Sunday 11 August 2019



In this article, we will look at the origins and intentions of the expression ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ (‘be strong, be strong, and we will become strong’) recited upon the conclusion of each of the five books of the Torah - as well as the popular ‘yasher koach’ (‘be of firm strength’) recited after each individual aliyah to the Torah.



The expression ‘yasher koach’ or more precisely ‘yiyasher kochacha’ has its origins in the Talmud[1] where, according to Reish Lakish, G-d approved of Moshe’s breaking the Tablets of the Ten Commandments on his descent from Mount Sinai. This view is derived from the expression ‘asher shibarta’ which refers to the Tablets ‘which you [Moses] broke[2] – where G-d is said to have told Moshe ‘Strength to you that you broke them.’

And Rashi explains that ‘asher’ relates to ‘ishur’ where G-d 'approved' and was ‘happy’ that Moshe broke the tablets:


In a more mystical sense ‘yasher koach’ is said to allude to the idea that one’s spiritual energy should be yashar’ or ‘straight and direct’ from its source in G-d to the recipient without deviating through ‘other negative spiritual areas’. 

This, however, may not be entirely accurate linguistically, as contrary to popular perception,  yishar’ is not derived from the word yashar’ (straight) but rather from the word ‘sharar’ (strong/dominate).


Another possible explanation as to the origins of this expression may be that during ancient times, the Torah was read while in an upright position so that the congregation could also see it (and not lying flat on a table, as we read it today[3]). It required much strength and energy from the Reader to hold it in that position, and he was rewarded with the blessing that his ‘koach’ or strength should continue.

In a similar vein, even today preparation for the correct vocalization of the Torah Reading takes much effort and practice, so that the blessing to continue in strength is most appropriate.



Upon completing each of the Five Books of Moses, an Ashkenazi congregation shouts out ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ followed by the Torah Reader who repeats the same phrase. It wasn’t always recited only at the conclusion of a book, but originally it was said after each aliya (section of Torah reading)

It is probable that this proved to be somewhat disruptive to the decorum of the service and was thereafter reserved, instead, to mark the completion of each book. In Italian synagogues, this phrase was only recited once a year on Simchat Torah, which marked the conclusion of all five books.

On the other hand in a Sefardi community, the expression ‘chazak u’varuch’ is often chanted out loud after every aliya, whether on Shabbat or a weekday.


According to Aruch haShulchan, upon completing an entire book of the Torah, the formula ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ is indeed used by some, however, a better and more correct text would be ‘chazak, chazak, chazak’:[4]


Another view holds that it is possible that the phrase ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ came about through a printing error. According to this view, the original phrase was a shorter ‘chazak venitchazek’ but it was prefaced with an instruction for the chazzan (prayer leader) vekahal (and the congregation) - chet zayin kuf - to recite the formula. 

This abbreviation was then misread as an extra ‘chazak’.


According to Professor Malachi Beit-Arié[5], based on the study of handwritten samples spanning the Middle Ages, there is evidence that in 348 instances, the copyists - at the end of their manuscripts - made use of the expression(where the word ‘chazak’ only occurs once).

With regard to the matter of whether the vocalization was ‘venitchazek’ or ‘venitchazak’, Beit-Arié shows that in 271 instances out of 348, ‘venitchazak’ was intended. 

This is because following that expression there was usually an elaborate and personalised prose which rhymed with ‘zak’ and not ‘zek’.


Malachi Beit-Arié explains: 

(Translation mine):

“[T]he rhyming of the latter section of [the copyists] conclusion [of a manuscript], for example [states]:

 ‘Chazak venitchazak...[name of the copyist is inserted here] should not be harmed, and through the Torah will his heart be strengthened, and his eyes will shine like lightning [Bazak]’.

[This] supports the notion that the vocalization of ‘venitchazak’ is with a patach or kametz. [I.e. it should read venitchazak instead of venitchazek.]”


An original version of the expression is actually found within the Tanach, where the shorter version and correctly vocalized ‘chazak venitchazakis used by King David in his encouragement to his general Yoav before he went into battle:

 Be strong and let us summon up our strength for the sake of our people and the towns of our G-d...[6]

By somehow reworking this original expression from ‘venitchazak’ to ‘venitchazek’ in later generations, it may have signified a transformation from a previous emphasis on a blend of physical and spiritual strength to one of almost exclusive spiritual strength.

Accordingly, ‘venitchazak’ implies more of a ‘hands-on’ and direct encouragement to become materially successful in the physical and spiritual aspects of an endeavour – while ‘venitchazek’ implies a softer and a more expressly spiritual encouragement to the exclusion of the material. 

Even today, the phrase ‘to give chizuk’ usually refers to encouragement in matters of the spirit.

This ‘reworking’ was typical during the era following the calamitous Bar Kochba revolts around 135 CE where the rabbis felt that encouraging physical wars would only end in disaster for the Jewish people, and the focus was instead directed towards spiritual perfection and a general negation of not just wars but also involvement in the physical world.

“The brutal Roman defeat of the Jews in Judaea cannot be emphasized enough, as it is the pivotal historical event that led to, or forced, a major paradigm shift within the national Jewish psyche. With Bar Kochba’s defeat at Betar (135 C.E.) Jews’ self-identity as warrior was drastically shifted to one that was war-averse and assimilationist.”[7]

Similarly, we see that during the first century, R. Eliezer permits the carrying of a sword on Shabbat because at that time it was as common as an item of clothing - yet three generations later the Gemara interpreted a ‘sword’ to take on a metaphoric meaning for ‘sharp words of Torah’ and a sword was no longer a sword.

[For more on this transition process, see How Reality on the Ground Informs Perceptions of Heaven.]

Another ‘reworking’ may also have occurred regarding the Talmudic incident where Shamai thrust a sword into the Study Hall. While many commentators believed the students of Shamai actually killed (!) many of the students of Hillel, it was later interpreted as a metaphor for ‘robust debate’.

To this day we see evidence of this shift in paradigm where, in some circles, the warrior, worker and engager scholar has been replaced by the exclusive and reclusive scholar.


The common expressions of ‘Yasher koach’ and ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ - inserted and recited at various junctures during the Torah reading - are more ‘folk’ based than empirically routed in texts.

Although we clearly see that the original biblical expression was indeed ‘chazak venitchazak’, and although there is historical evidence that most manuscript colophons ended with this same expression - it seems that the reworked version of ‘chazak, chazak venitchazek’ has nevertheless persisted into our printed editions today.

Is this a mere ‘typo’ or might there be some deeper fundamental motive alluding to a well-precedented shift in favour of an exclusively spiritual reality - without any blending of physical engagement - which can only be achieved by concluding works of Torah and disengagement from material reality?

Might this also be connected to the mystical interpretation[8] of the ubiquitous ‘yasher koach’ where we wish the energy to be exclusively yashar’ or ‘straight and direct’ from its source in G-d to us, without deviating through any worldly indulgence in the process?

[See also R. Gil Student’s article in Torah Musings.]

[1] Shabbat 87a.
[2] Shemot 34:1.
[3] Some Sefardic communities read from a Sefer Torah placed in an upright stand.
[4] Orach Chaim 139:15.
[5] More on Hazak Hazak, by Malachi Beit- Arié (Hebrew).
[6] 2 Sam. 10:12.
[7] The De-Evolution of the Jewish Warrior, by N H Anderson. (Thesis).
[8] Although, as pointed out, this interpretation is linguistically incorrect, nevertheless the teaching and its implication are still held to be valid. (To be fair, there are some schools of Chassidut, for example, that do understand and theoretically encourage engagement with the physical realm.)

No comments:

Post a Comment