Commentary Magazine


Prayer in Judaism, by Bernard Martin

The Siddur

Prayer in Judaism.
by Bernard Martin.
Basic Books. 270 pp. $7.50.

The prayer book, or Siddur, forms, with the Bible and Talmud, one of the major repositories of Jewish tradition, yet it is a work that has received comparatively little study in general evaluations of Judaism. A partial explanation for this relative lack of attention may be found in the circumstance that the Bible and the Talmud rank by common consent among the major forces that have shaped the Western mind, whereas the influence of the Prayer Book has been mostly on Jews themselves. Of course, the Talmud was also claimed only by the Jews, but its legal and exegetical method had a profound and sometimes acknowledged influence on both Christianity and Islam. The Prayer Book, on the other hand, as the prime symbol of the synagogue, which to Christianity (or Islam) constituted nothing more than the illegitimate heir of a biblical tradition truly represented by the Church (or Mosque), necessarily had little impact outside Judaism. At the same time, to the Jews the Prayer Book represented their own most characteristic expression. In Prayer in Judaism Bernard Martin quotes Henry Slonimsky's description of the Prayer Book as:

the most important single Jewish book, a closer record of Jewish sufferings, Jewish needs, Jewish hopes and aspirations than the Bible itself, which, for one thing, is too grand and universal to be exclusively Jewish (as Shakespeare is not the typical Englishman) and, for another [has had] whatever is quintessentially needed for daily use . . . squeezed out of it into the Prayer Book.

The first part of Prayer in Judaism is a survey and interpretation of the development of Jewish prayer. Martin briefly traces Jewish prayer from its biblical beginnings to the congregational prayer of the synagogue, discusses theories placing the beginning of synagogue worship long before the destruction of the Second Temple, and considers the role of prayer in the original Temple service. Martin points out, as have others before him, that the centrality of prayer in the first Temple was reflected in the name “House of Prayer” (rather than “House of Sacrifice”) bestowed upon it.

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The relationship between prayer and sacrifice used to bother modern Jewish students of the history of Jewish ritual and prayer, I suspect because animal sacrifice was considered by these scholars to be nothing more than an atavistic blood rite. But the fact is that Temple sacrifice constituted a profound transvaluation of ancient pagan rites, in which animal sacrifice customarily served as a re-enactment of the death of the god who would subsequently be reborn. This ritual of death and rebirth, as the liturgies accompanying pagan sacrifice make plain, was a sacred drama whose regular repetition guaranteed the survival of the order of existence. In the Jewish Temple ritual, by contrast, animal sacrifice was construed primarily as an offering, the purpose of which was to symbolize the bounty of the land, and the significance of which was to be an act of submission to God.

Martin rightly stresses that what was efficacious in the Temple service was not the sacrifice itself but the prayers that accompanied it. Indeed, even during the period of the Temple and the sacrificial cult there already existed in Palestine a devotional pattern independent of the sacrificial rite, though based on it. This service, with its morning, noon, and evening prayer assemblies—coincident with the times of the three daily Temple sacrifices—provided the foundation for the development of the synagogue. It may even be that the centrality of prayer in the sacrificial service made it easier for Judaism to overcome the loss of the physical Temple. In the pagan world, on the other hand, the sacrificial hymnology was thoroughly identified with the actual dramatic death of the animal or plant incarnations of the deity; it is perhaps for that reason that the classical pagan religions were unable to survive the suppression by organized Christianity of their sacrificial cults. (In a sense, however, there was a partial survival of these cults in the Christian mass, which is a meiosis of the ancient divine drama.)

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The body of Martin's book is divided into sections dealing with the various groups of prayers in the Siddur. There is a section on the Psalms, on daily and Sabbath prayers, on prayers of the Days of Awe, and on “Prayers of Our Time.” These last, it should be said, do not compare favorably with the traditional prayers: programmatic ethical-cultural pronouncements in all but a few cases have supplanted authentically religious expressions. For each section Martin gives the texts of selected prayers in English, and provides an accompanying analysis.

Martin opens the section on daily and Sabbath prayers with the Yigdal hymn, a 14th-century version of the articles of faith of Maimonides. Martin pairs with the Yigdal another poetical statement of dogma, the A don Olam, traditionally ascribed to Ibn Gabirol but which, in keeping with recent studies, he assigns to an earlier, Gaonic period. It is interesting to note, in view of the antiquity of this prayer, and its widespread inclusion in different Jewish rites, that the Adon Olam was not accepted as a common prayer in Worms, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe north of the Alps. (If I am not mistaken, there is a Worms-originated Responsum in which Adon Olam is rejected as a recent innovation.)

Martin of course includes the Kaddish, which next to the Shema is probably the best-known Jewish prayer. He points out how almost magical power came to be ascribed to its recital by the son of a deceased parent. It is tempting to use this prayer as an illustration of how popular piety can subvert elitist direction. The Kaddish makes no mention of death—it is an affirmation of trust in God, recited by a teacher at the conclusion of a religious lesson—yet it became a magical formulation designed to save the souls of the departed from Gehinnom; much of the value laid upon male children by Jews derived from the assurance they provided that someone would be available to recite the Kaddish after the father's death. Rabbinical opposition to the use of the Kaddish as a prayer for the dead was almost unanimous. As early as the 12th century Eliakim ben Joseph of Mainz wrote:

There is no foundation for the view that the Kaddish is for mourners. There is no basis for it in either the Jerusalem or the Babylonian Talmud or in the Tosefta. The only source is the legend of Rabbi Akiba, and we do not base laws upon legends.

Nevertheless, legendary material was used to sanction the practice, and all attempts to prevent the subversion of religion to magic were in this case fruitless.

There are close parallels between a number of Hebrew and Christian prayers. Who borrowed from whom, and why, is not always clear, although the fact of mutual influence seems apparent enough. One reason for the confusion may be that in the early period distinctions between the faiths were not yet fixed. As pagans passed through Judaism en route to Christianity, or on the reverse path from Christianity to Judaism—a common enough occurrence before the political triumph of Christianity—certain Jewish congregations became “Hebrew Christians.” Martin points out the similarities as well as some of the differences between certain Hebrew and Christian prayers. Kyrie eleison is Psalm 51, which also occupies an important place in the Jewish liturgy. In addition, there are strong similarities between the Kaddish and the Pater Noster; Ahava Rabba and a prayer in the liturgy of Sarapion; Avot and an early Christian prayer in the Didascalia; the great Yom Kippur prayer Unetanneh Tokef and Dies Irae. Martin does not delve into the matter, but similar processes of mutual assimilation with respect to prayer and ritual were repeated at a later period between Judaism and Islam.

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The translations in Prayer in Judaism are well chosen. My own favorite translator is Israel Zangwill; his versions manage to provide strong rhythms without sacrifice of accuracy. Solomon Solis Cohen, David de Sola Pool, and Alice Lucas, among others, are also represented. Martin's own translations are by no means inferior to the others, and he amends passages of other translators when he is not satisfied with particular stanzas or sections.

Prayer in Judaism is an intelligent, learned, and well-written exposition of the background and meaning of selected prayers, and, more generally, of the role of prayer in Jewish life. Since familiarity has a way of dulling perception, this book will be useful even for Jews who have regular contact with the prayers, for it calls attention to the extraordinary power with which they express the religious humanism of Judaism.

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