Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Machnisei Rachamim and Plagerism

This Saturday night many begin to say the Selichot prayers. There is one prayer in particular that has raised question throughout the centuries, Machnisei Rachmim. This prayer, which asks the angels to take our prayers is controversial. The reason for the controversy is that we generally avoid praying to angels, instead, we pray to God. Now, in truth there are many, many prayers that are either directly or indirectly addressed at angels, but Machnesi Rachmim is perhaps the most overt although one should keep this point in mind should one decide to Machnisei Rachmim.

Already from the times of the Geonim, they have dealt with angels in prayers (they said it was ok). As the generation progressed there were those who questioned this and claimed these prayers ran afoul of the prohibition of praying to someone other than God. This debate was brought to head in the 18th century in Italy, where both camps were represented by long letters for and against. In the end, it was decided that it was ok for people to continue saying these prayers. Of course, this decision did not appease those who thought it was blasphemous to do so, and the debate continued on (as almost all Jewish debates).

In the case of the 18th century debate, the various positions were recorded in one of the earliest Jewish encyclopedias, Pachad Yitzhak. Those who said it was ok based this upon two authorities (although there are others, some of which they were aware of and some of which they were not). These two were the Etz Shetul commentary on R. Joseph Albo’s Sefer HaIkkrim (first printed Venice, 1618) and the commentary on the Machzor, Hadrat Kodesh (this commentary was first printed in 1567 in Lubin, however, this commentary was then "updated" in the Prague by the editor R. Moshe Shedel. This Prague edition was reprinted numerous time, however, in all these early editions there was no specific title to the commentary and instead was called "haMifaresh." The title Hadrat Kodesh was first used in the 1600 Venice edition and then in subsequent reprints.) [What is of passing interest, and one wonders whether it precipitated this controversy, is that this commentary was just republished right before the debate broke out in Venice 1711 - this editions title page is reproduced below. As one can see it is very elaborate with rather interesting illustrations. Additionally, the Hadrat Kodesh commentary relating to the above discussion from this edition is also reproduced below.] On the other hand, the opponents discounted the justifications offered by these two (at times in rather irreverent terms) and claimed based upon a simple reading these types of prayers were prohibited. Two leading Rabbis were called to adjudicate the matter, and as I mentioned above, they ruled the practice could continue. One, R. Shmuel Abaob, actually had to respond again as the opponents refused to accept his initial decision.

One of the other more common places this comes up is in the prayers Shalom Alechim said on Friday nights. Again, this is more or less the same debate regarding the stanza asking the angels for a blessing. R. Jacob Emden in his Siddur as well as his commentary on the Tur/Shulchan Orakh actually offers the same justification as that of the Hadrat Kodesh and then realizes that it is the same and they would be equally applicable. R. Emden ultimately decided to remove all the passages from Shalom Alechim with the exception of the first stanza (although in most purported editions of R. Emden’s Siddur including the most recent one, the entire Shalom Alechim appears.)

All of the above and more was collected in an article which appeared in the journal Yeshurun. This article was so good and so comprehensive it was then plagiarized in the book Mo’adim l’Simcha. In fact, R. Fruend the “author” of Mo’adim l’Simcha even took the errors which appear in the Yeshurun article. For instance, they cite to the work Sheboli haLeket no. 252 when the correct citation is to 282; and Fruend repeats this. Fruend, seems to have a very different view of plagiarizing than is currently accepted. He does cite to the Yeshurun article a few times, but this does not absolve his copying verbatim of the article. This is not the only time Fruend does this. Instead, he does this over and over again with many of the articles which appear in his books. Sometimes he gives passing credit to the original authors and sometimes he doesn’t. While it is somewhat troubling that Fruend does this, it is worthwhile pointing out that Fruend's books, Mo'adim l'Simcha are very good (in part because he uses excellent sources) and at the very least compiling and condensing the many articles on the many topics he covers is worthwhile. Finally, not everything in his books is plagiarized, instead, there are whole articles which are Fruend's and they are also very good.

Sources: R. Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, “The Controversy About Machnesi Rachmim” in Yeshurun no. 3 p. 706-729; R. Fruend, Mo’adim l’Simcha, vol. Elul – Tishrei p. 37-62; also for more Machnisei Rachmim including manuscript evidence see S. Emmanuel's article available here. Of course, the above does not discuss the more general question of whether one should say any piyuttim which is for another post.

Title page from the Venice 1711 Machzor Sha'ar Bat Rabim which includes the Hadras Kodesh commentary
Commentary of the Hadrat Kodesh discussing the Machnisei Rachamim prayer

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