Commentary Magazine


Jewish Worship, by Abraham E. Millgram

The Siddur

Jewish Worship.
by Abraham E. Millgram.
Jewish Publication Society of America. 673 pp. $8.50.

Of all the sacred books the Jews have produced, the siddur—which might be termed the Jewish Book of Common Prayer—is perhaps the most representative of Jewish life and thought. Unlike the Bible and the Talmud, which at some point were formally redacted and then closed to further changes of any kind, the siddur remained an open-ended enterprise, and long after its fundamental pattern and contents were established, it continued to incorporate contributions from various sources. Because it was so singularly “Jewish” the siddur, unlike the Bible, could not be appropriated by seceding sectarians or by the so-called daughter religions of Christianity and Islam. Moreover, unlike the Talmud, mastery of which required formidable powers of intellect and perseverance, the siddur became the unique possession of the Jewish common man. Historically, its importance in the shaping of the Jewish ethos cannot be overestimated. As Abraham Millgram notes in this excellent and comprehensive study, Jewish life until recent times could be described (in Moritz Steinschneider’s words) as “a divine service with interruptions.”

Obviously this no longer holds true. If the siddur still retains any vitality today, it is a considerably diminished one, notwithstanding the apparent healthiness of the American synagogue as an institution. To be sure, efforts have been made to render the prayerbook more “relevant” to modern concerns, but these have not yielded notable results. The Reform movement’s Union Prayer Book of 1895—accurately described by Millgram as a “predominantly non-Hebrew prayerbook which enunciated admirable universal ideals with which none could argue”—is a case in point. It achieved its “relevance” by excising the central concepts of historical Judaism, deleting all references to Jewish particularity, and substituting a liturgy (in English) that elaborated universal ethical principles and ideals. Thus the yearning for national redemption and restoration in the Land of Israel was replaced by the notion of Israel’s mission in the world, and the belief in the coming of the personal Messiah gave way to the creed of a messianic era to be ushered in by all men of good will. Reform worship, with its homilies on child-rearing, the plight of coal miners, and other social issues of the moment, became, in Millgram’s words, “in large measure a recitation of glorious platitudes addressed mainly to the world at large, instead of prayers to the God of Israel.”

If the siddur has fallen on hard days in America, in Israel it displays greater vigor, despite the fact that the Israeli synagogue plays a much less prominent role as a focus of communal life. New prayers, drawing upon the old sources of faith and composed by religious and literary geniuses like Rav Kook and S. Y. Agnon, have taken their place in modern Israeli prayerbooks. What sets these prayers apart from most of their American counterparts is not only their purity of language—worthy in every way of the best in the traditional liturgy—but also their adherence to the siddur’s age-old concerns: the relationship of the people of Israel to God and His world.

Millgram proves an able guide in steering the reader through the innovations which American and Israeli Jewry have brought to the siddur, but he is at his best in charting both the distinctiveness of Jewish prayer and the historical development of the prayerbook. A distinguishing feature of Jewish prayer, as he points out, lies in an identification of worship with study. Indeed, the stress on study as a mode of worship may be altogether unique to Judaism. (Millgram cites George Foote Moore: “The conception of individual and collective study as a form of divine service has persisted in Judaism through all the ages, and has made not only the learned by profession but men of humble calling assiduous students of the Talmud. . . .”) Historically, prayer and study shared a common characteristic: by focusing attention on texts relating to the idealized conditions of the past (and of the messianic future), they served in a sense to suspend the normal processes of history. Jews dispersed to the ends of the earth not only prayed for the restoration of Jewish national independence and studied laws applicable to a sovereign Jewish polity in the Holy Land; they also recited their prayers in a form that made it appear as if they were already resettled in the Land, or indeed as if their habitation of it had never been interrupted.

The birkat hamazon—grace after meals—is a striking example of this phenomenon. After the appropriate thanksgiving for food there appears a catalogue of divine gifts to Israel: the Land of Israel, the Torah, the Covenant, the Temple Service, and the promise of redemption, in that order. Although this passage is among the most ancient prayers in the liturgy, its power and immediacy are such that along with everything else in the grace it was retained in its original form, with all verbs in the present tense, in seeming defiance of painful historical realities. Jerusalem may have lain in ruins, the Jewish people may have been scattered in Exile, but the Jew, sitting at his table, continued for millennia (as he still does today) to thank the God “Who builds up Jerusalem.”

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Millgram describes the development of the prayerbook as a process of accretion, as new prayers were continually composed in response to historical events and the exigencies of the moment. For example, the kedushah (Sanctification), a prayer inserted into the reader’s repetition of the shemoneh esreh (Eighteen Benedictions)—the focal prayer of the daily liturgy—orginated in Babylonia under the influence of mystical speculations rooted in Isaiah’s description of the celestial chair: “And one [angel] called unto another, and said/Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts;/The whole earth is full of His Glory.” Jews outside of Babylonia resisted this mystical interpolation, and for centuries the kedushah was not accepted in the Palestine liturgy. However, in the wake of the Justinian Edict (535) and the Church’s prohibition of a number of traditional prayers, the kedushah came to assume a new importance. The Church had outlawed the shema because its declaration of the unity of God was construed as a deliberate challenge to the trinitarian dogma. The shemoneh esreh was also forbidden since a passage in it (stemming from early controversies with sectarians) invoked God’s wrath on informers, apostates, and Nazarenes. Furthermore, an interdiction was placed on the expounding of any rabbinic teaching during the service. What was left was the right to listen to readings from the Torah without commentary, the recitation of religious poems in praise of God—and the kedushah, whose threefold repetition, “Holy, holy, holy,” the Church saw as an intimation of the trinity. Jews made use of the approval bestowed upon the kedushah to expand it, inserting within the enlarged version significant parts of the forbidden prayer. Eventually, the kedushah itself fell under a ban as Church authorities became convinced that the Jews did not perceive the trinitarian nature of their own “trinitarian” prayer; another prayer was then pressed into service which incorporated the kedushah both in Hebrew and in an explicitly anti-trinitarian Aramaic translation. All these prayers eventually became part of the permanent liturgy.

The prohibition on rabbinic teaching, which remained in effect for a considerable period of time, led to a tremendous expansion in the output of liturgical poetry (piyyut) . During the Byzantine era the character of this poetry, whose origins go back to the early Talmudic period, underwent a decisive change, as poets now worked to circumvent official edicts, incorporating rabbinic teachings in the form of involved metaphors and vague allusions clear to Jewish congregations of the time but meaningless to government censors. As pedagogy, piyyutim written in this way served a necessary function, but they also provided an unfortunate stylistic model, imitated for centuries, that encouraged a high degree of convolution and artificiality. Many such piyyutim were later pruned from the prayerbook under the influence of authorities like Solomon de Medina of Salonika, a 16th-century rabbi, who wrote: “It seems to me that it is far better to omit these piyyutim . . . since nowadays hardly anyone understands their meaning . . . unlike our fixed prayers which are written in clear and simple Hebrew.”

In addition to his careful documentation of the development of the siddur and of formal prayer in Judaism, Millgram explores other aspects of worship as well: the special rites of initiation—circumcision, redemption of the firstborn, conversion, marriage, and burial—and the symbols and ceremonials associated with worship, such as synagogue architecture, ritual garb and deportment, and music. It is in the area of symbols and ceremonials that Jews historically have shown the greatest readiness to accept the practices of the larger society. For example, the rigorous separation of men and women in the synagogue seems to have derived from Islamic usage; Mishnaic references imply that in an earlier age women had in fact participated in the service, including the public reading of the Torah. The custom of covering the head during worship is interpreted by Millgram as deriving from an aversive Jewish reaction to the opposite Christian practice, although Islamic influence may have been equally important here. Actually, the practice of covering one’s head has venerable Jewish roots as well, in the tallit (prayer shawl) which in its ancient form, and throughout the Middle Ages, sported a hood and resembled the toga of the Roman priest. According to the Talmud, the covered head is the privilege of the free man in contrast to the bare head of the slave. Nonetheless, covering the head in prayer was a relatively late practice, and became mandatory only under the influence of Islam. This may well be a case where a Jewish attitude was first elevated to law by a daughter religion and then accepted as obligatory by Judaism.

The problem of combining receptivity to the new with the need for some kind of uniformity is well illustrated in the history of synagogue music. Medieval prayer melodies borrowed from the most varied sources, including ancient Jewish cantillation, local folksong, minnesong, and Gregorian chant. At first no restrictions were placed on cantorial borrowing. Millgram quotes Judah the Pious to this effect: “Say your prayer in the melody that is most pleasant and sweet in your eyes. Then you shall pray with proper concentration because the melody will draw your heart after the words that come from your mouth.” However, local patterns were eventually established and departures from the accepted modes discouraged. As part of an overall attempt to restore community order and stability following the persecutions that were an aftermath of the Black Death, Rabbi Jacob Mölln of Mainz asserted the absolute validity of local customs and specified that traditional melodies could not be changed at the whim of the individual cantor. (In view of subsequent cantorial excesses, one might wish that the ruling were still being observed.)

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No one can predict the future place of the prayer book in Jewish life, or even the future sources of new prayers. One such source (not mentioned by Millgram) might well be contemporary Israeli poetry, some of which shares a remarkable affinity with the great prayers of the siddur. It is of interest to note that these prayer-poems are the work not only of Orthodox Jews but also of writers only vaguely traditionalist or even anti-religious in background. When Haim Guri, for example, asks God to “bless the fighting men . . . [for] they are very few . . . and many camps assemble yonder,” we are reminded of old prayers like “Watchman of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel. . . .” In the case of an earlier work, by contrast, Yitzhak Lamdan’s powerful “O God, Save Masada,” the poet goes beyond the limits of traditional prayer, actually “threatening” God with repudiation should He again permit Masada to be destroyed. In this poem Lamdan steps outside of rabbinical Judaism (whose theology informs the siddur) and reverts to the attitudes of the biblical Hebrews in their active, ongoing confrontation with God. Lamdan’s stance may be taken in a sense to reflect a larger divergence of sensibility—between the Jews of the Diaspora on the one hand, with their attachment to a Judaism shaped decisively by the rabbinic worldview, and the Jews of Israel on the other, who move to a greater extent in a biblical ambience. It is a tension whose ramifications touch upon all aspects of contemporary Jewish experience and one which is certain to have profound consequences for the future. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether a new “Jerusalem siddur” will come into being to reflect the special Israeli attitude, and whether it will prevail over its Diaspora predecessors.

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