It is customary to recite the verse “Ve’hu Rahum Yechaper Avon Ve’lo Yash’hit Ve’hirba Le’hashib Apo Ve’lo Ya’ir Kol Hamato” (Tehillim 78:38) at the beginning of the Arbit prayer service. The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), in Parashat Pekudeh (1; listen to audio recording for precise citation), explains that we recite this verse in order to negate the effects of the “Dinim” (forces of judgment) that prevail during the nighttime hours. This verse makes reference to God’s restraining the four powers of judgment that descend to the earth at night – Mash’hit, Avon, Af and Hema – and, additionally, it contains thirteen words that correspond to the thirteen divine attributes of compassion. The recitation of this verse is thus effective in opposing these potentially harmful spiritual forces and granting us protection. Furthermore, the Ben Ish Hai adds, the punishments in Gehinam are intensified during the nighttime hours, and we recite “Ve’hu Rahum” also on behalf of the sinners suffering in Gehinam, to alleviate their suffering.
The Ben Ish Hai writes that when we recite this verse, we should have in mind that the combined numerical value of the letters of the first three words – “Vav,” “Resh” and “Yod” – equals 216, which is the same numerical value as the Hebrew word “Gebura,” a term that refers to the forces of strict judgment. Additionally, the Ben Ish Hai cites from the Zohar that it is forbidden to recite this verse before Arbit on Shabbat eve, because Shabbat is a period of kindness, and not of strict judgment. Of course, it is generally permissible to recite this verse on Shabbat, and, as the Ben Ish Hai notes, we indeed recite this verse as part of the “Yehi Chevod” section of Pesukeh De’zimra on Shabbat morning. It is inappropriate, however, to recite this verse at the beginning of Arbit on Friday night, since this is a time characterized by the attribute of Hesed (kindness), and not strict justice.
Some have the custom – based on the teachings of the Arizal (Rabbi Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572) – to close their eyes throughout the Arbit prayer, from “Asher Bi’dbaro Ma’arib Arabim” until the end of the Amida. This is to signify the “darkness” that prevails at nighttime not only in the sense of the absence of sunlight, but also in the spiritual sense, as the forces of harsh judgment descend to the earth during the nighttime hours.
It is customary at the beginning of Arbit also to recite the three verses of “Hashem Seva-ot Imanu Misgab Lanu Elokeh Yaakob Sela” (Tehillim 46:8,12); “Hashem Seva-ot Ashreh Adam Bote’ah Bach” (Tehillim 84:13); “Hashem Hoshi’a Ha’melech Ya’anenu Be’yom Kor’enu” (Tehillim 20:10). According to tradition, the verse of “Hashem Seva-ot Imanu” was recited by Abraham Abinu; the verse of “Hashem Seva-ot Ashreh” was recited by Yishak Abinu; and the verse of “Hashem Hoshi’a” was recited by Yaakob Abinu. Indeed, the final verse of the third verse – “Ya’anenu Be’yom Kor’enu” – contains an allusion to Yaakob’s name. The first two letters of “Ya’anenu” are “Yod” and “Ayin,” and the first letters of “Be’yom Kor’enu” are “Bet” and “Kof.” These four letters spell the name “Yaakob.”
In many congregations, the Rabbi delivers a Shiur just before Arbit, and Kaddish De’Rabbanan is recited immediately after the Shiur. Some people mistakenly proceed to “Ve’hu Rahum” immediately after the Kaddish, without reciting the three verses of “Hashem…” These verses must be recited before Arbit, and therefore congregations which have a Shiur followed by Kaddish before Arbit must remember to recite these verses before reciting “Ve’hu Rahum” and “Barechu.”