When we complete something after putting much effort into it, we feel a sense of satisfaction. I believe that's what Jews felt today in synagogues, when we read Parashat Pekudei, completing the entire Sefer Shemot (Book of Exodus). And after the very last verse of Pekudei was read, hundreds of thousands of Jews in synagogues worldwide proclaimed the famous words:
חֲזַַק חֲֲזַַק וְנִִתְְחֲַזק
(Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!)
And the Torah reader in each synagogue repeated those words after them.
But how did you pronounce the last word - ונתחזק?
Did you say וְנִִתְְחֲַזֵק "ve'nitchazek" (with the vowel tzere) or וְנִִתְְחֲַזַק "ve'nitchazak"(with the vowel patach)?
It seems that most synagogue-goers today say “ve’nitchazek.” But as Torah reader at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, I chose to pronounce it “ve'nitchazak.” This immediately prompted Cantor Ben Bazian to come over and question me on that pronunciation.
No, it's not a rebellious streak, as Cantor Bazian jokingly suggested. I had a good reason for pronouncing "ve'nitchazak."
Let’s look at the origin of this phrase, which appears only once in the entire Bible. In Book of Samuel, General Joab, King David’s army commander, was the first to utter these words, while planning to fight one of King David’s wars.
The Israelites were being attacked by both the Ammonites and the Arameans. In order to fend off both threats, King David divided his army, half of his soldiers under the command of Joab to array them against the Arameans, and half of his soldiers under the command of Joab’s brother, Abishai, to array them against the Ammonites. So General Joab said to his brother:
וַיֹּאמֶר, אִם תֶּחֱזַק אֲרָם מִמֶּנִּי--וְהָיִתָה לִּי לִישׁוּעָה; וְאִם בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן יֶחֶזְקוּ מִמְּךָ, וְהָלַכְתִּי לְהוֹשִׁיעַ לָךְ. חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזַּק בְּעַד עַמֵּנוּ, וּבְעַד עָרֵי אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וַה' יַעֲשֶׂה הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיו.
“If the Arameans prove too strong for me, you come to my aid; and if the Ammonites prove too strong for you, I will come to your aid. Let us be strong and resolute (chazak ve'nitchazak) for the sake of our people, and the Lord will do what He deems right.”
(II Samuel, 10:11)
Thus, it is unequivocally clear that in the only instance where the phrase "chazak ve'nitchazak" is mentioned in Tanach, it was "ve'nitchazak!"
How and when did we start saying this phrase upon the completion of a chumash?
The Maharam Mintz (Rabbi Moshe Mintz, 15th century, Germany and Poland) explains that the custom of saying "chazak" at the completion of each chumash is to encourage the person who received this aliyah to continue and complete other books. Apparently, during his time, the custom entailed saying only the word chazak.
It is unclear when congregations started saying the triplet - chazak, chazak ve'nitchazak. Both the Chatam Sofer (early 19th century, Hungary, Slovakia) and the Aruch Hashulchan (late 19th century, Belarus) rejected this custom.
But some customs have a life of their own. One of the first to report about this custom and endorse it was Rabbi Shem Tov Gagin, born in Jerusalem in 1885, who traveled all over the world to research Jewish customs in different countries. He visited Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, France, and Holland, and later became the head of the Beth Din in England. In his book Keter Shem Tov, in which published his research, Rabbi Gagin says that the custom in Amsterdam is to say "chazak, chazak ve'nitchazak." In Israel, he reports, the custom is to say "chazak" only at the completion of the entire Torah, whereas the custom in Ashkenaz (Germany, France and surrounding areas) is like in Amsterdam. Interestingly, the Sephardim have the custom of saying "chazak u'varuch" (may you be strong and blessed) after every aliyah, not just at the end of an entire book.
Admittedly, whether to say ve'nitchazek or ve'nitchazak is not a crucial matter in our lives (and good luck to anyone trying to change a shul tradition that has been in place for years!)
But at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, we take our commitment to rituals seriously, paying close attention even to the smallest details. We encourage our members to ask about various minhagim, and conduct research into the origins of many rituals and customs. Learning about the rich and varied history of our synagogue traditions benefits us all.