The Power of Tachnun

Parshat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe’s pleading prayer: “And I pleaded to God at that time…” The Sifri comments that there are ten different words for prayer in the TaNaCh: Zaaka (Cry), Shava (Outcry), Naaka (Groan), Tzara (Distress), Rina (Cry), Pegia (Make Intercession), Nipul (Prostrate), Pilul (Prayer), Atira (Entreat), Amida (Stand), Chilul (Beseech),  and Chinun (Plead- the root of Vaetchanan).


According to Shem MiShmuel, there are ten levels of excitement in the heart which correspond to the ten terms of prayer. Techina which is number ten is prayer which truly comes from the depths of the heart.


Jewish liturgy has different prayers that come from the root “Chinun”, the most famous is “Tachnun” which is said every day except for Shabbat, holidays and special occasions. The Tachnun prayer is a serious prayer said immediately after the Shemoneh Esrei. The Talmud in Bava Metzia 59a teaches that if one submissively places their head upon their arm in fervent intense prayer, then their prayer will be warmly accepted. Tachnun is a heartfelt plea for God’s gracious compassion.


Unfortunately, many congregations rush through Tachnun, a prayer which should be said with full kavana and come from the depths of our hearts. Instead of finding excuses to skip this prayer, we should take the opportunity to recite it with true intent and pray for our needs.


In the Gemara in Bava Metzia 59b we find the story of Ima Shalom who tried to keep her husband, Rabbi Eliezer from saying Tachnun immediately after reciting the Shmoneh Esrei (when the prayer is most powerful) since she knew that he would pray with intense kavana for the death of her brother, Rabban Gamliel (who had excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer). Each day that Tachnun was recited, Ima Shalom would interrupt Rabbi Eliezer after he recited the Shmoneh Esrei so that the Tachnun prayer would not be as powerful. One day, Ima Shalom did not try to interrupt Rabbi Eliezer because she thought it was Rosh Chodesh (when Tachnun is not recited). However, it was not Rosh Chodesh. A beggar came to the door and Ima Shalom gave him bread. When she saw Rabbi Eliezer reciting Tachnun she said “Get Up! You are Killing My Brother!” Meanwhile, an announcement came out that Rabban Gamliel passed away. Rabbi Eliezer asked Ima Shalom how she knew about Rabban Gamliel’s death and she answered “I have received the tradition from the house of my grandfather (King David, author of Tehillim/ Psalms) “All of the Gates of Heaven are locked except for the gate of wrongdoing”. Rashi explains that a wronged person is often moved to tears. The emotional prayer spelled certain doom for her brother who hurt Rabbi Eliezer.


We see from this story the power of Tachnun, a prayer that should  be said with full intent and bring us to tears.


May all of our prayers be answered!