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Shabbat Parshat Beha’alotecha

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The Torah portion of Beha’alot’cha has no less than seven story lines: the lighting of the Menorah, the appointment of the Levi’im, the Pesach Sheini sacrifice, the travel arrangements of the Jewish people in the desert and in their journey from Sinai, the complainers and the arrival of the slav (quail), the appointment of the 70 elders, and Miriam’s speaking out against Moshe and her punishment.
In this article, we will focus on laws and customs of the opening of the ark in shul as this relates to the following verse in this portion.
In describing how the Jewish people would travel, the verse says, “וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָֽאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ה וְיָפֻ֨צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ: So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moshe would say, ‘Arise, O L-rd, may Your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate You flee from You.'”[1]
The Targum Yonatan says[2] that after the cloud of the Shechina (Divine presence) would lift up from the Mishkan, indicating that they would soon be traveling, it would wait until Moshe uttered this prayer before it continued.
According to Rashi (who bases his comment on the Midrash Tanchuma), Moshe was praying that the cloud of G-d’s Shechina, which would lead their way while they traveled, not distance itself too much from the Jewish people (“kuma” can be translated as “stop” instead of “arise”) and that the enemies of the Jewish people be weakened and vanquished.
According to Rav Ashi in the Talmud,[3] after Moshe would utter this prayer, the Jewish people would say the following supplication,[4] רוני רוני השיטה התנופפי ברוב הדרך המחושקת בריקמי זהב המהוללה בדביר ארמון ומפוארה בעדי עדיים”Rejoice, rejoice O (ark made of) Acacia (wood). Rise up in your great glory, surrounded with golden tapestries, praiseworthy in that it contains the holy scroll of the tabernacle (i.e., the Torah scroll written by Moshe Rabeinu), and is admired in that it contains the most exquisite ornaments.”
It is customary to recite the verse of “Vayehi Binso’a etc. – When the ark would travel etc.” at the time the ark is opened to take out the Torah scroll before reading from the Torah. [5] As such, this article will delve into the laws and customs of opening the ark.
The Opening of the Heavenly Gates
The Zohar says[6] that when the Sefer Torah is being taken out, the gates of mercy in heaven are opened. This awakens the love between G-d and the Jewish people.
Brich Shemei
The Zohar goes on to say that at this time the people should say the prayer of Brich Shemei, the text of which is in the Zohar.[7] Based on this, it is now customary in Ashkenazic communities to recite this prayer whenever the ark is opened.[8] The Sefardic custom, however, is to only recite this prayer when opening the ark on Shabbat (and Yom Tov) since the Zohar is talking about the opening of the ark on Shabbat.[9] Some say that the main time to recite this prayer is during Mincha on Shabbat afternoon.[10]
Bar Elokin
According to the book Mofet Hador,[11] the Noda BiYehuda, Rav Yechezkel Landau of Prague (1713 – 1793), recommended that the prayer of Brich Shemei be omitted. The reason for this was that the words “velo al bar elokin samichna,” which can be translated as “we do not rely on the son of G-d,” were being interpreted by the followers of the false Messiah, Shabetai Tzvi, as referring to him.[12] (The Noda BiYehuda waged a fierce war against the sect, which constituted a significant percentage of the Jewish community of Prague in his time.)
It would seem that this was a temporary measure to stop the practices that were associated with that sect. (Actually, the Noda BiYehuda was wary of any practice associated with the Zohar for this very reason.) In fact, “bar elokin” is referring to an angel as in Daniel 3:25. Thus, “velo al bar elokin samichna” means that we do not rely on angels (although they are helpful in that they bring our prayers up to G-d), but on G-d alone.[13]
Brich Shemei – With or Without the Torah Out
Based on the words of the Zohar cited above (“When the Sefer Torah is being taken out… people should say the following, ‘Brich Shemei…'”), some say that the Torah scroll should be removed from the ark before the congregation recites Brich Shemei. In the words of the Sha’arei Efraim by Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margaliyot:[14] “At the time the Torah Scroll is being taken out of the ark, the congregation begins to say Brich Shemei.” Based on this, Rav Moshe Feinstein recommends that if a congregation asks what the correct custom is, they should be told to recite it when the Torah scrolls are already out. But if they already follow the (widespread custom) to say it while the Torah scrolls are still in the ark, one need not protest as the Zohar can be understood to mean that it should be said around the time the Torah scrolls are being removed.[15]
Others say[16] it is proper to say this prayer while the Torah scrolls are specifically still in the ark. Were the scrolls removed beforehand, it may cause the Chazan to hurry through the Brich Shemei prayer in order to say Gadlu etc. Thus, neither he nor the congregation will say the important Brich Shemei prayer with the concentration it deserves. This is the widely accepted custom.
Worth the Money
It is customary in some congregations to sell the honor of opening the ark. The proceeds of the sale go towards the upkeep of the shul.[17]
In the Ninth Month
Some have a custom that when a man’s wife enters the ninth month of pregnancy, that he is honored with the opening of the ark. There is basis in the kabbalah for this practice.[18]
The Sons of the Rebbe
The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote[19] that it was customary for the children of the Rebbe to receive the honor of opening the ark, i.e., the children of the current Rebbe of each generation.
The Opening of the Gates of the Torah
Reb Yisroel No’ach Schneersohn recounted that, while discussing a Torah matter with his father, the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe), Reb Yisroel No’ach mentioned that he had been toiling for several days to understand a certain Torah discussion and had not yet figured it out. The Tzemach Tzedek said to him, “After all, you go to open the ark (as he was one of the sons of the Rebbe). When one opens the ark and says “Brich Shemei… Brich kitrach ve’atrach… Ule’amtuyei lana mituv nehorach (Blessed is the name… Blessed is Your crown and the place of Your majesty… Bestow upon us your beneficent light),” one can experience an opening of the gates of Torah, and his mind and heart can become brightened.[20]
A Heartfelt Prayer that is Definitely Answered
The Tzemach Tzedek went on to quote his grandfather the Alter Rebbe, who quoted his teacher the Maggid of Mezritch in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that when the ark is opened and (even) a very simple Jew recites “Brich Shemei… Yehei Re’utach im amacha Yisrael Le’olam (May His name be blessed… May His will be with the Jewish people forever)” with simple faith from the depths of his heart, G-d will fulfill his request, sometimes partially, sometimes completely.[21]
Hugging, Kissing and Bowing
“When the Torah scrolls are taken out, one must show them great respect and gaze at them until they are put down in their place. One should not speak idle chatter at that time as this is a disgrace to the Torah. One should hug and kiss the Torah scroll and bend one’s head like a reed towards it.”[22]
Along this line, some have a custom to bow slightly when they say the words “desagidna kameh – that I bow in front of him.”[23]
The Rebbe Rashab would bow his head slightly, almost imperceptibly, towards the Sefer Torah as it was being taken out of the ark. If more than one Torah was being taken out, he would bow towards each one. In addition, he would bow slightly towards the Sefer Torah as the chazzan said the words “Uneromema Shemo Yachdav – let us extol His name together.”[24]
The Sefardim have a custom to also honor someone with placing the Rimonim (pomegranate-shaped crowns) on the Torah scroll. According to the Arizal, this is a lesser honor than that of the opening of the ark since the opening of the ark elicits tremendous Divine revelations. As such, if a father and son are being honored with these two tasks, it is appropriate to give the father the greater honor – that of opening the ark.[25]
Towards the Congregation or the Ark
After the one who opened the ark takes out the Torah scroll, he should pass it to the Chazzan. On a weekday, the Chazzan then says the verse “Gadelu LaHashem iti – Exalt the L-rd with me etc…” The Chazzan should lift the Torah scroll slightly when he says “Gadelu.”[26] On Shabbat and holidays, the Chazzan and congregation first say (responsively) the first verse of Shema and an additional verse “Echad Elokeinu – G-d is one etc.”[27] The widespread custom is that the Chazzan faces the congregation for the first two verses but that he then turns back towards the ark for the verse of Gadelu etc. Some say that the Chazzan should continue to face the congregation while reciting Gadelu as well. While others say that all of these should be said while facing the holy Ark.[28] The Ketzot HaShulchan recommends that the chazzan turn slightly towards the congregation while saying Gadelu.[29]
May we merit to have the gates of Heaven open to our prayers!

[1] Numbers 10:35
[2] See also Sifri
[3] Avodah Zarah 24b
[4] There is no verse in the Tanach with these words. Our sages had a tradition that this was the Jewish people’s response.
[5] This custom is first mentioned in the Kolbo, Seder Kriat HaTorah LeShabbat
[6] Vol. 2, Parshat Vayakhel, 206a
[7] It is noteworthy that the last word of this prayer according to the Zohar is the word “Amen.” Indeed, most prayer books include the word “Amen” at the end of this prayer. For some reason, however, the Alter Rebbe did not include it in his version of Brich Shemei in his Siddur, Siddur Admur HaZakein Im Tziyunim, page 167).
[8] This is also the Chabad custom (Siddur HaRav). The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sha’arei Halacha UMinhag, O.C. 1, pg. 145) wonders why the Alter Rebbe did not discuss this prayer in his Shulchan Aruch. He suggests that it may have been included in Siman 135, a part of the section of the Shulchan Aruh HaRav that was lost.
[9] Kaf HaChaim 134:11. The Magen Avraham in the beginning of Siman 282 also recommends this custom, based on the Arizal. The Kaf HaChaim also mentions the custom of saying it on a daily basis. But in the various Sefardic siddurim that I checked, it is not printed in the weekday Shacharit.
[10] Rimzei Zohar, cited in Sha’arei Teshuva 488:2
[11] Page 61. This book is a biography of the Noda BiYehuda, Rav Yechezkel Landau, by Rabbi Yekutiel Aryeh Kamelhar, printed in Pietrakov, 1934
[12] Although the prayer says we do not rely on “bar elokin,” the mere idea that a human being can be called the son of G-d is idolatrous.
[13] Pirush Iyun Tefila in Siddur Otzar Hatefilot, cited in Piskei Teshuvot 134:13
[14] Shaar 10:1. Rabbi Margaliyot lived in Galicia (western Ukraine and Poland) from 1762 to 1828.
[15] Igrot Moshe, O.C. vol 4:69 ot 9
[16] Rav Chaim Palagi (of Izmir, Turkey, 1788 – 1868) in his Kaf Hachaim (this is not the better-known Kaf HaChaim which was written several decades later), 28:74. Cited in Siddur Admur HaZaken Im Tziyunim by Dayan Raskin of London. See also Ketzot HaShulchan, 25:1
[17] Likutei Maharich, Seder Kri’at HaTorah Bechol, in the name of the Or Zaru’a, vol. 2:42
[18] Kaf HaChaim, 133:12 in the name of the Avodat HaKodesh, Moreh Ba’etzba, 3:90. See Likutei Maharich with the notes of Yaakov Tzvi Koifman, Seder Kriat HaTorah Bechol, note 3 who cites a tradition from the Rashba to begin opening the ark in the seventh month of pregnancy.
There are several letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Igrot Kodesh, vol. 4, page 108, vol. 5 pg. 327 and vol. 6, pg. 27) where he recommends that the husband of a pregnant woman try to get the honor of opening the ark but that this should be done without fanfare. In one letter, the recipient’s wife was in her ninth month. In the others, there is no mention of any specific month.
[19] Likutei Diburim, vol. 2 page 226
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid and Hosafot on Ketter Shem Tov, 161
[22] Siddur Rav Yaakov Emden. Also cited in Siddur Otzar HaTefilot
[23] Piskei Teshuvot, 134:13 in the name of the Maharikash.
[24] Likutei Diburim, ibid, pages 227 and 228
[25] Kaf HaChaim, 133:12
[26] Ketzot HaShulchan, 125:1. See Masechet Sofrim 14:10 and 11.
[27] This practice is first mentioned in Masechet Sofrim, 14:9 and 10
[28] Aruch HaShulchan, 134:3
[29] Siman 25, Badei HaShulchan, 6 See Siddur Admur HaZaken im Tziyunim, pages 167 and 168, that there are conflicting reports as to how the Lubavitcher Rebbe would stand while saying these verses.
Wishing You all a Shabbat Shalom!
Aryeh Citron

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