One phrase in Moshe’s ongoing farewell speech has become a key part of our prayers. In describing God’s greatness, Moshe uses the phrase “Ha-El Hagadol Hagibor veHanora–the great, the mighty, and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy 10:17). These words were incorporated into the first blessing of the Amidah, becoming so entrenched as a formula that when one intrepid prayer leader dared to elaborate, Rabbi Hanina harangued him: “Have you finished praising God? Were if not for the fact that Moshe said [these three], we would not have been able to recite them!” (Bavli Berakhot 33b).
Apparently, though, some of our Biblical heroes couldn’t even get those three words of praise out of their mouths consistently. Note the following examples:
“Ha-El Hagadol veHagibor–O great and mighty God” (Jeremiah 32:18).
“Ha-El Hagadol veHanora–O Lord, great and awesome God” (Daniel 9:4).
“And now, our God, Ha-El Hagadol Hagibor veHanora–great, mighty, and awesome God” (Nehemiah 9:32)
No Talmudic sage knew the Bible better, nor how to derive religious meaning from it, than Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. A master of midrash, he picks up on the variances above and justifies Jeremiah’s and Daniel’s omissions. Jeremiah lived to witness the destruction of the First Temple; Daniel toiled in exile. In their understanding of the history they were living, God wasn’t fully “great, mighty, and awesome.”
Nevertheless, we know that the full phrase Ha-El Hagadol Hagibor veHanora was codified in our daily prayer. Were Jeremiah and Daniel correct in “calling it as they say it?” Why did the authors and editors of our prayers go with the versions of Deuteronomy and Nehemiah? We’ll look together at the Talmudic debate in shul on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise