On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, the new Hebrew month, we announce the new month with a special prayer, called Birkat HaChodesh. We pray that the coming month will be a time of good health, peace, and blessing.
The introduction to Birkat HaChodesh is copied from an ancient prayer composed by third-century scholar Abba Arikha (‘Rav'), founder of the legendary yeshiva of Sura. Here is the text of Rav’s prayer, as recorded in the Talmud:
“May it be Your will, the Eternal our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of vigor of the bones, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and embarrassment, a life of riches and honor, a life in which we may be filled with love of Torah and awe of Heaven, a life in which You will fulfill all of our hearts’ desires for good.” (Berakhot 16b)
While the prayer does mention love of Torah and awe of Heaven, most of the requests appear to refer to the material aspects of life — sustenance and physical vigor, riches and honor. Were these wishes foremost in the thoughts and prayers of this great scholar?
Rav Kook taught that Rav’s prayer should not be understood superficially. Its focus is not on material blessings, but spiritual goals. Each request relates to some quality of spiritual growth and fulfilling our mission in life.
“May it be Your will... to grant us long life” — a long life does not mean long in years, but long in content and accomplishments. This is a preamble for the requests that follow.
“A life of peace” — this refers, not to peaceful relations with others, but to our own inner peace and harmony. We should not be stymied by internal qualities — flawed character traits, confusion, intellectual blunders — which undermine our efforts towards spiritual growth.
“A life of good” – no, this is not a request for good times and affluence. This is a spiritual request, a prayer that all external factors which affect us, should influence us in good directions and positive ways.
“A life of blessing” — not blessings that we receive, but blessings that we give. May we bring blessings to the world through our actions — helping the needy, consoling the broken-hearted, and providing moral leadership and direction.
“A life of sustenance” — a prayer that all our needs be met — whether physical, psychological, or spiritual.
“A life of vigor of the bones” (chilutz atzamot). In a Talmudic discussion in Yevamot 102b, Rabbi Elazar made a surprising remark: “This is the best blessing of all.” Physical vigor and energy are important in life; but is this the most important blessing that one can ask for?
Rav Kook explained that chilutz atzamot refers to our mindset and outlook. We pray that we should be willing and eager to undertake our spiritual mission, our special service of God. We should not feel that avodat Hashem is a burden. This is the ultimate blessing, for the goal of all blessings is the path itself — service of God. As the Sages wrote, we should seek “God’s mitzvot, and not the reward of His mitzvot.”
“A life free from shame and embarrassment” — no one is perfect; we all have shortcomings and weaknesses, an obvious source of embarrassment. But our lives — the choices we make and the actions we take — they should be free from shame, a reflection of our better qualities. We should be able to look at our lives with pride and satisfaction.
“A life of riches and honor” — sometimes wealth can change a person, undermining his integrity, befuddling his values, blinding him to his true goals. Therefore we ask that our wealth be bound with true honor, namely, our spiritual values and goals.
And finally, Rav asked for “a life in which You will fulfill all of our hearts’ desires for good.” Why tack on at the end, “for good"? Sometimes people wish for things — private benefits, material gains — which they imagine will be good. We pray that our hearts’ desires will be for that which is truly good, complementing the ultimate goal and the greatest good.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, pp. 121-123)