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Prayer Tools: Rav Yaakov Emden: The Exact Number of Words

The 30th of Nisan is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yaakov (ben Tzvi) Emden (1698-1776), known as Yaavetz (Yaakov ben Tzvi), son of the Chacham Tzvi. Born in Altoona, Germany, he married a granddaughter of Rav Naftali Katz (the Baal Semichos Chachamim) in 1716, and settled in Breslau. Trying to avoid any official rabbinic position, he finally took his first such position in 1728, in the city of Emden, from which he tok his surname. He resigned after four years and moved back to Altoona to open a printing press. He was involved in a famous controversy over an amulet (kameya) written by Rav Yehonason Eibeshutz, Rav Yaakov claiming that the amulet demonstrated an acceptance of Shabsai Tzvi. Among Rav Yaakov’s most well-known sefarim are She’eilas Yaavetz (responsa), Siddur Tefillah, Eitz Avos (on Pirke Avos), Luach Erez (notes on tefillah), Lechem Shamayim (commentary on Mishna), Tzitzim u’Prachim (on Kabbalah), and Mor u’Ketziah (commentaries and chidushim on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim).


One must realize that the texts of the Eighteen Blessings: One hundred and twenty elders and prophets, the Man of the Great Assembly, carefully considered each and every word, and weighed it in their holy minds, and they instituted the blessing with great consideration and exactness. In any case, it is a very wonderful thing that for the first three blessings, we, all the people of Israel and all the places of their dispersion, say exactly the same words. Even if they have been separated from each other as far as the east is from West, they have guarded against any change in that. Not the slightest thing has been added, no word has been lost or changed, because they knew that this text must be strictly preserved.

And this is what Rabbi Yechiel said: “The Chasidei Ashkenaz are interpreters of lists, who counted and recorded the numbers of words of the prayers and the blessings, and what they symbolize. They said there are 107 words in the first three blessings: the first has 42 words, the second has 51 words.” His reward is secure for preserving discount, and he did not labor in vain! Whether he was correct in all that he recorded, or some of it, or even if none of it is correct, in any event the reward for his good intentions will not be kept from him.

And may God forgive Rabbi David Abudirham who mocked this practice, and said that this counting is only valuable for the one who makes it, but to no one else, since he realized that not all Israel have the same Nusach, word for word. But even if this is true, Rabbi Yechiel gained himself merit for his good intentions, and help others by listing the words in each blessing. Because there is no doubt that the Man of the Great Assembly who wrote them were very particular about the number of words, even granting that they didn’t mean these numbers to symbolize anything. In any case, they were certainly exacting about the language, that it be a clear text that would be equally understandable to all of Israel, as the Rambam wrote.

And if over the course of time and through the many copyings that were done during times of persecution, and through “pouring from vessel to vessel,” the text change between the distant places from East to West, that is the fault of the scribes and the copiers. And nevertheless, this only caused the Nusach to be divided into two forms, Ashkenazic and Sepharadic: one version is definitely incorrect. And since we do not know clearly who possesses the first, true tradition, each keeps its own version, and justifies it as best as they can.

If only the earlier generations had written the numbers of words of the prayers and blessings in books, as they knew it! They certainly would have helped themselves, and those who came after them. (Rabbi Yaakov Emden; Sulam Beit El 3:7)

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