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Notes from Limmud 2006

The History of the Siddur

Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick

There is a myth that the Siddur [the Jewish prayerbook] has never changed. We have been called the People of the Book—but some people say we are the People of the Singer's Prayerbook!

There is some truth in this; the Siddur is one of the biggest influences on any age; what people learn is what's in the Siddur. The bits of Torah and Talmud and Jewish philosophy or theology they know is what emerges from the prayers.

If the service is only in Hebrew this can cause problems too.

Lawrence Kushner tells the story of a human prayerbook in the camps: of somebody who felt he was strong and he would survive, but what would happen if he was the last person alive? He felt he could keep Judaism going by being a siddur. So he would ask questions all the time about the siddur and keep repeating the prayers. He felt he needed to do this beecause the siddur had accumulated a reservoir of Jewish hopes and dreams, and he could use it to tell the next generation what Judiasm is all about.

How did we get it? The early period was oral. The Mishna was not written down until circa 200 CE (though probably based on earlier texts). It is incredible that in the end we got a text in the Mishna that was reasonable uniform—pulled together from people in Babylon and Jerusalem and Rome! We know there were bits left out because they turn up in the Gemara or Midrash, but even so there was no major mention in the Mishna of prayerbooks or prayers. This was because it was considered invalid to pray unless you did so from memory.

Today in halacha it says you should never recite a prayer unless you have a prayerbook in front of you. We do not pray with our hands clasped together like Christians because we do so with a book in our hands!

Prayers were simple in Mishnaic times, and were based on Biblical texts. We know the order of texts, sort of, e.g. the Amida (though not yet finalised); we know the content but not the actual words. We know this from a Midrash in which a man talks about a couple of rabbis going to a rural minyan. The chazan says great, a rabbi's here, I'd better impress them. He goes down to the ark and started doing the praise of G-d in the Amida (first paragraph) and went over the top—G-d is wonderful, fantastic, etc—for five minutes, thinking he would get a real word of praise from the rabbis. Afterwards the rabbis went up to him and said it was like going into a king's treasury and praising the copper and the bronze but leaving out the gold.

Nevertheless, you could do that—the prayers were fluid. It could be modified for different occasions. In church, you have a series of petitionary prayers adapted for current circumstances. In Mishnaic times, this was how Jewish prayer probably was—and this was, after all, the time at which Christianity split from Judaism. It's like jazz—common themes but with improvisation. At that point they called the improvisation כוונה kavanna ("intention"), as opposed to קבא qeva, the fixed prayer. When in the early texts they said everyone should try and pray with כוונה they meant you should try and add something new to your prayers. If you were a scholar you could add a new phrase, if not you'd do better copying someone else's words.

We know from the Mishna that some of the content was already there in late Temple times. E.g. that you have to say "amen" to someone else's blessing, but yo're not allowed to say it to your own.

עבודה (the Temple service) literally means "work"; "liturgy", from the Greek, means public work. In Temple times, synagogues were for study, not prayer. One prayed in the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, prayer came to take the place of the Temple service, as the Mishna records:

Taanit 27b תענית כז ב
He told him, I have already prepared for them an order of sacrifices; when you recite it before me I will accept it as if you have performed the sacrifices before me, and I will parden them for all their sins. אמר לו כבר תקנתי להם סדר קרבנות בזמן שקוראין בהן לפני מעלה אני עליהם כאילו הקריבום לפני ואני מוחל להם על כל עונותיהם׃

The prayer for peace at the end of the Amida is from Talmudic times, or the idea is from Talmudic times. The priests would then end the service with the Priestly Benediction.

In the fourth to sixth/seventh century there was a wonderful period of innovative piyyutim [liturgical poems], by such paytanim as Yossei ben Yossei, Yammai (?) and Eleazar ha-Kallir, wrote wrote "With G-d's approval I shall utter riddles giving G-d pleasure."

Local variations abounded. People started writing texts down, but they were local variations, because there was no printing press or global tradition. These local traditions are honoured in the Talmud. E.g. the meditation after the Amida. The Talmud advised people to follow the customs of pious individuals.

Sometimes customs would clash, but the local customs normally won out provided the general order and feeling was maintained. In many areas, confusion reigned.

The earliest text devoted to the subject is Tractate Sofrim, written in Palestine in the sixth century. It really touches only on how to read Torah on festivals (though some of the texts we have extant have later additions). The prayers connected with Torah reading are given in full, the rest only mentioned in passing.

In the seventh century you get the first Babylonian reports about synagogue service texts.

The first full written texts are for Yom Kippur—by afternoon in Yom Kippur you're unlikely to be at your most creative in making prayers up!

[There followed at this point an anecdote about Hugo Gryn; IIRC it went as follows: During the drafting of the current Reform High Holydays prayerbook, Gryn was responsible for cutting out large numbers of piyyutim, making the service so short that the first time Rabbi Tabick used it, to get the service to last until Yom Kippur went out she was almost reduced to reciting the contents page! :o)]

By the eighth century Yom Kippur texts were common; you can certainly see different texts from that period in the Cairo Geniza. There's lots of rhythmic stuff because, in the pre-printing era, it would only be the chazzan who had a prayerbook in front of him; hence the more rhyme and metre the prayers had, the easier they would be for the congregation to remember, particularly if sung.

With the spread of Islam and the establishement in 750 of the caliphate in Baghdad, the rabbinate in old Babylonia became very important again. They established leadership for world Jewry. The caliph was sending out laws and rituals to the Muslim world at that period; and the gaon (Exilarch) decided he was going to follow that example.

Most Jews did not bother listening to him. (Halima Krausen: Nor did the Muslims [listen to the caliph].) In Palestine especially people did not listen to him; but further afield people were grateful for the help. This is when the term סידור siddur [lit., something ordered] first began to be used; also מחזור maḥzor [Festival prayerbook]. The use of these as separate terms only spread to the Sephardim in the early modern world.

At that period we had a problem with the Karaite heresy. Letters increased to the gaonim in Babylon saying, "What is the service we should be saying?" The Karaites were saying one thing, and [rest of sentence, and start of the next one lost] Luchena in Spain writing to Natronai ben Ḥilai (gaon 853-858) in Babylon, quoting R. Meir saying in the Talmud that we have to say 100 blessings every day, and asking what they are.

So they [Natronai?] went through the blessings and gave a four-page guide outlining these. They also provided a responsum in which it appears written texts were being written and were not acceptable.

Natronai's successor in Sura, Amram ben Sheshna, also sent to Spain, possibly to Barcelona, a book that looked at the prayers of the whole year. Note: this was a book, not a scroll—for ready reference. (Think about how long it takes to scroll a Torah!) This was a great leap forward in producing a prayerbook. (Jews hadn't used books for prayer beforehand because Jews associated scrolls with holy works.)

They also had the example of the caliphate in disseminating knowledge. They sent out the texts of some of the prayers and blessings for lifecycle events. Within the prayers you have certain sections, such as ברכת שחר, which you're supposed to say when you get up in the morning—but people weren't saying them because they didn't know them, so they put these blessings in the prayerbook.... As a result of which, the prayers end up migrating to being said in the synagogue service. Even centuries later Maimonides objected to having these in the prayerbooks.

From comparison of manuscripts it's obvious later copyists were adding into the Siddur Amram what they were doing in their own area. It's even possible he merely wrote a list out; we don't know. He also wrote in Aramaic, which was not understood in Europe. Nevertheless, his siddur was the basis of all discusions of the text.

From the tenth century they decided they were not going to add any more blessings. That's it; they have their hundred; no more. In mediaeval times nevertheless local people did still managed to squeeze in their own local variations and poems.

The Palestinians tried to avoid the influence of Siddur Amram; they didn't want to know how to do things the Babylonian way. They were an older community; they wanted to do their own thing. They often tried to reject the Babylonian influence; but with the Crusades it was the community in the Palestinian area that had the problems. The community there fled to the Diaspora for a hundred years, and by the time they returned they were contaminated, and had changed their rite.

This was the time as well when people began to put the extra bits of study passage in such as the עקידה [the binding of Isaac]. Why in this period did they put this into the morning service? Some said it was to deal with sin. The Midrash on it, though, is very interesting: Isaac was thirty at the age of his binding; this thus gives people different associations to this age to a certain other person (i.e. Jesus) who began his ministry at this age.

The other explanation is that it was a reaction to the Crusades—the children in York were killed by their parents. [Faced with a mob outside Clifford's Tower where they had barricaded themselves, the York community committed suicide en masse in 1180.] Thus the prayerbook is a product of its time.

The other problem with the prayerbook is that as time goes on more and more and more goes in.

About a hundred years later—in the eleventh/twelfth century—the then Gaon, Saadia Yosef, made a siddur. We only have this in fragments, but it has since been reconstructed. He wrote a prayerbook because he felt local customs were diverging too far, and people were adding their own stuff. Around the text, he added in Arabic laws for the prayers and reasons for the prayers. Saadya was born in Egypt, which had more of the Palestinian rite remaining, and so was brought back in. Again, his book was less influential in northern Europe, where Arabic was not understood.

The sages would discuss the prayers, but only discussed the meaning, not the texts. The texts were not given because it was assumed everyone knew them. Hence we can learn what prayers there were from the commentary.

The same happened in Europe: Rashi gives a list of prayers and the Halacha, but not the texts. The Rambam gave the texts in his commentary, but when this was copied, the texts were abridged. (This is the basis of the Yemenite liturgy!)

The eleventh-century Maḥzor Vitry was copied almost verbatim from Amram Gaon's, but with a large amount of commentary, and lots of piyyutim, which the chazzan was supposed to choose from. Only then of course you end up with people who do everything.

As customs got written down they became more fixed on the basis of the chain of authority from the previous generations. The more famous the rabbi or community the more influence their prayers had.

As life became harder for the Jews, the less prayers were composed and the more the service became fixed. It became almost a morbid obsession not to lose anything. This was almost impossible because texts were still copied by hand, by people who didn't know Hebrew very well, who were copying wrong. If they left out the allusions in piyyutim we don't now know what they mean.

Other texts just kept on being lengthened, e.g. אבינו מלכינו (which has grown from five verses to over forty).

And then came printing. This had enormous influence, because it made the books available to the general public. Whose influence came through? Answer: the printers and publishers! It was in their best interest to sell the same version to as many communities as possible. So local variants were lost, in the name of economics. The Roman rite (the closest to Palestinian rite) was published in 1485/6, the Spanish in 1490, the German/Polish in 1508.

Unfortunately the advent of printing led to even more mistakes being introduced, by typesetters who were not familiar with the prayers. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that these started being corrected (often in footnotes by people who would not alter the text). [An example is in Yigdal, where הנו אדון עולם וכל נוצר יורה גדלתו ותפארתו became corrupted to לכל נוצר, which causes the verse to lose the meaning of the Fifth Principle of Faith; something I've seen corrected only in the Birnbaum Maḥzor and the USAn Conservative Siddur.]

One problem associated with this was that it now became easier for church censorship—it was easy for the Church to have a look at it. This was when the change to עלינו was made, removing "That they worship gods of worthlessness and emptiness, and pray to a god that does not save". The Church said that הבל וריק "worthlessness and emptiness" = Jesus, because it has the same gematria [numerical value]. (This came from Isaiah and was probably originally referring to Zoroastrianism). (ריק also means "spit", and some people used to spit at this point; it was called "the spitting prayer". Fortunately, the Christians did not know about this because mention of this custom was not to be found in the printed prayerbook.)

As more and more stuff gets printed, printing gets cheaper and the extra bits began to turn back up again. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century you find new כוונות appearing, to make you think of the different worlds of the Kabbala. These are not the same as the כוונות referred to early, but set כוונות.

And then you get the Reform prayerbooks turning up. The first (UK) Reform prayerbook was virtually a copy of the Sephardi prayerbook (because the West London Synagogue was mostly Sephardi)—very traditional. But as the movement continued changes begin to appear for theological reasons; e.g. not praying for the ingathering of the exiles, because the Reform movement felt at home in the Diaspora.

Given the history of what we've seen, of how the Siddur started free, then became constrained, and now is opening out again, the speaker thinks [coming, obviously, from her perspective within the Reform movement] the next stage is going to be the clip-folder siddur, in which people can download what they want and print it out. It started with order and content, and freedom; and it has ended with order, and content, and freedom.

Mishna, Berachot 5:5 (in my rather flaky translation):

Berachot 5:5 ברכות ה ה
He that prays and errs, it is a bad omen for him. And if he is the leader of the prayer, it is a bad omen for the congregation, because he is sent of man according to his death. They say about it that Rabi Ḥanina ben Dosa used to pray for the sick, saying, "This will live and this die." They asked him, "How do you know?" He told them "If my prayer emerges from my mouth, I know that it is be received. And if not, I know it is rejected." המתפלל וטעה סימן רע לו׃ ואם שליח צבור הוא סימן רע לשולחיו מפני ששלוחו של אדם כמותו׃ אמרו עליו על רבי חנינא בן דוסא שהיה מתפלל על החולים ואומר זה חי וזה מת׃ אמרו לו מנין אתה יודע׃ אמר להם אם שגורה תפלתי בפי יודע אני שהוא מקובל׃ ואם לאו יודע אני שהוא מטורף׃

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