A number of years ago, I was composing a new musical setting for the classic Hanukkah song, “Mi Y’malel.” The text of the song, written by Menashe Ravina, borrows from the second blessing customarily recited upon lighting the Hanukkah lights: “… she-asah nisim lavotenu bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh”– praising God who “performed wonders for our ancestors in years past at this season.” In Ravina’s Hanukkah hymn, he wrote “Sh’ma! Bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh” – “Hark: in days of old at this season” … and then the phrase continues to tell of the Maccabbees’ victory over the forces of evil.
While looking into the text for my original composition, however, I came across a second version of both the blessing and the hymn, which differed from the more widely known form by only the addition of a single, Hebrew letter; the letter Vav, meaning “and.” So, in the alternative phrasing, we hear praise to God “who performed wonders for our ancestors in years past and in these times,” Not “AT” this season in former days, but “in former days AND in these, our own epoch.
So I was faced with a quandry – which version should I use for the new musical setting: “bazman hazeh – at this season” or “u-vazman ha-zeh – and also in our days”?
Amazing how one letter can make such a world of difference and bring a completely new understanding of the text! According to a recent article by Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the latter version (including the vav) might actually have been the original phrasing of the blessing going back as early as the 9th Century. In fact, in the Conservative Movement’s prayerbook, Siddur Sim Shalom, that letter Vav was included in the Hanukkah blessing by its editor, Rabbi Jules Harlow. Dr. Schwartz suggests that by choosing to include the “vav,” Rabbi Harlow was quite likely considering the founding of the State of Israel to be just such a modern miracle. But she urges that we continue adding that little letter to our Hanukkah blessings especially in this time of pandemic. So she writes:
“I’m focused on small miracles that we see around us even during this challenging time. For many of us, it’s the rekindling of old friendships via Zoom, renewing our appreciation for the immense beauty of the natural world around us, and experiencing the miracle of an effective COVID-19 vaccine. For me, it was a healthy grandson, born during the pandemic. We must celebrate these miracles as well and cherish our good fortune to be heirs to a rich and nourishing tradition that can offer fresh meaning for every generation and provides opportunities to express gratitude.”
In the end, I chose to include the “vav” in my own musical interpretation of “Mi Y’malel.” It was my way of recognizing that experiencing the presence of the Divine in the unfolding of the Jewish story was not limited to the time of the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish history, as our own lives, can be replete with such experiences of both wonder and gratitude. Our Festival of Lights is a timely and appropriate season for opening our eyes, minds and hearts to the miracles which might still fill our every day.
Wishing Mo-adim l’simcha – a joyful Hanukkah festival to our entire community.
Rabbi David J. Meyer is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. His original setting for “Mi Y’malel” appears on the album “This One At Last,” released on Sting-A-Bee-Back records.