The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Cutting pieces from the Machzor

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  1. As shuls all over the world prepare for the Yomim Noro’im, the perennial question is raised at board meetings and between honorary officers: should we shorten the services by leaving out parts of the machzor that nobody finds important or inspiring?
  2. Particular targets for omission are the piyutim – liturgical poems interpolated for yomim tovim between parts of the regular daily prayers – which are generally replete with obscure Biblical or midrashic allusions and written in poetic language which is hard for all but expert scholars to understand and appreciate.
  3. Whether it was permitted to interpolate these poems was originally a halachic debate. See, in particular, Shulchan Oruch Orach Chayim Chapter 68 and compare the attitude of Rabbi Yosef Caro, who is inclined to discourage these additions, with that of Rav Moshe Isserles who notes that for the Ashkenazim at least they have become traditional.
  4. The Chofetz Chayim discusses these different attitudes to the piyutim (Mishneh Brurah note 4) and concludes that the most important principle is not to depart from the established traditions of each shul. In the biography of the Chofetz Chayim by his son, however, we learn that the Chofetz Chayim himself did not try to say all the piyutim prescribed by the traditions of the shul in which he was praying, but would focus intently on the meaning of a smaller number.
  5. There is no contradiction between what the Chofetz Chayim writes and what he practised. The former is the correct rule for the shaliach tzibbur or chazan and for the formal order of service in each shul: not to depart from the established local traditions. For each individual, however, it is impossible to concentrate intently upon every single prayer of the yomim noro’im, and what is important is to pray at a rate, and with a liturgical rhythm, adapted to each person’s linguistic capabilities, spiritual needs and personal circumstances.
  6. For a shul formally to omit a passage from the service is to assume a frightening responsibility of deciding what is important and inspiring for all congregants. But what inspires one person may leave his or her neighbour cold. And what inspires me today may not do so tomorrow.
  7. Those who attend orthodox services do so because they wish to be part of a chain of liturgical history. A man or woman may attend shul only once or twice a year: but it would be an error to assume that he or she must therefore wish the service to be as short as possible, or “modernised” by the removal of obscure passages. It may be that what moves the occasional attender most about the shul experience is the feeling of timelessness, and the knowledge of participating in the same service as that enjoyed by his or her parents and grandparents. Who knows what parts of the liturgy will be most reminiscent for that person of his or her childhood visits to shul, and how can I take the responsibility of “removing” from the service an obscure passage that may catch the imagination and open the heart of someone who has never prayed properly before in his or her life?
  8. For Ashkenazim, our yomim noro’im prayers will start properly next weekend with the first slichos service. Between then and the final strains of tefilas geshem on shemini atzeres, the machzorim will place in front of each of us the annual range of ideas and emotions, hopes and fears, lessons and aspirations. May we each find the right selection and balance among the available prayers to fashion into the most appropriate dialogue with God to build a good foundation for the coming year.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

September 18, 2005 at 12:00 am

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