(Editor’s note: In contemplation of the yamim nora’im, we would do well to focus on proper liturgical expression in our tefillot. The topic that my good friend, Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich, rav of Beis Hamedrash Ahavas Torah, Flatbush, Brooklyn, discusses here is one that has long intrigued me as well as many others. Therefore, with his kind permission, we present this dvar Torah that he wrote for the shloshim of his dear friend, Menachem (Michael) Gruda from Ramot, l’iluy nishmato. Michael was torn away from us so suddenly while he was in the prime of his wonderful life. Yehi zichro baruch.)
A passage at the end of the Zichronot blessing in the Mussaf Amidah of Rosh Hashanah appears to have two slightly different versions. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, 591:7) rules that this is the correct text: “V’akeidas Yitzchak hayom l’zaro tizkor.” It also rules and those who change the words and specify “l’zera Yaakov tizkor” are mistaken and guilty of changing the text instituted by Chazal. The source for this ruling is a responsum (chapter 38) by the Spanish and then Algerian Rivash (14th century).
There are many difficulties with this ruling. The main one is that the Gemara itself asks on the verse (Genesis 21:12), “Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera”: Perhaps, the reference is to Esav, not Yaakov? The Gemara asks this in two places – Nedarim 31a and Sanhedrin 59b. Why then is it considered so wrong to detail explicitly in the Mussaf Amidah that we are referring to Yaakov and not to Esav?
The Rambam in Hilchot Nedarim (9:21), probably to resolve this difficulty, quotes the Gemara’s drashah but makes his own addition: “If one vows to derive no benefit from the seed of Abraham, he is allowed to derive benefit from the sons of Yishmael and the sons of Esav, but he is forbidden to derive benefit from Bnei Yisrael as the pasuk states: ‘Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera.’ And we find further (Genesis 28:4) that Yitzchak says to Yaakov, ‘Veyiten lecha et birkat Avraham.’ ”
It is also noteworthy for serious students of the Rambam that in Hilchot Melachim (10:7), the Rambam essentially cites the Gemara’s drashah, repeats his addition from Hilchot Nedarim, and writes: “Circumcision was commanded only to Avraham and his offspring as the pasuk (Genesis 17:9) states: ‘…ata v’zaracha acharecha l’dorotam.’ This excludes the offspring of Yishmael because the pasuk states ‘Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera.’ Further, Esav is excluded because Yitzchak said to Yaakov ‘V’yiten lecha et birkat Avraham.’ From here we see that Yaakov (and his progeny) alone is considered to be the offspring of Avraham, the one who is firm in the practice of Avraham’s beliefs and proper path.”
Nevertheless, Rivash’s application of the Talmudic principle “that whoever deviates from the proper formulation is guilty of altering our sages text” is a very strong statement. One wonders if according to the Rivash we have fulfilled our obligation if we do mention Yaakov in the tefillah in Zichronot.
Even if we fully accept the proposition that “b’Yitzchak” refers to Yaakov, perhaps “zera Yitzchak” can still refer to Esav. Indeed, this question is posed by the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim, loc. cit., sk7). And in fact, if one makes a vow not to derive any pleasure from “zera Yitzchak,” he is probably forbidden to derive any pleasure from Esav and his descendants! (Cf. the crucial emendation of the Yad Efraim (loc. cit.) on this suggestion of the Magen Avraham.) So, the question remains: Why does the Rivash so strongly frown upon adding the word “Yaakov” after saying “l’zaro”?
Although the answer to this question is not simple, this much is obvious: The Rivash, based upon the various drashot of Chazal, believed it was totally superfluous to mention the very obvious – that Yaakov alone is Yitzchak’s progeny. In fact, Rivash claims that it would be disrespectful to Yitzchak to mention Yaakov since it would imply that the merit of Yitzchak’s akeidah sacrifice is insufficient for us.
He also adds another fascinating argument: Although, he admits, it would be much simpler to add the word “Yaakov,” and not have to resort to all the various drashot to prove that Yaakov is the only progeny of both Avraham and Yitzchak, the “difficult” approach preferable. Why? Because it is obvious from the omission of Yaakov’s name that the one reciting the blessing of Zichronot is a talmid chacham: As the Gemara (Berachot 50a) states: From the blessings that a person recites one can discern whether a he is or is not a talmid chacham (see also supra 38a). And creating the impression of being a talmid chacham is a “good thing.”