Before reading this article, please have a look at this prayer, which is found on Page 408 in the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur.
Berich Shemei is recited as the Ark (Aron HaKodesh) is opened and the Sefer Torah is about to be taken out. There is an abundance of customs as to when this prayer is recited.
In the United Synagogue, the custom (minhag) is only to recite Berich Shemei on Shabbat morning. Nevertheless, in some other communities the custom is to recite it specifically at Shabbat mincha. The Artscroll Siddur inserts this prayer whenever the Torah is about to be read in shul. Surprisingly though, there are even authorities who advocate deleting Berich Shemei entirely from the siddur, as we shall discuss below.
The prayer itself comes from the Zohar (first published in c. 13th century), the great mystical work based on the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (2nd century CE). The text is introduced with the following words: ‘when the Torah is taken out to be read in public, the Gates of Compassion are opened, and love is aroused on high. Therefore one should say at this time [Brich Shmei]…’ (Zohar Vayakhel)
The including of Berich Shemei in the actual prayer liturgy seems to originate ith Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and his school of mystics who lived in Safed, Israel during the 16th century.
However, there has always been opposition to saying this prayer for a number of reasons:
• A reluctance among some Rabbis to use any passages from kabbalistic works because of their deep, esoteric nature, which is in danger of being misunderstood by those unschooled in its wisdom.
• Berich Shemei includes personal requests asking G-d for sustenance and a life of goodness which are not usually made on Shabbat.
• The prayer includes the phrase ‘we do not rely on Bar Elahin’. This could either mean that ‘we do not rely on angels’ or that ‘we do not rely on the sons of G-d’. The latter interpretation may have provoked accusations of anti-Christianity.
• There are some interesting features of this prayer. Like Yekum Purkan (recited after the Haftarah on Shabbat) and Kaddish, it is written in
Aramaic. It is also written in the first person singular, unlike many of our prayers which are composed in the plural. In Sephardic communities the custom has developed to bow when one says the words ’I am the servant of the Holy One blessed be He, before whom I prostrate’.
Whilst customs may vary as to its recital, clearly this is a very special prayer. The Aron HaKodesh is open. We are about to remove the Torah and read its words. We are reading His Torah, which is His wisdom. We are demonstrating our love toward G-d. Now is an exceptional time to petition Him to open up our eyes with Torah and fulfil the wishes of our hearts and the hearts of our nation! What a gem of a prayer!