Book Serialization Part 9: Six People You Meet in Synagogue

Book Serialization Part 9:  Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...

Dramatis Personæ Synagogæ

Hazzan. It’s obvious that we may apply the label, performer, to an accomplished hazzan, a cantor. He leads the services from the designated places for leaders, the bimah in the center, or the amud in the front of the synagogue.
At the least, the hazzan has to be a master of the basic nusach and niggun of the synagogue, that is, the words of the prayers, their traditional tunes and how they must be performed in the services.
Chorus of the Congregation. The congregation actively participates in the services of the synagogue. So that makes them performers, too, although the intensity of their involvement varies from one instance of prayer to another.
Torah Reader. The Torah is read from the bimah in the center of the sanctuary. On Sabbaths and festivals, it is read in the middle of the service, after the morning prayers and before the additional prayers. It’s easy to see that the reading of the Torah is central to the synagogue performance.
“Torah Reader” is also a part that everyone in the community gets to play at least one time. For the rite of passage for coming of age, the Bar Mitzvah Boy and the Bat Mitzvah Girl (except in most of the Orthodox community) must prepare for and play this role of Torah Reader. For the occasion, the young boy or girl usually will study and prepare to read a portion from the Torah in the synagogue on (or near) his or her coming-of-age birthday.

Kohanim. These important players, the priests, are direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the original priests who served in the Tabernacle and the Temple. In the synagogue, they are given today a few mostly figurehead honors. On the holidays, during the Additional Service, they go up before the congregation, raise their hands and recite the three verses of the biblical priestly blessings. (Just to alert you, later in this book I use the term “priest” to describe an archetype of a style of prayer which is related to, but independent of, actual family ties and roles of this cast member.)
The Shofar Blower. This instrumental soloist plays the only musical instrument of the synagogue services. And, to be accurate, the shofar doesn’t produce much of a tune. The ram’s horn is blown on Rosh Hashanah, more as an alarm or call to arms, or a symbol of God’s revelation at Sinai, than as a musical performance.
Now, what is the nature of the performances of all of these players? This archetype chants from his hymnal and sings his prayers using popular standard tunes—nusach, niggun and trop, the words, the tunes and cantillation notes—all essential parts of the text and of the performance of Jewish prayer. But, to know the performer, one must know more details about the gist and the genre of his or her performances.
What the performer performs in the davening in the synagogue in large part is from the Bible. So we must comprehend better the main ways that the Bible serves as a source of Jewish synagogue prayers.
Bible portions are performed as Bible. In this mode, the performer reads scripture qua scripture. Examples: (a) We take the Torah scroll out of the ark and readers read from it from the bimah in the center of the synagogue. (b) We take out a book of the prophets (usually in print, sometimes as a scroll) and readers read from it from the bimah in the center of the synagogue. (c) On holidays, we take out a book of the Writings, such as the book of Esther—the Megillah—on Purim and readers read from it from the bimah.
Bible sections are performed as prayers. In this mode, the performer plucks long blocks of text out of scripture and uses them as independent new liturgies of their own. Examples: (a) We read chapters from the Torah as part of core Jewish prayers, such as the Shema made up of chapters from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. (b) We read complete chapters from the Psalms as prayers of thanksgiving in the Hallel on festivals and elsewhere in the services daily.
Bible materials are extracted and interwoven into prayers. In this mode, the performer draws on scripture by making allusions to phrases, verses, ideas and incidents to formulate original composite liturgies, medleys, miscellanies and olios of biblical matter. Examples: (a) We combine or interject one or more biblical verses within various prayers. (b) We take phrases or make allusions to biblical words or phrases within different prayers.
Prayer is independent, without reference to the Bible. In this mode, we recite completely independent prayers that contain no identifiable words or concepts from the Bible.
A tacit premise of all of this performance is that God likes to hear his inspired Bible recited and chanted back to him. The performer uses the pre-existing received scripture in the liturgy of the synagogue extensively in the several manners I’ve described. These modes of prayers of the performer are woven together to make up most of what goes on in any synagogue. It is fair, then, to say that the Bible is a big component of God’s favorite prayers.
From the perspective of the worshipper, another way to look at the role of the Bible as prayer is this. Some recitals, both in the worlds of music and the separate universe of prayer, will combine performances of original numbers and of classical numbers or golden oldies. That is also the case in the performances of prayers in the synagogue. The impresarios of all kinds of performances across the spectrum of music and art, from rock festivals to the Metropolitan Opera, throughout their calendar draw respectfully on their received body of recognized or classical works for beloved and reverent performances. So, too, does the performer archetype in our liturgical minyan turn for the contents of his performance to his inherited authoritative repertoire, to his scripts of religious contents that we call scripture.
I find it useful to categorize how the Bible is used in the synagogue as I outlined above and to give additional names to the major modes used by the performer for incorporating scripture into the public services of the synagogue. I call the first two categories (#1 and #2) the comprehensive-Bible modes and I label the third (#3) the selective-Bible mode.
To digress briefly, various writers in an anthology edited by James Kugel (Prayers that Cite Scripture, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2006), discuss a process that they call the “scripturalization” of the liturgy. These writers speculate that there once was a non-scripturalized Jewish liturgy, services without Bible passages, and then over time passages, verses and phrases from the Bible were put into it.
I don’t agree with this perspective at all. I see the prayer book that we have in Judaism as the result of the “liturgization” of the Bible, meaning, the prayer composers in the great majority of instances started from the Bible. They sliced it, diced it and baked it into a liturgical pie. I prefer to say then with some certainty that the prayer book in essence is a large selection of the contents from the Bible that was transformed into a diverse set of practices for various styles of worship in the synagogue.
To return to my main discussion, let’s examine some of the details and complexities of both of these methods of drawing the respected sacred texts into the recitals of the synagogue, the comprehensive-Bible mode and the selective-Bible mode. Let’s consider some examples and explain a few of the rules and principles that determine how they work.
To know the performer in the comprehensive-Bible mode I look directly to the Torah service—the prescribed serial reading of the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, within the services (#1).
For many people this mode of synagogue performance is notable or memorable—as I noted—because it’s associated with the Jewish rite of passage of boys and girls into adulthood. If you had a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, you know that it probably meant you had to learn to chant a short Torah portion, called a maftir, and a selection from the prophets, called a haftorah. Sometimes the boy or girl chants more of the Torah portion and sometimes, none of it at all, singing only the blessings before and after and letting a professional reader chant the actual the biblical verses. Even if you haven’t performed this ritual yourself, you likely have attended the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend or relative or perhaps you’ve seen the chanting in a Hollywood movie or on a TV show episode.
The Torah reading-service is performed in the synagogue every week. Over a span of either one or three years in a predetermined and fixed liturgical schedule, the entire Torah is chanted.
Now you may ask a fair question: Is this liturgy or lectionary? The answer is that the Torah is chanted and not taught in the synagogue. It is liturgy, but a rich and informative form of prayer. It is a course of Jewish beliefs performed in liturgical chants.
I used to tell my students that the one secret to mastering the materials of a course was to read the textbook. And if the book was difficult and they did not at first understand it, I suggested that they read it aloud to their roommate or friend.
The Torah service is a most effective and persistent means of transmitting the course materials of Judaism to the students in the synagogue. Here is how it is carried out.
In the annual cycle variant, which is practiced today in most houses of worship, the performer reads the entire Five Books of Moses over the course of a year—broken down over a period of fifty-four weekly readings—generally one parasha for every Sabbath. The first part of each portion is read as a sort of preview in the morning services of the synagogue on Mondays and Thursdays and on in the afternoons on Saturdays. On Saturday morning, selected Torah passages, called maftir, are read again.
There are some one-hundred Bible chapters from the prophets that are read in conjunction with the Torah readings. Each one is called a Haftarah. All of this constitutes the annual cycle, which has been commonly practiced since the Middle Ages. In earlier times, a more drawn out and less intensive Torah cycle, completed over a three-year period, was practiced in the synagogue. There were, according to various counts, 141, 154, or 167 parasha divisions in the triennial cycle that was practiced in antiquity.
The result, in any case, is that the whole Torah—the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch—is read in the synagogue on a one- or three-year cycle. That tells us something both obvious and significant, namely that at the core of rabbinic Judaism is the veneration of the Torah as its sacred constitution. The public ceremonial liturgical reading of Bible passages in the synagogue is the most visible and culturally significant way that Jewish communities worldwide act out that value.
But I do need to note that the content that is read changes every week. In the existing models of chanting that I just described, Jews chant most of the Torah’s passages in public either once annually or once every three years. Compared to other prayers of the synagogue, this Torah service is not an exceedingly repetitive ritual practice.
Contrast this schedule of Bible readings with the more frequently recited prayers. The content of those never changes. The same set of Sabbath prayers are repeated fifty times, that is once every week of the year. Some of the daily prayers are repeated even more frequently, up to three times a day—over one-thousand times each year—as is the case of the Amidah and the Aleinu, prayers we shall address directly in later chapters.
The frequency of repeated identical recitations may actually tell us little about the relative importance of the components of the service. Both the Bible readings and the other prayers are crucial to defining the content of Judaism, but because the latter are more recurrent, they appear to be more prominent and more pronounced in the synagogue services.
Accordingly, to sum it up, the most basic ritual way that the liturgy evinces the comprehensive-Bible use of prior texts is in these actions: the weekly Torah service, the prophetic haftarot, and the festival recitation of the Five Megillot where the designated books of the canon are read in a ritualized public context.
The Torah is read in the synagogue straight through from its beginning in Genesis through its end in Deuteronomy, in order and without abridgement or selection. The prophets are not read in that fashion. Each week, a selection of a prophetic passage accompanies the weekly Torah reading. The principle that governs why synagogue authorities selected a prophetic passage appears to be some simple associative elements of a prophetic theme in common with a Torah theme. The chanting of the passages from the prophets does not present to the synagogue from those books any systematic religious value or unifying theological world view. In contrast to the Torah, the Jew in the synagogue does not hear the Prophets or Writings in straight order without abridgement.
The bottom line is that, even given the extent of the scriptural materials recited publicly, the majority of the contents of the second and third divisions of the Tanakh (Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim, what we call the Hebrew Bible, namely the divisions of the Prophets—Neviim— and the Writings—Ketuvim) are not prescribed for reading in the public liturgy of the synagogue.
As I mentioned just above, another part of the comprehensive use of scripture is the chanting of the five scrolls of diverse content and origins, primary readings from the Ketuvim. These Bible books are intoned in full annually in the synagogue on this schedule: Esther on Purim, Lamentations on the Ninth of Av, Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Sukkot. One entire book of the Minor Prophets, Jonah, is read on Yom Kippur at the Minhah afternoon service.
In these six biblical scrolls that are chanted annually, we bring into the synagogue a variety of literary and cultural biblical archetypes. Specifically, these books present to the public stories and poems of various Israelite women characters from the Song of Songs, Esther and Ruth. Other readings introduce into the mix the personality of the victims of destruction and exile speaking out in the book of Lamentations, intoned on the Ninth of Av. We also hear of a narrative of a heroic religious archetype of sorts in the book of Jonah, which is chanted on Yom Kippur.
Finally, there are several dozen or so complete Psalms (from the third division of the Tanakh, the Ketuvim) that also fall under the rubric of the comprehensive use of scripture in Jewish liturgy. These hymns are recited as part of the regular cycle of prayers. I have illustrated this in my chart outlining the morning services, which you can find online at www.godsfavoriteprayers.com.
It should be clear that there is a lot of Bible chanting going on in all synagogues. In some synagogues, all of this chanting is done by a regular professional employee, called a hazzan, a shammash or a shaliach tzibbur for the prayers and by a baal koreh, a trained reader, for the extended Torah portions. In many other, less formal synagogues lay people volunteer or are called upon to lead the services on an ad hoc basis.
In the abstract, it makes little difference who actually performs the singing and chanting. That person is for us simply our performing artist. The archetype who chants or intones the designated extended Bible passages in the synagogue acts much like the opera star who performs the libretto of his classic works or the rock star who stages his signature pieces.
Bear this in mind as I move on to present my next mode or process, the selective-Bible mode. This is a more intricate use of scripture in liturgy. Over the centuries, a host of often unknown and anonymous authors of liturgy—artist-poet-musician-prayer-writers—interlaced biblical phrases, verses and chapters in the more frequent synagogue services, daily or weekly. The authors of the major prayers across the board chose to mine scripture and embed selective contents from the Bible into their own originally written texts of prayers.
Biblical verses were liberally employed and interspersed within the original standardized daily morning liturgy and the services for the Sabbath and festivals that were written by the ancient rabbis. The results of those creative processes in turn tell us about the social and cosmic visions of Judaism and its theology as conceived of by these artist-poet-musician shapers of that liturgy.
You may notice that I deliberately blur the lines here between the original shaper of the liturgy and the performer of the services. For the most part, as I suggested previously, we don’t have much specific information about who selected the verses and created the composite prayers. And, for a person trying to find spiritual meaning in the synagogue, it is the performer who brings the prayers to life. Their origins don’t much come into play.
As you no doubt have noticed, I have met in my synagogue both creative types whom I call the artist-poet-musicians, and the performers of their many impressive liturgical compositions that comprise major parts of the synagogue service.
These creative works—the selective-Bible mode prayers—are discourses, poems and other treatments of great religious themes. Later, I associate some of these works with more distinctive voices that I attribute to individual models, which I call a scribe or a priest, a mystic, a meditator or a celebrity.
For now, to understand the present archetype better, let me consider one especially elegant and detailed example of a liturgical piece that shows what an artist-poet-musician can elegantly do to form an expressive holiday liturgy primarily using the selective-Bible mode of his expression.
That simply means that the artist-poet-musician takes a variety of Bible verses from different places and puts them together to make a new prayer. Among those prominent prayer compositions that were constructed from carefully chosen biblical materials is the Musaf Amidah for Rosh Hashanah—a beautiful composite that sets forth in praise of God, the prominent theological ideas for the New Year. It is an especially dramatic performance in the synagogue because, during its recitation on the great festival of awe, the shofar is blown. The use of any instrument or prop is especially rare in the otherwise spartan services of the synagogue rite. Hence the shofar performance underlines the special nature of the day and highlights the liturgy that surrounds it.
In the Rosh Hashanah Additional Service, this composite, three-part liturgy accompanies the sounding of the ram’s horn. The sections of that prayer are embedded in the festival Amidah and are given names according to their thematic contents—first “Malchiyot—Kingships,” then “Zichronot—Remembrances” and finally “Shofrot—Horn Blasts.” These segments deal respectively with great subjects of the holiday: God’s kingship, God’s covenants with the forefathers and God’s revelation of the Torah to the children of Israel.
The writer of these special prayers was an anonymous ancient and great artist-poet-musician of the Talmudic era who selected and wove together ten biblical verses as discourses for each of the three theological themes of the holy day. After each segment is recited, a designated performer blows the shofar. Hence, the religious meaning of the artist’s lyrics expanded on the ritual music of the ram’s horn and gave to the stark sounds some framing words. The biblical verses are the textual contents, the libretto or lyrics of the New Year performance. The shofar blasts serve as the musical accompaniment, the punctuation for these prayers following the chant.
It’s a bit ironic to note that there is a bon mot about the shofar attributed to a great rabbinic figure of the past century, Rabbi Saul Lieberman. Lieberman called the blowing of the shofar in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, “a prayer without words.” I guess, to be fair to him, he meant that if you isolate the shofar sounds and look at them on their own, they too could be considered a prayer in one sense of the term. I find it amusing, though, to think that anyone who has been to shul on the New Year, in particular a rabbi of note, would say that the shofar sounds ought to be thought of “without words” extracted from their context. At the very least, the blowing of the shofar has to be appreciated in those accompanying passages of a great, great many words.  In the bigger scheme of the holiday liturgy, the sounding of the shofar is a solo instrumental interlude inextricably embedded within a dramatic, somber performance of 1000 actual pages of prayers, indeed with all the words of the holiday Machzor.
Remarkably, considering the number of books that have been written by rabbis on the Bible and the Talmud, there is comparatively little rabbinic commentary on the prayer book. Some years ago, I was fortunate to hear my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, expound in a lecture on the significance of the thirty-some verses that were chosen for the discourse as the textual accompaniment of the shofar’s spare music. 

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