Every week after Havdalah, the subsequent week is more than a series of generic workdays. Days are a rhythmic melody, each one a special note hinted to in its Shir Shel Yom, while the extra duties of Monday and Thursday, the long Vehu Rachum supplication, and Krias HaTorah, imbue them with a special mien of seriousness and contemplation. So the week sings towards the crescendo of a new Shabbos.
At this point one might raise two questions. First, are Monday and Thursday different in essence from other days, or only in externalities? Second, do the extra duties of Monday and Thursday stem from a common factor or are they unrelated? At first blush, there seems to be little connection between Vehu Rachum and Krias HaTorah.
This impression deepens as one probes their histories. Why do we read the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays? The Gemara (Bava Kama 82a) explains that this is one of the most ancient Rabbinical enactments, dating back to the travels of the newly liberated Jews in Midbar Sinai:
“They went three days in the desert and did not find water. Those who expound verses said – water is nothing but Torah as it says, Ho, all who are thirsty go to water. After going three days without Torah they became exhausted. The prophets among them arose and enacted for them to read on Shabbos and interrupt on Sunday, and read on Monday and interrupt on Tuesday and Wednesday, and read on Thursday and interrupt on Friday, so that they should not spend three days without Torah.”
Parenthetically, the Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel) explains that the Jews became exhausted after three days because Torah is their essence and without it they are little more than dead.
At this point, the discerning reader might object that the days could have been arranged differently as there are a number of ways to arrange three days passing without Torah. For example, the prophets could have achieved this goal as effectively by waiting for two days after Shabbos and instituting the Reading of the Torah on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Perhaps this hints that there might be an additional reason for reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays.
What about Vehu Rachum and its companion prayer, Hashem Elokei Yisroel? Is there any common denominator between this and Krias HaTorah? Let’s examine their history.
At first glance, Hashem Elokei Yisroel seems a mere continuation of Vehu Rachum. This is a great mistake, since, although these two prayers are said in close proximity, they were actually composed centuries apart for very different reasons. One of them was composed in the time of the second Churban and the other dates back to Biblical days.
Siddur Chassidei Ashkenaz of Rabeinu Shlomo b’R. Shimon of Worms (whose teachings derive from the schools of R. Yehuda Hachassid and R. Elazar Rokeach of Worms) connects Vehu Rachum to a miraculous story that happened 2,000 years ago:
“When the wicked Titus destroyed the Temple, he filled three ships with men and women and sent them off with no captain. The Holy One sent a storm, which threw them onto dry land in three kingdoms. One ship arrived at the land of Shenuya, the second in the land of Sicily, and the third in the land of Africa. Among them were three wise, righteous elders who left the ship to visit the king of Africa and receive permission to dwell in his land.
“The king said to them, ‘From where are you and from which nation?’ They replied to him, ‘We are Jews from the seed of Avrohom Avinu.’ He responded, ‘If you are from the seed of Avrohom, let your words be tested by seeing whether you can be saved from fire, just as Avrohom was saved from the fire of Kasdim! Let one of you be
“They returned before the king and he threw the one who had the dream into the fire. The Holy One saved him and he came out untouched. The king settled them in the best of his land and they multiplied exceedingly.”
On the other hand, the commentary to the Siddur of the Rokeach gives Hashem Elokei Yisroel a far earlier date in history:
“I found in a manuscript of Rabeinu Hachassid zt”l, that King Chizkiyah composed the prayer Hashem Elokei Yisroel. When Sancheriv was besieging Yerushalayim and wanted to destroy it, he rose two hours into the night and went to the Temple and composed the prayer, Hashem Elokei Yisroel. And it has [136 words], ‘Chizkiyahu’ words [134 words, the same as the gematria of Chizkiyahu] and two more because of those two hours, and he signed his name backwards [at the beginning of each verse] due to his great humility,
Chusah Hashem, Zarim omrim, Koleinu sishma, (Y)Hashem Elokei Yisroel, Habet mishamayim. Thus we have Chizkiya as the initials of the verses…” (The order and word count of our text seems different from this).
Why do we say these two prayers on Mondays and Thursdays? Otzar Taamei Haminhagim offers a number of explanations:
Mondays and Thursdays are days of ratzon, good will, since Moshe Rabeinu ascended Har Sinai to accept the luchos for the second time on Thursday and descended on Monday (Tur Orach Chaim 134). Also, the verse (Yeshayahu 55:6) writes, Seek for Hashem when He is found – behimatz’o, [which can be read] b’ h’ matz’o – seek Him on Monday and Thursday (Rokeach 319).
DAYS OF JUDGMENT
So far, we have found no common denominator between the laws of Mondays and Thursdays, nor have we found that they are different in essence from other days. Examining a third halacha of these days may bring us closer to this goal .
Besides the obligation to say Vehu Rachum and Krias HaTorah on starting with chesed shebe’chesed on the first day, and gevurah shebe’chesed on the second day. Altogether, there are seven permutations of seven words.
These seven words are the Divine attributes that run our world: chesed, gevurah, tiferes, netzach, hod, yesod and malchus, all of them beyond the understanding of anyone not steeped in deep Kabbola learning. In addition to their connection to Sefiras Ha’Omer, these seven attributes are connected to each day of the week, one attribute for each day.
The attributes include the gamut of Hashem’s providence and rule. Some represent chesed, some represent Hashem’s deeds of strict justice when the world is punished, and others are neutral. According to holy seforim, Monday and Thursday are the only two days whose attributes (gevurah and hod) denote strict judgment, while all other days relate to chesed or neutrality.
Based on this, the Aruch Hashulchan (134:1, also Siddur Rashi) writes: “[We say Vehu Rachum on Monday and Thursday] because they are days of judgment, as the beis din below and the beis din above sit in judgment at that time.”
With one fell swoop, this perhaps creates a unifying principle that unites all the laws of Monday and Thursday. Due to the days’ judgmental qualities, beis din sits above and below, and we recite special supplications in order to neutralize the days’ strictness.
Krias HaTorah, too, may be for the same reason. Chazal say (Sota 14a), “R. Simlai taught – the Torah begins with gemilus chasadim and ends with gemilus chasadim…” And we say every day in tefillah, “With the light of Your countenance You gave us a Torah of life, and ahavas chesed, and mercy and life and peace.”
Thus, through special prayers and Krias HaTorah, we temper the severity of Monday and Thursday and render them into days of blessing and prosperity.
(References: Gelbard, Shmuel Pinchas. Otzar Taamei Haminhagim. Petach Tikvah, 5656.)