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    Praying for the rabbis – Yekum Purkan

    There are two prayers for the community – Yekum Purkan (“May Deliverance Arise”) in Aramaic and Mi Sheberach in Hebrew.

    The version of Yekum Purkan in the Singer Siddur

    First comes another Yekum Purkan which prays for the rabbis and sages.

    But which rabbis and sages?

    Until the Baer Siddur in the 19th century followed by the English Singer version in the 1890s, the prayer concerned itself with religious leaders in ancient Palestine and Babylon.

    The introduction of a mention of the rabbis of the Diaspora was in order to modernise the prayer and add to its significance, but before addressing this issue let us face the antecedents of the prayer as a whole and ask why it is in Aramaic and not Hebrew, and why it is omitted on festivals.

    The precedent for all three passages is Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple, “When Solomon had concluded praying all this prayer and supplication to the Lord… he stood and blessed all the congregation of Israel with a loud voice” (I Kings 8:54).

    There is little evidence of prayers for the sages until the 10th century CE when Nathan HaBavli described the installation of the Babylonian exilarch, who was even mentioned in the Kaddish. Other sages to be named in the Kaddish were a 9th century Ga’on, and also Maimonides, whom the Yemenites mentioned in their Kaddish in his lifetime. In the Machzor Vitry (c.1100 CE), the prayers for the congregation and the sages are combined.

    Though probably composed in Babylonia – hence the Aramaic wording – the prayer for the religious leaders is not found in this form in Babylonian or Sephardi rites. The text resembles the Kaddish D’Rabbanan, originally said after a rabbinical discourse. It mentions the sages of Palestine and Babylonia, the judges, teachers and students. Of course the scholars of Iraq and their traditions are now dispersed. In the Land of Israel there has been a great resurgence of Torah learning and gedolei ha-dor.

    Whilst both Palestinian and Babylonian Judaism were transplanted to other parts of the Jewish world, the Yekum Purkan prayer was not amended to refer to the sages “in every land of the Dispersion” (v’di b’chol arat galvatana) until the publication of the Singer Siddur, acting upon a suggestion in Baer’s Avodat Yisra’el.

    Machzor Vitry mentions the exilarch, the political leader of Babylonian Jewry, thus expanding the prayer to cover both religious and lay leadership. The Vitry text does not have the plural form reshei galuta, as there was only one exilarch at a time. Perhaps the plural was introduced to correspond with the plurals used for the other dignitaries.

    The term chavurata kadishta does not denote a burial society but the Palestinian Sanhedrin, especially in the ga’onic period. Its members were called chaverim.

    Why is the prayer omitted on festivals? Probably in order not to lengthen and overburden the service and thus delay worshippers’ return home for their festival meals.

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