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SIDIC Periodical I - 1968/2
The Jewish People and the Holy Land (Pages 17 - 19)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Land of Israel in Jewish Liturgy
Sr. M. Despina


All the great religions of the world are connected in a special way with some privileged geographical place to which the faithful flock to renew their faith by intimate contact with its source: Lhassa or Mecca, Rome and Jerusalem, the Baha'i sanctuaries of Haifa and Acre... However, no religion is more closely related to a geographical area than Judaism. Indeed, the very foundation of Judaism rests on a covenant between God and His people, the pledge of which is possession of the Promised Land: One God, one People, one Land. Possession of the Promised Land and the gift of the Torah are the visible signs of the reality of God's covenant with His People. But how can this be true, in view of the fact that the majority of Jews have survived as a People far from the Promised Land? It is precisely because their hope to possess it has always existed.

Lex credendi, lex orandi: an element as essential as this to Judaism has necessarily held an important place in Jewish liturgy, which, in its turn, has powerfully contributed to keeping alive the hope that one day the People would return to their Land. The aim of this article is to try to show the link between the People and the Land, as it is expressed in the liturgy. Allusions to the Land are to be found almost everywhere.

Let us consider, first of all, the Torah in the liturgy, which is solemnly read in its entirety each year in the Synagogue. In addition, the faithful are expected to re-read each pericope in Hebrew and in Aramaic. Thus, every year practising Jews hear and re-read God's words spoken to Abraham: "And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God" (Gen. 17:8). Each year they also hear, and re-read, God's words to Moses: "And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham,to Isaac and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord" (Ex. 6:8). There are many other similar texts, too numerous to be mentioned in this short article. The land of Canaan, the land of the promise has become the land of Israel, Eretz Israel, "the land" in short (ha-aretz); the only country in the world which belongs by right to Israel, the only land where Israel can be truly itself.

To this it can be replied that before the destruction of the Temple by Titus, the majority of the Jewish people were to be found dispersed throughout the civilized world, and that many present-day Jews do not descend from the Chosen People but from converts. This is true, but it is none the less true that this dispersion of the people amongst other nations, far from their own land, has always been considered as abnormal, as a punishment temporarily inflicted by God on His people. When the Synagogue commemorates the anniversary of the destruction of the two Temples and the beginning of the exile, the text from Deuteronomy 4:25-38 is read which states that exile is a punishment, but that the Lord, faithful to his covenant and his love, will bring back the repentant people to their country. The tephillah, or the principal prayer of the office of Mussel/ (celebrated at the end of the morning, and corresponding to the supplementary festival sacrifice of the Temple), of the three great pilgrimage feasts, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, contains the following text:

Our God, God of our fathers, for our sins we were exiled from our country and driven far from dwelling on our land. We can not go up to it and appear in worship before Thee to fulfill our duty in Thy chosen Temple, Thy great and holy House called by Thy name, because of the violent hand that was stretched forth against Thy sanctuary. May it be Thy will, Lord our God, God of our fathers, merciful King, to turn and show pity to us, and in Thy great compassion again show pity to Thy sanctuary. Rebuild it soon, and make it great in glory. Our Father, our King, speedily reveal the glory of Thy rule over us, and shine forth and be exalted over us in the eyes of all living. Recall our dispersed from among the nations, and gather our scattered people from the ends of the earth. Bring us with joyous song to Zion Thy city, and with joy everlasting to the home of Thy sanctuary, Jerusalem. Only there in Thy presence shall we bring the sacrifices enjoined on us, the regular daily burnt-offerings according to their order and the additional sacrifices according to their regulation. Only there shall we prepare and bring before Thee in loving offering the additional sacrifices of this day of the Festival...
(The Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals)

This same theme is to be found in most of the synagogal prayers. The gathering together of the exiles in the promised land constitutes the first act of the eschatological era. Then, assembled in the Holy Land at the altar of the reconstructed Temple, Israel will fulfil in the peace and joy of the messianic kingdom its privileged role of a "holy people, kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:6).

It is impossible to quote here all the liturgical texts psalms, biblical readings, prayers and hymns (piyutim) which touch upon the land, ha-aretz. However, here are two passages drawn from the morning daily prayer. The first is found just before the Sh'ma Israel ("Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One...." Dt. 6:4 ff):

With abounding love thou hast loved us, our Father, our King... 0 bring us from the four corners of the earth, and make us go upright to our own land, for thou art a God who worketh salvation. Thou hast chosen us from all peoples and tongues... that we might, in love, give thanks unto thee and proclaim thy unity. Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who hast chosen thy people Israel in love.

The second is the tenth of the Eighteen Blessings which are central to all syngagogal offices:

Sound the great horn for our freedom; raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who gatherest the dispersed of thy people Israel.

It is not a question of a purely spiritual in-gathering, for the fourteenth Blessing continues:

And to Jerusalem, thy city, return in mercy, and dwell therein as thou hast spoken; rebuild it soon in our days as an everlasting building and speedily set up therein the throne of David. Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who rebuildest Jerusalem.

This eschatological Jerusalem is not the heavenly Jerusalem, but the reconstruction of the Judaean one. Numberless texts also pray for the reconstruction of the Temple and the resumption of the worship which used to take place there, but this is too vast and complicated a subject to be dealt with here.

In the family liturgy, the great thanksgiving which follows solemn meals contains also a prayer for the return to the Land of Israel. This prayer has its place in the ceremony of the Paschal meal or Seder. It is the second blessing of the thanksgiving Birkat ha-mazon:

We thank Thee, Lord God, for giving our Fathers a Land that is fair and goodly and ample, and for bringing us forth, Lord God, from the land of Egypt, and for rescuing us from the slave-house, and for sealing our flesh with Thy covenant, and for the Law that thou hast taught us...

At the beginning of the ceremony, the father of the family says in Aramaic (which indicates the great antiquity of the text): "This is the bread of affliction that our Fathers ate in the Land of Egypt... Now we are here, next year we shall be in the land of Israel; now we are slaves, next year we shall be free men...". And the traditional ceremony ends with the words "Next year in Jerusalem!".

But this love of the ancestral land has not only an eschatological aspect. Across the centuries, when the majority of Jews were living in exile in countries where the climate differed considerably from that of Israel, they still continued to pray for rain and dew, and certainly not at a season when they were needed in Poland, France, or the United States, but at the time of the year when it is indispensable for the Holy Land. Thus, the official liturgical prayer for rain starts on the feast of Tabernacles, that is to say the month of October when the annual harvest is almost finished in Europe, but the first rains begin to fall in the land of Canaan. Also, on the first day of Passover, the Synagogue ceases to pray for rain but asks for dew because the dry season is beginning in Israel. And the prayer which every pious Jew has recited for over a thousand years when he eats figs, dates, pomegranates or grapes the principal products of the soil of Israel:

Blessed art thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, for the tree and the fruit of the tree, for the produce of the field; for the desirable, good and ample land which thou wast pleased to give as an heritage unto our fathers, that they might eat of its fruits and be satisfied with its goodness. Have mercy, 0 Lord our God, upon Israel thy people, upon Jerusalem thy city, upon Zion the abiding place of thy glory, upon thine altar and thy temple. Rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our days: lead us up thither and make us rejoice in its rebuilding. May we eat of the fruits of the land and be satisfied with its goodness, and bless thee for it in holiness and purity.

As this prayer has largely been answered for Jews living in Israel, it no longer figures in thedaily prayers printed for their use, but it is to be found in those of the Diaspora.

It would be easy to quote a great many texts from the liturgy of the Synagogue and of the family, or from ritual prayers recited in private, which show that throughout the ages Jews have remembered their homeland and have kept alive the hope of returning there one day; even when far from it their love remains ardent, as is seen in the way they idealize its beauty and riches. It is not, therefore, surprising that after centuries of exile, a mass movement such as Zionism should arise among the more enterprising of the Jewish people. Necessarily, their nostalgia for this land must have been nourished by their daily prayer for them to return so enthusiastically to a land which had become arid, stony, or marshy, to reconquer it foot by foot and to make it flourish. For them, the return to Jerusalem, the re-constitution of the State of Israel is God's response to almost 2,000 years of fidelity, of liturgical prayer. To deny the link which unites Israel to the Promised Land is to deny one of the essential facts of Judaism: one God, one People, one Land, pledge of the Covenant between God and His people.


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