14 May 2021
Father of compassion, who dwells
on high: remember … the pious,
the upright and the blameless
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot or Shavuos (שָׁבוּעוֹת, ‘Weeks’) begins this year at sunset on Sunday 16 May, and ends at sundown on Tuesday 18 May 2021.
The Feast of Weeks is sometimes referred to as Pentecost (Πεντηκοστή) because of its timing 50 days after the first day of Passover.
This Jewish holiday occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. In the Bible, Shavuot marks the wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (see Exodus 34: 22) and, according to the Jewish Sages, it also commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah by God at Mount Sinai.
The word Shavuot means ‘weeks’ and it marks the conclusion of the seven-week Counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Passover and followed immediately by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the giving of the Torah.
This evening (14 May 2021) is the beginning of the Shabbat before Shavuot, when the memorial prayer ‘Father of compassion’ (אב הרחמים, Av Harachamim) is said in many synagogues and congregations.
This poetic prayer was written in a time of profound grief, at the end of the 11th or in the early 12th century. It dates from the massacre of Jewish communities around the Rhine River in 1096 by Christian crusaders at the beginning of the First Crusade (1096-1099), one of the darkest moments in mediaeval Jewish history.
This prayer first appeared in siddurim or Jewish prayer books in 1290, and since then it has been printed in every Orthodox siddur in the European traditions of Sephardic and Ashkenazic prayers.
It has become the custom to say this prayer on two special moments in the Jewish year: the Shabbat before Shavuot, as the anniversary of the massacre of the Rhineland Jewish communities, and the Shabbat before Tishah B’Av, when the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem and the victims of later persecutions are mourned.
It has come to serve as a remembrance of other pogroms and tragedies, and for the victims of the Holocaust, so that it is now a prayer recalling all Jewish martyrs.
The prayer emphasises the merit of the martyrs who died and quotes several scriptural verses: Deuteronomy 32: 43; Joel 4: 21; Psalm 79: 10; Psalm 9: 13; Psalm110: 6, 7). God is asked to remember the martyrs, to avenge them, and to save their offspring. The wording of the last part of the prayer, invoking Divine retribution on the persecutors, has undergone many changes.
On first reading or hearing this last part of the prayer, and it sounds like a call to violence. But it is nothing of the sort. Like so many of the psalms, it turns to God in honesty and despair, and lays honest feelings before God. But as we pray, of course, we realise that God is the God of both peace and justice.
The prayer is recited after the Torah reading and before the scroll is returned to the Ark. Another short prayer of the same name, ‘May the Father of mercy have mercy upon a people that has been borne by Him …’, is recited in Orthodox synagogues immediately before the reading from the Torah.
Father of compassion, who dwells on high:
may he remember in his compassion
the pious, the upright and the blameless –
holy communities who sacrificed their lives
for the sanctification of God’s name.
Lovely and pleasant in their lives,
in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions
to do the will of their Maker,
and the desire of their Creator.
O our God, remember them for good
with the other righteous of the world,
and may he exact retribution for the shed blood of his servants,
as it is written in the Torah of Moses, the man of God:
‘O nations, acclaim his people,
wreak vengeance on his foes,
and make clean his people’s land.’
And by your servants, the prophets, it is written:
‘I shall cleanse their which I have not yet cleansed,
says the Lord who dwells in Zion.’
And in the Holy Writings it says:
‘Why should the nations say: Where is their God?
Before our eyes, may those nations know
that you avenge the shed blood of your servants.’
And it also says:
‘For the Avenger of blood remembers them
and does not forget the cry of the afflicted.’
And it further says:
‘He will execute judgment among the nations,
heaping up the dead,
crushing the rulers far and wide.
From the brook by the wayside he will drink,
then he will hold his head high.’