Friday, August 27, 2010

Rosh Hashana Liturgy

Q: Dear Rabbi,

I have a few questions regarding piyutim (liturgical poems added to the prayer service on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur).

Where did the Minhag of saying Piyutim come from? Are Sephardim obligated to recite piyutim, or can they choose to study Torah after the prayers instead of continuing with Piyutim? If they are so important, why are they not officially incorporated into the service?

Correct me if I am wrong, but the custom of singing Piyutim is relatively new (few hundred years) and there seems to be no mention among the Rishonim (early post-Talmudic Rabbis) of such a custom. Furthermore, it seems in some instances to interfere with the structure of Yom Tov (the Holiday) as outlined by our Rabbis - namely, that half the day should be devoted to study and prayer, and the other half to eating and drinking (Chetzi L'shem/Chetzi L'Chem)?

The reason I ask these questions is because our minyan tends to be quicker than most and we have chosen to leave out many of the Piyutim because the small crowd of individuals would rather learn Torah as opposed to sing. I concede that there are ideas in the Piyutim but not necessarily easy ones to understand. Further, I believe many people's time can be better spent learning a subject than chanting drawn out melodies.

Ideally, ignoring community and political issues, what would be a better way to spend your Rosh Hashana - have a few hours hours of prayer and then learn Torah for a few more, or have prayers that lead directly up to (and for most) past midday, thus forfeiting the Torah study and beginning the festivities later than we are supposed to.

Thanks very much for your time. There are very few Sephardic rabbis that I have encountered who are willing to discuss this important issues open mindedly instead of just telling me it is Minhag (custom) and you can't ask questions.


A: Dear R.H.,

There is no halakhic (legal) obligation to say piyutim, and an individual may technically learn Torah during this time as long as he does so in a manner that will not cause offense to the community, but I believe there is great value in the recitation of piyutim - the rabbis who composed them were great thinkers and scholars who wrote them for good reason. Many of the ideas they convey are profound and I find that they deepen my appreciation of and immersion in the themes of the holidays.

The custom of reciting piyutim in the services is actually quite ancient. Rambam references them in his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), as does Ibn Ezra in his commentary to Qohelet. Ibn Ezra himself composed lots of piyutim with the intention of having them incorporated in the liturgy of Shabbat and Holidays, and his father was one of the most renowned paytanim (liturgical poets) in history. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi was an outstanding Paytan as was Rabbi Shelomo Ibn Gabirol. Rabbenu Bahya quotes stanzas from famous piyutim in Hovot Halevavot. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Migash, who was the Rambam's father Maimon's teacher, has a responsum in which he states that the inclusion of piyutim in the holiday liturgy is an old and universally accepted custom. Rav Saadiah Gaon, even earlier in history, includes piyutim in his siddur, and states that he has selected what were in his opinion the best ones (he implies there were many many others that had been composed and were in circulation in various communities). One of the classic piyutim in the Sephardic tradition - shema qoli asher yishma - was written by Rav Hai Gaon himself. And these are just the references and citations that I recall off the top of my head!

In short, the presence of piyutim in the liturgy, and halakhic give-and-take about the best texts to use, when to say them and when to omit them (for example, the question of whether to incorporate them into the repetitition of the silent Amidah or say them afterward), etc., are nothing new - they predate us by well over a millenium, perhaps 1500 years.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are days designated for achieving the mental state of Lifne Hashem - standing before God - so as to facilitate genuine repentance and refocus us on our purpose in life. This is why prayer is the central mitsvah practiced on both of the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) - the specific features of the holidays, blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana and Confession on Yom Kippur, are literally embedded in the prayer service.

The reason for the link between repentance and prayer is a fundamental one. Prayer is essentially defined as "standing before God" and is inextricably tied to repentance, which the Rambam describes as "returning before God". In other words, the objective of repentance is to regain clarity as to our place in the Universe, deepen our awareness of our current stage of personal and communal development or lack thereof, and a increase our sense of resolve and commitment to live up to our ideals in the future - and these themes are what genuine prayer is all about! This differs from study of Torah in the sense that learning is the process of discovering the universal principles of knowledge and wisdom, while prayer is reflection on the implications of those principles for your own life.

The two mitsvot - study and prayer - operate hand in hand and complement one another. Torah study enables us to comprehend the ideas that we proceed to apply to the particulars of personal experience through prayer. And of course, repentance is more about realizing the ideals of Torah in the realia of my specific lifestyle than about understanding what those ideals should be - the latter is a prelude and prerequisite to meaningful repentance!

While I share your intellectual bent and emphasis on Torah study as the ultimate value, I am extremely skeptical about whether learning a piece of Talmud - generally a rather detached and abstract pursuit - would bring you to the level of personal awareness engendered by thoughtful prayer. This would be like learning through a complex and technical commentary on the Talmud on Tisha B'av instead of reading the graphic and very moving Kinnot (Elegies) - there might be intellectual progress in the sense of abstract understanding about the fast day observances, but no personal recognition of the loss and destruction that would eventuate in an emotional experience of mourning. And while knowledge per se is valuable, if it is disconnected from individual experience it is not likely to move a person to a higher level of perfection.

The processes of learning and praying are fundamentally different, and piyutim were added to the liturgy to provide support and enhancement to the prayer experience which is the cornerstone of the High Holidays. And in this case, yes, prayer is more fundamental than learning, which should be completed as preparation before the holiday. As the Rabbis say, it would be praiseworthy for a person to pray all day long, assuming that he possesses the knowledge and understanding he needs to "stand in the presence of the Creator" in an authentic manner.

Best Regards,



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