkot, although the two holidays share a focus on agriculture and Shemini Atzeret follows directly after the holiday of Sukkot.

Rushing to interpret the meaning of this strange and loosely-defined holiday, the rabbis never lacked for creative explanations. Some rabbis, for example, argued that as Sukkot is a time to commemorate dwelling in temporary structures as guests of the Lord, Shemini Atzeret is a bonus round of sorts, a reminder that God loves his chosen people so much he is reluctant to let them go back to business as usual.

Other scholars argued that while Sukkot is a universal holiday, in which Jews are commanded to invite guests into their homes, Shemini Atzeret is just for Jews, a time for God to bond with his favourite children.

It is traditional on Shemini Atzeret to recite Tefilat Geshem, a special prayer for rain that marks the beginning of the rainy season after the harvest. This prayer is recited regularly until Passover.

On Shemini Atzeret, Sephardic Jews traditionally recite a prayer for rain that runs to several paragraphs.

The first prayer, Shifat revivim (‘O Lord, pour down copious showers from your heavens’), is ascribed to Solomon ibn Gabirol, the 11th century Andalusian poet and philosopher who was born in Málaga. The author’s first name, Shelomoh, is signed in the form of an acrostic at the beginning of the first lines in the poem and is followed by the wish HaZaK (‘Be strong!’).

The prayer that follows is Mechaseh shamayim (‘O you who covers the heavens’). Its author is unknown. The sentence, ‘So open, we pray, your goodly treasury of rain, to revive all in whom a soul is breathed, as you make the wind to blow and the rain to fall,’ is repeated as a refrain five times.

The prayer that follows, Leshoni vonaneta ckhonaneta, also prays for rain.

These prayers continue with Yisbe’un yedidckha (‘Give to your beloved children plentifulness’), which includes the poem Ayl chai yiftach otzrot shamayim (‘God of life, open your heavenly treasures’). Written in an alphabetical acrostic form in which biblical phrases are used, the phrase ‘May the wind blow and the rain flow’ appears as a refrain.

The text in the London, Amsterdam, and Spanish-Portuguese Mahzorim or holiday prayerbooks omits the stanzas beginning with the letters vav (Vetazil mitral) and zayin (Zekhor rahamecha). It seems, however, these two stanzas were in older prayer books, as each stanza makes reference to one of the biblical heroes in whose merit rain is requested. It is unthinkable that the poet left out Aaron and David, as intimated in these two stanzas.

Then follows the acrostic poem Begishmay orah (‘Grant to the earth sunlight and blessing even as rain’). The congregation answers ‘Amen’ after each phrase ending with the word adama (earth, land).

Finally, Ana horidaym le’orah is said.

Anti-semitism is on the rise across Europe and in North America. The Swedish Defence Research Agency has published a report on the prevalence of antisemitic stereotypes in social media, with unsettling results. In the past week, during the High Holiday period, Jewish communities have been especially targeted in antisemitic incidents.

This evening is also the anniversary of an attack last year (9 October 2019) by an armed far-right extremist on the synagogue in Halle, Germany. It was Yom Kippur, members of the Jewish community were praying inside, and the attacker killed two people outside, Jana Lange and Kevin Schwarze.

For my Friday evening reflections on this special Friday evening, I came across this poem for Shemini Atzeret by Devon Spier, which seems so appropriate as ‘we descend greater into the fields of our unknowing’ in ‘the uncertain future of the world’s in-between’:

Shemini Atzeret: A Poem for Life In-Between By Devon Spier

There is a place where the vines wither and
the earth’s lushness suddenly begins to fade.
In this place the ground cries out to us.
Not with blood, no.
But with ageless liminality.
What went before cannot remain.
And what will be is still unwritten.

Let our bodies linger.
As our pasts fall behind.
And our souls seek comfort.
As we descend greater into the fields of our unknowing.

Though there are no fruits in the fallowness here
There is still space to move and time to seed.
In the uncertain future of the world’s in-between.

‘There is a place where the vines wither and the earth’s lushness suddenly begins to fade’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Precentor of Limerick
who drowned in Dublin on
his way home to Wexford

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … Robert Grave was Precentor of Limerick and Bishop of Ferns when he drowned in Dublin Bay on his way home to Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Among the many projects that have disappeared in the midst and mists of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, one was a proposed talk to the Friends of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, last month (8 September 2020) on the precentors of the cathedral.

It was planned as a light, even quirky, yet scholarly, look at some of my predecessors as precentor, recalling some of the more interesting, but also some of the more humorous, more curious and even more eccentric people who have gone before me, and, perhaps, even some of the more tragic precentors too.

The list of Precentors of Limerick goes back to 1204, but their biographical details are very light until the beginning of the 15th century, when we come across Dionisius or Denis O’Dea, who was allowed five years leave of absence as precentor to study at Oxford in 1415. He then became Bishop of Ossory in 1421, but he was allowed to remain Precentor of Limerick too. He had not yet been ordained a priest, and needed a papal dispensation for his ordination and consecration because he was the illegitimate son of a subdeacon.

Awly O Lonysigh, who succeeded O’Dea as Precentor in 1421, was also made Rector of the Monastery of Saint Catherine O’Connell, Limerick, which was abolished because of the ‘dissolute lives of the nuns.’ But he was deprived of office in 1445 when he was reported to the Pope as a ‘notorious fornicator.’

John or Richard Purcell, who was Precentor of Limerick in 1455, was also Archdeacon of Lismore, Papal Nuncio in Ireland and Collector of Papal Dues, and while he was Precentor of Limerick he was also Bishop of Ferns (1457-1479).

After the Reformation, John Long became Precentor of Limerick in the 1560s, and later became Archbishop of Armagh (1584-1589). His successor, Thomas Purcell, was dismissed in 1573 because of his support for the Desmond rebellion. Described as ‘a tall horseman,’ he seems to have spent some time in exile in Spain, and was killed by a Colonel Zouche in 1581.

One of the more tragic precentors at the end of the 16th century must have been Robert Grave.

Born in Kent ca 1560, he was said to have been educated at Cambridge University to have received the degree of MA. However, I can find no record of any college he attended in Cambridge, the date of his degree, when or where he was ordained, or when and why he came to Ireland.

He was in Ireland by 1590, when he was appointed Dean of Cork. A year later, he was appointed Precentor of Limerick in 1591, Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 1595, and then became Prebendary of Tullbracky in Limerick in 1600.

He was holding all four positions in cathedrals three different when he was nominated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin on 30 April 1600 and was appointed bishop by letters patent on 17 July 1600.

At the time, the two dioceses were facing major financial crises. Grave’s predecessor in the Diocese of Ferns, Hugh Allen (1582-1599), had died at Fethard in 1599 and was buried at the parish church there.

But Hugh Allen, like Bishop Alexander Devereux before him, had made long irregular and long leases of many parts of the see lands. For example, he illegally leased the Manor of Fethard and other lands in south Co Wexford, to his son John Allen, and leased over 1,500 acres of other church lands at small rents to Sir Henry Wallop of Enniscorthy Castle.

In the neighbouring diocese, Richard Meredith had been Bishop of Leighlin (1589-1597) while he was also Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1584-1597), and had once been jailed for his complicity in treason.

Meredith spent most of his time in Dublin. When he died in 1597, he was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the see of Leighlin remained vacant for three years until it was united with Ferns at the appointment of Robert Grave as Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin.

Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns … the Diocese of Ferns was united with the Diocese of Leighlin at the consecration of Bishop Grave in 1600 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Diocese of Ferns and Leighlin included most of Co Wexford and Co Carlow and parts of Co Wicklow and Co Laois (then Queen’s County).

Robert Grave was consecrated Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in August 1600. But he was allowed to retain all his other church posts when he became bishop, including the office of Precentor of Limerick.

At the time, the Bishops of Ferns were living in Wexford, rather than Ferns. In the early 15th century, Bishop Patrick Barrett transferred the bishop’s residence from Ferns Castle to New Ross and built Mountgarrett Castle as his residence. Later bishops lived at Fethard Castle in south Co Wexford, but they seem to have had their principal residence in Saint Mary’s Parish, Wexford, and were buried in the now ruined Saint Mary’s Church.

However, tragedy struck the new bishop soon after his consecration. As he and all his family made their way home by sea to Wexford, they were drowned in Dublin Bay on 1 October 1600. Bishop Grave had a watery grave, and was never buried in Saint Mary’s in Wexford.

Grave’s successor as Bishop of Ferns, Nicholas Stafford, was from an old Wexford family and had been Chancellor of the Diocese of Ferns and Leighlin. He was consecrated bishop early in 1601, and when he died in on 15 November 1604 he was buried in Saint Mary’s Church, Wexford.

Grave’s successor as Precentor of Limerick, John Burgoyne, was also educated at Cambridge. But the records of his education at Cambridge are verifiable, and show that he was educated at Jesus College and received the degrees BA (1581) and MA (1584). While he was Precentor of Limerick (1601-1614), Burgoyne was also Precentor of Waterford (1613).

Over the next few weeks, I may look at some other Precentors of Limerick. Perhaps, when this pandemic has passed and this lockdown is lifted, I may get to tell more stories about these predecessors in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on another day.

Mary Street, Wexford … a reminder in a street name of the former Saint Mary’s Parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)