Jewish liturgical rites

Judaism teaches that Jews are to pray three times. The liturgical rite that Jews use – called a nusach – are basically the same; they are based on the order of prayers listed by Rav Amram Gaon (9th century Babylon), the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon (10th century) and on Simcha ben Samuel’s “Machzor Vitry” (11th century France), which was based on the work of his teacher, Rashi.

What do we mean by liturgical rites? For Jews, liturgical rites involve all of these components:

* the text of the prayers
* the melodies of the prayers
* which phrases to say once, and which are repeated
* where to read silently, where the hazzan recites aloud, and where the congregation joins in.
* the choreography (where to sit, stand, bow, take three steps forward, etc.)

Four major liturgical rites comprise the majority:

(1) Nusach Temen (Yemenite) From Yemen, a country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. There are two main Yemenite ethnic groups, Shamai and Baladi, each with their own liturgical variants.

(2) Minhag Sepharad, or Nusach Aedot ha’Mizrach (“rite of the community of Eastern Jews”.) Sephardim are desended from the Jews of Spain and Portugal; many can be found in Western Europe, North Africa, and the nations of the near-east, including Israel. There are a number of variations in the Sephardic rite, including the London rite; the Amsterdam rite; the North African rite; Nusach Yerushalayim; the Italian rite (rite of the Loazim); the Baghdadi rite, and the Romaniot (Romali, Greek, Romanian) rite, which is used in the Balkan countries.

(3) Nusach Ashkenazi. Ashkenazim are the Jews of Eastern Europe, including those of German, Polish, Lithuanian and Russian descent. There are a number of variations, including: Southwest Ashkenazi; Minhag Poland; Nusach Ha’Gra (the Siddur as adapted by the Vilna Gaon); Minhagim of Eretz Yisrael, a version of the Nusach Ha’Gra adapted by the Vilna Gaon’s followers in Israel, and Nusach Conservative (Masorti).

All versions of Nusach Asheknaz have adopted a few parts of the Lurianic Kabbalistic rite (described below). These include portions of Kabbalat Shabbat, the saying of “Mizmor Shir Chanukat Habayit” before “Barukh She’amar” as well as a few others.

Note that Nusach Ashkenaz in Eretz Yisrael (“The land of Israel”) is slightly different than Nusach Ashkenaz in the diaspora. For example, “Sim Shalom” is said on Mincha Shabbat and not “Shalom Rav”. “Ain K’Elohaenu” is said daily and not just on Shabbat. A second “Barichu” is added at the end of Shacharit on days when there is no Torah reading.

(4) “Nusach Sepharad,” The Hasidic (Kabbalistic) rite. Hasidic Jews base their prayer on the siddur of Rabbi Yitchak Luria, aka the Ari. He was a 16th century Kabbalist (practitioner of Jewish esoteric mysticism) who lived in Sefat, Israel. He created special kavvanot (statements of intentions) relating to a mystical union of man and God. He believed that one could derive a precise text in which every letter had cosmic importance. When recited properly, he believed that such prayers could repair and perfect the world. He combined kabbalistic prayers with the Sephardic liturgy to develop his own unique rite, the Lurianic nusach. The exact text of the Ari’s siddur was not preserved; its influence lies in the Hasidic siddurim available today.

Over time, the Ari’s siddur spread to the Jews of Europe, where it became popular among the Hasidim. Since Hasidim were Ashkenazim, they felt it inappropriate to pray from a Sephardic text. Thus, they adapted his siddur by taking an Ashkenaic siddur, and added to it some Sephardic and Kabbalistic elements of the Ari’s siddur. This resulted in the creation of a new rite. Confusingly, this new rite became known to European Jews as “Nusach Sepharad”, even though it is not really a Sephardic rite.

To avoid confusion the Sephardic rite is now denoted by either Minhag Sepharad (or Sepharadi), or Nusach Aedot Hamizrach.

Some variation of this rite is used by all Hasidic Jews. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liady, edited a siddur now termed Nusach ha-Ari’zal, or Nusach Ha’Ari. It has become the official rite of Lubavitcher Hasidim.

In Israel, most Jews who use a Hasidic rite – even non-Lubavitchers – use the Lubavitch version, and not the more general Hasidic one. Rabbi Seth Kaddish notes that “Popular Israeli siddurim such as ‘Rinat Yisrael’ and ‘Koren’ are based on Nosach ha-Ari’zal in their ‘Nosach Sefarad’ editions.”

The popular Israeli siddur “Rinat Yisrael”, which was edited by Rabbi Tal, is now available in three variations: Ashkenaz, Sefarad (Hasidic), and Aedot Hamizrach (Sephardic). The Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) community does not use either “Rinat Yisrael” or “Koren” because both of them contain the prayer for the State of Israel and the additional prayers to be said on Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalim.

The Israel Defense Forces use a prayerbook with a rite called “Nusach Achid,” which translates as “unified nusach” or “the rite of unity”. While many people are under the impression that this is a new hybrid of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites, this belief is incorrect. These siddurim are the standard Nusach Sefard, the Hasidic rite.

A Historical Map of Jewish Liturgical Influence and Variation by Aharon Varady

In his Historical map of Jewish liturgical influence, Aharon Varady writes:

Lawrence A. Hoffman‘s Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy (Indiana University Press, 1987) provides a flowchart illustrating the developmental history of some familiar liturgical lineages. According to Dr. Richard Sarason (HUC-JIR), the chart is based on one prepared by Dr. Joseph Heinemann for his course on the history of the Siddur at Hebrew University in the mid-1960’s (see right). It appears in Heinemann’s Akadamon choveret, T’filot Yisra’el v’toldotehen: Leqet m’korot (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1966) and was copied pretty much verbatim by Jakob J. Petuchowski, Guide to the Prayerbook (Cincinnati: HUC-JIR, 1968) — which is probably where Hoffman discovered it. I was grateful to be introduced to the chart at Yeshivat Hadar where R’ Elie Kaunfer shared it in his class on T’fillah. In the chart one can see how the liturgy of Nusaḥ Ashkenaz largely depends on the “Babylonian Rite” with minor influences directly from the “Palestinian Rite.” Here, Babylonian refers to the nusaḥ seen in development in the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) and Palestinian refers to the nusaḥ described in Tannaitic sources and the Talmud Yerushalmi.

A slightly simplifed version of his map is shown below. This version restricts itself to the rites from the religion we know as rabbinic Judaism – or just “Judaism”. Varady’s fuller map also includes offshoots from Judaism such as Karaism and Judaized Ethiopian Orthodox monasticism.  For his complete map follow the link to the indicated webpage.


For further reading:

“Kavvanah: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer” Seth Kadish, Jason Aronson, Inc.

“To Pray As A Jew” by Hayim HaLevy Donin. (384 pages).

“Entering Jewish Prayer” Reuven Hammer.

“Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History” Ismar Elbogen, translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, JPS, 1993

“The Encyclopaedia of Jewish Prayer: Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites” Macy Nulman, Jason Aronson Inc., 1993

For a good Sidur that explains Nusach Ashkenaz in general, and is according to the German rite, look for Rabbi Isaac Seligman Baer’s “Siddur Avodat Yisrael”. It is one of the first scholarly works analyzing the differences in the rites as they’ve come down to us.

One comment

  1. The best way for a Jew to pray is to say Thank You Boss for everything. If you avoid an automobile accident Thank You Boss, you manage to purchase something to eat Thank You Boss, someone who looks ragged and torn asks for a donation and you are able to give him paper money instead of a coin Thank You Boss for giving me the money to give to that person.

    All day long just tell The Boss thanks for the myriad manifold kindnesses extended to you and that should be enough.


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