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Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History

Excerpts from the foreword of “Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History”
Ismar Elbogen, Translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Publication Society and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1993

Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Amazon, USA)

Jewish Liturgy Elbogen
Foreward by Raymond P. Scheindlin

Seventy years after its first appearance Ismar Elbogen’s “Der Judische Gottesdienst in seizer geschichtlichen Enrwicklung” remains the only academic study of the Jewish public liturgy in its entirety. It is a monument to the historical and philological approach that characterized Jewish studies — and humanistic studies generally — in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is an ambitious work, covering the areas traditionally treated by liturgical scholars and going far beyond them to deal also with synagogue organization, architecture, and music. Though Elbogen’s reconstruction of liturgical history and the book’s intellectual matrix are somewhat outdated, his work remains the most exhaustive compendium of factual information about the Jewish liturgy, and it is likely to remain so for some time.

Elbogen’s book can be read in two ways: as a scientific history and description of the Jewish liturgy; or as a monument to the outlook of a religious Jewish intellectual in nineteenth – and early twentieth—century Germany.

Elbogen’s book is very much a product of turn-of-the-century German Jewish scholarship. Like many works of the period, it impresses the contemporary reader with its sheer erudition, its delight in facts, and its bravura citation of sources. It breathes confidence that, given patience, common sense, objectivity, and exhaustive knowledge of the sources, the truth can be found. Yet, for all its objectivity and despite its marshaling of evidence for every claim, it is also an engaged book — engaged sometimes to the point of lyricism, and sometimes to the point of crankiness.

Liturgy was a living issue for Elbogen, for he saw the challenge facing the liturgy as a miniature version of the challenge facing Judaism in general. For Elbogen, the question of whether the liturgy could adjust to modernity while retaining its authentic character was a test case for the ability of Judaism as a whole to survive in a manner that would do justice to its past.

Writing soon after a period of radical experimentation with all forms of Jewish life, Elbogen was sympathetic to the need for reform. He saw the orthodox refusal to diagnose accurately the dangers faced by Judaism as a symptom of atrophy. He denounced the orthodox rabbis of Germany for refusing to participate with other rabbis who attempted to confront these dangers more actively. He was convinced that the fossilized orthodoxy of his age would strangle Jewish religiosity unless the spirit of life could be salvaged from its ritualism. He knew that the true spirit of Judaism did not lie in blind traditionalism; yet he had faith that beneath the petrified religious institutions a real religious spirit was still alive, waiting to be blown to life. In our age of fundamentalist revival, Elbogen needs to be heard again, for he reminds us that the path of uncompromising traditionalism leads nowhere.

But Elbogen was not complacent about the Reform movement, for he did not believe in radical upheaval. He believed that the ancient liturgy gave voice to simple, eternal truths, and that these truths could be recovered not by radical change but by careful, scientific restoration. He held that an awareness of the history of the liturgy could provide the discipline that would prevent reform from turning into anarchic experimentation. He sought legitimate rather than indiscriminate change; restoration and refurbishing rather than revolution.

Thus, Elbogen’s history of the Jewish liturgy is a work of pure scholarship, yet at the same time it is a contribution to the urgent debate on the future of Jewish religious life. In treating matters of fact, Elbogen is rigorously objective, marshaling sources and weighing evidence down to the finest minutiae. But the objective data are in service of a larger religious vision, and in matters of opinion bearing on this vision Elbogen is passionate. Precious traces of the man behind the book and of the intellectual climate of his times are scattered throughout these pages: the author’s polemics against what he saw as superstition, rigidity, and illogic; his lyrical effusions on the synagogue poetry of the Golden Age; and his pride in Judaism’s contribution as the first Western religion to devise a verbal means of communication with God.

Elbogen’s Judaism was traditional, yet rational and anti-mystical. His warm feelings about tradition are couched in language that today may ring too sweet for some; yet in these expressions he is quite as sincere as he is in his harsh condemnations of both radical reform and blind traditionalism. His anger at liturgical changes made out of ignorance is as vehement as is his anger at hidebound orthodoxy.

His opposition to mysticism reflects a nineteenth-century perspective that some of today’s religious liberals might find odd. Insofar as mysticism represents a religion of the heart and a rebellion against rigidity, Elbogen is inclined to describe it favorably; accordingly, his tone grows agreeably warm at the beginning of his chapter on the influence of mysticism on the liturgy. But when mysticism crosses a certain intellectual line he sees it as superstition not only because of its inherently irrational character, but also because of its association with socially reactionary forces. Here Elbogen provides us with a badly needed corrective. For in our desperate late twentieth-century quest for spirituality we tend to forgive mysticism its ties to intellectual reaction and superstition, which Elbogen could still observe in full bloom.

Thus, Elbogen’s peculiarly objective yet engaged work has wisdom for our own time.

History of Publications

Elbogen’s magisterial work first appeared in German in 1913; second and third editions appeared in 1924 and 1931, respectively, each edition being revised and supplemented with additional notes. An abridged Hebrew translation of Part 1 by B. Krupnick appeared in 1924. In the course of the fifty years following the original publication of the book, Judaic scholarship made considerable progress in several fields related to the liturgy. Materials discovered in the Cairo geniza contributed to knowledge of the ancient Palestinian rite and of medieval liturgical poetry. Developments in archaeology enhanced the knowledge of the ancient synagogue. The study of Jewish mysticism became a full-fledged academic discipline. By the time the work began on a new, complete Hebrew translation, it was felt that ir was necessary not merely to translate but to update Elbogen’s work.

Accordingly, a team of scholars was formed under the general supervision of Professor Hayim Schirmann to provide supplementary material for the new Hebrew translation of Elbogen’s book. Professor Joseph Heinemann served as coordinator and editor for this new Hebrew edition, which appeared in 1972. Professor Heinernann also added the supplementary material for the sections dealing with the wording and history of the statutory prayers, the reading of the Torah, and the liturgical customs of the synagogue — that is, §§6-30, §§34—38, and perhaps §§43~44. Professor Schirmann edited the chapters of the book bearing on Hebrew sacred poetry, its development, genres, and forms (§§3l—33, 39—42). Professor Jakob Petuchowski wrote the supplementary remarks to the chapters on the history of the Reform movement and its prayer books (§§45~47); Dr. Abraham Negev brought up to date the treatment of ancient synagogue buildings (§§48—49); and Dr. Israel Adler summarized the consensus of scholarship on the history of synagogue music (§54).

Introduction: The Historical Development of the Liturgy

Jewish liturgy has unparalleled importance in the history of religions, for it was the first to free itself completely from the sacrificial cult, thus deserving to be called “The Service of the Heart.” Likewise, it freed itself of all external paraphernalia, such as worship sites endowed with special sanctity, priests, and other incidentals, and became a completely spiritual service of God. Because its performance required no more than the will of a relatively small community, it was able to spread easily throughout the world. It was also the first public liturgy to occur with great regularity, being held not only on Sabbaths and festivals, but on every day of the year, thus bestowing some of its sanctity upon all of life. This effect was all the more enduring in that the daily morning and evening services, originally the practice of the community, soon became the customary practice of individuals, even when they were not with the community.

The format of Jewish prayer was not always the one that is familiar to us today; at first it was neither as long nor as complex. Both the order of prayer as a whole and the individual prayers have changed in the course of time, so that “the liturgy of today is the fruit of a thousand years’ development.” (Zunz, Haderashot, 180).

At first there was no fixed liturgy, for the prayers were not set down in writing; only the gist of their content was fixed, while their formulation was provided by the presenter in his own words. Public prayer was brief, and when it came to an end, the individual worshiper laid out his own petition in silence. But the prayer of the individual was displaced little by little until it vanished completely from public worship. The ancient prayers could not be lengthy, and their content had to be clear and simple; there was no room for convoluted language or structure. But once these prayers had become entrenched, they were subject to continual unconscious expansion, resulting from the need for innovation, changes in taste, outside influences, and the practice of individual holy men.

These expansions consisted of wordier development of the existing themes, the insertion of biblical verses and verse-fragments into the text, and poetic embellishment of the established text. They were small in scale, simple in form, and clear in their manner of expression. Thus, there crystallized little by little a stock of prayers that was in use every day of the year, though with minor changes on particular days; and since these prayers were closely attached to the old nucleus of the prayers, we call them “statutory prayers” (Stammgebete).

Beginning in the fourth, fifth, or sixth century, soon after the recording of prayers in writing was permitted, there arose another type of expansion—free poetic compositions based on religious teachings, particularly on the themes of the festivals. These were called piyyutim [singular, piyyut — Engl. trans.] a term derived from Greek. The piyyut brought into the liturgy a dynamic element that lent it variety. Its character was formed and its content fixed by artistic taste and religious outlook, which varied considerably by country and period. The piyyut was entirely optional; its content and form were not subject to regulation or limitation. Because of it, public worship became long and involved, resulting in the great variations between countries and communities that we designate by the term ‘rites’ (minhag).

No sooner had the wanderings of the Jews and the invention of printing begun to reduce these differences somewhat when along came mysticism, which introduced a new influence into the service, one that was deep and not always beneficial. It brought new outlooks, additions, and expansions; it occasioned a shift in the conception of prayer, emphasizing the secondary and obscuring the essential. From this point on, the quantity of prayers was taken more seriously than the correctness of their wording. Late additions and petty usages were cultivated industriously, while the statutory prayers were treated casually, and the behavior of the worshipers became undisciplined.

Only the critique of Mendelssohn’s circle and the Reform movement one hundred years ago brought about an effort to elevate and refine worship in the synagogue. The newly revived taste for simplicity, sublimity, and solemnity found in the realm of prayer a rich and rewarding field. Since then all movements have worked to improve and simplify public worship. And while the early attacks had to do with the external form of prayer, the transformation of the Jewish people’s civil status and advances in theological study soon gave rise to other demands. Ample room was demanded for the vernacular, both in the prayers and in sermons. Like the tradition as a whole, the statutory prayers become subject to critical judgement; to the extent that their content or style did not suit the spirit of the times, they were altered or eliminated. The prayer books of the Reform congregations adopted a fundamentally different form from the one that had preceded them. Since these books were first composed, prayer has been the subject of intense struggles that are waged passionately to this very day.