Oz Torah: Poetry in the prayers – Ask the Rabbi.


Q. There are so many difficult poems in the High Holyday prayers. Must we say them all?

A. The liturgical poems are “piyyutim”, from the same Greek origin as the English “poet”.

Not every community adopted the same piyyutim. Some rabbis strongly opposed piyyutic interpolations as an unwarranted disturbance of the flow of the service and because the piyyutim were often too abstruse and complicated.

The Chafetz Chayyim was not too wedded to saying all the piyyutim, and some communities published their own lists of piyyutim.

In Britain, the Chief Rabbis Adler sanctioned revised lists of piyyutim which became standard in the Anglo-Jewry. Some piyyutim, though their exclusion was permitted, remained so popular that they were retained regardless of rabbinic rulings.

The short answer to your question, therefore, is that there is no statutory obligation to say all the piyyutim, though many people would feel cheated without them.



Q. Why does “Avinu Malkenu” say that we have no good deeds?

A. The truth is that we have both good and bad deeds on our record, but Avinu Malkenu emphasises the bad ones.

The problem, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev pointed out, is that we ask God for so many boons that we find ourselves too poor to pay for them. What a moment of truth!

The Zohar says there are three kinds of prayer, the prayer of Moses, the prayer of David and the prayer of the poor. Moses’ prayer is more intellectual, David’s more poetic and the poor person’s more heartfelt.

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are like the poor person who sadly admits that they have too little with which to pay for the blessings they request from God.



Q. Is it true that “shanah” (as in Rosh HaShanah and Shanah Tovah) as a verb means both to change and to repeat?

A. That was an idea which Samson Raphael Hirsch used very effectively, telling us that on Rosh HaShanah we needed the ability to know what to keep the same in our lives and what to change.

We all know the phrase “Mah Nishtanah”, “How different!”, and the title “Mishnah” (or “Mishneh”), “repetition”. We probably also know that a tooth is “shen”, and in the Sh’ma, “v’shinnantam” is “teach them thoroughly” (i.e., if it comes from “shen”, “make their minds bite into the subject”). However, do these words all have the same root?

Rashi (on Deut. 17:18) seemed to think so, but his grandson Rashbam did not. Rashbam appeared to accept the view that Hebrew roots have three letters whilst Rashi thought they had two.

Thus Rashi believed that the basis of all these words was “sh-n”, which had a number of shades of meaning ranging from “sharpening” to “teaching” to “doubling”, whilst Rashbam posited several different three-letter roots that looked partly the same.

“Sh-n-h” meant to double, “sh-n-n” meant to sharpen or teach.



Q. Which is more important, Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur?

A. Which is more important? They both are.

Rosh HaShanah focuses on what we could be, and Yom Kippur on what we actually are.

On Rosh HaShanah we rise to a level where the world is beautiful and sin does not exist; on Yom Kippur we come down to earth and recognise the reality that we have actually sinned.

We need both festivals. If all we had was Rosh HaShanah, we would imagine that there were no problems; if all we had was Yom Kippur, we would imagine that all that exists are problems. One day is the foil to the other.

We need to dream on Rosh HaShanah, and to wake up on Yom Kippur. We need to recognise on Yom Kippur that there are real problems, but we need the Rosh HaShanah message that if we work hard enough on the vision we can build a world without problems, a civilisation without threats, and human beings without moral lapses.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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