Shema Koleinu - Etz Yosef

(א) שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ

(1) Hear our voice, Adonoy, our God; spare us and have compassion on us, and accept our prayers compassionately and willingly, for You are Almighty Who hears prayers and supplications; and do not turn us away empty-handed from Your Presence, our King, for You hear the prayers of Your people, Israel, with compassion. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who hears prayers.

שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ

The opening words of this beracha have a deeper meaning beyond just asking Hashem to hear our voices of prayer. Let us preface with a Mishna in Taanis. The Mishna says:

הָיוּ מִתְעַנִּין וְיָרְדוּ לָהֶם גְּשָׁמִים, קוֹדֶם הָנֵץ הַחַמָּה — לֹא יַשְׁלִימוּ, לְאַחַר הָנֵץ הַחַמָּה — יַשְׁלִימוּ.

The mishna teaches another halakha with regard to fast days: If they were fasting for rain, and rain fell for them before sunrise, they need not complete their fast until the evening. However, if it fell after sunrise, they must complete their fast.

Underneath the cut-and-dry halachic difference of whether rain comes before sunrise or after sunrise, the Gemara relates a story with Shmuel HaKatan which gives us insight into the spiritual implications of each scenario. The Gemara says:

שְׁמוּאֵל הַקָּטָן גְּזַר תַּעֲנִיתָא וְיָרְדוּ לָהֶם גְּשָׁמִים קוֹדֶם הָנֵץ הַחַמָּה. כִּסְבוּרִין הָעָם לוֹמַר: שִׁבְחוֹ שֶׁל צִבּוּר הוּא. אָמַר לָהֶם: אֶמְשׁוֹל לָכֶם מָשָׁל, לְמָה הַדָּבָר דּוֹמֶה — לְעֶבֶד שֶׁמְבַקֵּשׁ פְּרָס מֵרַבּוֹ, אָמַר לָהֶם: תְּנוּ לוֹ וְאַל אֶשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ.

Shmuel HaKatan decreed a fast, and rain fell for them before sunrise. The people thought to say: This is a sign of the praiseworthiness of the community, as we merited rainfall even before we prayed. He said to them: I will tell you a parable. To what is this matter comparable? To a situation where there is a slave who requests a reward from his master, either food or livelihood, and the master says to his ministers: Give him what he asks for and let me not hear his voice, as I would rather not have to listen to him. Here, too, evidently God has no desire to hear our prayers.

The terminology at the end of the Gemara וְאַל אֶשְׁמַע קוֹלוֹ mirror the terminology of the beginning of this beracha, שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ.* Etz Yosef says that for this reason, we can compare the context of the Gemara in context to our context.

Just like in the Gemara in Taanis, the community wanted Hashem to hear their voices and be treated us like a servant whose master wants to hear their voices, so too we are asking Hashem to view us like obedient servants whose voices He wants to hear and then grant us our requests, as the beracha continues, ...חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ.

*Etz Yosef seems to be employing gezeria shava of some sort to say this explanation.

שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ

Etz Yosef says an alternate explanation to this phrase.

The allusions and meaning behind each word of the berachos of Shemoneh Esrei are profoundly deep and are layered with intentions and allusions we cannot begin to grasp.

The tremendous depth of the Shemoneh Esrei is discussed in many places. Mishna Berura writes:

(א) (א) פירוש המילות - ואל יכוין האדם בשמות ויחודים רק יתפלל כפשוטו להבין הדברים בכונת הלב אם לא מי שהוא בא בסוד ד' ויודע לכוין ביה בלבא ורעותא ודחילו דאל"ה ח"ו מקלקל בזה הרבה עיין מ"א בשם הזוהר ובתשובת רש"ל סימן צ"ח כתב באורך והעיד על הר"ש שאמר אחרי שלמד סתרי הקבלה שהוא מתפלל כתינוק בן יומו.


Understanding the words - A person shouldn't concentrate on the Kabbalistic allusions in davening, rather he should try to daven according to the simple explanation to understand the words in his heart, unless one is privy to G-d's secrets and knows how to understand these allusions...

The Maharshal attested that the Rash had said, after he learned the secrets of Kabbala, that he davened like a one-day-old child.


Therefore we ask Hashem that although we are merely skimming the surface in our understanding of the berachos of Shemoneh Esrei, He should nevertheless "hear" the deeper undertones of the berachos we are uttering and grant us our requests.

See Etz Yosef to Uva Letzion on the passuk "Ki Ata Hashem Tov V'Salach..." where he says a similar concept.

חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ

וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן אֶת־תְּפִלָּתֵֽנוּ

Spare us and have compassion on us,

and accept our prayers compassionately and willingly

One will notice that this portion of the beracha has several "double lashons" (two words which seem to be synonymous but are nevertheless both said). of the terms used to describe mercy.

The reason we employ two terms of mercy is because we ask Hashem to be merciful and answer our tefillos even though we are lacking in two different areas in tefilla:

1. We are lacking in our understanding of the deep symbolisms in the tefillos (see above)

2. We are lacking in our understanding of what we should be asking for and what our needs are.

In the first instance of the double lashons, we don't focus on Hashem employing His mercifulness to answer our tefillos, rather that He should be merciful in regards to our state of being.

חוּס corresponds to our lack of understanding the symbolism of the words, and that Hashem should nevertheless have "pity" on us, and וְרַחֵם corresponds to our lack of knowing our own needs, and that Hashem should nevertheless have "mercy" on us.

In the second instance of double lashons, we focus on Hashem employing His mercy to answer our tefillos.

בְּרַחֲמִים corresponds to our lack of understanding the symbolism of the words, and that He should nevertheless have mercy and accept our tefillos.

And וּבְרָצוֹן corresponds to our lack of knowing our own needs, and that He should nevertheless answer our tefillos with willingness.

כִּי אֵל שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלּוֹת וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָֽתָּה

for You are Almighty Who hears prayers and supplications;

The girsa found in our siddurim is "prayers and supplications".

However, Avudraham brings a different girsa* which has these same words but in the possessive form, "our prayers and our supplications."

Avudraham takes issue with the latter girsa because in this version, we seem to be identifying ourselves, perhaps unjustifiably, as being so righteous that Hashem is always* listening to our tefillos.

In the girsa we have we side step this issue, because the idea that Hashem always listens to our tefillos is left vague.

Tikkun Tefilla attributes this girsa to Siddur Rav Amram and Machzor Ashkenaz Kibyonita

*The issue brought up in this section seems to be predicted on the fact that the word "shomeah" has the implication of a constant state of listening, and therefore it is improper to say that Hashem is always listening to our prayers, because that would imply that we are so important that Hashem always wants to hear what we say.

Although Hashem is a merciful G-d and cares for us and loves us and wants to hear our tefillos, by expressing it this way, the idea can be warped from being about Hashem caring about our needs into a twisted arrogance of Hashem providing for us because of how great we are on our own merits.

וּמִלְּ֒פָנֶֽיךָ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ רֵיקָם אַל־תְּשִׁיבֵֽנוּ

and do not turn us away empty-handed from Your Presence, our King,

This line of the beracha mirrors the terminology and embodies the idea related in a passuk in Tehillim which says:

(כא) אַל־יָשֹׁ֣ב דַּ֣ךְ נִכְלָ֑ם

עָנִ֥י וְ֝אֶבְי֗וֹן יְֽהַלְל֥וּ שְׁמֶֽךָ׃

(21) Let not the downtrodden turn away disappointed;

let the poor and needy praise Your name.

Rashi on the passuk there says that this passuk is speaking about prayer

(א) אל ישוב דך נכלם - אל ישוב דך מלפניך בתפילתו נכלם:


(1) Let not the poor turn back in disgrace - Let the poor not turn back from before You disgraced in his prayer.



The style of this bakasha is unique in that we are asking in the negative; don't turn us away empty-handed. Why don't we ask Hashem simply, "and please answer our tefillos" in the positive?

Etz Yosef answers that by using this phraseology, we're acknowledging our realization that we might not be worthy of getting the entirety of our tefillos answered, so we humbly ask Hashem doesn't turn us away empty handed, and we would be gracious even if our tefillos are only partially answered.*

*For example, in Ata Chonein we ask Hashem to give us wisdom, insight, and discernment. Here, at the end of Shemoneh Esrei, we ask Hashem that even if we aren't worthy for all three, that He at least bestow us one or two of these.

The concept of a tefilla being partially answered is actually a dispute in the Midrash. The Etz Yosef's explanation here therefore only follows one of those opinions.

The Midrash says:

(ה) רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר תְּשׁוּבָה עוֹשָׂה מֶחֱצָה וּתְפִלָּה עוֹשָׂה הַכֹּל, רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי אָמַר תְּשׁוּבָה עָשְׂתָה אֶת הַכֹּל וּתְפִלָּה עָשְׂתָה מֶחֱצָה...

עַל דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי דְּאָמַר תְּפִלָּה עָשְׂתָה מֶחֱצָה, מִמִי אַתָּה לָמֵד מֵאַהֲרֹן, שֶׁבַּתְּחִלָּה נִגְזְרָה גְזֵרָה עָלָיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ט, כ): וּבְאַהֲרֹן הִתְאַנַּף ה' מְאֹד לְהַשְׁמִידוֹ, אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דְּסִכְנִין בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי לֵוִי אֵין הַשְׁמָדָה אֶלָּא כִּלּוּי בָּנִים, כְּמָה דְאַתְּ אָמַר (עמוס ב, ט): וָאַשְׁמִיד פִּרְיוֹ מִמַּעַל וְשָׁרָשָׁיו מִתָּחַת, כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִתְפַּלֵּל משֶׁה עָלָיו נִמְנְעָה מִמֶּנּוּ חֲצִי הַגְּזֵרָה, מֵתוּ שְׁנַיִם וְנִשְׁתַּיְּירוּ שְׁנַיִם, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (ויקרא ח, כ): קַח אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ.

כִּי אַתָּה שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלַּת עַמְּ֒ךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרַחֲמִים: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלָּה:

for You hear the prayers of Your people, Israel, with compassion. Blessed are You, Adonoy, Who hears prayers.