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Liturgy of Festivals & Yamim Nora'im - Class 11

Some of the presentations don't exactly hook exactly into the sections of the liturgical text that we're going for. Each section will have a kind of ongoing discussion/reflection on the overviews and bigger issues as we go through specific sections of the textual study; as Hoffman says there are issues beyond the text, but that doesn't mean there aren't real arenas for learning within the text.

Later today, some material on Elul and Shofar. But first, poetry presentation.

(Here on the wiki:


Grateful for the qualitative conversation. Quantitative analysis is relatively easy, but I like that you did begin to open the qualitative question, which is harder to deal with in poetry. But if we didn't begin to deal with it, we'd be very remiss.

Any brief reflections from anybody in response?

- Thinking about what Melissa said about the text having gotten frozen. The minute you publish a machzor, the poetry in there becomes frozen. You can still introduce new poems live, without them being in text, but -- thinking about possibilities, how people can bring new poems, how it's not always clergy who autocratically make that decision

- informative, enjoyable, got me thinking about wanting to look up some of these poets

Interesting re-rendering of Hineni. Everybody knows the story of the rabbi/cantor who flings open the ark and talks about humility? ("Now look who thinks he's so humble!")

I don't know if any of you are deeply up to date on the literature of liturgical process in large churches. What are the big process debates in large debates on liturgical presentation and resources? The big debate in many large churches is about screens. Not in terms of mechitzah, but electronic screens. One of the great artists -- we spoke about in the Shabbat/daily service class -- they're a little schmalzy, but they have a song called the "I've Got The What Page Are We On in the Prayerbook Blues." It's a great song to use to talk about liturgy/prayer with teenagers/adults. Everyone identifies.

So many contemporary churches have dealt with that by doing what a lot of opera houses have done: big screens at the front of the sanctuary with the text of the moment. Sometimes even a bouncy ball with the text of the hymns. Putting up textual quotes during the sermon. Using technology to get rid of the dont' know what page of the prayerbook blues phenom. It's interesting the extent to which it has not been picked up in shuls. Obvs those who are halakhically concerned there are issues, but in many communities the halakhic issues would not preclude such a thing. But I'm not aware of any synagogue which makes extensive use, let alone exclusive use, of such a screen.

- at the Orthodox shul a few weeks ago they had a sign where they could flip numbers to show the page; they used it very rarely

That technology does exist, but nobody uses it.

- It's a lot more common in Israel. There's actually now a new siddur for Israelis in Orthodox synagogue with explanations, similar to Artscroll.

Is anyone familiar with any synagogue that does this?

- done at the URJ Biennial, where there are 5,000 people davening together - showing the 10 rabbis and the pit orchestra and then the Torah service

That it's done there does not surprise me; there's conversation between the URJ and the megachurches.

- at Purim at a Conservative shul have Megillat Esther up there on a screen; I don't like it, but we've been doing it for a few years

A big-screen TV or a screen w/ projector.

I should have mentioned -- for Megillat Esther there's an Orthodox distribution which provides a rolling, scrolling text and many congregations make that the one time of year when they use such a thing.

Let me ask you all to guess two things. On the one hand, what might you say would be the arguments for and against? and once you've heard those, why do you think it is the case they have not become accepted in Jewish circles.

- for: it's welcoming, people on the same page

- against: it's a distancing technology; and for those who are immersed in the matbeah tefilah, we don't necessarily need it, and don't realize that others do

- it's like being in a movie theatre: it makes us passive

- story of davening at home w/ photos flickering past on screen saver -- what that did to the davening, such a feeling of gratitude! sometimes now I do it on purpose. pictures of Grand Canyon, Reb Zalman, Ohalah, my family. OTOH I'm very traditional; and OTOH, what kind of situation would there be where you could set up a program like that, not necessarily showing people but beautiful images of places around the world? not for Shabbat, but maybe at Kallah?

- At the last Kallah, R' Shefa Gold led a kabbalat Shabbat service which had screens/images

- There weren't screens!

- Well, that had been her plan -- words and images -- I do have difficulty with it being on Shabbat, not for the pasivity issue but because of the notion of davening leadership as entertainment as opposed to invitation into a higher consciousness. I think what's a sweet thing in Shoshanna's studio might be very different in a communal environment.

Given that the technology isn't greatly prevalent I don't want to dwell on this greatly, but the issues that you've raised here, in terms of empowered/disempowered, engaged/passive, are very important.

- another quality we might be forgetting: when people have things up on a screen it's my experience that words, maybe even music, on a screen mean that people stand differently -- they don't have their noses buried in their ribcages, they feel more participatory because they can feel the other people also seeing it

- and you can clap, too

That's an important insight. You noted, Rachel, that as a plus it puts everybody on the same page -- I would list that as a minus also! You mention, Leah, that it's good not to have your nose buried in your book -- but for many of us it's a plus to have your nose buried in your own book. The relationship to your own text, you turn the page, you know what's before and what's after, where it's going, that's very empowering. When you no longer hold something in your hand, it makes you passive; there's nothing that you control. You're no longer guiding the intimate encounter with prayer text. OTOH, having something in front of everybody creates a different dynamic, stance and breath and receptivity. So were I the pastor of a megachurch I would certainly think to myself that this is a powerful technology and we need to look for appropriate use.

The reason I mention it at this moment: I want to bring it back to poetry. There are poems in which it is the original intent of the poet (not that I'm so married to that) that this is a text to be presented to people. There are poets who have things to say, just as there are philosophers. The text is really designed to be presented. Whether it's presented in written form for people to read quality, or presented by being read, or presented in some musical way, nevertheless the intent of the text is transitive, to be presented to those who will encounter the text.

There are OTOH other poetic texts which are in some ways designed to be shared, to invite those encountering the text to read it and to in some way make it theirs. I believe that our liturgical gatherings often confuse those two functions. I absolutely abhor and detest responsive readings, because I think they're the worst of both worlds. If there is an intent, like in the piyyut from Ibn Gabirol that you referenced -- that is a text people can read together and for themselves. The poet is inviting us to say his words. His words become ours. There's a lovely setting of that to Carlebach's "Elecha" melody, and the English can be set to the same melody as the Hebrew.

But there are other poems that are not designed for everybody to read or sing together, where a poet has a message to be presented to a community. Sadly -- this comes back to the arena of preparation -- one of the dynamics that happens, especially at HHD, is the sense that people who are going to do some Hebrew piece of liturgy need to be selected for their skill and ability. But once you've found the people who know the trop, etc, you get to "and then we have some English readings, let's give those to people who don't participate in any other way." And many people who may otherwise be very intelligent are incapable of reading coherently aloud in English. And therefore many wonderful texts which really call for significant rhetorical/oratorical ability are really massacred by the people reading them and so the experience of hearing these texts is entirely missed, because they are not well-read or well-presented. My polemical message here is: if there are texts to be read to a community, "English readings," do not in any way underestimate the importance of those pieces. It was possible in days of yore that these texts substituted for the matbeah tefilah. For many people who gather with us, what's read in English *is* their experience and they simply tolerate the material in Hebrew that they don't get. So not to present that in its best way is absenting ourselves from a significant piece of planning responsibility.

Secondly is the issue of, do people have texts in front of them or not? I generally do not like having somebody read to me a text that I do not have in front of me. If the person isn't really good, it's likely that something will be lost in pronunciation. And even if they're really good, if I space out I'll lose the flow. If I have the printed text in front of me it allows me to engage the text in a different way. We all know that some of us are auditory learners and otehrs are visual learners, and we should support people by giving them multiple ways to access the texts we place in front of them.

At another time we'll speak more about supplements in machzors. For now I'll just say that the problem with many of the supplements we prepare is that if you've got a crowd who's gathering, what are people meant to do with them? One of the most consistently critical pieces of feedback I get from people is, I'm never sure what to do with this. They like the material in the supplements but they hate having to juggle between machzor, supplement, page numbers. People give up, get frustrated, feel like tossing at least one of the texts onto the floor. So screens would be one say of dealing with the inserted texts. Use a machzor with matbeah tefilah, so they have the experience of burying their nose in a machzor; plus the accessibility of a screen, projecting the text of a song in Hebrew and phonetics, or if there are poetic or even prose texts which aren't in the machzor, they could be on the screen while someone's reading them. There are halakhic and technological issues but it's one possibility so that the people who've gathered only have one text, intead of juggling two.

- (talk about opera, subtitles, translations)

As we speak about poetry, the other item I want to put on the table is the issue of quality.

The fact remains that IMNSHO, not all text in siddurim and machzorim is of the highest quality; may be a little kitsch, a little clich├ęd. It's nice, easily-accessible, trite and pious things that people mainly don't believe. It is a big enough problem that much of the traditional matbeah tefilah says things that are theological challenging, but at least they come with the mild virtue that these are ancient texts which invite us to struggle with them. I see no reason whatsoever to repeat the failing with material we are writing. It is my sense that, given the theological challenges of the matbeah tefilah, especially of the HHD when we have so many people with us who are challenged by the philosophy of the trad matbeah tefilah, we serve ourselves and our community well by turning to poetic and non-poetic additional texts which are brave, challenging, radical, all the way up to blasphemous. I believe that the honesty and integrity that someone can perceive in a challenging text is far more welcome to many congregations than a banal platitude put in slightly modern poetic form. There is way too much banal platitude in some of our modern texts, in every flavor, Renewal included. There are texts that are real gems, both going back to medieval times (the ibn Ezra piece that Jack Kessler picked up to set to music on their album Atzilut is an incredible text that sparkles as much in modernity as it did in medieval ties)... I have a particular personal agenda of searching out texts which rise above the trite, pious, and banal. I invite us to set up a section of the wiki to share with each other texts that you believe have some extraordinary quality that raises them above the routine.

- what about using non-Jewish texts, or texts which weren't designed for spiritual settings?

I have an open mind about that. There are issues, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't use them. I'm not attached to authorial intent.

One text along those lines: by Shalom Spiegel, which the Conservative movement included in their weekday Shabbat service. ("Slim Sim," p. 31.)

That's a beginning. We'll continue to speak about poetry. As you rightly noticed, the evolving trend is more and more to find the right spaces for contemporary poetry in siddurim in general and especially in machzorim l'yamim noraim. There are texts of extraordinary beauty and power.

Let me speak briefly about Elul and shofar.

Elul introduces psalm 27 and the sounding of the shofar for the whole month before R"H. Which day in Elul is the shofar not sounded?

- Shabbatot

- erev R"H


- to differentiate between the sounding of it daily, and the sounding on R"H

- it's like not eating matzah during Nisan before Pesach. You want it to be fresh.

With matzah, apparently you need two weeks to get over it; with the shofar it's a one-day hafsakah. Remember that there is no bracha for the sounding during Elul. When is it sounded?

- at the end of shacharit

And why is it sounded?

- to stir your soul

And when was Elul first identified as a whole month of cheshbon ha-nefesh?

- during the time of the tanna'im?

It's very early. The pshat of the Bible -- the Bible had no idea what R"H and Y"K would be, in the way that we do it. You get ahold of Shmuel haNavi and tell him that R"H and Y"K will be the big days for people to cram into shul, he'd look at you like you were nuts! There's no concept in Biblical metaphor of the HHD serving the purpose that they do now. The liturgy comes into focus in the tannaitic period and is developed in the amoraitic period. You can lgitimately ascribe these shifts to the tannaitic period. Many anthologies have the text of "Ten reasons for sounding the shofar," which reads as crisply nowadays as it ever did.

The reason for it is to draw people to the sound, for the sound to work its primeval, visceral effect on the soul. The one piece I wanted to speak about, in terms of issues of R"H, is: what do we do about Shabbat?

The custom, or halakha, for shofar on Shabbat is what?

- Don't carry

But what's the prevalent practice?

- not to blow

And why?

- so you won't carry. Though Reb Daniel always sounded the shofar on Shabbat! Who could argue with him?

- you mean if one of the days of R"H fell on Shabbat?

- we keep it there at the shul, so no one can accuse you of carrying. If you can pick up a siddur, a machzor, you can pick up a shofar.

The fact that the halakha articulates something as the reason for the particular practice doesn't necessarily mean at a deeper level that that is the reason for the practice. So both from the perspective of Elul, and from the perspective of the first day of R"H, I'm interestd in your perspective. So why is this issue of carrying -- used as an explanation for not using lulav and etrog on Shabbat, also -- what might be the other reason not to do this on Shabbat? And do those reasons retain their compelling power?

- could it have to do with something along the lines of creating something, creating sound?

So does your voice.

- for those who are attuned to the rhythms, who hear it every day during the month, then not hearing it on Shabbat becomes itself something different; whereas for those who aren't hearing it all month, who maybe haven't been to shul since last Y"K, missing it could be a real cause for sorrow

- as we said about lulav last month: it's a distinction between Shabbat and chol

- in the Biblical period, the shofar was used as a call for war; so in the building of the beit hamikdash, no iron implements were used b/c they are tools of war, maybe there's an underlying feeling that in our sanctuaries of time, on Shabbat it's such sacred time that we don't use the shofar because it's a martial sound

My Talmudic challenge to you, would be: do you see the nanu'im as also containing this kind of violence? the waving of the lulav? because otherwise, you need a different existential argument for why each of these 2 acts is incompatible with Shabbat whereas reciting Hallel, e.g., is compatible with Shabbat.

- to further bolster what Deb was saying: when Shabbat and yomtov fall on the same day, we say "Shabbat v'yom tov" -- Shabbat trumps. People so strongly associate shofar with R"H that if you come on Shabbat and don't blow, then it's a powerful reminder that it's Shabbat.

I think there is great merit to a number of different arguments for not sounding the shofar, for not doing netilat lulav on Shabbat. I've heard Reb Zalman and others, when R"H falls on Shabbat, invite people to really enter deeply into how the bracha is reformulated. R"H is yom zikaron teruah. Shabbat can be the mediating day that allows us to remember what it was and could be. The absence can be more powerful and poignant than the presence.

The right guided imagery can give compelling power and illuminate facets of the experience encountered with Shabbat, which is different from the actual sounding of the shofar. In memory, you hear the platonic form, the ideal rather than encountering stumbling actuality. It also invites the community to really reflect deeply on the nature of Shabbat.

I believe that the issue of carrying isn't entirely superfluous but more powerful is the idea that we don't mix one simcha with another.

However. While I don't dissociate myself from what I just said, I believe that in many communities there is a certain subtlety of nuance in the ideas I just articulated which, no matter how carefully you articulate them, the reality is that many people do not return for the second day of R"H. In most traditional Orthodox circles they're as full on the second day as the first day. In the Conservative world, the second day has 30-40% of the attendance of the first day. So if the shofar is not sounded on the first day, there's an absence. People miss the symbolism of R"H. I can't find myself to see that there's a great aveirah to picking up a shofar on R"H, especially if the shofar is carefully there in shul beforehand. If it's a community which has a Brigadoon existence and you're carrying anything in, then carrying the shofar is no different from carrying the sifrei Torah. So I believe that for many of our communities it is the right thing to sound the shofar.

And I believe similarly, especially if you're a community which uses musical instruments -- guitars, fiddles, drums which were instruments of war also! -- saxophone, bagpipes which we all know were designed to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy! (btw if you've never heard Adon Olam accompanied by bagpipes you've never lived.) I believe it's the right thing to do on R"H. In sounding the shofar on Elul you begin to reinforce the journey by adding psalm 27. There's a journey of slowly introducing people to, and encountering, the symbolism of the intensity of these days in increasing ways.

- at Farbrengen, a few years ago I led a meditation on Shabbat instead of hearing the shofar blown, and it got great response. But I want to say: 50% of the people leave before musaf on R"H. For those people, I should blow the shofar? I don't want to dumb it down and accomodate folks who are not really tuning in to what's going on in the first place.

- I'm a little befuddled too about the idea to even consider blowing the shofar on Shabbat

I want to unpack what you're saying.

- My point is, people make their choices; they choose not to come on second day, to leave before the most profound component of the day. To step away from halakha because there's a meaningful moment people won't get to experience because they're choosing not to come on second day -- I don't want to cater to that! I want to invite people to greater observance and more engagement.

- but you lose the opportunity for them to have the a-ha moment

Reb Zalman has advocated that kind of practice: calling, and silence. It's very compelling.

I want to stress, I don't think there is a right or wrong answer here. Some of the issues Deb raised, about do we "dumb down" or hold to our perception of the integrity of our symbolic covenantal language, is a huge conversation! Let me leave it at that.

I want to be sure we speak to slichot.

[Melissa's d'var tefilah]

Slichot gatherings' very early origins -- we tend to do it late at night, which goes back a long way. Why is it done at midnight?

- in Ashkenazic tradition; Sefardim do it before dawn

Slichot has become a "service," a ritual-liturgical gathering. In general a slichot service is added to the morning service, most usually after, in the latter part of Elul. The Shabbat immediately before R"H in the Ashkenazic trad is when we would recite it -- but if that would not leave 4 days for the reciting, then it is done on the Shabbat before. The Ashkenazic trad is that on the first day, the slichot are recited at midngight, and other days we recite at the end of Shacharit.

The Sefardic custom is to begin reciting slichot throughout Elul. The Ashkenazim introdce psalm 27 and shofar but wait with slichot until closer to R"H.

The liturgical core of slichot is what, in terms of text?

- the confessional of Y"K

Almost. Depends on what you mean; explain yourself?

- my machzor, Kavanot haLev, uses that slichot for the service as well, and it's the same thing -- the 13 attributes and the whole theme of getting the view of God on Sinai, and the Al Chet together. Shma koleinu, a few other things.

- I have a book of slichot, it's about 2" thick!

As in most cases of liturgical text, there's a measure of excavation. The liturgical unit we know as slichot is the 13 middot, and a text whose origin escapes me where God says, "When you have sinned, come pray before me as a sha"tz wrapped in a tallit and recite these words and I will forgive you."

HaMelech yoshev al kise ram v'nisa offers contextualization. And then it grew, as some of the commentators say; it's silly to as for forgiveness if you haven't said what you did, so some versions include the short vidui (ashamnu, bagadnu) while others include the longer Al Chet.

If you analyze the whole vast poetic structure of the piyyutim, there are technical names for different kinds of piyyutim, and the piyyutim associated with this liturgy of forgiveness are themselves called slichot. "Mi she'Ana" is of great antiquity.

The best musical metaphor I can offer is, it's an overture. There's no vidui on R"H, but if one hears ashamnu bagadnu at slichot, it serves as an overture for the 10 days that are coming.

A note on congregational realia: the early through mid-20th century in NY and Brooklyn and other cities as well: synagogues would sell tickets for slichot, and the slichot service was when the hazzan and choir would strut their stuff! It might begin at 11:15pm and run into 1am. It would be based on what people thought of the cantor and choir that people would decide where to buy tickets for R"H and Y"K. So some people would go synagogue-hopping! Or families would split up and compare notes. So although we spoke last week about how many of us do not se great merit in selling tickets for HHD, that is the way it was done three generations ago.

There are vestigial memories in contemporary practice. It was an evening's Jewish entertainment, to hear beautiful Jewish music and a first-rate sermon. Slichot gatherings would be crowded and huge. We are now left with the slichot gathering as a tradition, which congregations work with in different ways. Many synagogues have a "slichot program" which becomes a kind of de rigeur thing. It might be a movie, a study session, shiurim on music and texts of the HHD -- but many shuls will have some kind of program at 9:30, 10pm which will last for an hour or 90 minutes, then serve tea and cookies, then begin the formal liturgy of slichot at 11:30 to run for an hour or so.

Other communities have found -- Deb and others have raised the issue, is it dumbing down or bowing to realism -- that the way to have a meaningful gathering is to have it immediately following havdalah. Is that such a terrible thing?

I'm a shtarker on doing slichot at midnight. I'm a big believer in midnight slichot. I believe that there is a different quality to the middle of the night. Many communities, places where I've worked, see me as a mellow, accomodating fellow and re: slichot they find a pirate! But I do think that having some program, arts or music or philosophy, something to draw people together, serves the idea of pre-holiday preparation very well.

- in the early days of kibbutz lotan when most of us got up for work very early, we would do slichot very early, at 4:30/5am; and since it's happening during the date harvest and dates are our main cash crop, we would do it at an hour when the people who were going to work there would be able to participate. It was phenomenal; we would do very creative stuff, a lot of personal process stuff. And when everybody had just woken up, trying to drink coffee while reading, or conversing, or doing writing exercises -- we'd stick with it all week -- it's a tremendous process to do.

- when I was writing up my Easter vigil, it occurs to me: the uniqueness of the hour is a two-edged sword. I mentioned that I was disappointed to see so few people. But I think there's a way to advertise, to make it known that these services are happening, and stress that the uniqueness of the hour is a positive thing!

Midnight is often considered a time of divine favor. A time of change of ashmerot, the watch in the Temple, which may apply to heavenly watchers also. For Maimonides, the great rationalist, study at midnight is the most efficaceous.

Midnight is a liminal moment. It's a mysterious time. I believe that by bringing us together at this unusual time, my personal experience -- I think about slichot services, the 11 years I was a rabbi in Park Slope: there were people I saw all the time, and there was a different quality to seeing those peple in this gathering. Inviting people to recontextualize.


We need a make-up session.

- turn two of our classes into 3-hr classes?

Maybe we'll do that. It's saner than a 4-hr marathon. Maybe on that day, we begin 20 minutes earlier so we can take a 20 minute break in the middle.