An Introduction to Jewish Prayer

By Hakham Isaac S.D. Sassoon

The rabbis defined prayer as abodah she-balev (=worship of the heart; see Sifre Dt. 41; Ta‘an. 2a). When discussing the prayer book – as we are about to do – we must constantly bear that definition in mind. A person may entertain the kindliest sentiments towards the undernourished, but unless he gives them to eat and drink he has not fulfilled the Torah’s misvah of sustaining those in need. The ancient rabbis darshu ta‘ama diqra – that is to say, they sought out the reason (or underlying purpose) of the misvot. The misvah of providing for the hungry, they understood its purpose as relieving bodily suffering and promoting somatic wellbeing and life. In other words, it is a misvah that requires action of a thoroughly concrete sort; and as such, good intentions – be they the loftiest of intentions – are ineffectual. To be sure, if the misvah is accompanied with benevolent feelings so much the better. But the rabbis concluded that it was preferable to give charity even out of mixed motives than not to give at all, because what counts is the physical act of giving (see Pes. 8a bottom et al.). Tefillah is the converse. Being a misvah of the heart, tefillah cannot be substituted by the act of mouthing – however fine the liturgical texts. Even when prayer is verbally articulated, the articulation serves as an aid to inner devotion, not a surrogate. This is especially true of private prayer, as R. Bahya b. Peqodah (c. 1080) observes:The rabbis defined prayer as

“Words need thought, but thought, when it is able to organize itself in the heart, has no need of speech.”[1]

Moreover, tefillah that is lip-service and not from the heart, rates in the Talmud as worse than futile. The person who performs such parrot-praying is committing a sin, whose penalty will be nothing less than forfeiture of Torah (Shab. 138b).

            Notwithstanding, and despite its theoretical subservience, verbal articulation came to assume an increasingly pivotal function in communal tefillah. If a group is to pray in unison, the individuals’ wants and hopes must yield to the group’s. Needless to say, individuals continued to ‘pour out their souls’ before Hashem in the privacy of home or hovel or from any depth of degradation at which they found themselves. Communal prayer did not usurp any of that. Still, prayer as a public act of worship, inevitably, pulls the soul in a somewhat different direction from raw abodah she-balev. Jewish liturgy is, on one level, the story of that tussle between spontaneity and decorum; between personal spirituality and communal cohesion. On the literary level, it is the history of the prayer book and its vicissitudes.

            That history was never more systematically researched than by Ismar Elbogen (d.1943). Elbogen’s most comprehensive work on the subject, entitled Der jüdische Gottesdienst in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, appeared in Leipzig in 1913. It was a landmark in its day, and remains an invaluable reference book for all serious students of Jewish liturgy. Even Elbogen’s more conjectural theories, a surprising number of them were to receive vindication from long-lost liturgical materials, notably the Dead Sea Scrolls and newly deciphered Genizah fragments. Other of his speculations, however, had to be revised both in light of these discoveries and of advancing scholarship. The new findings made it into the respective Hebrew and English editions of Elbogen.[2]

            Before embarking on the texts, let us recall tefillah’s pre-history. When we come across tefillah in the lives of the men and women of the Bible, we take it for granted. But praying was not always the worshipful medium of choice; and certainly not praying as taught by the Torah, whose prayer is a corollary of its revelation regarding the relationship between humans and their Maker. Within that relationship, tefillah is at home.

             In order to appreciate the distinctiveness of this aspect of Mosaic faith, it will be useful to consider other religious models from the past. In its early phases, religion seems to have been a program for appeasing the gods (plural and small g). They had to be appeased because they were dangerous, threatening and selfish. In other words, they resembled human despots who through intimidation get what they want from their underlings. The divinities of paganism were much the same, only noisier and scarier: thundering and ‘making things go bump in the night’. Pacifying these arbitrary bullies, these glowering menaces, was by buttling for them and generally humoring them. How do we know about the attitudes of our remote antecedents? From their artifacts, paintings, tombs, languages and literature. Study of these sources has allowed scholars to reconstruct a fair impression of at least some ancient religions. This is how Jean Bottéro describes worship as practiced in Mesopotamian temples.

“…every day of the year, the temple kitchens and their officiants prepared lavish and copious meals… For example, illustrating the amount of food involved in these meals, we possess a list of supplies that the temple cooks of Uruk were to use in order to prepare the “four daily meals” for only four of their principle divinities: two meals in the morning … and two similar ones in the evening, “every day, all year long.” …All of this was prepared not as a sacrifice in the mystical sense of the word… but as literal, material sustenance to feed those gods… Such was the magnificent and lavish service that unfolded in the ancient temples of Mesopotamia. It was there that human beings’ duties to their gods ceased. For unlike our own way of seeing and behaving – the direct issue of biblical religiosity, the obeying of a certain number of ethical precepts – a moral life did not enter at all into religious obligations in Mesopotamia… Once the ceremonies of this, shall we say, “material” form of worship were carried out, and thus once their function as servants of the gods was duly accomplished, those servants could count all the more on the favor and goodwill of their masters… The basic religious sentiment that guided the Mesopotamians was reverence, respect, the kind of fear experienced by very low-level workers vis-à-vis their sublime and very highly placed bosses.”[3]

            In the past the study of other cultures and religions contemporary with Israel’s, and even earlier ones, was often tendentious, trying to show how silly and benighted those old pagans were. Needless to say, that kind of polemical triumphalism is neither wise nor true to Torah. Not wise, because it ignores the different circumstances of the ancients and the equally different ways they devised for coming to terms with the awesome universe around them. To speak patronizingly or dismissively of a culture just because it differs from ours is surely not a sign of wisdom. Nor is it consistent with Torah to demean those who lived before, or in ignorance of, Torah revelation. According to the Torah idolatry dies hard, and even after Sinai Israel is slow to pack in its old idolatrous notions (see Ex. 32:1-4; Lev. 17:7).

            Israelite religion is a gigantic revolution. In essence, it is rejectionist and iconoclastic – overturning, as it does, entire pantheons. The Talmud preserves this wonderful definition of a Jew. It is given in response to the question of why Mordecai should be referred to as eesh yehudee (Est.2:5) when his genealogy roots him not in the tribe of Judah but in the tribe of Benjamin. Now yehudee literally means “of Judah” but after the exile yehudee became a synonym for Israelite. Exploiting the Judahite/Jew pun, R. Yohanan explains that, though not Judaean (i.e., yehudee) by descent, Mordecai was a Jew all right because kol ha-kofer ba‘abodah zarah niqra yehudee (=everyone who denies idolatry is called yehudee). As a denier of idols Mordecai was entitled to the yehudee honorific (Meg. 13a). R. Yohanan’s definition of a Jew is most instructive; it is the person who rejects, who is a kofer. Incidentally, the Romans often accused the Jews of atheism seeing how they repudiated the gods of the surrounding people. The Roman accusation was, of course, mistaken and yet not entirely so. In a certain sense, the faith that Moses brought down demanded massive kefirah. Everything else was swept away before the One, the Creator. And being omnipotent, the Creator does not need to be fed or waited on. That verity, in turn, weakened the belief in sacrifice, and as we know, the pre-exilic prophets render sacrifices problematic. In Hosea’s prophecy returning to Hashem means renouncing the cult (see Hos. 3:4-5, 5:5 etc.).

            This is not the forum for discussing the cult, except to register the prophets’ stance towards it, and the ramifications of that stance for the liturgy. The prophets were ambivalent – when not antagonistic – to a system so quintessentially incongruous with the faith they proclaimed. The Book of Proverbs can be seen to entertain similar reservations. Proverbs 15:8 reads: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to Hashem but the prayer of the upright is His pleasure” (cf. Prv. 17:1, 21:27). The contrast between wicked and upright is unremarkable; but why not have the upright bring an acceptable offering? The sacrifice versus prayer antithesis can hardly be fortuitous.

            Later, during the exile, the priest-prophet Ezekiel reveals a blueprint for a temple and sacrifices that are sanitized of idolatrous trappings. Ezekiel’s accommodation seems to have spurred an entire priestly school, so that after the exile an idol-free yet cultically active Temple thrived in Jerusalem for some half a millennium. However, even while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, there were those who found an alternative way to worship G-d. A number of talmudic sources trace the inauguration of communal prayer to a fraternity called keneseth ha-ggedolah or Great Assembly. This assembly is said to have comprised prophets and elders, and to have flourished in the early second temple era (see Ber. 33a; Meg. 17b et al.). Now demand for such prayers as anshe keneseth ha-ggedolah are said to have pioneered, presupposes people gathering to pray as a community. The pre-exilic prophecies that are unsympathetic to sacrifices might well have lent impetus to non-cultic forms of communal worship. Indeed, the Torah provides the option of a site where G-d is sought without offerings (see Ex. 33:7; Num. 11:26; also Sifra to Lev. 26:31; M. Meg. 3:3; Midrash Shoher Tov to Ps. 74:8). Moreover, there is the paradigm of Moses himself who, when interceding with G-d, never mingles his prayer with qorbanot. Twice Moses builds an altar (Ex. 17:15, 24:4). At 17:15 there is no mention of sacrifices. At 24:4 offerings are made, although neither Moses himself nor the elders minister as priests. Instead, it is the na‘are bene yisrael (=young men [and young women?] of Israel) who are sent along to sacrifice the burnt- and peace-offerings. Without putting too fine a point on it, there is no escaping the fact that Moses steps forward only to sprinkle the blood – and then chiefly for purposes of solemnizing the covenant. More pertinent to our argument: Moses neither time connects the cultic act with prayer. In the Torah you meet Moses praying over and over, and you exclaim: My goodness! Surely in those days there was a mishkan furnished with an altar for sacrifices. Or is this a recollection of the Mosaic revelation as lukewarm to sacrifices? But if Moses cold-shoulders the cult, Aaron’s depiction is of a loyal priest favoring sacrifices and altars – dare one say it? – even the altar of the ‘egel hazzahab. Unlike the image itself that he forges under duress, the altar is presented as Aaron’s initiative (Ex. 32:1-5). Not because he was an idolater, heaven forfend. Nevertheless once he bows to the multitude’s will: “arise make for us a god” the altar seems to be Aaron’s unsolicited contribution. People wonder why Aaron was never punished for his role. He couldn’t be punished; he was simply being true to form. Priestcraft, almost endemically, lets in a whiff of heathenism; because where G-d’s self-sufficiency is affirmed and internalized, the bottom falls out of sacrifices. But sacrifices antedate Moses, giving the priests a head start. Besides, people are loath to give up tried and trusted rites.

            This may be the place to address a question that, judging by the frequency of its asking, would seem to be on many a mind. A recent questioner put it this way: “If there is such a strong anti-sacrificial bent in our tradition, why do we long for the restoration of sacrifices in the amidah?” In response we have to say that the biblical voices that downplay sacrifices are not the only voices. Even within the Pentateuch the emphases are far from symmetrical. Deuteronomy, for instance, encapsulates its entire cultic procedure in a single sentence (Dt. 12:27). That is the sum total of Deuteronomy’s ritual directives for offering sacrifice. If there is more, it is presumably left to Oral Transmission. The text of the Priestly Torah, by contrast, leaves little to Oral Transmission, providing as it does extensive and detailed cultic regulations throughout. So, forthright as are Scripture’s disavowals of the cult; steady her voices of demurral; no less stark are the Priestly Torah that prescribes qorbanot and Yehezkel who foresees, and thereby endorses, a temple with enhanced altar and elaborate cultic rituals. This is the glory of Torah – rich, multifarious and challenging.

             The challenge thus encountered on the objective plane, is aggravated in the case of qorbanot by the visceral horror they evoke in many a run-of-the-mill synagogue goer. That makes the issue of beseeching G-d to bring back animal sacrifices a touchy one. Not that we know for sure when requests for the restoration of sacrifices were inserted into the prayers. Such a request seems central to the musaf as it appears in traditional sabbath and festival prayer books. Yet it can hardly be original because the Talmud tells us that teffilat ha-musafeen was recited in the Temple (see Suk. 53a; Tosephta Ki-fshuta vol. 4, N.Y. 1962, p. 889). It would have made no sense to beg for the cult’s return while the cult was in full swing. Therefore it is not inconceivable to have a musaf prayer without a request for the restoration of sacrifices.[4] On the other hand, the Yerushalmi explicitly approves praying for the reinstatement of the cult in musaf. Y. Berakhot (4:7 [8c]) records a dispute between Rav and Shemuel as to whether the musaf amidah must stand apart from the other three of arbeetshahreet and minha (remember that our respective attah qiddashtahyismah moshe and attah ehad are all post-talmudic). Rav requires musaf to be distinctive from the other three [sabbath or festival] amidahs while Shemuel does not. R. Ze‘ira then asks R. Yose for his opinion. R. Yose sides, in principle, with Rav but indicates that it is not necessary for the entire middle (or fourth) blessing of the amidah to be unique, so long as one includes a distinctive feature such as “may we carry out before thee our obligations of the daily Tamid and the musaf offering” (Y. Ber. ibid.). Its appearance in the Yerushalmi endows the formula with tremendous authority. Still, R. Yose seems to offer it as a proposal and not necessarily as the only option, let alone the ideal.[5]

            But to pick up the Great Assembly thread and, specifically, the tradition that credits that body with producing the first prayers for use in communal worship. Maimonides opines that the returnees from the Babylonian captivity lacked a common language or, at any rate, that their macaronic speech was inadequate to serve as a vehicle for public prayer. Hence, Rambam continues, anshe keneseth ha-ggedolah came to the rescue, as it were, and composed a suitably worded liturgy (see Yad, Tefillah 1:4). This historical reconstruction of Rambam’s is not found in extant rabbinic sources. By ascribing pragmatic motives to this innovation of the Great Assembly, it is as if Rambam would minimize one of religion’s salient watersheds. The talmudic tradition that associates the genesis of the synagogue liturgy with the Great Assembly conveys no comparable devaluation. But if Rambam downplays the spiritual import of the Assembly’s enterprise, he can all too easily be construed as overstating another facet. For at first blush, Rambam seems to envision the Assembly’s creations to have been hammered out to the last detail – something not borne out by the evidence. That evidence – both talmudic and adventitious – betokens nothing so hard and fast about the earliest liturgical compositions. But as so often with Rambam, different elements in his code complement one another. In this instance, comments elsewhere in his Sefer Ahavah (to be cited anon)clarify his position regarding the scope of the Assembly’s efforts. The clarification all but disposes of any potential clash with the historical evidence. For the texts he credits the Assembly with composing were not intended – so Rambam – to be authoritative. Thus, although he seems to ascribe to the Assembly the production of ready-to-go texts,[6] the attested fluidity of the berakhot is adequately accounted for in Rambam’s scheme of authoritative structure but non-authoritative wording. Indeed, matbea shetab‘u hakhameem – the talmudic concept that comes closest to fixity – Rambam takes in a less than maximal sense (as we are about to see). All in all, then, one is tempted to read Rambam more loosely to be saying, not that every word of the liturgy was cast in stone by the Assembly, but rather that for the returnees who were all at sea, model prayers were drafted to keep them on keel.

            Let us now review some of the evidence for the fluidity just alluded to. Had the Great Assembly consecrated word-for-word prayers, how to account for the divergent amidahs of Eres Yisrael and Bavel; Amram Gaon and Saadiah Gaon? Of Sepharad, Ashkenaz, Yemen, Persia, Greece (romanyah), Italy (romi), etc.? The Biblical text is identical throughout Israel. The Shema Yisrael, the Psalms, anything scriptural is universally the same. But among the prayers which are non-scriptural, we see a few constants amidst varying degrees of diversity. The likeliest explanation is that those few constant prayers (or phrases) do indeed go back to a common prototype (not necessarily of pre-destruction vintage), while those that differ from community to community were never fixed by a single, central authority. For even though prayers, unlike Scripture, will have been transmitted orally, still had the authors insisted on ipsissima verba, then ipsissima verba would have been zealously preserved as in the case of other (albeit rare) gobbets of torah shebe‘al pe (see Edu. 1:3 et al.; cf. Rambam’s commentary to Edu. 8:7). Thus we are left with the impression that the Assembly’s liturgical output consisted of themes and perhaps some select phrases; but not comprehensive formulae.

            This impression, that the earliest framers of our prayers did not determine the prayers’ precise wording, finds corroboration in the Talmud. Take the Mishnah’s birkhoth qeri’at shema legislation: “In the morning two berakhot are recited before it [i.e., before shema] and one after it; in the evening two before it and two after it; one long the other short. Where long is prescribed short is impermissible and [where] short [is prescribed] long is impermissible (maqom she’amru leha’areekh eno rashai leqasser, leqasser eno rashai leha’areekh Ber. 1:4). These rules clearly circumscribe the number of berakhot, their position and, ostensibly, their length. However, the ‘long’ and ‘short’ of this Mishnah are explained in the Yerushalmi as technical terms. ‘Long’ according to the Yerushalmi means it opens and ends with barukh; ‘short’ signifies that it comprises just a single barukh. What all this implies is, that provided the specified limitations are respected, everything else is up for grabs. Otherwise – and as argued by Rashba in his novellae to Ber. 11 – had the entire text of birkhoth qeri’at shema been settled, the maqom she’amu guidelines would be otiose.[7]

            Another case in point is habdalot (prayers [inspired by the ‘contrasting’ of Gen. 1:4, Lev. 10:10 etc.] that demarcate the close of holy days). According to Berakhot 33a, the habdalah prayers were established by the Assembly, along with tefillot and berakhot. In spite of that, habdalah’s contents is still in the process of development during the amoraic era. “R. El‘azar said in the name of R. Osh‘aya [habdalah] should comprise no fewer than three [pairs of contrasts] but not exceed seven” (Pes. 104a). These and analogous rulings strongly suggest that there was no full-fledged nosah (for more proofs see Prayer in the Period of the Tannai’m and Amora’im by Joseph Heinemann, Jerusalem 1964 pp. 29-47; English edition, Berlin 1977). Now you may well ask: if the pioneers of our liturgy stopped short of fixing a full-blown nosah, how are we to understand matbea shetab‘u hakhameem? For matbea is acknowledged all round; R. Meir and R. Yose may dispute whether or not adherence to matbea is obligatory. But neither Tanna denies its existence. To do justice to this question one must first ascertain what exactly constitutes matbea – preeminently in the ruling of R. Yose kol hamshanneh mimmatbea (Yer. al matbeashetab‘u hakhameem bibrakhot (Yer.omits bibrakhotlo yasa yede hobato (T.Ber. 4:5; Ber. 40b; Yer. Ber. 6:2).

            Rambam’s definition of matbea transpires from the following.

“The first blessing before it [i.e., qeri’at shema], both by day and by night, opens with barukh and closes with barukh. The rest of its berakhot each one of them ends with barukh but they do not have a barukh opening. These berakhot, – like all the rest of the berakhot familiar to all Israel – were instituted by Ezra and his beth din and one may neither subtract from them nor add to them. Where they instituted a barukh ending one is not permitted to omit that ending. Where they did not institute such an ending one is not permitted to add it… In short, anyone who changes the matbea shetab‘u hakhameem bibrakhot is in error and he must repeat the berakhah in accordance with the matbea. (Yad, Qeri’at Shema 1:7).

“The nosah of all the berakhot was instituted by Ezra and his beth din and it is not meet to change them or to add to any one of them or to subtract from it. And whoever changes the matbea shetab‘u hakhamim bibrakhot is in error. And every berakhah that does not mention the Name and Kingdom…” (Yad, Berakhot 1:8)

Commenting on this latter passage in Hilkhot Berakhot, the Kesef Mishneh makes some rather incisive observations.

“[Rambam’s source] is Ber. 40b where it says: “If a person upon seeing a fine loaf of bread exclaims ‘What a fine loaf! Blessed be Maqom who created it.’ … [by so saying] that person has fulfilled his obligation – according to R. Meir. But R. Yose says Whoever diverges from the matbea shetab‘u hakhameem bibrakhot has not fulfilled his obligation.” I wondered why our teacher [i.e., Maimonides] replaced [R. Yose’s “he has not fulfilled his obligation”] with the phrase “is in error”. It is also noteworthy that in his first clause he employs yet another phrase “it is not meet to change them etc.”. The explanation seems to be that there are two kinds of “diverging [from the matbea]”. One is when the person recites the nosah of the berakhah that the sages instituted only he adds or subtracts or he recites it in a way that is similar to the nosah that the sages instituted except that he says it in other words – howbeit words that correspond to the nosah instituted by hazal. Since the intent (or purport) of his words amounts to what hazal instituted there is no error. Nevertheless “it is not meet” thus to do. The other “diverging” is when he changes the intent…” (cf. Tur, Orah Hayeem 187 and Bayit Hadash, ad loc.).

            But let us not miss the forest for the trees. If tefillah’s counterpart of the trees are the minutiae of the liturgical text, then the forest stands for tefillah’s essential and definitional parameters as set by hazal. The most basic of these is their definition of tefillah as abodah she-balev, as noted earlier. Next in rank has to be tefillah’s characterization as rahame. The first time we encounter this characterization of prayer in a halakhic context is at Berakhot 20b apropos women’s misvah allotment. Women are exempted from the misvah of qeri’at shema because qeri’at shema is time-bound, the Torah having appointed its seasons “when you lie down and when you get up” (Dt. 6:7). And according to a principle enunciated in the Mishnah (Qid. 1:7), women are exempt from positive misvot that are time-bound. Although the principle is presented anonymously at Ber. 20b, it is very likely the view of R. Simeon, as we learn from Sifri (Num. 115; cf. Men.43a). Be that as it may, the exemption of women from time-bound misvot – such as qeri’at shema – became the consensus. What about tefillah? The Mishnah had ruled that women are obligated bitfillah. But since tefillah is rahame (literally: love, mercy; hence: spontaneity as opposed to rote) the Gemara wonders why the Mishnah had stated the obvious: prayer being rahame, it follows that women would be obligated. The Gemara answers that it was necessary for the Mishnah to state the seemingly obvious in the case of tefillah in order to avert potential error arising from Psalms 55:18 that lists evening, morning and noon as times of prayer. Lest anybody construe Ps. 55:18 to be granting tefillah time-bound status, the Mishnah played safe and stated women’s tefillah obligation explicitly.

                 Our chief interest in the Berakhot 20b passage is its definition of tefillah as rahame. That definition is key to the rabbis’ conception of intercessory prayer – synonymous in their lexicon with baqqashat rahameem. No doubt, their conception would have passed muster with Moses, whose prayers – barring two (see further) – always besought G-d’s forgiveness and mercy. Moses’ prayer legacy, then, can be seen as preponderantly life affirming and – mighty significant – never the opposite. But if Moses is mostly mercy, Abraham is exclusively so. When abraham abeenu intercedes, it is invariably for life to be spared (e.g., Gen. 17:18; 18:23-32; 20:17; 24:7). In short, the rabbis knew why they called supplicatory prayer rahame. Or if you like, the Oral Torah is yet again seen to walk in lockstep with the Written.

            Somebody once raised the following objection: ‘The Haggadah contains a petition for the destruction of people!’. ‘Where in the Haggadah?’ I enquired. ‘Between the grace-after-meals and lo lanu’ – quoth he – ‘shefokh hamatkhah [from Psalm 79] is intoned’. ‘But surely’, I replied, ‘Maran (R. Joseph Karo) rules in his Shulhan Arukh that immediately after birkat hammazon you continue with lo lanu and you, being such a proud sephardi, hew no doubt to Maran’s fiat!’ When Maran enjoins resumption of the hallel immediately after the meal (O.H. 480), he is codifying immemorial usage – a usage still honored by Yemenite Jews. So you ask, when and where did shefokh gain access into the Passover Haggadah? The manuscript evidence shows it to have been no part of R. Amram Gaon’s prayer book. In a few MSS it has, quite tellingly, been interpolated into Seder R. Amram by a later hand (see The Passover Haggadah; its Sources and History by E. D. Goldschmidt, 1960 p. 62; Seder R. Amram Gaon, Goldschmidt ed. 1971 p.118). Shefokh’s intrusion into the Passover celebration bespeaks 12th century Europe, a date and site consistent with the earliest halakhic reference to shefokh in the Haggadah (a Tosafist’s comment at Ber.14a, s.v. yameem). The Rhineland communities suffered massacre after massacre at the hands of the Crusaders. Like every generation before and many since, the survivors brought the liturgy into line with their collective experience. New compositions were introduced (e.g., ab ha-rahameem) and pre-existing ones juggled around (e.g., alenu le-shabbeah – borrowed from the musaf of Rosh Hashanah and tagged on to the daily orisons; Song of the Sea (Ex 15:1-18) transplanted from the Sabbath minha into the daily pesuqe de-zimra[8]). Shefokh very likely owes its absorption into the Ashkenazic rite to the same circumstances: unspeakable tragedy and a very particular type of culturally-conditioned reaction. In any case, shefokh is foreign to hazal’s Haggadah which narrates the Exodus story and gives thanks. Calling down vengeance on people – whether Egyptians or any other enemies past or present – jars with their seder. So much for shefokh.

            Others have more cogently cited the 12th benediction of the amidah, referred to in medieval sources by a variety of designations (e.g., lamalshineemlamshumadeem), but in the Talmud, typically, as birkat ha-mineem or shel mineem. According to the Talmud the original amidah did not contain such a berakhah. This is certainly the Bavli’s perspective – and also the Yerushalmi’s if we accept the MS reading adopted in printed editions. In that version R. Hunnah advises that if people ask why we speak of 18 berakhot [when in fact there are 19] you can tell them that in Yavneh they added a nineteenth (see Ber. 4:3 [8a]; but cf. variant in Leiden MS). Thus the tradition is fairly solid that a berakhah was added by R. Gamliel at Yavneh. The fact that it was added at this late date (some 400 years after Ezra and his Great Assembly by conventional chronology), implies that prior to Yavneh, no prophet or sage in Israel had seen fit to institute a distinct berakhah asking G-d to grant relief from the vexatious infidel. Does that imply there was no villainy or irreligion around in the days of the Great Assembly, or that its members were too naive to recognize it? Hardly. Rambam, like the talmudic tradition he espouses, regards this 12th berakhah as R. Gamliel’s innovation and, as such, no part of the Great Assembly’s plan. Thus Rambam must also have wondered as to what could possibly have driven R. Gamliel to tamper with the amidah’s pristine structure. According to Rambam, it was the unprecedented activism of [Jewish?] heretics, who not content to live and let live, were enticing [other] Jews away from their faith (and, presumably, into heresy).

“In the days of R. Gamliel the apiqorsin [a term Rambam defines at Hilkhot Teshubah 3:8] multiplied in Israel and they harassed Israel and enticed them to stray away from Hashem. Realizing that this was the gravest of all human needs, he and his beth din arose and instituted a berakhah in which there would be a request from before Hashem le-abbed ha-apiqorsin … (=to destroy the heretics)” (Yad, Tefillah 2:1).

In addition to answering our question as to what might have impelled R. Gamliel to act, Rambam supplies other details not readily found in the Talmud. For instance, he describes the burden of the berakhah to have been “a request from before Hashem to destroy the apiqorsin…”. Apiqorsin denotes heretics or infidels, not heresy which is: apiqorosut. It has been opined that the benediction’s talmudic names birkat ha-mineem and shel mineem (plus harsha‘eem of habinenu and makhniy‘a zedeem of theYerushalmi) may have suggested that its butt was dissenters rather than dissent. Fair enough. But knowing whom one is praying for, still leaves one in the dark as to the thing one wants G-d to do to them. In this regard, the designationsshed no light – nor for that matter does tefillat habinenu whose paraphrase of the 12th berakhah runs as follows.

al harsha‘eem taneef yadekha [var. yadaykha]” (Ber.29a).

Literally, taneef yadekha translates as “may you wave your hand”. But the context supports an idiomatic sense, which is the sense attested in the majority of this compound verb’s biblical occurrences. As to meaning, it is not an idiom that lends itself to neat pigeon-holing. Indeed, a survey of its biblical uses will demonstrate its versatility – the six scriptural occurrences of HNF YAD possessing positive, negative and neutral connotations. At 2Kgs. 5:11 the hand waving heals; at Isa. 11:15 it works beneficent miracles. Job 31:21 is mildly ruinous, while Zech. 2:13 abundantly so. The remainder (Isa. 10:32, 13:2) refer, quite literally, to signaling gestures. It would not be surprising if the authors of habinenu deliberately and advisedly chose the hand waving idiom for its equivocality. Obviously they wanted the enemy hindered and confounded. But as to the means of achieving that goal, it would be in keeping with rabbinic modesty to leave G-d kebeyakhol room for maneuver. In any event, taneef yadekha is indecisive.[9] As for the verb HKHN‘A (as in makhniy‘a zedeem Yer. Ber.2:3 [5a], Ta’an.2:2 [65c]), its biblical occurrences denote subdual – never annihilation, which is HSHMD or ABBD (see Dt 9:3 and Ramban ad loc.). Moreover, the Yerushalmi itself makes clear its intent by contrasting hakhna‘ah of the wicked with simha of the righteous (haddeen na‘asah ha-zedeem nikhna‘eem veha-saddiqeem semeheem Y. Ber. ibid.). Obviously the converse of joy is dejection and humiliation; not extirpation.

While the above evidence vindicates those who envisage halakhic prayer as righteous prayer, it does not spell defeat for advocates of a more aggressive 12th benediction. The language in traditional prayer books asks for sundry offenders to be destroyed (the list varies from rite to rite). Add to that a straightforward and literal reading of Rambam, and a case can be made for petitioning G-d to eliminate undesirables. But what if Rambam never wished his le-abbed ha-apiqorsin to be taken so rigidly? After all, for the “gravest of needs” to be met, the mischief would have to cease, but not necessarily as a result of the mischief-makers’ extermination. Alas, too often we let shallow literalism be our undoing. When it comes to le-abbed ha-apiqorsin, it behooves us to remember Beruriah and R. Meir[10] whose qualms regarding the dagesh in Psalm 104:35’s hatta’eem deterred them from mortal prayer (Ber.10a – more on R. Meir and Beruriah anon). A fortiori, the enormity of praying for death like clockwork morning noon and night, surely takes more to justify than a fundamentalist reading of Rambam’s le-abbed. At the very least, we should enquire whether it is characteristic of rabbinic prayer to entreat G-d to extirpate the work of His hands.

            If we can answer that question, it may help us gauge the likelihood of a berakhah they instituted petitioning G-d to do just that. “On seeing a site from which idols have been uprooted one says ‘Blessed be He who has uprooted idols from our land. As they have been eliminated from this site so may they be eliminated from all Israel and mayest Thou turn the hearts of those who worshipped them to Thine own worship’” (Ber. 57b). Rashi adds that the idolaters this baraitha urges us to pray for are posh‘e yisrael. And we know that posh‘eem are the worst of sinners (Yom. 36b). Our master Moses too, intercedes for posh‘eem; not for them to perish but that they might repent (Sot. 14a). On the two occasions when he, exceptionally, prays for judgment rather than mercy, even then Moses – like Job (see infra) – does not ask for death. The two judgmental prayers are, of course: “Arise Hashem and may thine enemies be scattered and those that hate thee flee before thee” (Num. 10:35) and “Take no notice of their oblation. I have not taken from them so much as a single ass nor have I done wrong to any one of them” (Num. 16:15). But this is where it gets intriguing. Paradoxically, these two ‘negative’ prayers exhibit the greatest forbearance in that their subjects are, respectively, arch rebels and G-d’s enemies. Yet these prayers ask for the adversary to be thwarted, not felled. The paragon of Moses was emulated by all the saddiqim. Sure they acknowledged the existence of evil and injustice and fervently worked and prayed for its removal. But to the degree that their own efforts fell short and divine intervention was solicited, then knowing that nothing is too hard for G-d, they preferred to plead for the regeneration of the wicked rather than for their expiry. Job declares it a sin to request the death of an enemy (see Job 31:30). Beruriah did not ask G-d to destroy those thugs whom her husband R. Meir had given up on. Instead she persuaded him to pray for their repentance which he did. The Talmud records that the prayer was answered and the bandits actually turned over a new leaf. (see Ber. 10a). We are not told whether they ever found out that R. Meir and Beruriah had been praying for them. If they did, who can doubt the redemptive effect of the discovery? In any case, hazal were no hypocrites when they called intercessory prayer rahame. Indeed the very appellation rahame serves as additional proof that the rabbis did not want us to use the precious gift of prayer to seek the annihilation of any human being. From Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah, all the way through Moses asking G-d to stop the plagues in Egypt but never for G-d to inflict a plague; down to R. Yehoshua ben Levi (see Ber.7a) the pattern lives on.[11]

            The evidence seems overwhelming. In its wake many a conscience is plagued by misgivings as to whether the sages would have approved of persistent clamoring at the gates of heaven for doom and destruction – even of pestiferous miscreants. Where conscience has triggered action, people are going back to the Talmud in search of clues as to the tenor of the original berakhah. The standard terms the Talmud uses to denote the instituting of berakhot (including the 12th berakhah of the amidah) are the verbs TQN and QBA‘. As already noted, most scholars agree that it was the motif of the berakhot that was shaped by their originators, not the exact locution. If they are right – that with a few important exceptions neither the Great Assembly nor its heirs meant to lock the wording of the berakhot – then we can appreciate the Talmud’s choice of verbs. Furthermore, prior to the dispensation allowing the Mishnah to be promulgated in writing, everything besides the Scriptures remained oral. Writers of berakhot come in for particularly harsh censure by pre-mishnaic rabbis (see Shab. 115b). Although oral transmission may be reliable, people must believe in a composition before they will strain to memorize it verbatim. There is no awareness of a vigilantly guarded ur-text when it comes to post-biblical prayers, not even when they are spelled out in the Talmud. Thus the Mishnah’s hahalisenu et… yom rosh hodesh haze (Erub. 3:9) did not survive into later recensions of the New Moon prayers. Likewise, the Talmud’s rofe holeem (A. Z. 8a; Yer. Ber. 4:3 [8a]) was, by the middle ages, giving way to rofe hole ammo yisraelha-‘el ha-mishpat (Ber. 12b)to melekh oheb sedaqah u-mishpathaone be‘et sara (Yer. Ber. 4:3 [8a]; Ta‘an. 2:2 [65c]) to ha‘one le-ammo yisrael be‘et sara (in some rites).[12] However, what was understood to be the general intent of the formulators, that is what survived. When it comes to the amidah’s 12th berakhah, even if there is no ur-text to be discovered, there are clues of how amoraim were epitomizing it – notably in tefillat habinenu (see above). Whether its framersmeant to nail down each and every word of habinenu is immaterial. Belonging to the amoraic period, when prayers had started to be written, chances are habinenu is authentic hazal.

            Sometimes people try to play devil’s advocate: ‘had you been around at the time, would you have prayed for the the demise of the Nazi leadership?’ I would not hesitate to answer affirmatively. Because when murderers are on the rampage and their victims in a corner, what is left but to turn to G-d to intervene? Why, when a life (whether one’s own or a fellow’s) is threatened, one does not stand idly by. The law ordains: preempt the assault (habba le-horgakh hashkem le-horgo;San.72a). But what if the attacker comes not singly but in force? It is precisely in that kind of predicament, where if able to one would take the law into one’s own hands, that the helpless and outnumbered will resort to prayers such as the imprecatory Psalms. For it is in the Psalms – that started life as private outpourings – where you find adversity wished, ad hoc, on men of blood and violence (notably in Ps. 69, but cf. Pss. 35, 55, 79 etc.). That is why when confronting humanly unstoppable malevolence, the Psalmist’s cri de coeur can serve as a model.

            Howbeit, while the “cry from the depths” has its place within the overall scheme of Jewish prayer (cf. Ex. 22: 22, 26; Dt. 15:9), to the 12th berakhah it is a red herring. Pulling out all the stops in the face of imminent danger is hardly the same as imploring G-d, as a matter of course, six days a week three times a day to take life. We are not told whether R. Gamliel expected the unprecedented threat of his day to last; or, if not, whether he contemplated the amidah reverting to the 18 paragraphs it had numbered from its inception until his reform. As far as we are concerned, the question is moot since subsequent halakhah chose to perpetuate R. Gamliel’s supplement. Consequently, the only wiggle-room available to the halakhically committed is in the area of the berakhah’s wording. That is also the area where work has been ongoing. For example, R. Elijah of Vilna (Hagra d. 1797) – citing the story of R. Meir and Beruriah (see supra) – urges the replacement of the 12th berakhah’s resha‘eem with rish‘ah (see Biur Hagra, postscript at end of O.H).[13]

            Our next source is Yoma 69b. It ranks in importance with the rahame texts.

“R. Joshua ben Levi explained why they were called men of the Great Assembly: because they restored the crown to its former lustre. Moses came saying “The great, mighty and awesome G-d” [Dt. 10:17]; Jeremiah came and seeing idolaters revelling in the sanctuary he said “Where are His awesome deeds?” So he omitted “awesome” [see Jer. 32:18]. Daniel came and seeing idolaters enslaving His children he said “Where are His mighty deeds?” So he omitted “mighty” [see Dan. 9:4]. They [the men of the Great Assembly] came and said “On the contrary, therein lies His might in conquering His yeser [= instincts, inclination] and showing forbearance to the wicked. As for His awesome deeds, if not for awe of G-d how could one nation [Israel] survive [scattered] among the nations? But our rabbis who made changes [i.e. Jeremiah and Daniel] how could they uproot something instituted by Moses? R. El‘azar said: Since they knew G-d is true therefore they could not be false to Him” (Yom. 69a; cf. Yer. Ber. 9:1 [12d])

            This aggadah enshrines a fundamental of rabbinic prayer. But first a brief detour is in order; it being impossible to gloss over the aggadah’s bold hyperbole. The ascription of a yeser and its conquest to G-d (with its echo of Abot 4:1), stops us in our tracks. Yet, extreme as the yeser image strikes us, we cannot pretend not to have noticed how anthropomorphism attends G-d-talk throughout the Written and Oral Torah. And down to the 13th century there were those who defended anthropomorphism, among them R. Abraham b. David (Ra’avad, d.1198) and R. Moses Taku (c. 1220). In his Ketab Tamim (published by R. Kirchheim in Ozar Nehmad, 1860 p. 58 ff.), Taku actually fights for anthropomorphic language. Nor are Taku and his school’s arguments easily refuted. Their point is that any language used of G-d is, willy nilly, figurative. Some tropes may ring earthy; others ethereal. But, theologically speaking, what’s the difference? The proposition “G-d cannot regret” is surely just as anthropomorphic as “G-d regrets”. Some people are uncomfortable when the Torah speaks of G-d, kebeyakhol, changing His mind (e.g., Gen. 6:6-7, Ex. 32:14). But as the commentators expound, “va-yinnahem hashem” is no less or more mystically parabolic than Balaam’s “lo eesh el vi-khazeb u-ben adam veyitneham” (Num. 23:19). Balaam seems to postulate that, not being human,G-d lacks nehamah capability. But by incorporating these contradictory metaphors, the Torah deprives both of absoluteness.

            Let us now return to the aggadah’s main thrust, which is its teaching on prayer. Few doxological formulae go back to Moses. Dt. 10:17’s ha`el haggadol hagibbor ve-hannora is a rare exception; and if any formula is going to be sacrosanct it has to be this one. Of course the Gemara marvels that anyone should venture to edit a formula of Mosaic provenance. Nevertheless, that is precisely what rabbanan did. By the by, mark the appellation rabbanan (=our rabbis) for Jeremiah and Daniel. Jeremiah is certainly a prophet, and Daniel borderline. In tractate Megillah (3a) the Gemara pronounces Daniel not to have been a prophet; at least not of the order of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Other sources classify him generically with prophets (e.g., Yer. Ber. 7:3 [11c]). Either way, he is a man of visions. And yet they are called rabbis, implying that it is in their rabbinic capacity they uphold the prayer book’s integrity. By so doing these rabbanan set a precedent for rabbis down the ages to do what it takes to maintain that integrity. No, not under the pressure of expediency or of surrounding cultures; but when truth and matching values, that Torat Moshe exalts above traditionalism, demand it. Changing a hallowed formula is serious; to spout hollow verbiage before Hashem is far graver. Therefore, convinced that Hashem is true “they could not be false to Him”. It was their world whose angle had shifted; and if their discourse was to be veracious it had to tally with that world. Not that they doubted Moses’ description: ha`el haggadol hagibbor ve-hannora. Moses’ every syllable would always remain and be cherished by every Jew, ad sof kol hadorot. But when standing in tefillah, other criteria kick in. Tefillah, at core, is not abstractions, but the immediate and innermost truth of vibrant, pulsating beings – i.e., abodah she-balev.

            The Talmud tells us that Hannah initiated an entirely new way of addressing G-d: “R. El‘azar said from the day … He created His world there was never a person who called the Holy One blessed be He Sabaoth until Hannah came and called Him Sabaoth” (Ber. 31b). R. El‘azar is not insinuating that the prayers of the patriarchs and Moses were deficient. But rather, as he proceeds to explain, it was Hannah’s unprecedented situation that gave rise to a new style of invocation. R. El‘azar and Hannah teach that it is not good enough to simply repeat habitual formulae when reality has moved on. Not all individuals and communities share the identical needs and aspirations; not all experience Providence the same way. That is why the Sages in their wisdom crafted skeletal tefillot – amorphous enough to resonate with a whole spectrum of the human condition, not to mention the Jewish condition. That is also why their seminal tefillot have stood the test of time.

            But it was not only the Great Assembly whose prayers were shaped by themes rather than exact terminology. Even berakhot of later vintage, were not necessarily promulgated in one authorized format – or, at any rate, their wording was not treated as canonical. A topical illustration is the triad of shelo asaniberakhot. This triad goes back to the Tosefta:

“R. Yehudah says three blessings adam (=a person, everybody) should say daily: Thank you (in Hebrew barukh – literally “blessed”; but the connotation here is gratitude. Hence: “thank you”) for not making me a gentile. Thank you for not making me a woman. Thank you for not making me a boor. Not a gentile – the gentiles are nothing as it says [Isa. 40:17] all the nations are as nought before him. Not a woman – a woman is not obligated to do [the] misvot (en ishah hayyebet be– (or ba-) misvot). Not a boor – [as the mishnah Abot says] a boor is no fearer of sin neither is an ‘am ha-’ares a pietist” (Tos. Ber. 6:23; Yer. Ber. 9:1 [13b]; cf. Men. 43b-44a).

            As indicated, the maxim about boors not fearing sin occurs in Abot (2:5) where it is attributed to Hillel. Thus boor (at least the concept if not the lemma) is likely to have been integral (a likelihood reinforced by boor’s presence in the Bavli’s recension). Nevertheless, when we look at the Bavli’s discussion of these berakhot we do not find amoraim displaying any special allegiance to the word boor. Indeed, the son of R. Aha b. Jacob is faulted by his father for saying Thank you for not making me a boor. Significantly, R. Aha did not propose scrapping the berakhah, but rather replacing boor with ebed. Today, when so many decent folks agonize over the conventional wording of these berakhot, let them not be hasty to dispense with them. Instead let these berakhot ennoble themselves by reclaiming phraseology from the available repertoire (see further). We have just seen R. Aha substituting ebed for boor; and nobody objected to ebed on the grounds that boor was immutable. Neither did those medieval and later rabbis who proposed she‘asani kirsono (for the daughters ofIsrael)or she‘asani yisrael. And make no mistake: several prayer books adopted the positive version, including the highly esteemed siddoor of R. Naftali HertzTrebitsch (Thiengen, 1560) – not to mention posqim such as Hagra (see Biur Hagra O.H. 46: 4 and cf. Sede Hemed Ha-shalem NY 1962 vol. 8 p. 174).

            When we speak of many people agonizing, the first to go public, as far as we know, was R. Aaron Worms of Metz (d.1836). In his book Me’ore `Or (p.20) he throws down the gauntlet: how can we humiliate women by reciting shelo asani isha in synagogue, when it’s a sin to humiliate people? Today there are some who would cut the Gordian knot by eliminating the ‘offensive’ blessing. Those committed to tradition, however, will go to any length before relinquishing something that derives from hazal – irrespective of whether its sponsor was a single rabbi or whether he enjoined it as an obligation (hayyab – Bavli) or in less categorical terms (sareekh – all other sources including Tur and related codes). Halakhah’s answer is R. Aha’s: retain the berakhah and its spirit while adjusting the wording. And here versions found in the Cairo Genizah offer viable options (see Heinemann op. cit. p.104). One of these Genizah texts runs: Blessed are you Hashem our G-d king of the universe who created the first human in his image and likeness (asher bara et ha-adam ha-rishon bidmuto kesalmo). If we contracted that into asa’anoo besalmo it would take care of everything. For that has to be the berakhah’s intent – to thank Hashem for creating us in the divine image and thus making us human (cf. Abot 3:18). The ebed/boor berakhah turns up in the Genizah as shelo asitani ebed labriyoth. No doubt labriyoth was appended to mitigate the tension between shelo asani ebed and the verse “kee lee bene yisrael abadeem abadai hem” (Lev. 25:55). In a society where human beings were routinely sold and bartered, thanking G-d for keeping one safe from slave-traders was perfectly logical. But as the threat of bondage diminished, the only abdoot realistically on a Jew’s horizon would have been that of Lev. 25:55. At that juncture somebody must have wondered how, in good conscience, he/she could say shelo asani ebed. On the other hand, shelo asani ebed labriyoth allows for our service to G-d, while precluding subjugation to flesh and blood. That He made us His abadeem is a privilege; something worth thanking for. In light of the foregoing, one looks to future prayer books to embrace alternatives such as: she-asa’anoo abadav, or she-qera’anoo abadav. It would align these two berakhot with what the Tur intimates to be the nub of the other berakhah in the triad. For the Tur writes: “the reason for saying shelo asani goy is that we have to give praise and thanks to Maqom for electing us from among all the nations ve-qerbanu la-abodato (=and drawing us into His service)” (Tur O.H.46).

            All this heterogeneity of nosah is a tribute to tefillah’s dynamism. It may not always have been easy to strike a balance between the twin, and often conflicting, demands of convention and probity. Yet, successive generations were undaunted; nor did they invoke the task’s intractability as a pretext for sitting on their hands. They continued to expand the liturgy (e.g., with hymns, piyyutim and new berakhot such as hamelekh bikhbodohanoten la-ya‘ef koah etc.); to contract it (e.g., eliminating the Priestly Blessing (dukhaning) from all but festival amidahs; dropping the Targum etc.) and otherwise to modify it – endeavoring, above all, to keep tefillah an organic instrument of abodat hashem. That state of affairs obtained until unforeseen winds began to parch and petrify the prayer book.

            It is not without astonishment that one discovers the liturgy tending towards stagnation in recent centuries. How did such a fate ever befall tefillah? Historians point to a number of plausible causes, not least among them applied Kabbalah. Kabbalah itself is, of course, mythical, or perhaps theosophical, speculation. But alongside the speculation proper, Kabbalah declared its mythical universe to be susceptible to human behavior. In concrete terms: scrupulous observance of ritual will impact the invisible world favorably – and vice versa. It was this ostensible rationale for ritual observance that gave Kabbalah its leg-up. At a time when ritual was on the ebb among rationalist segments of Iberian and Provencal Jewry, Kabbalah came along and infused it with theurgical vigor. Although some rabbis were perturbed by Kabbalah’s daring imagery and polytheistic-sounding vocabulary, to those who prized religious conformity above everything, the Kabbalists’ buttressing of the ceremonial (and of a ritualized liturgy in particular) was a godsend. To be sure, the Kabbalists did some mystically-oriented touching up of the liturgy – as indeed of other rituals. But those were changes to end all change. By subjecting prayer to the rhythms of their fictional world, tefillah’s moral dimension was all but crowded out as chronicled by scholars such as Graetz and Elbogen, whom we shall now quote. The historian Heinrich Graetz (d. 1891) writes:

“[According to Kabbala t]he prescribed prayers have an inevitable effect, if the worshipper knows how to address himself on any particular occasion to the Sefira concerned. For prayer must be directed only to it, not immediately to the Deity. The secret of prayer assumes an important place in the Kabbala. Every word, even every syllable in the prayers, every movement made during worship, every ceremonial symbol used therein, the Kabbala interprets in relation to some incident in the higher world. The Kabbalists took a special interest in the mystical explanation of the religious laws of Judaism. It was the centre of gravity of their theory; by its means they could oppose the Maimunists. Whilst the latter, from their philosophical point of view, declared certain precepts to be meaningless and obsolete, the Mystics treated the same ordinances as of the highest moment. They were therefore considered as the preservers of Judaism.” (History of the Jews, edited and in part translated by Bella Loewy, London 1904 Vol. 3, p. 572.)

Our next citation comes from Elbogen’s Jewish Liturgy:

“The Kabbalah, which originated in Provence and was cultivated mainly in Spain, went a different way… Magical power was attributed to the performance of ritual acts; these ensure the continued existence of the world and draw down to the lower world the blessing from the world of the spheres. For this purpose prayer was considered to be particularly important; but it had to be understood in its most profound signification and recited precisely according to precept. …The tradition must be followed exactly, for only in this way can one exercise the necessary influence on the upper world. It was not long before practical mysticism became known in Spain and became amalgamated with the theoretical. In the Zohar, composed ca. 1300, the union of the two is already complete. … The Zohar’s view of prayer enhanced its status tremendously. In an age when traditional prayer was viewed with apathy by the enlightened and incomprehension by the masses, the Zohar lent prayer new value, and created for it a kind of apotheosis. The Zohar’s fantastic ideas freed many downtrodden people from the burdens of their lives; the spiritual uplift that they experienced in traditional prayer and in the recitation of the kabbalistic hymns gave them a taste of the world to come in the midst of the hell of their everyday lives. But at the same time we must not close our eyes to the severe harm done to Jewish piety by kabbalistic theory. It turned prayer into a tool for forcibly bringing about magical effects. By introducing intermediaries between G-d and man, it spelled a fateful regression in the history of the Jewish religion. Finally, the new doctrine gave a boost to all kinds of superstition.” (Jewish Liturgy: a Comprehensive History, pp. 290-291.)

            While today’s relativists may deplore Graetz and Elbogen’s value judgments, nothing that has come to light since they wrote invalidates their overall picture. One might quibble at Elbogen’s description of Kabbalah as “a new doctrine” since Scholem and others have shown Kabbalah’s indebtedness to Neoplatonism and miscellaneous cosmogonies. Moreover, investing prayer and other pious deeds with efficacy, smacks of nothing so much as venerable, pre-Sinai occultism.[14] Not that we presume to fathom – much less to belittle – the pervasive lure of the irrational. Nevertheless we do have to wonder how it happened that the demythologizing trend of Torah should have been reversed at so late a date. The Torah avers: “Hashem is G-d in heaven above and on earth below there is no other” (Dt. 4:39) – there is no other with whom we have worshipful truck. Everything that is, comes from the One. Our life. Our death. Our hereafter – insofar as there is such a thing. Moses never talks about an afterlife. Could it be that it is irrelevant to Mosaic faith? Because G-d encompasses life and death (see Dt. 32:39; Ps. 139:8), we don’t need to fret about what awaits us when we die. If personality or individuality endure after the grave, that endurance must be good, being the will of the All Good. Perhaps it was the medieval preoccupation with heaven and hell, especially the putative torments of the latter, that paved the way for Kabbalah’s ‘other-world’ drama. Be that as it may, Kabbalah’s impact on tefillah was prodigious. It all but overshadowed biblical-rabbinic tefillah – which was essentially talking to G-d and laying our needs before Him, and waiting for G-d’s input. That’s tefillah once Torah faith has wiped away the heavenly hierarchies of polytheism. Torah posits a universe which human intellect has been granted the faculty to explore (see Dt. 4:32; Hag.11b). Beyond that unitary and cohesive universe, Torah insists there is but One; manifest to Moses as hashem el rahum ve-hannun (see Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:17-18; Ps.103: 7-8 etc.), whose presence we intuit and sense, and whom we may also come to know. The Kabbalah, no doubt, meant well with its imagery of mechanical sefirot, emanations and demons. But its best intentions were not enough; sefirot invaded the prayer book and dragged it onto the incantation track, as it were. Now because its practitioners treat incantational prayer like coins inserted into a slot-machine, they are quite naturally appalled by any tinkering with the allegedly efficacious ‘coinage’ – minted by men privy to the workings of the esoteric. It was that mode of thinking, combined with the standardizing effect of the printing press, that conspired to freeze our liturgy.

            The decline of minority minhagim is widely blamed on the spread of printing; and, certainly, since the 16th century printers have influenced the way we pray. That is the contention of R. Abraham Landau (d. 1875) as quoted by his grandson, R. Menahem Mendel:

“You, my friend and disciple, asked me to explain to you about the nosah tefillah that you heard from me with its several divergencies from what you saw in prayer books. You wonder whether it is an ashkenazic or sephardic nosah… You should know that the nosah prevalent in our country that goes by the name ‘nosah sfard’ is not the authentic sephardic nosah used by the children of the Iberian Diaspora in the Ottoman lands and in the Holy Land. Rather is it a hybrid nosah conflated from both the ashkenazic and sephardic. Moreover, the prayer books that represent this nosah lack uniformity – printers having followed their own discretion. Also many corruptions and confusions crept in. That is why I have allowed myself to change many things and to distil a clarified nosah…” (Introduction to Shome‘a Tefillah [which is the second part of Selotha de-Abraham] Jerusalem 5722).

R. Abraham Landau and his grandson delved deeply into the liturgy’s history. Their research led these 19th century Hassidic masters to recognize the extent to which the siddoor’s printers were also its arbiters.

            As if the grandeur of Kabbalah and the long arm of printers[15] had not weighed heavily enough on the siddoor, there was more to come. The 19th century controversies between the emerging factions of what were to crystallize as orthodox and progressive strands of European Jewry, did not leave the prayer book unscathed. Indeed, the prayer book was one of their earliest battlegrounds. Arguably, had the liturgy not been stagnating but keeping pace with the community’s inner evolution, the reform movement might never have gained the momentum it did. Quite a sobering thought. But speculation aside, there is no doubt that some of the defense strategies of the traditionalist camp stifled even further an already trammeled prayer book. Caught up in the heat of the fray, the traditionalists retreated into postures of indiscriminate conservatism. Expedient as such tactics may have seemed to the cause on the spur of the moment, like all reactionary measures, they take their toll if institutionalized. Thus, wherever the slogans and battle-cries of the early 19th century solidified into dogma, the effects were predictable. In the case of the siddoor, it was pushed to the brink of ossification. Not only was its text in peril of being reduced to a relic, but also its use to a fossilized ritual. Today, while the equation still lingers in some quarters, that clinging on blindly to the status quo equals piety, neither we nor our siddoor are out of the woods.

            When preachers upbraid their congregants for lacking kavvanah and for talking during tefillah one wonders if they are being entirely fair. The rabbis debated whether priests were sheluhe didan o sheluhe dishmayya (= our agents or agents of Heaven; Ned. 35b). Unlike priests, the precentor’s function is undisputed. It is the congregation that he deputizes for, as his talmudic title shaliah sibboor proclaims. The shaliah sibboor who finds his congregants disengaging, must ask himself whether they and the tefillot he is reciting are really in sync. Experiments suggest that when prayers give vent to a community’s yearnings and speak to its situation (as they ought), congregants do not suffer the boredom and ennui that drives them to jabber. But even chatterboxes, at least they come to the house of prayer. What of the multitudes who stay away? Some of the latter are, no doubt, alienated from prayer or indeed from worship in general. But just as often we run into good people who believe in Hashem and long to pray yet report failure in their efforts to find affinity with parts of the liturgy. Even so, it is not primarily for their sake that the prayer book needs to revivify itself. The discontent of congregants, in and of itself, does not appear historically to have constituted grounds for emendation, unless the gripe was Torah-fuelled. Only after a liturgical usage could be shown to have fallen behind as measured by a Torah value, might considerations of gezerah she’en rob sibboor yakhol la‘amod bah be brought to bear.[16] One such value is integrity. As we have already learnt from the teaching at Yoma 69a, words that worshippers cannot utter honestly are best omitted.[17] Another is reticence. “R. Meir said ‘A person’s words before the Holy One blessed be He should always be few as it says … G-d is in heaven and you are on earth, therefore let your words be few”.[18] But evidently, language chaste and spare did not appeal to all tastes. “A certain man was leading the prayers in the presence of R. Haninah. He said ‘The great, the mighty, the awesome, the puissant, the potent, the revered, the strong, the powerful, the sure and the glorious God’. He [R. Haninah] waited until he finished and then asked him ‘Have you exhausted all the attributes of your Lord?’…”[19] No doubt the precentor of R. Haninah’s day, like many liturgical composers down the ages, found euphony in synonyms strung together – as if lifted from a thesaurus such as Roget’s. Today’s synagogue-goers seem, by and large, to have lost the ear for that effusive style, so that formulae such as the familiar version of Emet Ve-yaseeb with its chain of fifteen adjectives leaves them cold. The Cairo Genizah once again turns up trumps, providing us with a six-adjective version.[20] Needless to say, this Genizah version opens with the incipit Emet Ve-yaseeb – a phrase that by virtue of its Talmudic provenance has a status analogous to matbe‘ot shetab‘oo hakhameem which no passing fad can dislodge. They and the tenets of faith that our hakhameem built into the liturgyremain inviolate. On the other hand, wherever the hakhameem left leeway, there we are summoned (it’s not a question of license but a bounden duty) to ensure that what is verbalized in prayer, not only avoids prolixity, but above all reflects the community’s convictions and sincere desires; as individuals, as a congregation and as members of kelal yisrael.

            Earlier we looked at the Kesef Mishneh’s distinction between legitimate changes and illegitimate. “One is when the person recites the nosah of the berakhah that the sages instituted only he adds or subtracts or he recites it in a way that is similar to the nosah that the sages instituted except that he says it in other words – howbeit words that correspond to the nosah instituted by hazal. Since the intent (or purport) of his words amounts to what hazal instituted there is no error. Nevertheless ‘it is not meet’ thus to do. The other ‘diverging’ is when he changes the intent…”

            As we revisit the Kesef Mishneh, let us focus on a point ignored first time round. If it is “not meet” to alter the wording, even where the intent remains intact, why legislate for such a contingency? Why even itemize a category of change that does not measure up to “error” but counts merely as inappropriate? Or, perchance, is this ruling telling us something portentous? The Mishnah names the ben ha-peraqeem (=gaps, joints) of the shema and its berakhot because they are the loci where a person interrupts in the event of certain overriding exigencies (see M. Ber. 2:1-2). Under normal circumstances ben ha-peraqeem have no practical significance. But they are, nonetheless, tabulated and codified against a rainy day. Similarly here; that which is inept is to be avoided ordinarily. Yet, it is classified as merely inept in order to tell you that if a weightier imperative calls, the weightier prevails. We have already seen hazal’s configuration of tefillah’s quiddity: abodah she-balevrahame and ingenuousness. As we approach the liturgy – bidheelu urheemu – may we never lose sight of those fundamentals.

[1] Duties of the Heart, Eighth Treatise, Spiritual Accounting 3:9.

[2] Ha-tefillah be-yisrael, Dvir 1972; Jewish Liturgy: a Comprehensive History, translated by R. P. Scheindlin JPS 1993.

[3] Ancestors of the West, Chicago 2000, pp.62-63.

[4] Furthermore, the musaf prayer of the ma‘amadot and public fasts (M. Ta‘an. 4:1; Yer. ibid.; Tosefta Ta‘an. 2:6; Yad, Kele ha-Miqdash 6:4 et al) was a weekday prayer recited on days when there was no musaf sacrifice – proving withal the prayer’s independence of a qorban musaf.

[5] The Yerushalmi is far more forthright regarding the New Moon musaf:שמואל אמר צריך לומר והשיאנו. רב אמר צריך להזכיר בה זמן. תני ר’ הושעיה והיו לאותות ולמועדים ולימים ו[ל]שנים. (Yer. Ber. 9:2 [13d]).

[6] Although we should not overlook Rambam’s use of the word inyan in the clause, כדי שיהא ענין כל ברכה ערוך.

[7]    ונ”ל דמאי דקתני מקום שאמרו לקצר אינו רשאי להאריך מקום שאמרו להאריך אינו רשאי לקצר לאו למימרא שאינו רשאי לקצר ולהאריך בנוסח הברכה כלומר לרבות ולמעט במלותיה דא”כ היה להם לתקן נוסח כל ברכה וברכה במלות מנויות ובענינים ידועים ולהשמיענו כל ברכה וברכה בנוסחתי’ וזה לא מצינו בשום מקום ולא אמרו אלא המלות שיש הקפדה בהן לבד . . . אבל בשאר נוסח הברכות לא נתנו חכמים בהם שיעור שיאמר כך וכך . . . אלא ודאי נראה שאין ההקפדה ברבוי הנוסח ומיעוטו אלא במטבע שטבעו חכמים והוא שיש ברכות שפותחות בברוך וחותמות בברוך והיא שנקראת בכ”מ ארוכה. וגרסינן בירושלמי אמר רבי יודן מטבע קצור פותח בברוך ואינו חותם בברוך מטבע ארוך פותח בברוך וחותם בברוך . . . (חידושי הרשב”א השלם ח”א ירושלים תשכ”ג).                                                                                                                 

[8] The Song was divided into two; verses 1-10 being sung one sabbath afternoon and verses 11-18 the next (Rosh Hash. 31a). In Gaonic times we hear for the first time of a grudgingly sanctioned custom to include the Song among the pesuqe de-zimra on sabbath and festivals: “וכתב רב נטרונאי גאון הכי: ופסוקי דזמרא שאנו אומרין בכל יום כאן בשתי ישיבות אין רגילין לומר אז ישיר משה אלא לאחר שחותם על פסוקי דזמרא אלתר חותם ופורס על שמע וכן בבית רבנו. ובשאר בתי כנסיות אומר ויושע וכל השירה בכל השבתות ובכל המועדים וביום הכפורים ואין ממחין בהן.” (Responsa of R. Natronai b. Hilai Gaon edited by Yerahmiel [Robert] Brody, Jerusalem 1994 vol. 1 p.115; cf. Sefer ha-Ittim p. 249). Mahzor Vitry, on the other hand, preserves an epistle sent from Rome that robustly promotes the Song’s liturgical recitation – not merely on sabbaths and feast days but daily: “דעו כי שירת הים היה מנהגינו מנהג כל קהל רומא ומנהג כל קהילות אשר סביבותינו … לומרה כל השנה כולה בכל יום ויום … ומנהג אבותינו תורה היא. ובכמה מקומות אמרו רבותינו בתלמוד ארץ ישראל מנהג מבטל את ההלכה וכל שכן דבר זה שאין הלכה סותרתו ואין לו זכר בכל התלמוד. ושנהיגו [כך!] רבותינו לאומרה יען כי הזמירות חובה היה עלינו לאומרה בכל יום דא”ר יוסי יהי חלקי מגומרי הלל בכל יום ומסקנא כי קאמרי בפסוקי דזמרה. ולפיכך תיקנו רבותינו לומר עמהם זו השירה שהיא על מפלת אויבינו…” (Vitry, pp. 226-227).

[9] As is “al harsha‘eem tasheet yadekha” of the Yerushalmi’s version of tefillat habinenu: biblical sheet yad al ranging from holding sway (or having authority) over at Ps 139:5 and Job 9:33 all the way to the gesture of benediction at Gen 48:14, 17.

[10] As did  some 700 years ago R. Manoah of Narbonne: וא”ת נתקין ברכה דליהדרו בתשובה כדאמרא ברוריא דביתהו דר’ מאיר לר’ מאיר על הנהו בריוני… (Sefer ha-Menuha, Jerusalem 1970 p.59).

[11] Cf. the על כן נקוה from Rab’s teqi‘ata (see Yer. R. H. 1:2 [57a]; Yer. A. Z. 1:3 [39c]; Lev. Rab. 29:1 etc. ) which, in concert with the rest of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, asks: להפנות אליך כל רשעי ארץ.

[12] Not dissimilar were the fortunes of gomel hasadeem tobeem. For while Reef (Alfasi d. 1103) and many if not most rishoneem (including Rambam and Abudraham) attest to gomel hasadeem tobeem, printed editions of the Talmud read (Ber. 60b) gomel hasadeem tobeem le-ammo yisrael. This expanded version was codified by Tur (O.H. 46; but see Bet Yosef ad loc. also Diqduqe Sofrim Ber. 60b) and has largely prevailed with the notable exception of the Yemenite nosah that retains pristine gomel hasadeem tobeem.

[13] In the Shklov edition of 1803 the postscript appears following siman 241 under the heading דיוקים בנוסח התפילה והברכות מהגאון ר”א ז”ל.

[14] Dt 18: 11 outlaws hober haber – rendered by Onqelos rateen retan (= casting spells). Aramaic rateen appears again at Sot. 22a in the maxim rateen magosa ve-la yada‘ mai amar. Rashi explains the maxim: “The sorcerer mutters his charms but comprehends neither what they are nor what they mean except that they work inasmuch as the sorcery is effected by means of those charms”.

[15] Not to mention those hazzaneem who were a law unto themselves, as bemoaned by R. Yoel Sirkes (d. 1640; see Bayit Hadash on Tur O.H. 267 s.v. ve-en).

[16] A case in point: Tur (Orah Hayim 101) writes that in his day people no longer followed the practice of repeating the amidah if they failed to have due kawanah the first time ‘because nowadays it is unlikely that a person will achieve kawanah even in a second attempt’ (cf. Rema’s gloss in Shulhan Arukh O.H. 101:1).

[17] See also commentaries to Ps 17:1 and to Job 42: 7 – esp. Malbim.

[18] Ber. 61a.

[19] Ber. 33b; cf. Meg. 25a.

[20] See “Mi-seder ha-tefilah be-eres yisrael” by Simha Assaf in Sefer Dinaburg edited by Yitzhak Baer, Yehoshua Guttman and Moshe Shuva, Jerusalem 1949 p.116.

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