Remembering Merkaz Harav Yeshiva on the Days of Awe
Remembering Merkaz Harav Yeshiva on the Days of Awe

A New Book for the High Holidays

With the help of God, a new book on the High Holidays has been published in the series of books ‘Peninei Halakha’, and thus, I merited finishing the laws of Shabbat and the Festivals (seven volumes). In the introduction to the book I wrote a few memories and thoughts that accompanied me in my study and writings.


“I remember the days when my father and teacher escorted me from the neighborhood of Givat Mordechai in Jerusalem to Yeshiva Merkaz Harav in Kiryat Moshe for the High Holiday prayers. Although I was a little boy, the great and awesome prayers left a deep impression in my heart. For as long as I could, I would pray there. Every year it becomes clearer to me how much the lofty spirit that pervaded the Yeshiva deepens its impact on me.

The walls of the beit midrash (study hall) were permeated with the eminent soul of the founder of the Yeshiva, the great light of recent generations, Maran Harav Kook ztz”l, and the spirit of his son and heir, the Rosh Yeshiva at the time, our teacher and guide, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook ztz”l . Although, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda would pray in the old building of the Yeshiva, because, how could he not pray in the place where his father prayed? Nevertheless, his impact on those praying in the new building in Kiryat Moshe was huge.

Vaguely, I remember the prayers of the righteous Rabbi Aryeh Levin ztz”l, who would lead the Mussaf prayers on the first day of Rosh Hashana, and in addition, the evening, Mussaf, and Ne’ilah prayers on Yom Kippur. The Mussaf prayers on the second day of Rosh Hashana were led by Rabbi Mordechai Frum ztz”l, a teacher in the Yeshiva and the son-in-law of Rabbi Kook’s son-in-law.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin testified that Rabbi Frum’s prayers were similar to those he had heard in the Volozhin Yeshiva, a nusach (version) that was passed down from the Maharil. After he passed away, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook asked my father to be the shaliach tzibbur in his place. I heard from Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg shlita, that indeed, my father’s prayers were very similar to those of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, both in tone and nusach, to the point where when he closed his eyes, it seemed to him that Rabbi Aryeh Levin was standing in prayer at the moment. His prayers were uttered with supplication and humility, like a son reconciling his father.

In the mizrach (the wall of the synagogue that faces east, where seats are reserved for the rabbis and other dignitaries) on the right side of the chazzan (cantor), sat Rabbi Shapira, Rabbi Israeli, Rabbi Frum, and behind them, my father. Opposite, prayed the grandson Rav Kook, Rabbi Shlomo Raanan hy’d. I’ll never forget how he hastened me to emphatically say together with him: “Achat, achat v’achat, etc.” In my childhood years, I wondered about the meaning of this counting which apparently, according to the nusach of the prayer, carries great importance. As a result of this, while growing, up I continued thinking about the meaning. The explanation for this counting (Chapter 10:11) is dedicated to his memory.

I also remember Rabbi Shabbtai Shmueli z”l, the secretary of the Yeshiva and one of its first students, exclaim in a trembling voice from his seat “Ha Melech” (the King), and approach the pulpit to lead the morning prayers. Afterwards, he would blow the shofar. Later, when he got older, my uncle, Rabbi Eitan Eisman shlita, who also accompanied us from Givat Mordechai, replaced him, and became the permanent shofar blower. He also taught me to blow the shofar, thereby fulfilling the words of our Sages: “Children need not be stopped from blowing; on the contrary, they may be helped until they learn how to blow” (Rosh Hashana 33a; R’ma 596:1).

I remember the Kiddush the rabbis made in the classrooms with Rabbi Mordechai Frum before Mussaf, and his state of tension prior to the holy service. On our way back, we would go through the Hebrew University, and in its pond, we would do tashlich (the custom of praying at a source of running water to "wash away one's sins".).

After the passing of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, our teacher and guide, Rabbi Avraham Shapira ztz”l became the shaliach tzibbur for Ne’ilah, and later, after Rabbi Mordechai Frum passed away, also for one mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashana. And when my father moved to Beit El, Rabbi Shapira served as chazzan for both Mussaf prayers, and his voice, which would emanate from the core of his soul, filled with great emotion, would tremble and stir the hearts.

Kol Nidrei, and usually Ne’ilah, we prayed in Givat Mordechai, and there I got to pray with baalei batim (laymen), some of whom were Holocaust survivors, and hear Rabbi Yehuda Amital ztz”l serve as chazzan. His tunes, which were also steeped in warmth and yearning, had an influence on me. Later, after he began to pray in his yeshiva in Har Etzion, my father replaced him in the Ne’ilah prayer. This also happened when the Yom Kippur War broke out, when synagogue worshipers were recruited to the front.

When I try to decipher the unique atmosphere in Yeshiva Mercaz Harav, it seems to me that in addition to the excitement that accompanies all yeshivas, a unique spirit of sincerity, honest fear of Heaven, tremendous love for Israel, and idealism permeated the Yeshiva. There were Torah scholars and yeshiva students who were connected with all their hearts to the soldiers in the army, to the settlers making our land bloom, to all inhabitants of the land, and the Jews of the Diaspora. And above all, they yearned for the revelation Torat Eretz Yisrael, to bring Ge’ulah (redemption) to the world, as our teacher and guide, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda would always teach his classes, which I was privileged to hear later on in my studies at the Yeshiva.

In the book “Peninei Halakha: Yamim Nora’im“, I tried to impart some of the inspiration I merited receiving from the High Holiday prayers within the Yeshiva of Maran Harav Kook.

Clal Yisrael

The idea of ‘clal Yisrael‘ (the congregation of Israel) is very prominent in the halakhot of the High Holidays, and based on God’s choosing us from all of the nations to be His chosen people in order to reveal His Divine Presence in the world and achieve tikkun olam. This is the foundation for teshuva(repentance) and kapara (atonement). Despite this, many people engaged in Torah tend to emphasize the individual side stemming from man, and as a result remain in their small-mindedness, in spite of all their theoretical and emotional efforts.

And there are some who even dare to argue against Maran Harav Kook as if he supposedly over-stressed the yisod ha’clali (the general, overall foundation of Israel). Yet the truth is that the idea of the ‘clal‘ is the main uniqueness and sanctity of Israel, and one who pays attention to what he says in prayers and Selikhot will immediately notice this. Rav Kook “returned the crown to its former glory”, explaining in depth the meaning of kedushat clal Yisrael (the sanctity of all of Israel).

Apparently, the impurity of galut (exile) caused many Jews to forget the general foundation, and consequently, we are required to learn Torah straightforwardly and understand that the foundation of emunah (faith), teshuva (repentance), and ge’ulah (redemption) lies in kedushat Yisrae (the holiness of Israel)l. This is the most important aspect of the prayers of the High Holy Days, whose roots stem from the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) who atoned for all of Israel.

Accentuating the Clal Strengthens the Individual

An individual should not worry about rising to the level of the clal, because only in a superficial understanding does the concept of ​​the clal harm the individual’s status; but in truth, the concept of the clalem empowers and uplifts the individual, giving sacred and eternal meaning to all of one’s inclinations. As our Sages said “one hundred is included in two hundred” – dealing with the clal also embraces within it dealing with all the details, because the clal is made up of all the details. However, dealing with the details does not encompass the clal.

The time for the individual to do teshuva is throughout the entire year, and the teshuva of the Days of Awe is meant for the clal because during these days the entire year is renewed, and consequently, it is the time for all of Israel to return and remember its faith, and awaken to adherence to Torah and mitzvoth. And since it is a repentance of the clal, these days also include great joy, and this is reflected in the mitzvah to hold a festive meal on Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, and wear festive clothes.

Emphasis on Common Rules

There are books on halakha which place heavy emphasis on the differences between the ethnic customs, and this creates great distress and difficulty in remembering the learning. For example, children are taught that Ashkenazi Jews blow the shofar during Elul and the Sephardic Jews do not. However, the correct way is to learn the fundamental rules common to all, and thus the halakha is explained well, and the differences in customs seem as differing tones in a harmonious orchestra.

Blowing the Shofar during the Month of Elul

This is what I wrote on the matter of blowing the shofar (Chapter 2:1):

“Our Sages said: “On Rosh Chodesh Elul, God said to Moshe, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain’ (Deuteronomy 10:1, to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf), and pass the shofar throughout the camp, for Moshe was about to ascend the mountain so they would not error once again in idol worship. And God was lifted up on that day by means of that shofar, as it is written: ‘Elohim is ascended with a shout of joy, Hashem with the sound of a shofar’ (Tehillim 47:6).

Thus, our Sages decreed the shofar be blown every year on Rosh Chodesh Elul (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 46). And they chose to arouse the nation by the sound of the shofar because of its ability to warn the people from sinning, and stir the masses to repent (Tur and B.Y., O.C. 581:1).

And it is the Jewish custom to blow the shofar during the month of Elul. The custom of Ashkenazi Jews is to blow the shofar at the end of morning prayers. And custom of Sephardic Jews is to recite Selikhot during Elul and blow the shofar when saying the Kaddish at the end of the Selikhot, and many also blow the shofar while reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The custom of blowing the shofar is not compulsory, but nevertheless, it is worthy of the public to try fulfill the custom, but one who did not hear the shofar does not need to seek out someone to blow it for him”.

The Custom of Selikhot

This is also the appropriate way to explain the basis of the custom of Selikhot, which was initiated during the period of the Gaonim, and whose goal is to request the redemption of Israel, as appears from the text of the Selikhot (ibid, 2:2-4), and only afterwards to continue to the differences of customs. And so I wrote:

“During the times of the Gaonim, the custom was to say Selikhot during the Ten Days of Repentance, and this was the custom in the large yeshivas in Babylon, and there were a few places where they used to say Selikhot also during the entire month of Elul.

At the end of the period of the Rishonim, the custom of reciting Selikhot during all of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance was accepted (S.A. 581:1). And the closer Rosh Hashana gets, the more people are careful to awaken for Selikhot, and in particular, during the Ten Days of Repentance. 

Ashkenazi custom is to begin reciting Selikhot on Motzei Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, provided they are able to say Selikhot four days before Rosh Hashana. In addition, the Ashkenazi custom is to add the psalm from Tehillim, “Mizmor l’David, Hashem is my light and salvation” for the month of Elul, as well as adding Torah study and teshuva, which have the same goal.”

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.