Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Partial Farewell

Today, Hoshana raba, is the final day on which we will recite Psalm 27 during this cycle of holidays. Additionally, it is the last day on which we are commanded to take up the four species. I cannot help but have a bit of sadness for what is the beginning of the end of a period of intensive self-evaluation, judgment, happiness, and everything in between. As the liturgy shifts back to the more routine, the farewell to the feelings and experiences mentioned should continue to inspire our practices and our t'fillot. Psalm 27 will always be available to us, it is not exclusive to this season, in that we are unable to access it during any other time. Similarly, the piyutim and closeness with God during prayer should be an ongoing project, not one that is limited to a fraction of the year. The closeness is unique, but drawing the closeness into the year is the challenge. I wish everybody a chag sameach, a year of many brachot, and I look forward to continuing to discussing many aspects of t'fillah with you.

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

T'fillat Geshem

As the chagim draw to a close, the Jewish people are offered one more chance to ensure their seal in the Book of Life on Hoshana Rabba, a serious day in a holiday known for its happiness. The following day, Sukkot turns into "atzeret" which is perhaps best translated as addition or conclusion. Among the special t'fillot of the day (including, in Israel, all of the appropriate inclusions for Simchat Torah), is t'fillat geshem. A translation with a few notes from the Orthodox Union is available here. The notes offered there are quite helpful.

A careful read of the stanza's of the piyut(liturgical poem) yields an image of very powerful forces. Water provides and sustains life, the absence of it is deadly. An abundance of water is potentially destructive, and water in an inappropriate place or during an inappropriate time is equally problematic. Fire, water, and blood, are referenced repeatedly in the piyut. Fire and water, are commonly seen as opposites, while water and blood are representations of life(one of the reasons for washing our hands with water after returning from the cemetery). We go to great lengths to avoid the ingestion or consumption of blood, in some cases it is a sources of ritual impurity, which we are instructed to avoid in nearly every situation. Water is generally a purifying force (another reason for post cemetery washing), and on Yom Kippur during the Temple service, the blood of certain animals purifies Israel of sin. Each of the above elements are recalled in reference to a section of the Biblical narrative. In some ways this is the ultimate z'chut avot (merits of the Fathers [anscestors]).

In an earlier post I discussed the importance of dew as viewed through the lens of Israel. Over the past few days, and possibly in the coming days, rain has been plentiful in sections of the East Coast of the United States. As such, I can imagine that on Thursday it will be particularly difficult to stand during t'fillat geshem, and request rain, having possibly slogged through a downpour just to get to synagogue. I hope that those outside of Israel can understand the importance of, and the need for rain inside Israel. Last year Israel did not receive enough rain, and without technological advances, experts felt that thousands could have died. With that in mind, every body should attempt to be fully present as we beseech God for rain. May this year's rain be plentiful, for a blessing, and not for a curse.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Zman Simchateinu

The time of our happiness as it is called in the liturgy. Of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Shavuot commemorate specific events, the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, respectively. All three have agricultural ties, but Sukkkot, which starts in a few hours does not commemorate a specific event in Jewish history. Yes, it represents the sukkot that people lived during the harvest, and perhaps those that the Israelites inhabited during the 40 year journey across the desert. Also, we rejoice over having made it through Yom Kippur, and increase our joy with the simchat bet hashoeva (water drawing ceremony), expressing the belief that God will bring the appropriate amount of rain in the upcoming rainy season.

The Ashkenazi custom is to omit the recitation of the psalms and the poem Lcha Dodi when Shabbat and a festival coincide. Sepharadi customs vary. The reason given is that we are already in a semi-holiday (even during the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot). Passover, which celebrates freedom, is not dedicated to happiness in the same way as Sukkot. Perhaps you could make an argument for reciting the psalms of praise during Passover, while omitting them during Sukkot. On the other hand, perhaps you would say them on Sukkot to continue to increase the joy, while omitting them on Passover when we recall, as part of the Passover Seder, that people suffered at the expense of our freedom. Just a thought.

The Torah tells us in Deut. 16:14-15 that we should rejoice and have nothing but joy.
I hope we all have the opportunity to enjoy the time of our happiness to its fullest, as well as the most meaningful and respectful manner. I am gong to attempt to write about on the psalms of Hallel in the coming days, so be on the look out for that. There are also some pictures available on Shibbles' Eyes.

Chag sameach!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yom Kippur Wrap: T'fillah

Disclaimer: There is no way that my words will accurately encompass, describe, or depict my Yom Kippur t'fillah experience, but I will try nonetheless.

I believe that one of the secrets to meaningful davening is finding or creating a community that davens with intention. What does this mean? A community whose focus is to come together in prayer before God, where every member is standing alongside, whether figuratively or literally with the shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). When Kol Nidre began on Yom Kippur eve, I knew immediately I was in for a treat. Instead of standing passively and listening to Kol Nidre, the participants chanted along with the shaliach tzibbur in a haunting tone, setting the atmosphere for the evening and the following day.

The Musaf (additional) service on Yom Kippur is lengthy and, as I wrote in my post last week, has the potential to be a real snooze-fest. However, the gentleman who was the shaliach tzibbur brought the entire davening to life. He selected upbeat melodies when appropriate, somber ones when necessary, and the members of the kahal (congregation) participated actively. This particular fellow did not have the traditional voice of a cantor, but rather, an average but very pleasant voice. This goes to show that you do not need a chazzan with an other-worldly voice, instead you need somebody who is familiar with the service, and who can stand before God as your emissary, and that is just what he did. When the time came to bring our faces to the floor in prostration, the entire congregation joined in, similar to Kol Nidre, it was not a show that the participants came to witness, instead it was a communal endeavor.

Finally, my growing knowledge of Hebrew proved invaluable. I can only say that any serious davener should undertake the lofty and lengthy project of understanding as much and as many of the t'fillot as possible. This method may lead to theological questions, but that is just the kind of davening culture that I am hoping to cultivate.

I hope that your Yom Kippur was as meaningful as mine. Check out my other blog, Shibbles' Eyes for more observations about Yom Kippur that do not specifically related to t'fillah. Also, look out tomorrow for some pre-Sukkot thoughts.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Tomorrow evening many will enter into Jewish houses of prayer, some for the third time that day, others for the third time in a year. All will open their machzorim (High Holiday prayerbook) to the words of Kol Nidre. The evening service will follow, including the appropriate material for Yom Kippur, most notably the short vidui (confession) and the longer al chet (For the sin). However, unlike a usual evening service, the amidah will be followed by a number of supplications, piyutim (liturgical poems), and the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

The first such piyut, of unknown authorship, is entitled ya'aleh tachanuneinu (may our prayers ascend). Unfortunately, I could not locate a suitable version online. Mirroring slightly one of the verses in Leviticus (23:32), which describes the duration of the "affliction" of Yom Kippur, the piyut expresses the hope that from evening (of Yom Kippur) to morning (of Yom Kippur day) and by evening ( the conclusion of Yom Kippur), The People Israel will find favor in the eyes of God. The author uses a Kabbalistic technique of reverse alphabetical order, symbolizing complete understanding as well as the need return to the beginning.

I believe that the author takes us on a journey through Yom Kippur. We begin with petitions, we cry out all day long so that by evening, when the effects of the fast are fully felt, we are aware of our mortality, we have hopefully achieved atonement, and a favorable status in the heavenly court. Furthermore, since the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul we have been drawing closer to God via t'shuva. With the process nearing its apex, I would posit that we return to the start and begin living with the changes that our introspection yields, modeling the ideal of the piyut.

One construction of t'fillah suggests that the prayers take the place of the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. One of my teachers at Pardes said this week that on Yom Kippur we should imagine ourselves as if we are the High Priest carrying out the offerings on the altar. Maintaining laser-like focus throughout the t'fillot, and devoting ourselves entirely to God, almost as if we are sacrificing ourselves. T'shuva is a process that extends well beyond Yom Kippur, but if we approach Yom Kippur with a serious intent, like that of the High Priest, our t'shuva will be far more meaningful while we reach the ascension described in ya'aleh tachanuneinu.

There you have two takes on one of my favorite liturgical poems. Other Yom Kippur material will be showing up on my other blog, Shibbles' Eyes, available in the side bar on the right.

Shana tova u'ktiva v'chatima tova l'kol beit Yisrael!
May all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Solitary Prayer

Amidst days of beautiful piyutim (liturgical poems), petitions for forgiveness early in the morning, blasts of the shofar (ram's horn), the haunting melody of Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), and the famous u'netaneh tokef, one prayer stood out among the rest. The Prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Force. One version of the text can be found here.

Offered at the conclusion of the Torah reading on Shabbat and holidays, this prayer pierced my consciousness approximately fifteen minutes before the first set of shofar blasts were supposed to undertake that role. The kehillah (congregation) whose davening I attended is Orthodox. They permit women to come to the bimah (raised platform) to offer supplementary prayers. That day, however, the woman did not come to the bimah. She was anonymous to me, but as her voice began to quiver, I finally (like the dew last week) understood just why we include such words in our prayers whether in Israel or abroad.

In Israel most everybody has been a soldier, will be soldier, and/or have children who are or will be soldiers. Until Rosh Hashana morning, I had felt that offering a prayer for soldiers while outside of Israel was a bit forced, save for the times that Israel has come under attack. I looked around, I saw others crying, eventually realizing that I was indeed crying too. At that instant, the motivation for a prayer for the soldiers became painfully clear. Even when Israel is not at war, its young men and women are in the honorably difficult position of defending Israel's borders, sometimes resulting in injury or loss of life. Behind every soldier's M16 and brave face, is a mother, a father, siblings, children, friends, and a community, it is for them that we offer the prayer.

Needless to say, the famous passage of Rosh Hashana davening that declares "On Rosh Hashana they will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed...who will live and who will die..." takes on special resonance when viewed through the lens of a loving mother pleading before God to bring her child home safely.

Stay tuned this week, as we move towards Yom Kippur.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do the Dew

For a few more weeks we will be able to include the brief but powerful phrase of morid ha'tal([God]cause the dew to fall) in the the Amidah (silent devotion). These two words are inserted in each of the daily Amidot, during the summer season in Israel, beginning during Peach and continuing through Sukkot. In siddurim (prayerbooks) intended for Israelis the words morid ha'tal are often printed. In siddurim for duel use you might find "In Israel Say: Morid Ha'tal." While siddurim for American daveners omit the phrase entirely.

Why mention this today? Early this morning, I walked through the small patch of grass behind my apartment, my feet were almost immediately soaked.I reached down, ran my fingers through the grass, and found my hand almost dripping with clear, clean water. Nobody waters the grass, the dew provides the sustenance.

I have long been troubled by the mentioning of dew while residing in the United States because of the fact that I do not need dew for survival. I decided that this was the year I would try saying morid ha'tal throughout the summer, even when I was in the United States. At the start it felt very strange, especially on days of pouring rain in New York. Summer wore on, and the weather in Washington, D.C. grew hotter, the dew began to feel like a more natural inclusion, despite my geographical location. Once in Israel, I felt more comfortable because at least I was in the area where the two words are intended to be uttered. It was, however, not until this morning, that I fully appreciated the necessity of dew for sustenance.

After this experience, I will continue to say morid ha'tal in future years. I hope that in the time of Rosh Hashana preparation, that you have space to include these short but incredibly important words in your t'fillot, regardless of location.