Abraham’s Prayer—and Ours: A Yom Kippur Illustration
The medieval manuscript known as the Leipzig Mahzor (festival prayerbook), so called because today it resides in the University Library in Leipzig, was composed in the city of Worms in the Rhineland in southwest Germany around the year 1310. At the time, Worms was a major center of Ashkenazi Jewry, the site of the Rashi shul, where Rashi had supposedly studied in the eleventh century, and the home of many distinguished rabbis, including many Hasidei Ashkenaz, Pietists, in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Like other Jewish centers in medieval Germany, Worms suffered through many persecutions and travails, but its community was also fairly prosperous, and it had an especially strong communal identity. Its cemetery is the oldest surviving, continuously used Jewish cemetery in Europe.
In the Middle Ages, particularly in Ashkenaz, a Mahzor was different from a mahzor today. It was not a layperson’s book, and it generally did not contain the standard prayers—the preliminary prayers—pesukei de-zimrah, the Shema, the various amidot (silent prayers; plural of amidah), and other parts of the standard liturgy. It was specifically intended for the Ḥazzan, the sheliaḥ tzibbur or prayer leader, and it contained only the special prayers and the piyyutim (liturgical poems, plural of piyyut) recited on the festivals.
These mahzorim (plural of mahzor) were typically monumental books, folio-sized, often almost gigantic in size. Mahzor Leipzig, which consists of two volumes, is larger than 19 by 14 inches. Like many other Ashkenazi mahzorim, it is also spectacularly illustrated. In fact, Leipzig may be the most spectacular of all the Ashkenazi mahzorim. Even though they were used in the synagogue only by the ḥazzan, these books were meant to be seen by everyone in the community—whether people peeped over the ḥazzan’s shoulder as he was chanting, or whether they looked at the mahzor when he left it open on the bimah. In that sense, they were communal books.
Abraham’s Prayer in Mahzor Leipzig
The page featured above is typical of Mahzor Leipzig. An elaborate architectural gate with two towers and a crenelated wall between the towers at its top frames a piyyut that begins with the line איתן הכיר אמונתיך, eitan hikir emunatekha, “the strong [or mighty or steady] one recognized your truth [or faith].” The first word, איתן, is written in super-sized letters inside the upper part of the gate against a blue floral background, and the rest of the piyyut is written in carefully laid out stanzas inside the gate.
The piyyut on the page is of a type called the kerovah, which is meant for the beginning of the amidah, and typically there is a stanza of poetry for each of the opening three berakhot of the amidah. The word איתן, “steadfast” in rabbinic literature, is an epithet for Abraham, the steadfast believer in God, and accordingly, the piyyut’s first stanza for the blessing magen Avraham, “the shield of Abraham,” is about Abraham.
אֵיתָן הִכִּיר אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.
The mighty one recognized faith in You
בְּדוֹר לֹא יָדְעוּ לְרַצּוֹתֶךָ.
In a generation that did not know how to please You.
גָּהַץ בְּךָ וְיִדַּע יִרְאָתֶךָ.
He rejoiced in You, and made known fear in You
דָּץ לְהוֹדִיעַ לַכֹּל הַדְרָתֶךָ.
He took pleasure in making known to all Your majesty.
The stanza goes on to praise Abraham for being God’s constant and loyal servant, for obeying his every command, and for spreading knowledge about God throughout the world. The second stanza, for the blessing mehayei meitim, is about Isaac, focusing on the Akedah, “the binding of Isaac”; and the third stanza, for the blessing ha-el ha-kadosh, is dedicated to Jacob as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
All three patriarchs are invoked as sources of merit, who are appealed to as sources of salvation on Yom Kippur for those seeking atonement for their transgressions. This particular page is actually the beginning of the minhah (afternoon) service for Yom Kippur, but the piyyut is fairly generic, and could be the opening of any amidah of Yom Kippur.
Abraham the Monotheist
Beneath the piyyut, on the bottom of the page, is an illustration of a narrative scene. It too is about Abraham, but the scene is only tangentially related to the piyyut. It illustrates a well-known story about Abraham as the father of monotheism that is not found in the Bible (but see Addendum for its biblical inspiration). The story is a product of early Hellenistic Judaism’s attempt to turn Abraham into a proto-philosopher who logically deduced that there must be one God in the universe, not many, thereby making Abraham the father of monotheism.
Abraham Smashes His Father’s Idols
The narrative exists in a number of versions in Late Antiquity, but the dominant one in classical, rabbinic tradition, as recounted in Bereishit (Genesis) Rabbah (5th century C.E.), depicts Terah, Abraham’s father, as an idol-maker in the city of Ur with a shop where he sells his wares. Abraham, in turn, is a precocious little boy who has begun to suspect that his father’s idols are false gods. One day, Terah goes out and leaves Abraham in charge of his shop. Alone with the idols, Abraham decides to test his suspicions and destroys the idols. When Terah returns and sees his entire stock of merchandise lying smashed on the floor, he asks Abraham what happened. Abraham replies:
בראשית רבה לח (תיאודור-אלבק) דין אמר אנא אכיל קדמאי, ודין אמר אנא אכיל קדמאי, קם הדין רבה נסיב בוקלסה ותברהון.
Gen Rab 38:13 “This one said ‘I will eat first’ and this one said ‘I will eat first.’ So this largest one among them took a stick and broke the others.”
To which Terah replies:
בראשית רבה לח מה את מפלה בי, ידעין אינון.
Gen Rab 38:13 “Why are you mocking me? Do these idols know anything?”
בראשית רבה לח ולא ישמעו אזניך מפיך.
Gen Rab 38:13 “Do your ears hear what your mouth says?”
Enraged by his son’s behavior, Terah drags the boy to Nimrod, the king of the Chaldaeans, at which point, the following scene ensues:
בראשית רבה לח אמר ליה נסגוד לנורא, אמר ליה נסגוד למייא דמטפין לנורא, אמר ליה ונסגוד למיא, אמר ליה נסגוד לענני דטעני מיא, אמר ליה ונסגוד לעננא, אמר ליה נסגוד לרוחא דמובלי עננא, [אמר ליה] ונסגוד לרוחא, אמר ליה נסגוד לבר נשא דסביל רוחא.
Gen Rab 38:13 [Nimrod] said to [Abraham]: Let us worship the fire! [Abraham] said to him: Should we not then worship water, which extinguishes fire! [Nimrod] said to him: Then, let us worship the water! [Abraham] said to him: Should we not then worship the clouds, which carry the water? [Nimrod] said to him: Then, let us worship the cloud! [Abraham] said to him: Should we not then worship the wind, which scatters the clouds? [Nimrod] said to him: Then, let us worship the wind! [Abraham] said to him: Should we not then worship the human, who withstands the wind?
Nimrod then loses patience with Abraham’s word games:
בראשית רבה לח אמר ליה מלין את משתעי לא נסגוד אלא לאור הריני משליכך בו ויבוא אלהיך שאתה משתחוה לו ויצילך ממנו.
Gen Rab 38:13 [Nimrod] said to him: You are merely piling words; we should bow to none other than the fire. I shall therefore cast you in it, and let your God to whom you bow come and save you from it!
Haran, Abraham’s brother, quickly considers how he should respond if he is challenged to choose sides:
בראשית רבה לח הוה תמן הרן קאים פליג אמר מה נפשך אם נצח אברם אנא אמר מן דאברם אנא, אם נצח נמרוד אמר אנא מנמרוד אנא.
Gen Rab 38:13 Haran was standing there. He said [to himself]: What shall I do? If Abraham wins, I shall say: “I am of Abraham’s [followers],” if Nimrod wins, I shall say, “I am of Nimrod’s.”
When Haran declares his loyalty to Abraham and is thrown into the furnace with him, however, only Abraham survives:
בראשית רבה לח כיון שירד אברם לכבשן האש ונוצל אמ' ליה מן דמן את, אמר ליה מן דאברם, נטלוהו והשליכוהו באש ונחמרו מעיו ויצא ומת על פני אביו. הה"ד וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו.
Gen Rab 38:13 When Abraham went into the furnace (kivshan) and survived, Haran was asked: “Whose [follower] are you?” and he answered: “I am Abraham’s!” So, they took him and threw him into the furnace, and his innards were burned and he died in front of Terah, his father. This is the meaning of the verse (Gen 11:28), “And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah.”
Nimrod, the Rebel against God
During the Middle Ages, this highly popular extra-biblical tale continued to circulate and develop as an aggadah, an independent tale. As it did, its emphasis increasingly shifted to the confrontation between Nimrod and Abraham. Nimrod—whose name includes the letters mem-reish-daled, which also form the root מ.ר.ד, “to rebel,” and the noun מֶרֶד (mered), “a rebellion”—became the paradigmatic rebel against God who believed that he himself was a god.
In the later medieval versions of our tale, when Terah brings Abraham to Nimrod, Nimrod commands Abraham to bow down to him, not to an idol, and to proclaim and worship himself as a god, which Abraham, of course, refuses to do. This is the scene depicted in the illustration on the bottom of the page of the Leipzig Mahzor.
On the left-hand side of the image, Nimrod, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, is seated on a throne. In front of him a servant is prostrating on the ground before Nimrod, worshipping him as Nimrod has commanded all his subjects to do. Standing before Nimrod is Terah, and behind him, two of Terah’s sons—Abraham and Haran. Terah is pointing at Nimrod while gesturing towards Abraham, telling the king of his son’s impious deed. Both Abraham and Haran are wearing the cone-shaped pointed Jew’s hat, the pileus cornutus or Judenhut, that Jews were forced to wear in the lands of Western Christendom since the Fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215.
And then, on the right-hand side, you see the outcome of Terah’s action and Nimrod’s subsequent judgment of Abraham. Abraham has been condemned to the flames and is being burned in a pyre (and not in a furnace, a detail that, as we shall see, has historical significance). Abraham is saved by God, whose hands are reaching down from a cloud to grab Abraham’s two outstretched hands in order to pull him out of the flames.
The position of Abraham’s hands as he is pulled out of the fire is nearly identical to their position when he stands behind Terah as his father is condemning him to Nimrod. Upraised hands are one of the conventional visual representations for praying. In the latter case, I would propose, Abraham’s hands are raised in prayer to God. And now, God is responding to his prayer by lifting him out of the flames by those very hands with which Abraham had prayed to Him. Note, too, the odd positioning of Haran’s hands, one arm up, the other down, signaling Haran’s equivocating deliberations as to whom to side with, Abraham or Nimrod.
An Unusual Illustration
This illustration is unusual for several reasons. For one thing, illustrations in a mahzor usually refer in one way or another to the text on the page. Although the stanza of the piyyut on this page is about Abraham, it does not mention this particular story. Moreover, Abraham is more commonly associated with the Akedah, which is read on Rosh Hashanah, in which Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is an act of absolute obedience to God. The story that is illustrated on this page is about a father giving up a son because he is not willing to worship idolatry.
In the Middle Ages in general, and in Ashkenaz in particular, the Akedah had a terrible contemporary resonance. Chronicles and piyyutim written in the aftermath of the Crusader massacres in the late eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries recount stories of parents slaughtering children rather than allowing them to be forcibly converted to Christianity.
Active, willing martyrdom was promoted as a form of religious heroism. Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed were both enlisted as models for such religious heroism. Along the same lines, Abraham’s destruction of Terah’s idols and particularly his refusal to bow down to Nimrod—another human who claimed to be divine—would certainly have been understood by Jews in Ashkenaz in light of these contemporary events. The Jewish art historian Katrin Kogman-Appel has noted that, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, death by burning at the stake was the most frequently employed method of executing Jews—a historical fact mirrored in the substitution of the pyre for a furnace in the Leipzig illustration.
Because of their heroism, martyrs were invoked as sources of merit for their descendants. This was the purpose of the martyrology recited during musaf on Yom Kippur, the piyyut recounting the gruesome martyrdoms of the ten sages at the hands of the Roman emperor, a legendary event that purportedly happened during the Hadrianic persecutions. The point of reciting the martyrdom during the prayer is to invoke the martyred sages’ “merits,” their heroic deaths as sources of salvation, not as instances of victimization to be commemorated.
To be sure, what happens to the protagonists of Isaac in the Akedah, the three Jewish youths in Daniel, and Abraham in his fiery confrontation with Nimrod is the one thing that never happens to real martyrs. They are all saved from death. Martyrs never are. But this very point, I would suggest, is the key to the reason for why this illustration is on this page of the Mahzor.
Praying to God in Times of Need
This is not an illustration about martyrdom or dying for God. It is an illustration about praying to God in a time of dire need and God answering those prayers. There are many illustrations in Haggadot of the Jews marching through the Red Sea with the Egyptians pursuing them, but national salvation is not the same as personal salvation. This picture is about an individual literally being saved by God himself, and in response to his prayers. With Abraham wearing a Jew’s hat, a Jew in thirteenth century Worms could easily have seen not just Abraham being saved by God but even someone like him- or herself—or even him- or herself—being saved as well.
In other words, this picture about personal salvation through prayer is a kind of visual piyyut that stands in the same relationship to the prayer on the page—the afternoon amidah with its blessing for the “shield of Abraham” as a source of merit—as does the piyyut ensconced inside the elaborate architectural gate above it. It is a visual piyyut beseeching God to hear our prayers and save us just as He heard Abraham’s prayers and saved him. What more apt picture of prayer could one find in a Mahzor late on the afternoon of Yom Kippur?
The Biblical Inspiration for the Midrash
The midrashic basis of the story about Abraham being saved from the fiery furnace lies in a punning interpretation of God’s words to Abraham before the Covenant between the Parts:
בראשׁית טו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Gen 15:7 He said to him, “I am YHWH who led you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give this land to you to inherit it.”
The place-name Ur (אוּר), the capital of Chaldea, was re-read by the Rabbis as the Hebrew or (אוֹר), “light,” and by extension, “flame” or “fire,” hence “a fiery furnace” (kivshan), so that the verse, thus interpreted, read, “I am the Lord who led you out of the fiery furnace of the Chaldeans….”
This passage immediately called to their minds the story in the Book of Daniel (3:10–23) about Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the three Jewish youths who are cast into a fiery furnace by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezer after they refuse to bow down to the idol of gold the king has set up; they are then saved by God. This story was used as a model for the present narrative about Abraham refusing to worship Nimrod’s various gods, and then being cast into a fiery furnace as punishment, and saved by God just as the three youths were.
Finally, the story about Abraham and Nimrod was conflated with the story about Haran, Abraham’s vacillating brother, who is the subject of the enigmatic note that he died עַל־פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו, “in the presence (or lifetime) of Terah, his father” (Gen 11:28). Haran became the proverbial “boy-on-the-fence,” whose self-serving equivocations became the reason for his premature death.
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Prof. David Stern is Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Hebrew and Jewish Literature at Harvard University. Stern received his Ph.D. from Harvard and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving for Harvard. Stern has written or edited fourteen books including Parables in Midrash: Narrative and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature; Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature; The Monk’s Haggadah: A Fifteenth Century Illuminated Codex from the Monastery of Tegernsee; and The Jewish Bible: A Material History (University of Washington Press, 2017), for which he received the 2018 Jordan Schnitzer Award for the Best Book in Jews and the Arts from the Association for Jewish Studies. His most recent book is Jewish Literary Cultures II: The Medieval and Early Modern Periods (2019), the second in a series of three volumes of Stern’s selected essays. He is currently completing the third volume in the series. Stern works and teaches in two fields, classical Jewish literature and the history of the book with a special interest in the Jewish book.
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