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The Siddur is Still an Open Book

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

Our position ‘in the present’ too often prevents us from seeing how recent millennia have forced our Jewish liturgy to change and evolve.

Jewish Liturgy certainly has its roots in Ancient Israel, even before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE. With justification from the Biblical verse וּֽנְשַׁלְּמָ֥ה פָרִ֖ים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ (Hosea 14:3) the exiles were able to compose and recite prayers. Perhaps, even after the destruction of the first Temple (70 BCE) there were prayers recited in Babylon as intimated by the famous verse עַ֥ל נַהֲרֹ֨ות בָּבֶ֗ל שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זׇכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיֹּֽון “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion” (Psalms 137:1). Since then, in the absence of Temple worship we’ve been forced to connect with God using words and we’ve used those words to respond in prayer to what was happening in our communities.

Every prayer which is found in any of our prayerbooks (weekday, Shabbat & holiday, High Holiday) has a history of authorship and incorporation into the liturgy. Some sections originate in Talmudic times and some have become popular in recent months. Our earliest ‘prayer book’ is Rav Amram Gaon’s “ordering” of the liturgy. He died in 875 CE.

Kol Nidre, perhaps the most famous and emotional prayer of the annual cycle, is a product of the Jews of Babylonia. Kol Nidre is less a prayer than a declaration that any vows or oaths taken inadvertently or under undue pressure from oppressors would be nullified and made invalid. Its author is unknown but certainly lived before the 11th century. Notwithstanding its popularity, its recitation was opposed by leaders of the Jewish community, yet it survived because of community pressure!

Speaking of Babylonia, it is also the country of origin of the ‘Kaddish’ prayer which comes in many forms and is repeated several times during each service and by mourners during their mourning period. Its composition in Aramaic reflects the language of the communities in which it was born. Though not the only Aramaic prayer in the liturgy, it reflects the more than thousand-year use of Aramaic as the common language of peoples throughout the Middle East.

The prayer known as ‘Av Harachim’ / Merciful Father was composed in response to the destruction of communities in Northern France during the Crusades of the 11th century.

The Friday evening service known as Kabbalat Shabbat was authored in the mystical community of Tzfat, Israel in the 16th century by the mystic Shlomo Alkabetz. His name ‘Shlomo Halevi’ is spelled out in the first letters of each stanza. Even though it is still a mystery as to why he chose the 7 Psalms which comprise Kabbalat Shabbat, they have become a familiar and welcome vestibule through which to enter the palace of time that is the Jewish Sabbath.

Recent decades have seen the addition of the Prayer for the State of Israel as well as the Prayer for the Israel Defence Forces. Since the events of October 7, 2023, the Prayer for Hostages is recited in the synagogue and has become a cantorial favourite.

Of course, this evolution is an uncontrolled and ongoing process. The 20th century was perhaps the most dynamic century for liturgy evolution as it was witness to the creation of prayerbooks for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructing Jewish communities in North America.

Obviously, the Jewish Prayerbook is still an open book.