Monday, April 22, 2024

  • Monday, April 22, 2024
  • Elder of Ziyon

This neatly lettered prayer was composed by two rabbis in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp before Passover, 1944.

The Passover holiday—with its ban on eating chametz—presented a particularly difficult situation [for Jews under Nazi rule.]  Shortages of basic ingredients and the lack of facilities to bake matzah left many Jews unable to conduct a proper Seder ceremony. Jewish inhabitants of camps and ghettos were forced to either break kosher laws or worsen their physical decline. With a daily diet consisting of only a few hundred calories, not eating chametz could mean starvation and death.

According to testimony recorded after the war, two rabbis deported from Westerbork to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with a group of Dutch Jews proposed a solution on the eve of Passover 1944. Citing a biblical commandment to live and preserve life above all else, Rabbis Aaron Davids and Abraham Levisson announced that the ban on chametz would be lifted for the holiday. They agreed that leavened bread could be substituted for matzah during Passover. In preparation, the Rabbis authored the featured prayer to be recited before eating chametz at a Seder held in the camp. A group of prisoners distributed copies of the prayer, and it remains in circulation today.

 The text of the prayer is...stunning.

Before eating chametz say the following with intent and devotion: 
Our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by eating matzah and following the prohibition of chametz. But our hearts are pained that enslavement prevents us, and we are in mortal danger. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandment "And you shall live by them"* [Lev 18:5]  and to observe Your caution of "protect yourself and safeguard your soul."[Deut 4:9] Therefore our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfill Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen! 
* And not die by them

The words in the footnote are not in the Biblical text; they are essentially a commentary to justify the eating of bread. Of course, in cases of mortal danger this would be allowed, but to me the wording is meant to convince their fellow prisoners that eating chametz is not only permitted but obligatory (the word "lizaher" is stronger than the USHMM translation "observe" but more like "observe zealously.") Asking for redemption has a double meaning - besides the usual plea for the Messiah to come, it means to be saved from the Nazis.  It also appears to me that the rabbis intentionally juxtaposed the root word for slavery in "enslavement" and in "to serve You" to emphasize that the Jews only want to be servants to Our Father in Heaven and no other. 

Both Rabbi Levisson and Rabbi Davids died, probably of exhaustion and starvation, shortly before liberation in the spring of 1945.

(h/t R' Dovid Bashevkin)

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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون

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