24 July 2020

A Shabbat memorial prayer
that recalls grief, tragedy,
massacres and pogroms

Patrick Comerford

Tishah B’Av, a fast day in the Jewish calendar that begins next Wednesday (29 July 2020), recalls a number of disasters in Jewish history, primarily the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans.

On the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, which begins this evening, the memorial prayer ‘Father of compassion’ (אב הרחמים, ‘Av Harachamim’ or ‘Abh Haraḥamim’) is said in many synagogues and congregations.

This poetic prayer was written in a time of profound grief, at the late 11th or 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 since 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.

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.

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 judgement 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.’

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