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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
El Maleh Rahamim (God full of compassion) is a prayer for the departed that is recited with a haunting chant at funeral services, on visiting the graves of relatives (especially during the month of Elul), and after having been called up to the reading of the Torah on the anniversary of the death of a close relative.
What is it and where does it come from?
In some Ashkenazic synagogues, El Maleh Rahamim is also a part of the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur and on the last days of the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot). The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.
If one or both parents of either a bride or groom is dead, it is customary to visit the grave before the wedding and to recite El Maleh Rahamim. At one time this memorial prayer was recited during the wedding service under the huppah. Although a dramatic and effective way to remember the deceased, this practice marred the joy of the wedding.
Consequently, the fashion has changed and the memorial prayer is now usually recited (if at all) before the wedding ceremony in the presence of the immediate family, usually in the rabbi’s study.
El Maleh Rahamim is a plea that the soul of the departed be granted menuchah nechonah (proper rest), since the mere fact that a soul is in Gan Eden (Paradise) does not guarantee it complete contentment. According to tradition, the level of the soul in Gan Eden depends on its prior achievements on earth. Through our prayers and good deeds, we hope to earn God’s compassion for the departed souls of those who were dear to us.
The statement is made that the worshiper resolves to "contribute to charity in remembrance of his (or her) soul." El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase "on the wings of the Divine Presence," rather than the more common "under the wings of the Divine Presence."
The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.
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