Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Prayer for the people of Sharon

Posted on: October 9, 2011

Yom Kippur 5772

Do Not Let Their Homes Become Their Graves


The prayers of the High Priest
The Avodah service, which takes place during Mussaf on Yom Kippur,  is based on the Temple service, as described in the Mishnah and the Gemara. The High Priest – the Cohen Hagadol – said penitential prayers on behalf of himself and the whole community.

When the High Priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, he prayed that the coming year would be fruitful, prosperous and peaceful, and then added the prayer v’al ha anshei Sharon… for those who lived in the region of Sharon, in danger of sudden earthquakes ‘…do not let their homes become their graves’.

Where does the prayer come from?

The source of this prayer is the Talmud Yerushalmi, also called the Jerusalem Talmud or the Palestine Talmud, or the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tractate Yoma perek 5 hilchot 2).

The Jerusalem Talmud is shorter than the Babylonian Talmud, and was completed earlier, about 429 CE. As the name suggests, it is a product of the Land of Israel, probably from the academies of Tiberias, Caesarea and Sepphoris.

Life in Palestine had been more agriculturally based than amongst the Babylonian communities, so the Jerusalem Talmud  pays more attention to agricultural halakhah than the Bavli, and also more attention to the geography of the region, which may be why we find this focus on the Sharon Plain, the northern half of the coastal plain of Israel, running from Jaffa up to Carmel.

What was the problem for the people of Sharon?
Our translation explains that the region was in danger of earthquakes, but the Hebrew words do not refer to earthquakes, or name any specific danger.
It may be that this region was subject to flooding, being on the coast.
There is a geological fault called the Dead Sea Transform, which extends through the Jordan River Valley, and is part of the Great African Rift Valley and this may have caused seismic disturbances. The geography of Palestine in the time of the Jerusalem Talmud shows that the Sharon was a marshy, swampy area, not easily cultivated until deforestation, around the third century.
The Babylonian Talmud has a more oblique reference, when commenting on exemption from military service. Deuteronomy 20:5 states that a man is exempt who has built a new house and not had time to dedicate it. The Babylonian sages considered the exceptions to this rule:
R. Eliezer says: also he who built a brick house in Sharon does not return home. A Tanna taught: [The reason is] because they have to renew it twice in a period of seven years.
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 44a

Why do the prayers of the Avodah service conclude with this particular prayer, for the safety of a particular section of the population?

Yehuda Kurtzer (President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America): ‘The route to a universal vision runs through our particular experience of the world…If we cannot identify with the particular, will we be able to pray for the universal?’ (YK 2010)

Are earthquakes mentioned in Tanakh?

Resh ayin shin means earthquake, from a verb to shake or tremble.

1 Kings 19:11-13
Alone in the wilderness, Elijah sees a whirlwind, an earthquake and a fire, after which God speaks to Elijah in a still, small voice.

Isaiah 29:6
God tells Isaiah that he will bring thunder, earthquake and a tempest, save Jerusalem (Ariel) from her enemies.

Ezekiel 3:12
Ezekiel hears the sound of an earthquake, during a mystical, prophetic vision

Ezekiel 38:19
God tells Ezekiel that He will bring an earthquake and other upheavals on the day of a future, apocalyptic battle.

Amos 1:1
The time of Amos’s ministry as a prophet is said to be during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

Zechariah 14:4-5
Zechariah prophesies about a future time when God will intervene to defend Jerusalem from her enemies, causing a rift in the Mount of Olives. The people will run away, he says, just as they fled from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah.

What did the sages say in times of danger?
Rabbi Joshua says:
One who is travelling in a dangerous place should offer a brief prayer, and say: Save, Hashem, Your people, the remnant of Israel; even when they distance themselves through sin, let their needs be before You. Blessed are you Hashem, Who hears prayer.
Mishnah 4:4

The scriptural source for this mishnah is Jeremiah 31:7:

For thus says the Lord, Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’

Our Yizkor service includes a similar prayer:

‘Guardian of Israel, Guard the Remnant of Israel, and suffer not Israel to perish who daily declare Hear O Israel.’ p619 Yamim Noraim

The Talmudic sages used to add personal appeals to God following the set prayers and these were standardized in the Middle Ages, a time of danger for the Jewish people.

What is the modern Jewish response to natural disasters?
It is not to view the disaster as a punishment from God. I believe mainstream orthodoxy repudiates such a view as, of course, does Progressive Judaism. The modern Progressive Jewish response emphasizes human agency, regarding divine agency as a source of support rather than punishment. The modern siddurim include prayers where we ask God to make us strong and effective so that we are able to take responsibility, to withstand disaster and act for the good of the community; then as always, we ask God to spare us.
The High Priest prays for the safety of others, in the region of Sharon, but is it ok to ask God to give us things we want?
Hannah, whose story is told in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, is cited by the rabbis of the Talmud as exemplary in prayer, and she does indeed ask God for the thing she longs for, a child. God answers her prayer.

Said Hannah before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, of all the hosts and hosts that Thou hast created in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one son? A parable: To what is this matter like? To a king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, Give me a bite,8 and no one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the king and said to him, Your Majesty, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?
Berakhot 31b

Ribbono Shel Olam

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a Chasidic master of the eighteenth century, used to address God with one of the many names used in Talmudic times: Ribbono Shel Olam. He used to repeat this name as a mantra to enhance kavanah in prayer. When God is addressed as ‘Master of the Universe’, the person who says it relinquishes their sense of controlling the world. A person can control his response to a situation, but the situation itself may be outside his control. A mantra can be an expression of faith, when words fail, or when we can’t find the right words, or when too many words make excessively difficult demands on faith.

When all else fails, zog tehillim
Psalms are often specially recited in times of trouble or danger. The Yiddish expression, zogen tehillim, refers to the recitation of psalms, when all else fails. Tsadikim of the East European communities used to say:

Rabosai, Mir Ken Zich Mer Nisht Farlozen Oif Nissim, Kum, Laz Mir Zogen

My friends, we can no longer rely on miracles, come let us recite Tehillim.<a

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  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thanks for reading it, Owen.
  • Owen: Looved reading this thanks
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thanks. The bearded man in the foreground was Rabbi Avrohom Pinter who died during the covid pandemic but the others are not portraits of particular p
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