Turn Aside (Haseir) Evil Forces

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jun 25, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

Last week, we began to explore Hashkiveinu, the blessing unique to the evening service that asks for peace through the night and renewed life in the morning (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, 140).

The Hebrew word Haseir (turn aside)is deployed twice. In the first instance, it is applied to “enemies, plague, sword, famine, misery,” from which we reasonably seek respite at night. Haseir is then repeated, and applied to the Hebrew word satan in the expression “and turn away satan from in front of us and behind us.” So how are we to understand this occurrence of satan in our daily, Shabbat, and festival liturgy? Our own Siddur Sim Shalom employs the euphemism “Remove the evil forces that surround us.” However, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, in his commentary Or Hadash (ad loc), reminds us that “the concept of Satan, an accusatory angel, is found in Job (Ch 1; 6) where it is not a name, but a title: ha-Satan, the accuser, a member of God’s heavenly court whose task it is to serve as a prosecuting attorney.” Rabbi Hammer notes further that “The word is sometimes used in reference to human accusers as in Psalm 71; 13 ‘Let my accuser (sot’nai) perish in frustration!’”

We can certainly discern an approach that seeks to explain the phrase “and turn away satan from in front of us and behind us” by speaking of “evil forces” and human accusers. For example, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (Orthodox chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and British Empire) interprets the phrase to mean the “evil impulse, the lower passions which are a hindrance.” A more literal approach is taken by the medieval commentator Abudarham, who juxtaposes this phrase with the mention of four angels in the traditional prayer recited just before falling asleep (Micha’el, Gavri’el, Uri’el and Rapha’el).

There is certainly support to be found for those who read and understand the text in a more rational vein: the text recognizes the darkness that lies within each of us, and is a prayer to dispel that darkness. Some modern versions of the siddur have removed the phrase entirely. However, I find the following phrase asking God to shelter us, “b’tsel k’nafekha” (In the shadow of Your wings), to be a plea for refuge from a spiritual challenge or foe and a recognition of the reality of the spiritual adversary.

Though space here does not allow a fuller exploration, Satan is a core entity in much of Jewish folklore, and in many spiritual and mystical sources. But each evening, the words of the siddur cast Satan aside and guide us to embrace and seek shelter from God, the Source of all Life.

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.