Mystery Solved

I’m writing to take exception to Mordechai Schiller’s column “Davening: The Unsolved Mystery” (August 3, 2016).

You might wonder how could I take exception to the column, since I happen to be Mordechai Schiller. But — working as proofreader, copyeditor, writer and columnist — I’m multifaceted (as well as multicultural). One Jew, four opinions.

Call me obsessive, but I keep editing my stuff, sometimes after it’s printed.

So what’s my gripe with Schiller now? It’s his davening. No, not his actual prayers (religion is a private matter), but his etymology of the word davening.

(If you’re confused by my speaking about myself in the third person, it’s an old mannerism of journalists and parents of toddlers. And, yes, I know I just enumerated four persons, but I was referring to the third-person point of view — so as to avoid getting too personal with my pronouns. Frankly, though, the journalese is getting too confusing for me to keep up. I’m starting to feel like a character in a Russian novel with four different names. Only this is one name and four characters. So, let’s take a break and I’m going to change back into my regular persona.)

OK, I’m back. There, that’s better.

When I submitted my column on davening — wherein I wrote that no one knows the origin of the word — one of my superiors objected. “It comes from d’avunon — from our Fathers.”

The problem was that I didn’t have a lexicographic source for such an origin. Worse, in the column, I had quoted Sol Steinmetz, z”l, (William Safire’s “lexical supermaven” and an off-duty cantor and Orthodox Rabbi) who cited what he called “six common (and commonly discredited) theories” for the origin of daven. The first such theory he listed was:

“Aramaic d’avhonon, meaning ‘from our (fore)fathers,’ based on the Talmudic tradition (Brachos 26b) that the three daily prayers were instituted by the three Patriarchs.”

Out of esteem for Steinmetz, I relied on his authority.

But reverence takes precedence over esteem.

I later found out that Harav Dovid Cohen, shlita, wrote a sefer called Yiddish, Hasafah Hakedoshah — Yiddish, The Holy Language, in which he says d’avunon — from our fathers — is the source for the word daven.

That should have been enough. But then I got the clincher: an eminent colleague sent me a clipping from the sefer Mishchas Shemen, quoting the Sifsei Tzaddik, who quoted his grandfather, the Chiddushei Harim, zy”a:

“We refer to tefillah as ‘davening’ based on the expression ‘d’avunon,’ meaning that we inherited the power of prayer from our Holy Patriarchs. They showed us a direct way to be constantly aware that everything in the world comes from His Providence.”

My prayer has been answered.

Mordechai Schiller, Brooklyn, N.Y.