“Hazak! Hazak! Venitchazek!”

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
6 min readMar 17, 2024

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After the reading of each of the five books of the Torah, there is the custom of saying -or rather, we should shout חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְּחַזֵּק “Hazak! Hazak! Venitchazek! “Let us be strong, let us be strong and let us strengthen one another!”

And this is what we have just done. Today’s Torah portion is the last of the Book of Exodus, and we -who follow the triennial cycle- have read its last part.

When thinking of the Torah, physical strength does not necessarily come to mind. But, despite the stereotypes, in our religious life, we often mention physical strength. Think of the omnipresent “shkoyach!”, a common expression by which we express our approval. It is a shortened version of ישר כח yasher koach!, which literally means “May your strength be enriched” or “More power to you!”

The custom of shouting “Hazak! Hazak! Venitchazek!” after reading each of the five books of the Torah developed probably in medieval times. In Medieval France, it was shouted by the congregation at the moment of hagbaha, when -according to the Ashkenazi custom- we lift the Scroll.

If you have ever done hagbaha, you know that strength is needed, so it is undoubtedly appropriate to wish strength to those who perform such a task.

And if you have never done hagbaha, you should try it at least once!

There are different theories about the origin of this custom, and my favourite has to do with gematria, the wordplay based on the numerical value of Hebrew letters and words. The word Hazak, חֲזַק repeated three times, has the numerical equivalent of Moshe משה, the name of Moses,

So, saying three times חֲזַק Hazak! when the reading of the book was completed was a way to affirm that the author of the book was Moses or, to put it differently, that God had inspired Moses to write such a book

Over time we moved from this triple חֲזַק Hazak!! “let us be strong!”,to חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְּחַזֵּק “Hazak! Hazak! Venitchazek! “Let us be strong, let us be strong and let us strengthen one another”.

People realised -or wanted to affirm- a very profound Jewish principle. Living a life inspired by the Torah requires strength, but not only physical strength. The Torah is not only a book to read, it enounces values and commandments that require moral strength and commitment. It is a blueprint for moral improvement. In such a journey, the support of the community is essential. You cannot be Jewish without a community. Hence the וְנִתְּחַזֵּק venitchazek, “let us strengthen one another”.

How important is this last word, the “let us strengthen each other”? We can feel it instinctively in times like these, times of intense antisemitism and anti-Jewish hate in the public squares. When we cross the door and enter this space, we feel the benefit of meeting each other in a place where we know we can count — at least — on a less sanctimonious and more nuanced understanding of Middle Eastern history.

That is at a very instinctive level. Synagogues are safe places for Jews.

But there is another spiritual level. I want to show you how this week’s Torah reading speaks of Judaism as a collective effort. Let’s read the very last verse of the Torah portion -which is also the conclusion of the Book of Exodus (40:38, p. 634 in the Plaut Chumash): “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and a fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel -בֵּית-יִשְׂרָאֵל [last line in the Hebrew text] throughout their journey.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Jacob’s sons come to Egypt, “ each with their own households” (1:1). They were not a people but just different families.

They were fertile and prolific, they multiplied… and we know the rest: the slavery, the Exodus from Egypt, the plagues, the opening of the Sea and then the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Sinai… They have gone through a lot!

When we reach the end of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites have built the Tabernacle, and God begins to dwell inside it. They are no longer a group of families related to each other but a crew of away slaves. They have become a household. The House of Israel. בֵּית-יִשְׂרָאֵל Beit Israel indeed. All the vicissitudes experienced have built a sense of belonging and a connection that goes beyond the fact of being immediate relatives. This is the point when the community is strong, they have built the Tabernacle together, and that is the moment when God starts dwelling among them, the Beit Israel.

One of the verses in the previous paragraph (v. 35, p. 634 in the Plaut Chumash) is particularly interesting: “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle”.

In other words, God’s presence in the Tabernacle, in the midst of the House of Israel, is so intense that even Moses cannot stand.

This is striking because we have previously read (24:18) how God appeared in a cloud when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Torah for the first time. That was a very intense presence of God, but at that time, Moses could go inside the cloud בְּתוֹךְ הֶעָנָן by which God manifested Himself.

So why could Moses enter the cloud surrounding the Divine Presence, and now can not? Has the presence of God changed?

The answer is yes and no. Obviously, God does not change. But the Israelites have changed. They have become Beit Israel, the House of Israel, through all the vicissitudes. And they have experienced transgression.

When Moses was on Mount Sinai, the Israelites had committed idolatry and violence around the Golden Calf: they reverted to idolatry, letting themselves go without restraint, without koach; they debased themselves to the level of their former masters, the Egyptians.

God has become angry, but crucially, God has forgiven Beit Israel.

The House of Israel was founded on this specific divine trait: God’s compassion, God’s ability to forgive, and the Israelites’ willingness to learn from their mistakes. God becomes more intensely present when we realise that we have done wrong and when we demonstrate our will to improve. That is the moment when the community’s support makes us all feel hazak venithazek, strong, and able to strengthen each other.

This is very countercultural. Pay attention to those who shout antisemitic slogans in the streets: their understanding of human nature is deeply pessimistic. In their world, the oppressors (white, male, Israeli) are oppressors since their birth, and they remain as such for all their lives. There is no redemption from the sin of having been born as an oppressor. And perhaps they pick up at us Jews, not because of Israel; Israel is just an excuse. They attack us; they want to cancel us because we represent an opposite understanding of human nature. Because in Judaism, we believe that human beings can change and become better, and God and the community support us in this process.

There, in the streets, they derive their strength by shouting against an enemy (the Patriarchate, Zionism, colonialism…). Here, we derive our strength by reading the Torah and -as a community- telling each other חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְּחַזֵּק “Hazak! Hazak! Venitchazek! “Let us be strong, let us be strong and let us strengthen one another!”

And for this, we are stronger.

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Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.