Why is Tachanun (penitential prayers) longer on Mondays and Thursdays? I always assumed that it had something to do with the fact that the Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays, but recently a friend told me that they aren’t related. What’s the deal?


The Midrash relates that it was on a Thursday that G‑d told Moses to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets after the sin of the golden calf. Forty days later, on a Monday, Moses finally descended the mountain with the new tablets, signifying that G‑d had forgiven His nation.

As a result, Mondays and Thursdays are considered especially auspicious days to find Divine favor, and have been set aside as special days of repentance.1

On a seemingly opposite note, others explain that the reason for the extra penitence on Mondays and Thursdays is because the rabbinical courts—as well as the heavenly tribunals—are traditionally in session on these days.2 Since we are being judged, extra supplications are in order.3 Appropriately, since ancient times, pious people have had the custom to fast on these days as well.4

In truth, these two explanations need not contradict each other, for G‑d may sit in judgment specifically at a time of Divine mercy.5


There are many fascinating accounts of the origin of this prayer, which is made up of three parts and begins with the words Vehu rachum, “And He is merciful.” Here are two of the most common narratives:

Rabbi Elazar ben Yehudah (1160–1238), famed author of the Sefer Rokeach, records that he found the following story in a responsum from the Geonic period (approx. 589–1038):6 After the destruction of the Second Holy Temple, Vespasian placed a number of Jews on three ships with neither captains nor rudders. The ships thus began to drift helplessly. Divine Providence, however, saved the ships from being smashed by cliffs and storms. Each ship eventually landed in a different city in France: Leiden, Orlado and Bordils.7 At first the poor refugees who reached Bordils were kindly received by the governor of the province, and were given land and vineyards as a means of livelihood.

When the governor died, his successor proved a cruel man. He robbed the refugees of whatever they had received and threatened to drive them out. The Jews began to fast and pray to G‑d for salvation. It was then that three pious leaders of the community, two of them brothers by the names of Joseph and Benjamin, and the third a cousin named Samuel, composed these prayers.

Joseph wrote the first part, until the words כי אל מלך חנון ורחום אתה—“For You are a gracious and merciful king.” Binyamin continued until אין כמוך—“There is none gracious and compassionate like You.” And their cousin Shmuel completed it, ending with the words שמע ישראל—“Hear, O Israel . . .”8

After G‑d miraculously rescued them from their fate, the three decided to transcribe this prayer, and sent copies to many Jewish communities, urging them to make it part of their regular Monday and Thursday prayers.

And so, concludes the Rokeach, we also hope and pray that just as G‑d saved them in their time of need, He will similarly deliver us from all our troubles.

Through Water and Fire

Perhaps a more common version of the story is found in Kol Bo, a 14th-century work on Jewish ritual and civil laws:9

A boatload of Jews fleeing the Roman destruction of Judea came upon a land. After asking about the identity of the passengers, and hearing their claim that they were Jews fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem, the ruler said he wished to test them, just as Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were tested by Nebuchadnezzar. He decreed that they be thrown into a fiery furnace to see if they too would be saved.

The Jews requested, and were granted, 30 days to prepare for their fate. Before the 30 days were up, a pious but unlearned old Jew said that he dreamed of a verse containing the word ki (“when”) twice and the word lo (“not”) three times, but he could not remember what it was.

One of the wise men stepped forward and declared that no doubt it was this verse in Isaiah: “When you pass through water, I am with you, and in rivers, they shall not overflow you; when you go amidst fire, you shall not be burnt, and a flame shall not burn amongst you.”10 This, he declared, was no doubt a sign from heaven that just as they had been saved from the sea, so too they would be saved from fire.

When 30 days were up, a large pyre was built, and the old man who had the dream was the first to be thrown into the flames. The fire miraculously separated into three fires, with the form of a righteous individual appearing in each of the fires (perhaps Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah) to greet the old man. The three then started reciting the Vehu Rachum prayer. The first recited the prayer until the paragraph that opens with the words אנא מלך—“We beseech You, gracious and merciful king.” The second continued with that paragraph. The third one completed the prayer, from the paragraph of אין כמוך—“There is none gracious and compassionate like You”—until the end of the prayer, which concludes with the words שמע ישראל—“Hear, O Israel . . .”

It was then established to recite these prayers every Monday and Thursday, as they are days of judgment.

Due to the importance of this prayer, it is ideally recited while standing.11 The rabbis say that whoever recites this prayer with heartfelt intention will surely be answered.12

A Prayer from King Hezekiah

Immediately after the Vehu Rachum prayer, we say a series of prayers starting with the words “L‑rd, G‑d of Israel, turn from Your fierce anger and renounce the thought of bringing evil upon Your people.” While this prayer is often mistakenly thought to be part of the actual Vehu Rachum prayer, it is in fact much older, and is said to have been composed by King Hezekiah as the Assyrian armies, led by King Sennacherib, laid siege to Jerusalem. As you can read here, G‑d answered the king’s prayers, and the Assyrian armies were miraculously destroyed, bringing salvation to Jerusalem and its inhabitants.13

Just as G‑d granted them salvation, let us pray that He will once again hear our prayers and bring the ultimate redemption in our time.