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Names, Verses, and Flaming Hot Rods

Names, Verses, and Flaming Hot Rods

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Dear Rabbi,

While reciting the prayers today, I noticed a footnote at the end of the Amidah (standing prayer), instructing me to recite a verse corresponding to my name, and referring me to a page in the back of the prayer book with a list of names and verses. Can you please explain what this is about?

Aaron

Dear Aaron,

Many prayer books refer to this practice. The custom is to recite a verse associated with your name at the conclusion of the Amidah, before the second recital of the phrase “Yehiyu l’ratzon . . .” “May it be your will…” What is this custom all about? In my research on the topic, I discovered that this custom and the reasons for it have quite an interesting history.

Early Sources

The earliest reference I found to such a practice is in Siddur of R’ Hirz (Tihingen, 1560), a compilation of commentary and instructions for the prayers by Rabbi Naphtali Hirz Treves, chazzan (cantor) of Frankfurt am Main.

On the verse “נדבות פי רצה נא ה' ומשפטיך למדני ” “Please accept with favor the utterances of my mouth and teach me your laws”(Psalms 119:108), Rabbi Hirz comments that it is “tradition in our hands” to regularly say a verse that begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter, such as this verse, which corresponds to his name, נפתלי (the verse begins with a nun and ends with a yud).

Rabbi Hirz does not provide a reason for this custom, however. He also recommends reciting the verse on all occasions—not specifically at the end of the Amidah.1

What may be an even earlier reference to this practice is a parenthetical comment in the words of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century) in his classic commentary on the Tanach.

On the words of the prophet Micha (6:9), “The voice of the Lord calls out to the city; the [man of] wisdom recognizes your name…” the commentary reads, “From here we deduce that whoever recites daily a verse beginning and ending as his name begins and ends, the Torah saves him from Gehinnom.” 2 However, it has been noted that this comment may not have been written by Rashi, but may have been added by a later publisher.3

Remember Your Name

Elaborating on the statement quoted above from Rashi that “the Torah saves [one] from Gehinnom,” later works go into detail about what exactly saying the verse achieves. Most associate it with Chibut Hakever (lit. “the Battering of the Grave”), an experience of the body and soul immediately following burial that is discussed in Jewish ethical and Kabbalistic teachings.

Detailed teachings about Chibut Hakever, attributed to sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras, appear in works written as early as the 13th century. These teachings are quoted from a Midrashic text that later became known as Perek (Chapter) Chibut Hakever or Masachet (Tractate) Chibut Hakever.

Like all G‑dly retribution described in the Torah, the intent of Chibut Hakeveris not to punish the soul but to cleanse it, making it capable of receiving the divine revelations of the afterlife. The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal) explains that the process of Chibut Hakever shakes the unholiness out of the soul, just as one would shake a garment to remove the dust. 4 (The details of this experience, and whether they are to be understood literally or figuratively, are not the topic of this discussion.5 )

As part of this process, one of the first tests the soul must pass is to remember its name:

The students of Rabbi Eliezer asked him, “What is the (exacting of) justice in the grave?” He replied to them, “When man leaves this world, the Angel of Death comes and sits upon him, beats him, and says, ‘What is your name?’ and man replies, ‘I do not know.’ Immediately, he inserts his soul into his body, and stands him up and puts him on trial.”6

Similarly, we find in the Zohar, the classic work of Kabbalah, that the wicked in Gehenna do not remember their names.7

The wicked in Gehenna do not remember their names

What does remembering your name have to do with judgments in the afterlife? The Arizal explains that during his lifetime, a person must strive to identify the particular character of his evil inclination in order to overcome its challenges, and ultimately repair and elevate it. Identifying his unique evil inclination means “knowing its name” in a figurative sense. The wicked, who ignored this task during their lifetimes, are therefore at a loss when asked what their names are. The righteous, on the other hand, can easily answer this question, having dedicated their lives to this purpose.8

Avoid the Beating

Apparently, one way to avoid the painful experience of Chibut Hakever is to remember your name at that critical moment. 9 Here’s where this custom comes in handy. In a work called Sefer Ben Zion (printed in Amsterdam, 1690), the author, “Yosef of the family of Elimelech,” writes:

Regarding Chibut Hakever; the wicked do not know their name in the grave . . . And I heard from the Kabbalists, that during his lifetime, every person should find for his name a verse from the Torah, Prophets, or Scriptures, that the beginning of the verse starts as his name does, and the end of the verse ends as his name does, and he should always habitually recite this verse, so he should not forget it all the days of his life. And it appears to me, that this is surely so if the verse begins as his name does and his very name is also found in the verse, such as the name Shalom, which is found in the verse, “Shalom rav l’ohavei toratecha . . . (Pslams 119:165)”

I have gathered verses from the Tanach to correspond to some Jewish names . . . and when the necessary time will come, he will have what to answer his adversary, and he will rest in peace upon his resting place, and the angels will say, “Let him come in peace.”

The author then provides a list of many names and their corresponding verses. This seems to be the earliest source explicitly associating the practice of reciting the verse corresponding to your name with remembering your name in the afterlife as a means of mitigating the suffering of Chibut Hakever.

While the Sefer Ben Zion was not widely studied, the practice, and the reason behind it, was popularized by a work published shortly afterward, called Kitzur Shnei Luchot Habrit, or Kitzur Shelah, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel (ben Avraham) HaLevi Epstein (first published in Fürth, 1693).

The Kitzur Shelah is a condensation of the important ethical work Shnei Luchot Habrit by Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz (1558-1628). Intended for the Jewish layman, it contains instructions both practical and ethical. Although most of the teachings are gleaned from Shnei Luchot Habrit, Rabbi Epstein did include material from other sources that he felt would benefit the masses.

At the very end of the Kitzur Shelah, he refers to this practice and its association with preventing the sufferings of Chibut Hakever, and includes the list of verses compiled in the Sefer Ben Zion, to which he adds a few of his own (and leaves out a few others.). Most notably, the Kitzur Shelah adds that this verse should be said at a particular point in the prayer: the conclusion of the Amidah, the silent standing prayer, before saying “Yehiyu l’ratzon . . .”10

Since the publishing of the Kitzur Shelah, this custom has become widespread, and numerous prayer books and manuals for Jewish prayer refer to it.

This custom has become widespread

In a letter written in 1948, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, confirms that this is indeed the Chabad custom as well. “Practically speaking,” he writes, “I asked my father-in-law, the Rebbe, [Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe], and he told me that when he learned how and began to pray, he was instructed by [his father ] the Rebbe (Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe), that he should recite at the end of the prayer the verses [appropriate to his name] in all the daily prayers, and on all days.”11

Dreams and Spiritual Ascension

There is, however, an entirely different reason brought in Chassidic teachings for reciting the verses corresponding to one’s name, unrelated to Chibut Hakever.

According to Jewish mysticism, the soul, as well as the body, is refreshed through sleep. In fact, this can even be experienced as dreams in which Torah subjects are made known to the person dreaming. “These [dreams] generally occur through concentrated devotion to Torah study during the day. When someone studies Torah with great diligence or engages in ‘service of the heart’--prayer--with intense effort, then at night [during his sleep, he can ascend to great spiritual heights] . . . each person according to his diligence in his avoda [spiritual service] during the day.”12

In this vein, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn taught:

The letter of the “verses of the names,” which we say in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, are the Torah letters which purify the part of the neshama --divine soul-- which is within the body, from the filth caused by the body’s materialism. When one then reads the Kriat Shema She’al Hamitah --the bedside Shema-- as it should be read, each person according to his ability, and declares, “In Your hands, I entrust my soul,” from the core of his heart, then through the letters of the “verses of the names,” one merits that he is allowed to stand near the open doors and see what transpires in the Heavenly chambers.13

That simple footnote in your siddur is really giving you the key to divine protection in the afterlife, as well as spiritual elevation in this world.

On that note, here are a few more relevant details about the verses:

1. Someone who has more than one name should recite a verse corresponding to each of those names.14

2. If there is no verse which begins and ends with the letters that your name begins and ends with, a verse that begins as your name does, and actually has your name in it is a good substitute.

3. If such a verse cannot be found, some suggest saying a verse that begins with the first letter of the name, and has all of the rest of its letters scattered (in order) throughout the verse.15

A comprehensive list of suggested verses for various beginning and ending letter combinations can be found in the Siddur Tehilat Hashem – Annotated Edition (Kehot 2002), p. 582.

Footnotes
1.
It might be argued that that the text in Siddur R’ Hirz can be read as describing the virtue of saying this specific verse regularly, and R’ Hirz is only mentioning parenthetically that it corresponds to his name.
2.
S.v. V’Tushiah.
3.
See Igrot Kodesh vol. 2, p. 391. This comment does not appear in editions of Rashi that date earlier than 1699. See Heorot U’biurim vol. 40 (189), p. 12.
4.
Shaar Hagilgulim, The Gate of Reincarnations, Introduction 23:3
5.
More details of the Chibut Hakever can be found there in Sefer Chochmat Hanefesh, p. 7b, and in Masechet Chibut Hakever, brought in Reishit Chochmah (Eliyahu de Vidas, 16th century) Shaar Hayirah, Chapter 12.
6.
Sefer Chochmat Hanefesh, Book of Wisdom of the Soul, by the Tosafist Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176 – 1238, also known by the title of his book, “the Roke’ach”).
7.
Zohar Chadash, Midrash Rus, Maamar Hameis B’lo Banim, "Rabbi Rechumai posach…".
8.
http://www.chabad.org/1449556
9.
See, Sefer Chochmat Hanefesh, 8a, and similarly in Shaar Hagilgulim, 23:4-5: “One who lives in the land of Israel, and one who is buried on Friday from the fifth hour onward do not have to undergo chibut hakever.” Sefer Chassidim (Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid, 1150-1217), paragraph 32: “Anyone who loves righteousness, loves reproach, loves charitable kindness, welcomes guests, and prays with concentration, even if he resides outside of the Land of Israel, will not see chibut hakever.” Hayom Yom (by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn), 7 Tevet: “To avert chibut hakever, recite words of Torah, Tehillim, etc., for one sixth of the day.” (See also Hayom Yom, Shevat 5.)
10.
This is widely accepted as the source for this practice and the reason presented here. Kitzur Shelah was a popular work, and was reprinted numerous times. Interestingly, although this custom appears in the first print (Amsterdam, 1683), it was missing in many later editions. See Igrot Kodesh, ibid. It is also interesting to note that many (including Rabbi Yaakov Emden in his Torat Hak’naot) consider the author of Kitzur Shelah to have been a Sabbatean. This does not necessarily bear any relevance to our discussion, as the Rebbe writes that “practically speaking” we do observe this custom, and presumably, for the reason explained by Rabbi Shalom Dovber, which follows.
11.
Igrot Kodesh, ibid, from a letter dated “the day prior to Rosh Hashana 5709.”
12.
Hayom Yom, 4 Teves.
13.
Talk of Simchat Torah 5654 (1893), quoted in a letter by Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, dated “Erev Pesach 5702 (1942), Igrot Kodesh Admu”r Mehoraya”tz (Kehot, 1983), p. 273 . It is not clear if these are Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s own words, or the continuation of the previous paragraph which he stated in the name of his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the 3rd Rebbe).
14.
Igrot Kodesh, ibid, as per the instructions given by Rabbi Shalom Dovber Scheneersohn mentioned there. Some also recite the verses corresponding to the name(s) of their Rebbe. See Sefer Haminhagim–Chabad, p. 12.
15.
See Katzenelenboigen, Yesh Manchilin (Jerusalem, 1986), p. 74
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Anonymous UK July 7, 2016

Knowing the nature of one's yetzer ha-ra. That paragraph reminded me of the teaching of a Jewish therapist who
insisted that it was essential to identify and own one's darker side.
Only by accepting and integrating that part of oneself with other more comfortable aspects can it be acknowledged and brought under control. We hear of people saying, 'I don't know what came over me'
in excusing uncharacteristic behaviour. We need to know of what we are capable in order to face our own strengths and weaknesses and
to understand in our judgement of others. It is inspiring to find
that this wisdom existed in our tradition long before it was hailed
as new science introduced as an'?ology'.
capa Reply

Michael Raileanu Los Angeles, CA July 2, 2015

But I need the list right now. Where can I find it on the internet? Reply

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