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.’

The pain and grief of
a mother in a Greek
name and a Greek song

Iokasti, a restaurant in Koutouloufari in Crete … are there comparisons between Iocasta and her daughter in ‘The Phoenician Women’ and the Greek-speaking Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman in the Gospels? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the week, I have been working on liturgical resources on another site for Sunday, 16 August 2020 (Trinity X), when the Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28), which tells the story of the Canaanite woman in the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon.

In the classical world, Phoenician women were pushy women. About 400 years earlier, the great Greek playwright Euripides wrote his tragic play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoenissae), rewriting a similar story used by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebes, and dealing with tragic events following the fall of Oedipus.

The title of the play, The Phoenician Women, refers to the Greek chorus, which is composed of Phoenician women on their way to Delphi and who are trapped in Thebes by the war.

The two key women in the play by Euripides are Jocasta and her daughter Antigone, who have survived against all odds. They challenge the accepted concepts in Classical times of fate and free-will.

In the face of death, they refuse to accept what other people regarded as their destiny, they refused to be pushed aside, marginalised and dismissed as the men around then compete for power.

In this Gospel reading, the Phoenician woman pleads out lead for help for her daughter, but her pleas fall on deaf ears with the disciples and – initially – with Jesus. Each time I read the Gospel accounts of this woman and her daughter, they remind me of Jocasta (Ἰοκάστη) and her daughter Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη).

Searching for illustrations for these resources I came across photographs I had taken of Iokasti, a delightful restaurant in Koutouloufari, east of Iraklion in Crete.

The restaurant reopened recently after the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. But during the lockdown earlier this year, in Holy Week, the week before Greek Easter, the people at Iokasti had posted on their Facebook page a video clip of ‘Oh my sweet Springtime’ (Ω γλυκύ μου έαρ). This is a song of lamentation sung on Good Friday and imagines the Virgin Mary narrating the Crucifixion and pouring out her pain and grief as the Mother of Christ.

This lament is sung with reverence, emotion and devotion throughout Greece, and it has been performed and recorded by many Greece’s best-loved singers.

The version posted by Iokasti in Koutououfari earlier this year is a recording in Athens by Irene Papas – who played the title roles in Antigone (1961) and Electra (1962) – of the musical arrangement of this hymn by the Greek composer Vangelis:

Αι γενεαί πάσαι, ύμνον τη Ταφή Σου, προσφέρουσι Χριστέ μου.
Καθελών του ξύλου, ο Αριμαθείας, εν τάφω Σε κηδεύει.
Μυροφόροι ήλθον, μύρα σοι, Χριστέ μου, κομίζουσαι προφρόνως.
Δεύρο πάσα κτίσις, ύμνους εξοδίους, προσοίωμεν τω Κτίστη.
Ούς έθρεψε το μάννα, εκίνησαν την πτέρναν, κατά του ευεργέτου.
Ιωσήφ κηδεύει, συν τω Νικοδήμω, νεκροπρεπώς τον Κτίστην.

Ω γλυκύ μου έαρ, γλυκύτατόν μου Τέκνον, πού έδυ σου το κάλλος;

Υιέ Θεού παντάναξ, Θεέ μου πλαστουργέ μου, πώς πάθος κατεδέξω;
Έρραναν τον τάφον αι Μυροφόροι μύρα, λίαν πρωί ελθούσαι.
Ω Τριάς Θεέ μου, Πατήρ Υιός και Πνεύμα, ελέησον τον κόσμον.

Ιδείν την του Υιού σου, Ανάστασιν, Παρθένε, αξίωσον σους δούλους.

All generations offer a hymn at your burial my Christ.
The Arimathean took you down from the cross and buried you in a tomb.
Women came with spices to give you perfume and prepare your burial.
Hither creation was made, let us sing hymns to praise our Creator.
Nourished from above with manna, lifted heels of contempt against their benefactor.
You are being buried by Joseph and Nicodemus, in the grave of the Creator.

Oh, my sweet spring, my sweetest child, where does your beauty fade?
Son of God Almighty, my God and Creator, how can I bear your passion?
Women with spices came very early in the morning to sprinkle the grave with perfume.
O my Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, have mercy on the world.

Allow us to serve you, O Virgin, to see you son’s resurrection, to be your worthy servants.

Irene Papas also recorded this song in 1986 on the album Ραψωδίες (Rhapsodies). She, is known in west for her role in films such as Zorba the Greek (1964), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Z (1969). But, interestingly, she also played the title roles in Antigone (1961) and Electra (1962). I met her once in Vlatadon monastery in Thessaloniki in 1997. One of her last parts as an actor was in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001).

A table for one at Iokasti, a restaurant in the mountain village of Koutouloufari in Crete recalls the play by Euripides (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)