Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Leader: Rabotai n’varech.

Everyone, let us bless.

All assembled: Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach mei’atah v’ad olam.

May the name of Adonai be blessed now and forever.

In the 1787 haggadah, the start of the grace after meals, or birkat hamazon, is much shorter than today’s standard beginning. The preliminary Psalm 126 is not there, nor is this opening exchange between the leader and the no-longer-hungry assemblage.

(Aside: no better time than the afternoon during the Yom Kippur fast to take a look at the grace after meals, right?)

In the Rishon Transliterated Haggadah, the first word rabotai is translated here as gentlemen, though elsewhere that haggadah translates rabotai as rabbis. Gentlemen is the modern usage of rabotai, as in givrotai v’rabotai, ladies and gentlemen. Given the extent of this barech section, to be followed immediately by the lengthy hallel section, it would not be wrong to think of this call back to liturgy following the Passover feast as “Gentlemen, (re)start your engines.”

I like the echo of rabotai to rabbis in the sense of teachers, because we are all following the seder’s mandate to teach our children about Passover, so we are all teachers at that table. But unless we want to make that explicit, we are left with the question of how to translate rabotai. Rabotai is a term of respect, as is gentlemen, but those are gendered. Friends is more casual, and is certainly appropriate if you change rabotai to chaverai. Y’all is a touch regional. The intent is to say hey, everybody, to get people to focus. Rabotai, everyone.

N’varech, let us bless.

The response is Psalm 113:2. It starts y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach, may the name of Adonai be blessed. There’s been a comprehensive shift during my lifetime from translating Adonai as Lord to simply using the word/term/name Adonai in place in translations. It’s one of the changes I welcomed quickly and easily.

While the passive voice is often best avoided, one important reason to use the passive here is because we are hoping for eternal praise for God, not that we personally always be here to do the praising. As “may we bless the name of Adonai now and forever,” it could come across as wishing for too much for ourselves, as well as distracting from the focus on God. We could say “blessed be the name of Adonai” instead, or a more interesting “May the name of Adonai be in blessings.” It can be easy to say we are thankful in a general way without paying attention to the source of what we are thankful for. This phrase says that thankfulness should be explicitly directed to God. And I’m interested in the idea of saying we want the name of Adonai to be in (our) blessings because it implies that we are still seeking to know the name of God.

Psalm 113:2 continues mei’atah v’ad olam, now and forever. We start our barech by setting a very large context. We do this because it should always be done, everywhere and always. That phrase “everywhere and always” captures the dual time and place meanings of olam. In the prayerbooks when I was growing up, olam in prayers was simply translated as world. It became more common to translate it as universe, and the new conservative machzor we used last night translates olam as time and space: melech haolam, ruler of time and space. A little astrophysics to ground us or to lift our spirits. But we don’t just want Adonai’s name to be in blessings everywhere and always; we want to bless Adonai ourselves, right now! Now and forever.

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