By Cindy Mindell
NEW HAVEN – The last paragraph of the Birkat HaMazon can be problematic for many modern Jews. Particularly thorny is the line: “A youth I was, now I have grown old, but I have not seen the righteous forsaken nor their children begging for bread.”
“Some Jews have problems with these lines, which seem to go against reality,” says Barry Dov Walfish, editor of “L’chu N’ran’nah, Let Us Sing,” a new bencher that offers both traditional and alternative versions of the blessings recited before and after meals, as well as songs for Shabbat, holidays, and other special occasions. Walfish is the Judaica specialist at the University of Toronto Library and a faculty member of the University’s Centre for Jewish Studies and the Centre for the Study of Religion He has written and edited several books and scholarly essays on the history of Jewish biblical interpretation and the Jewish Karaite sect, and has taught at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institutes and regional retreats. Walfish is currently on sabbatical in New Haven, where his wife, Adele Reinhartz, is visiting professor of New Testament at the Yale Divinity School.
“There are righteous people who are hungry and don’t have what they need, so it can be hard to say those words. Some skip the lines or don’t say them out loud.”
Walfish, a scholar of Medieval Judaism, first addressed the issue in “Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael,” a Friday night siddur which he co-edited with Mark Frydenberg of the Boston Progressive Havurah in 2000. There the problematic verse was preceded by the phrase “May it be,” a way of turning it into a messianic hope for the future.
The new bencher also provides an alternative ending to Birkat HaMazon, which Walfish first heard in a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Berlin two years ago. When he asked the rabbi to research the source, she discovered that it had been written by Rabbi Michael Leigh, a Reform rabbi, in London in 1967.
“Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil” introduced a four-column format incorporating Hebrew text, English translation, full transliteration, readings, and commentary, and included benching and z’mirot, songs for Shabbat. Walfish used the same layout for the bencher, which was first created for his daughter’s wedding in 2005. The book was eventually published in a scaled-down version in May 2009. For that project and the just-published second edition, Walfish drafted Frydenberg and a team of co-editors who are all involved in the National Havurah Committee.
“L’chu N’ran’nah” offers a collage of benching options, from full traditional to abbreviated traditional to contemporary, gathered from various sources including scholars-in-residence and teachers at the National Havurah Committee Summer Institutes.
“New creative liturgy is being written all the time,” says Walfish. “This bencher is an attempt to be inclusive of all types of Jews, and it’s very cutting-edge in that it recognizes the variety of families that now make up the Jewish community, not just the traditional male-female combination, but sometimes two male or two female parents.” Alternatives reflecting all possible gender combinations are provided in the Friday-evening family blessings, as well as in the Sheva B’rachot, or wedding blessings, and the Birkat HaMazon for B’rit Milah or Simchat Bat.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of “L’chu N’ran’nah” will be donated to the National Havurah Committee. For more information on the bencher and its creators: www.birkat.org.