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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Introduction to Mishkan T'filah Linear Commentary

by Rabbi Richard Sarason, PhD

To help worshipers use the commentary that accompanies the linear-format Shabbat services, while keeping that commentary relatively compact on the page, we offer here some general background on the sources and development of Jewish liturgy, and on the evolving relationship between Reform liturgy and the traditional siddur (prayer book; “Order” of service).

Jewish worship is a living organism. The service as we know it today is a product of many eras, places, and sensibilities. In addition to being a ritual manual and guide to daily piety, our prayer book is truly a textbook of living Judaism, embodying our history and our evolving ideas about God, the world and our relationship to both. It contains the words of prophets and priests, sages and poets, philosophers and mystics, all juxtaposed with each other. The language of Jewish prayer is poetic. It is modeled on, and includes large portions of, the Psalms and other prayers in the Hebrew Bible, the TaNaKH (the traditional abbreviation for the three parts of Scripture: Torah, “Instruction;” Ne’vi’im, “Prophets;” and Ketuvim, “Writings.”)

While much of the language is biblical, or based on biblical models, the liturgy itself was first shaped by the Rabbis (masters, teachers) of the late first through seventh centuries of the Common Era (C.E.) in the Land of Israel and Babylonia. Jews had always prayed, but prayer as the primary expression of Jewish public worship became common only after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when daily sacrifices no longer could be offered. (Some groups of Jews outside the Land of Israel who did not have access to the Temple, and others, like the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls who withdrew from the Temple in protest against the perceived illegitimacy of the Maccabean priesthood in the second century before the Common Era [B.C.E.], engaged in regular communal prayer even before the Temple was destroyed.)

In place of the twice-daily sacrifices, the Rabbis instituted a thrice-daily Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions, the T’filah (“the Prayer”), later called the Amidah (“the Standing [Prayer]”), or the Sh’moneh Esrei (“the Eighteen [Benedictions]”). The Amidah was to be prayed by, and on behalf of, the entire community; down to our own day, it remains the core of each Jewish worship service. The three daily prayers correspond roughly to the three main demarcations of the day—sunrise, noon, sunset.

The Amidah serves a twofold purpose: It expresses the community’s praise of God and gives voice to their needs; simultaneously it expresses the hopes and needs of each individual Jew and encourages each person to insert his or her own private prayers. Here is an attempt to address the ongoing tension between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual. This is also the reason why, in traditional worship, the Amidah is recited twice, once by each person privately and then by the congregation together, led by the sh’liach tzibur (prayer leader, “agent of the congregation”). As Mishkan T’filah attests, contemporary worship still struggles to balance the needs of the individual worshiper with those of the congregation.

The other early liturgical unit, dating from at least the first century C.E., is what the Rabbis call K’riat Sh’ma, the “Recitation of Sh’ma.” Traditionally, this comprises the twice-daily recitation, “when you lie down and when you rise up,” of three biblical paragraphs, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, framed by rabbinic benedictions appropriate to evening and morning recitation. The combination of these two originally separate liturgies is the origin of the multi-dimensional Jewish prayer service as we know it.

Other elements of the service followed: The Rabbis endorsed the pious custom of preparing oneself to pray by coming early to the synagogue in the morning and reciting psalms (Mishnah B’rachot 5:1). In time, this became a regular part of the morning service, the Pesukei deZimra (“Verses of Song”) psalms and praises recited before Bar’chu. Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60a) prescribes a series of blessings to be recited, as an act of personal piety, upon waking up and beginning each new day. Later, these were incorporated into the public synagogue service and became the Birchot haShachar (“Morning Benedictions”) unit with which the morning service now begins. The custom of public reading from the Torah in the synagogue on Sabbaths and Monday and Thursday mornings, and of reading also from the Prophets (Haftarah, “conclusion” of the scriptural reading) on Sabbaths, is very old; it goes back to the Second Temple period. After the Temple’s destruction, this was combined in the synagogue with the rabbinic liturgies. The conclusion of the daily services with the Aleinu prayer (“Let us adore”), on the other hand, is a relatively late custom, originating in the Rhineland around 1300, in the wake of the Crusades. (The prayer itself is much earlier; it is part of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy.) And later still is the service of Kabbalat Shabbat (“Welcoming the Sabbath”), which began as a ritual practiced by sixteenth-century Kabbalists (mystics) in the Land of Israel.

Jewish liturgical and ritual creativity has never flagged. Even as elements of the service became fixed, there was always a countervailing impulse toward spontaneity and improvisation. Our earliest rabbinic sources, the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmuds (on which, see below), suggest that, although the Rabbis early on fixed the content and structure of the liturgy (themes, numbers of benedictions and their relative lengths), the actual wording of the prayers was not (or at least not completely) fixed. Only the concluding benedictory phrases (such as, “Praised be You, O Lord our God, who brings on the evening twilight”) are explicitly prescribed in the Mishnah. Opening phrases occasionally are mentioned as well.

Both the Mishnah and the Talmuds bear witness to an ongoing debate over the desirability of fixing the precise wording of the prayers. On the one hand, fixed prayers are easier to teach and easier to memorize; they allow worshipers to “flow with the words.” But spontaneous, creative, and fluid wordings force worshipers to think about what they’re saying and to respond with kavanah, intentionality: “When you pray, do not make your Prayer a matter of fixed routine, but an entreaty for mercy and grace before the Omnipresent One” (M. Avot 2:13).

Even when fixed wordings seemed to have won out, new poetic versions of the basic prayers were often created. Elegant and elaborate hymns (piyyutim) were written and performed in synagogues on Shabbat and festival mornings (some of these are included in the festival services in this prayer book). These poems incorporated rabbinic midrashim (interpretations) on the day’s Torah reading and tied them to the themes of the benedictions and of the day. They are, perhaps, the earliest “creative liturgies.” The creation of liturgical hymns (like Adon Olam, Yigdal, and Yedid Nefesh) in different styles, reflecting changing aesthetics and theologies, continued down to the modern period.

The first “prayer book,” Seder Rav Amram (“The Order of Rav Amram”), a manual of the liturgy of the entire year with fully written-out prayers, dates only from the last half of the ninth century, during the Islamic period; before that time we have no full written texts of any of the standard prayers. Seder Rav Amram was composed by the head of the talmudic academy in Sura, Babylonia, in response to a request from the Jewish community of Barcelona, Spain, for guidance about the “correct” order of prayers as practiced in the Babylonian rabbinical academies. It became the basis particularly for the Sephardic rite of Jews who lived in Islamic countries. Many other manuals detailing liturgical laws and customs of various Jewish communities were to follow.

The various medieval prayer manuals contributed to the fixing of Jewish prayer texts and customs. But at the same time, a variety of pious and mystical movements created new rituals, customs, and texts; they also infused new meanings into old ones. Pietists in the Rhineland in the twelfth century (Hasidei Ashkenaz), and Kabbalists (mystics; literally “receivers” of mystical traditions) in fourteenth-century Spain, Provence, and later in the Land of Israel (particularly the circle around Isaac Luria in Safed) made major contributions to the liturgy, including numerous hymns (like An’im Z’mirot, Yedid Nefesh, and L’chah Dodi) and customs (like Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings, and Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the all-night Torah study on the eve of Shavuot). Ultimately, it was the invention of the printing press, and the expense of publishing every local variation, that led more than anything else to the standardization of prayer texts.

The modern reform of Jewish liturgy began in early nineteenth-century Germany. Initially, the concerns were aesthetic and cultural: How could the style of Jewish worship, for a community entering into mainstream western culture, be brought into conformity with contemporary (bourgeois Lutheran and Reformed Protestant) ideals of religious edification and piety? Early reforms included shortening the service and eliminating repetitions; introducing a German-language sermon, hymn singing and art music with a choir and organ; and emphasizing decorum in the conduct of services. Subsequently, theological concerns became important as well: There was a strong desire to “say what you mean and mean what you say.” Rituals based in superstition (“folk religion”) were eliminated, as was the mention of angels. The hope for some kind of spiritual immortality after death replaced that for physical resurrection. The expectation of a future messianic age in which the evils of social life would be ameliorated was substituted for the belief in a personal Messiah. In general, Jewish particularism was toned down in favor of a prophetic universalism. Prayers for the ingathering of the exiles to the Land of Israel and for the reinstitution of the ancient Temple sacrificial rituals were eliminated: These no longer expressed the political and religious aspirations of western European Jews. (See Jakob J. Petuchowski, Guide to the Prayerbook, Cincinnati, 1992, pp. 54-55.)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most Reform liturgies in Europe were fairly “moderate” in their style and content, still retaining a good deal of Hebrew language and tradition. In the United States, however, what became “classical” Reform was fairly radical, eliminating much Hebrew and many traditional practices. The first edition of the Union Prayer Book, published in 1894-95, embodied the spirit of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the first manifesto of Reform Judaism in North America. It was the work primarily of more radical German Reformers. Subsequent revisions (1918-20, 1940-45) reflected the growing influence on the movement of Jews from Eastern Europe who had greater attachment to Hebrew and traditional customs.

Gates of Prayer (1975) and Gates of Repentance (1978), the next North American Reform liturgies, displayed the sensibilities of the post-Six Day War period, combining acute awareness of the Holocaust and the State of Israel with a growing interest in the Hebrew language and traditional ritual forms. The first impact of the feminist movement that began in the late 1960’s, and the entry of a significant number of women into the Reform rabbinate over a decade later, can be seen in the gender-neutral editions of Gates of Prayer (1994) and Gates of Repentance (1996). Their fuller impact is felt only now in Mishkan T’filah, which also reflects the spiritual sensibilities of the maturing post-war “baby boom” generation and the search for personal meaning within (and without) the communal context. A deeper exploration of Jewish tradition (including the mystical tradition) and Hebrew liturgy has been part of this search. Dor dor v’dorshav: Each generation refracts Jewish tradition and Jewish worship through its own lenses. This prayer book explicitly acknowledges that fact, but also strives for continuity among the generations.

We must identify briefly the literary sources of rabbinic liturgy, as these are cited in the commentary:

  1. The Mishnah (“Memorized Teaching”), the earliest rabbinic text, edited in the Land of Israel around 200 C.E., is a succinct anthology and study-book of early rabbinic law and custom. Its contents are compiled in 63 tractates, arranged into six orders. The first tractate, B’rachot (“Blessings”) deals entirely with liturgies, prayers, and blessings. The public Torah reading is discussed in Tractate Megillah, which deals primarily with the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim. Other prayers and liturgies are discussed in tractates that deal with the festivals, fast days, and the rituals of the Temple. References in the commentary to the Mishnah prefix the letter “m.” to the name of the tractate, followed by the chapter and paragraph number (m. B’rachot 1:4, for example).
  2. The Tosefta (“Supplement”) is the earliest commentary on the Mishnah, edited in the Land of Israel sometime in the third century C.E. It contains additional traditions and alternative versions of traditions that are as old as those in the Mishnah, as well as commentary on the Mishnah. Some of the traditions included here are the earliest building-blocks of the two Talmuds. The Tosefta broadly follows the arrangement of the Mishnah. References in the commentary to the Tosefta prefix the letter “t.” to the name of the tractate, followed by the chapter and paragraph number (t. B’rachot 2:1, for example).
  3. There are two Talmuds (“that which is learned”), one from the Land of Israel and one from Babylonia. The former is briefer and generally thought to have been completed first, sometime in the fifth century C.E.; the latter was likely completed about a century later. Both are framed as commentaries on the Mishnah and follow its order, but they include voluminous other materials. The Babylonian Talmud became the primary source of later Jewish law (halakhah) when Babylonian Jewry later found itself at the center of the Islamic empire, in the eighth century C.E. References in the commentary to the Talmud of the Land of Israel (also called the Palestinian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud, and Talmud Yerushalmi) prefix the letter “y.” to the name of the tractate, followed by the chapter, paragraph number, and folio and column number in the standard one-volume edition printed in Krotoshin, Poland, in 1866 (for example, y. B’rachot 2:1, 4c). References to the Babylonian Talmud prefix the letter “b.” to the name of the tractate, followed by the folio number and side in the standard edition printed in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1880-86 (for example, b. B’rachot 11b).
  4. Tractate Soferim (“Scribes”), composed probably in the eighth century c.e. in the Land of Israel, is a manual for Torah scribes that includes a list of Torah readings for special occasions, an account of the Torah service, with a full text, as well as the earliest full references to the Kaddish and an account of its liturgical use. It is sometimes called one of the “minor tractates of the Talmud,” because it is often printed in sets of the Babylonian Talmud, although it is not part of the Talmud. Reference is made in the commentary to the standard printed edition found in the back of the Avodah Zarah volume in the Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud. An English translation may be found in the Soncino Minor Tractates volume. Reference is also made to the critical edition of Michael Higger (New York, 1937), which numbers the paragraphs differently.

The following midrashic and homiletical texts are referred to in the commentary:

  1. Midrash Tanhumais a homiletical midrash on the Torah, compiled in the Land of Israel sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries c.e. The edition published by Solomon Buber (Martin’s grandfather) in 1885 transcribes a manuscript that differs from the standard printed edition. The Buber edition is cited according to the parashah (weekly Torah reading) and paragraph number (thus, B’reishit, 10).
  2. Seder Eliahu Zutais a homiletical text compiled in the Land of Israel in the eighth century c.e. that stresses the value of Torah study and ethical behavior. It is cited according to chapter number (Seder Eliahu Zuta 17).
  3. Sefer HaZohar(“The Book of [Divine] Radiance”), the major work of Spanish Kabbalah from the end of the thirteenth century c.e., takes the literary form of a homiletical midrash in Aramaic on the Torah. The interpretations are all symbolic of processes that take place within God, who has ten primary aspects or dimensions (s’firot). The Zohar is cited according to the parashah (weekly Torah reading), and the folio number and side in the standard edition (Vilna, Lithuania, 1882); thus, Vayakhel, 206a.

The following medieval halakhic liturgical compendia are referred to in the commentary:

  1. Seder Rav Amram, the first “order of prayer,” composed by the ga’on (“eminence,” head of the rabbinical academy) Amram ben Sheshna sometime before 875 c.e. in Sura, Babylonia. It heavily influenced all subsequent rabbinic prayer rites, but especially that of the Sephardim (Jews in Spain and other Arab lands).
  2. Machzor Vitry, the first major liturgical work of Rhineland Jewry (Ashkenazim), compiled by Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry (now in France) in the twelfth century.
  3. Kol Bo (“Miscellany,” literally “everything’s in it”), compiled by Shemaryah ben Simchah, details the liturgical customs of German Jews in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
  4. Seder HaYom(“The Order of the Day”), by Moses ben Makhir, who lived near Safed in the late sixteenth century, is a liturgical work heavily influenced by the kabbalistic school of Isaac Luria.

Rabbi Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought at HUC in Cincinnati and is associate editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual.

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