Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kol Nidrei

Kol Nidrei is an enigma wrapped in mystery, the strangest prayer ever to capture the religious imagination.                        Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor 
Although "Each Jewish generation gave Kol Nidrei a different meaning and significance." (Rabbi Stuart Weinberg Gershon), it is actually every Jewish community and individual gives Kol Nidrei a meaning that meets their personal and communal needs. As Jews we are experts in deriving meaning from unlikely texts (Kol Nidrei itself), unsubstantiated "historical" theories (the Converso [Marrano] origin of KN) and even typographical errors (reading Iberians for Avaryanim-sinners in the introductory passage).
Kol Nidrei might signify the beginning of a 25-hour court room drama in which we re-evaluate our lives, or it might form a bubble in time to help us re-start our journey in the new year or it might focus us on the need to take our words seriously or _____________________ (fill in the blank).

Gmat Hatima Tova 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Thoughts on Un’taneh Tokef

For many Ashkenazi Jews, the liturgical climax of High Holidays is Un’taneh tokef. For others, it’s the most problematic.  The description of angels recoiling and shaking before the Heavenly Judge Who sits before a ledger inscribing our names is hard to take literally.
The poetry is moving and powerful, so powerful it’s scary. If you believe it literally, then there is plenty to be scared of, for who lives but does not sin?

But what if you don’t?  Remember it's poetry, and poetry doesn’t need to be taken literally. Immerse yourself in the experience without asking if the True Judge sits on high and writes in a book. Like many of the other piyutim (prayer-poems) set in the Heavenly Court, Un’taneh tokef  is a powerful invitation for guided imagery, an opportunity to see ourselves as vulnerable, without actually being in danger. “Who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water?” Don’t take it literally. Even without believing that the Holy One decided who would be overtaken by storm surge or crushed under the rubble of an earthquake , the poetry works. Answer each question, “I will.”
Unetaneh Tokef . At its heart, it asks the hardest questions: Who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water?
Clearly, we can’t know but that is exactly the point. We can experience the power of the poetry even without believing it literally. Answer each question, “I will.”
Who will live? I will.                              
Who will die? I will.
Who by hunger? Perhaps I will.             
Who by thirst? I will.
Who by earthquake? Why not me?
The text is an invitation to guided imagination, to imagine ourselves a vulnerable without actually being in danger. We don’t know how and when we will die. We usually banish those thoughts, otherwise it would be impossible to live. But sometimes we must confront them. We aren’t often given a second chance but it is possible to take one, to create it for ourselves. The power of the piyut is its ability to motivate us to take the actions needed to do that.        

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Rosh Hashanah Liturgy: Structure & Differences from Ordinary Sabbaths

Here's some basic info to help you find your way through the High Holiday prayers, assuming that you aren't totally lost in the ordinary Shabbat service. If you aren't, I'll try to get a post about that up, too. In the meantime, look here.
This is the handout from the class that started the entire series of English classes in prayer at Hod Vehadar (which are gradually being adapted and repeated in Hebrew). 
Page numbers refer to the Rinat Yisrael Ashkanaz (R) and Birnbaum machzorim (B), which are the ones most available at Hod veHadar, but the structure is the same in all traditional machzorim (machzor=high holiday prayerbook). 
Additions to morning and evening services, from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Hoshana Rabba: Psalm 27 (R 43, B 46). “Hope in the Lord; be strong and of good courage! O hope in the Lord!”

Changes in all services from Erev Rosh Hashanah through Neilah (the end of Yom Kippur):

A.       Additions to the first two and last two blessings of the amida, for example: R 34, 39; B 31/2, 37/8.
1.         “Remember us to life, O King who delights in life; inscribe us in the book of life for your sake, O living God.” 
2.         “Who is like You, merciful Father: In mercy you remember your creatures to life.”
3.         “Inscribe all the people of your covenant for a good life.”
4.         May we and all Israel your people be remembered and inscribed before you in the book of life and blessing, peace and prosperity, for a good life and for peace.
B.        Changes in the Kaddish, including the Mourner’s Kaddish (R 43; slightly different in B 45/6):
1.          לעלא ולעלא מכל ברכתא  instead of לעלא מן ברכתא 
2.          עושה השלום   instead of עושה שלום.
C.        There are additional changes to blessings that are said only on weekdays between RH and YK.

In all holiday amida prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

The third blessing ( (קדושת השםbegins with three paragraphs beginning with ובכן. (R 35-36; B 31/2-33/4). In the context of declaring God’s holiness we also “reaffirm loyalty to a universal outlook and world brotherhood, the wellbeing of Israel, and the triumph of moral law” (Morris Silverman). The origin of these prayers is unknown but the concluding sectionקדוש אתה ונורא שמך   is found in the ancient Land of Israel rite.  Note the final phrase המלך הקדוש   instead of  האל הקדוש. Emphasis on God’s sovereignty is a major theme of all Rosh Hashanah prayers.

The fourth blessing of Shabbat and holiday amidot is  קדושת היוםthe “sanctity of the day,” and is adapted for the particular day. The Rosh Hashanah version is special because the concluding blessing replaces מלך העולם with מלך על כל הארץ. The difference in meaning is not great but the change adds emphasis. Also in Kiddush.  

Piyutim are elaborate, poetic additions to the obligatory service, dating from the sixth century  through the middle ages.  They are not obligatory; indeed many rabbis opposed them. Ibn Ezra: “When we pray it is forbidden to inject in our prayers piyutim, the basic meaning of which we do not understand.” He lost the battle. There are many variations and customs about which are read on which day and which are skipped. There is no one right way, but many local variants and customs.

Rosh Hashanah Shaharit

A.       The morning blessings and psalms (R 108-153; B 51-170) are unchanged but the hazzan starts formal chanting at “Hamelech” rather than “Shokhen ad” to emphasize the sovereignty theme.
B.        Just before Barechu, Psalm 130 (R 156; B 171-172) is often added. Its theme is forgiveness: “O Israel, put hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is kindness, with him there is great saving power. He will redeem Israel from iniquity.”
C.        In Rinat Yisrael, there is only one brief addition to the Shema and its blessings section of the service (R 154 [not the first printing]; B 171-72). In Birnbaum, there are many additions that Rinat Yisrael relegates to the appendix (references in teeny letters) and there they stay.
D.       In the silent amida in Shaharit (R 165-170; B 202-210), the changes are as described above.
E.        The reader’s repetition is different on the first (R 171-186; B 210-228, 262-270) and second  (R 279-296; B 230-270) days. In RY on Day 2, after skipping forward, remain. Everything is repeated.
F.         Avinu Malkaynu (R 186-88, 297-298; B 271-76) is recited on Rosh Hashanah morning, Yom Kippur, the intervening weekday mornings and other fast days (but not Tisha B’av). Its origin in the public prayer services in times of drought prescribed by the Mishna and Talmud. Rabbi Akiva is recorded as praying just Our Father, our King we have no King except You… have mercy on us for your sake.” It has since grown and there are now several versions.  Most often, the כתבנו lines in the middle are read repeating after the Hazzan and the last one is sung.
G.       Torah service is substantially the same as Shabbat and other holidays, with changes that emphasize God’s sovereignty. There are five aliyot + maftir (in a second scroll) on weekdays and seven on Shabbat. For commentary on the readings, click here.
H.       After the haftara reading and prayer for the State of Israel but before the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark, it’s Shofar time (round 1), but not on Shabbat. (R 203-205, 310-311; B 315-320). Customarily, 100 shofar blasts are sounded. These are the first 30.
First Psalm 47, is read seven times (“God is gone up amidst shouting, the Lord amidst the sound of the horn. Sing praises to God…  For God is the King of all the earth”) and seven more verses are read responsively. The person blowing the shofar, adds another verse and then recites the mitzvah blessing and sheheyanu. The hazzan reads out the order of the shofar calls. After the last (tekiah gedola) everyone says aloud “Happy are the people who know the sound of the shofar, Lord they walk in your light” (Ps. 89) and modulate into the familiar Ashrei psalm (gliding over two more verses also from Ps. 89 that aren’t in all machzorim).

Rosh Hashanah Musaf

A.       Begins with Hineni, the hazzan’s prayer (R 207; B 326). Sometimes read before the repetition
B.        Nine blessings instead of seven. The three central blessings are:
1.         Malchuyot (sovereignty): God as sovereign (begins with the usual kedushat hayom). (R 211-215; B 331-337)
2.         Zichronot (remembrance): God’s mindfulness of us and our situations. (R 215-218; B 337-342)
3.         Shofarot (the Shofar): God as redeemer. (R 218-220; B 342-346)
4.         Each of these begins with an introductory statement (in Malchuyot after the usual kedushat hayom.  In Malchuyot, this is Aleinu, which was later copied to the end of each service.
5.         The intro is followed by ten verses on the appropriate theme, three from the Torah, three from the Prophets and three from the Writings, and another from the Torah.
6.         Each section ends with a concluding blessing.
C.        Again, the reader’s repetition is different on the first (R 223-250; B 349-358, 361-408) and second  (R 328-351; B 359-408) days.
1.         For many people, the liturgical climax is Un’taneh tokef (R 228-230; 329-331 B 361-363). For others, it’s the most problematic. In either case, it is actually a piyut leading up to the Kedusha. For more info see “Who by Fire, Who by Water” , click on Google Preview, and then buy it if you can. Do "Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah avert the sever edecree"?
2.         Shofar blowing in the repetition: at the end of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Each time followed by Hayom Harat Olam and a prayer that our prayers and shofar blowing be accepted.
For more reading: 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Redeemer or redemption?

At the end of a class on ברכת אבות Avot blessing at the beginning of the amida someone mentioned that I hadn't dealt with the גואל/גאולה  redeemer/redemption issue and I responded that indeed I hadn't, because I wasn't sure what to say about it. Since then I have thought about it a lot.

I grew up saying גאולה/redemption and was actively taught that Jews “believe in the messianic age not in the Messiah.” This was largely an anti-Christian polemic and considering the rather evangelical environment, made a lot of sense. 
When I started using more traditional liturgy, the transition to גואל/redeemer was not difficult, based on the idea that real change in society is usually led by galvanizing figure who can focus the energy. Therefore, I'm not sure that there's much difference between גואל/redeemer and גאולה/redemption, since the גואל/redeemer is simply the instrument that brings גאולה/redemption.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in class מביא גואל /brings a redeemer that is different from other places in the liturgy where God is called גואל ישראל  /Redeemer of Israel and in the other divine attributes and actions in the list, in which God is seen as the active force healing the sick, freeing captives etc. Perhaps the form מביא גואל /brings a redeemer comes as an example that reflects on the other actions we attribute to God; just as we attribute to God redemption that is actually realized through human agency, we need to understand that the healing and other desired ends attributed to God in the preceding list are also achieved through human agency.