Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Highlights from Elbogen

This is a set of collected quotes from Ismar Elbogen's Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History. Some of them are in context, some a bit out of context.

The book was originally written in German (1913, 1ed; 1924, 2ed; 1931, 3ed), then translated to Hebrew by Joseph Heinemann and others (1972) and translated from Hebrew and German to English by Raymond Scheindlin (1993). In the foreward, the translator refers to "precious traces of the man behind the book and of the intellectual climate of his times ... scattered throughout" the book. This post can be thought of as something of a celebration of the more entertaining aspects of those "traces." Footnotes have been removed. All emphasis and commentary is added unless otherwise noted. Page numbers are from the 1993 JPS edition.

On the kedushah (in Yotser):
The verbose character of our text, which serves as a transition and which appears in Saadia in a very abbreviated form, is apparently no older than the geonic period, having originated in the circles of the Merkava mystics, who strove mightily in their prayers to comprehend the godhead. They longed for visions; and the heaping up of hymns is a tried and true means of achieving ecstasy that was practiced by mystics in every age. (p18)


On birkat haminim:
In modern prayer books the text has been subjected to many alterations, but the most sensible change is to eliminate it entirely, as was done in the Berlin prayer book (p46)


On kiddush:
In the course of time, when the synagogue ceased serving this purpose [as a hostel for travelers], doubts were expressed about the propriety of saying Kiddush there, but no one dared to act on these doubts. Here is a classic example of how religious rites, once they have taken root, cannot be removed by the force of logic.(pp94-95)


Here's Elbogen as reviewer. When talking about the kingship verses in High Holiday services, he opines:
The author did not succeed equally in all parts of this prayer; the introduction to the Kingship verses excels in its cohesiveness and elevated theme, and no less by its beauty of expression. ... Likewise, in "You remember," the splendid opening hymn deserves praise, though it repeats the same theme too many times. The transition to the biblical verses is an obvious failure ...(p120)


Much of the compiled history of the liturgy is based on speculation and educated guessing. Perhaps the most blatant example is the reason given for the recitation of the "Ribbono shel olam" paragraphs in birkat kohanim:
Distinguished authorities admonished the congregations to say the verses only while the precentor was calling out the words, and to listen in silence when the priests repeated them;but the hubbub of the verses drowned out the words of the Blessing in spite of all the reproaches. Another equally bad and equally severe practice arose from the terror of nightmares common in Babylonia ... (p64)


The plague of nightmares being one consequence of:
Likewise, there is no overlooking the fact that Babylonia is the source of every superstition in the world. Some of the amoraim were affected by these errors of their native land, and were subject to fear of demons, nightmares, and witchcraft. ... Especially in later centuries, when every word in the Talmud was seen as binding, and when people lived in fear of witches and demons, these errors led to sorry consequences [for the liturgy]. (p212)


The entire gemara in one sentence:
The amoraim strived to achieve two things: to bring everything into fixed forms, and to imitate the exemplary behavior of famous men.

leading up to:
thus, it is hardly astonishing that in such an important realm as prayer they observed the behavior of the great men of the age very closely, and recommended that it be imitated. This could have a deleterious effect, when observances undertaken by the individual as stringencies meant for himself, with no thought of making them binding on others, later were turned into generally valid norms. In the amoraic period this did not yet happen, or it happened only seldom, but in later centuries it was a common phenomenon, one that was not always beneficial to religious institutions. Another goal, or at least a common tendency, was to increase the amount of praying. Unlike in the preceding centuries in which short prayers were considered the best, this generation found no harm in lengthy prayers; on the contrary, these were even thought desirable, though the principle that the congregation not be unduly burdened was never rescinded. (pp211-212)


On mysticism:
At the book's [Hekhalot rabati] end are hymns intended for the highest level of ecstasy, including האדרת והאמונה, "The splendor and the faithfulness," which has entered nearly all prayer books and is composed of that abundance of half-intelligible words typical of the prayers of these mystics. The intense veneration of God is expressed through the heaping-up of words that are equivalent in meaning and similar in sound, but that say little and do not advance the train of thought. ... In all this they differ considerably from the sober piety of the Bible, the Talmud, and the ancient prayers, which were oriented rather toward the psalmists' proverbial words, "to You silence is praise." (p287)


Don't take the drugs, because after the high comes the low:
On the other hand, there were plenty of sober thinkers who denounced the forcible inducing of ecstasy, not only because this state is not always attained, but because even when it is, the soul afterwards sinks back into a state of confusion. In fact this whole movement [Thirteenth century Ashkenazic pietism] was one of unhealthy extremes; the period was deficient in clear and prudent thinking, and a great deal of superstition became part of the mixture.(p290)


The Zohar's fantastic ideas freed many downtrodden people from the burdens of their lives; the spiritual uplift that they experienced in traditional prayer and in the recitation of the kabbalistic hymns gave them a taste of the world to come in the midst of the hell of their everyday lives. But at the same time we must not close our eyes to the severe harm done to Jewish piety by kabbalistic theory. It turned prayer into a tool for forcibly bringing about magical effects. by introducing intermediaries [angels] between God and man, it spelled a fateful regression in the history of the Jewish religion. Finally, the new doctrine fave a boost to all kinds of superstition.(p291)


Skip a few centuries and...
Lurianic mysticism, with its liturgical innovations, spread in every direction as swiftly as an infectious disease.(p293)


One of those damaging influences from Kabbalah was kabbalat shabbat:
The Sabbath service is introduced by an element not known in the Middle ages, the Welcoming of the Sabbath. It originated in the circle of kabbalists in Safed at the end of the sixteenth century, whose influence on Jewish life was a lasting and unhappy one. (p92)


Among these [additions to the service from Lurianic kabbalah] are some of a very high level, for the kabbalists undeniably knew how to choose materials that uplifted the heart and encouraged a spirit of piety. But there are also many passages attesting to the crassest superstition. There is no doubt that these peculiarly Lurianic innovations, such as the tikunum, kavanot and yihudim, which have long vanished from the western European prayer books, imposed a heavy burden on religious life and were actually a mockery of true prayer. (p294)


And, finally, Hasidism:
According to its principles, Hasidism represents an absolute rebellion against the synagogue service, and no more convincing proof exists of the intolerable condition of the synagogue service than the fact that so many turned their backs on it — no t out of lack of faith or out of skepticism, but out of a longing for piety. This should have been taken as a serious warning that the liturgy was in need of revision. But no change occurred because Hasidism did not keep to the oppositional position of its founders, but instead sought compromise with rabbinic Judaism. Thus, its effect on the synagogue service was more deleterious than it was an improvement. It strengthened the conservative tendency of faith in the written word, the ascetic spirit of renunciation, and the striving to compel the advent of the messianic age; it brought with it new plagues in the form of commotion and unrestrained wild gestures.

Going to shul has no positive benefit if you're not sitting their quietly, frowning.

On the study of detailed halacha about the order of nonessential prayers:
Already in 1313 Menahem b. Joseph of Troyes wrote his סדר טרוייש, "Rite of Troyes" for the explicit purpose of instructing the precentors on how to conduct the service in accordance with the true custom of the Troyes community ... The contents of [its] ten chapters ... bear no relationship to the importance claimed for the book in its introduction. They deal with prayers whose text had never been fixed, and the reciting of which had formerly been up to the judgment of the congregation — for example, the use and placement of the psalms, the Supplications, the prayers during the Torah reading, the exact fixing of the pericope in the Torah and Haftara, and, finally, the selection of piyyut and seliha. ... [After the Black Plague (1348-9),] These studies had some justification to the extent that their purpose was the reestablishment of the continuity of tradition and to the extent that they served to overcome the disorder and confusion that had spread to many places. But they went much further, and bestowed such exaggerated attention on such minuscule matters and unimportant habits that we can only view it as morbidity, the pathetic sign of a period of decadence.(p282) ... [After the Shulhan Arukh,] care for customary practice became a morbid obsession, confirming the harsh observation of a medieval sage that excessive concentration on the custom could lead the communities to perdition.(p283)


The worst consequence of [the development of the printed siddur] was the deification of the letter. ... The deadly force of reverence for the letter caused great harm to the liturgy, for the spirit that had the power to revive it was moribund. In the absolute absence of general education, discipline, and order, the effort to dislodge the rigid faith in the written letter led to such disruptions that, on the threshold of the modern age, the form of the liturgy had become absolutely untenable.(p285)


On the scourge of liturgical poetry:
The first attempt to embellish the liturgy of festivals and fast days, ... already involved additions of the type that may be called piyyut ... Nevertheless, these compositions were of a very different type from piyyut in the narrow sense of the term. First, they always remained separate from the statutory prayers, never penetrating them as did the piyyut, which interrupted the traditional sequence of the service. Second, they are distinguished from the piyyut — and this must be stressed as strongly as possible — in the simplicity of their form, the modesty of their language, and the intelligibility and clarity of their expression. (p221)


The poems first composed [for selihot] were simple and unadorned, but deeply felt; later came elaborate structures in which the artificiality of the form often suppressed the content.(p179)


To this [Aramaic] translation [of the Torah reading] poetic introductions in the Aramaic language were also composed; one of them, אקדמות מלין, "The beginning of words," has been preserved to this day in our holiday prayer book for the first day of Pentecost. These poems were never intelligible, but now, with the elimination of the translation that they were intended to introduce, they have completely lost their significance and their right to exist.(p154)


The! downfall! of! Piyyut!
How great was the religious feeling excited by the piyyut! What courage it offered the downcast! What consolation it instilled in the despairing! But the convenient accessibility of the material could easily become and inducement to facile rhyming, encouraging many who were not poets to try their hand at writing piyyutim.

Did you start thinking of the Sim Shalom when you read that?
Fixed forms were established that were too easy to use; the same places in the service and the same occasions attracted the same ideas: Certain themes like the suffering of the Ten Martyrs, the binding of Isaac, and the recitation of the Kedushah by the Hosts of Heaven came to be constantly repeated and treated in routine cliches. It was intrinsically hard to invent original and telling ways of expressing all these things; only few succeeded, but many became longwinded and indulged in monotonous repetition.(p227)


Like the letters of the alphabet, biblical verses may be used in the most varied combinations. One of the most artificial combinations, fortunately an uncommon one, is the qerova for the Ninth of Av by Kallir in Rome. The first line of each stanza begins with the first word of the successive verses of Lamentations chapter 5, which does not have the alphabetical acrostic and with the first word of a verse from chapter 4; the three following lines begin with the opening word of the verses of chapter 3 in reverse order (3,2,1,6,5,4), and the fifth and sixth lines begin with the opening word of a verse from chapters 2 and 1. The sixth line ends with the last two words of the verses of chapter 5 with which the stanza began. But even this does not exhaust the complexity of the piyyut, which is considerably increased by the rhyme.(p228)


With a certain amount of practice it would be possible to find one's way through the unusual and incorrect word formations, but what makes the synagogue poetry particularly difficult, and often impossible to enjoy is the obscurity of the poets' manner of expression.


With their depth of feeling, the loftiness of their ideas, and the purity of their language, th[e "classic" liturgical poets] came near the biblical psalms, for these were the true poets who undertook to speak, while the great majority of synagogue poets had no poetic talent. The didactic contents of the piyyut, the display of external form, and the invention of word forms were easy to imitate, and the congregations' demand for this new adornment of the liturgy was intense. Thus, the custom of composing liturgical poetry spread like a contagious disease. ... The error was not in the act of composing piyyutim, but in the unrestrained versifying, by the compulsion felt by people lacking any specific feeling of linguistic understanding to compose piyyutim and selihot.(p234)


As manuscripts decreased and printed books proliferated, as understanding for historical and local character decreased, as meaningless customs came to be adhered to more stubbornly, the more entrenched did the piyyut become, and the less could its position be shaken by even the chief authorities of religious law... The modern period has mercilessly eliminated the great mass of unintelligible and worthless poems ... and has no compunctions about retaining in the prayer book piyyutim of true poetic value.(p237)


Saadia's poetic efforts were important in that not only did he try hsi own hand as a poet, but he dealt with the theory of poetry as well. The many worthless poems circulating in his time caught his attention and induced him to compose a kind of textbook for the improvement of the language and style of the poets.(p251)

It didn't satisfy Elbogen, though:
Saadia ... did no better; if Kallir's poems must be called obscure, Saadia's are books with seven seals.(p234)


The one true religion™:
a change occurred in the tenth and eleventh centuries; poetic selihot became more and more entrenched, displacing the earlier simple, nonrhyming compositions, which were often superior to all the artificial productions of later times in poetic spirit and, above all, in depth of religious feeling.(p254)


[Sahlal b. Nethaniel]'s poetry exemplifies some of the strange fruit that the liturgical poetry bore; though completely artificial, pedantic, and remote from both the content and tone of true prayer, it nevertheless enjoyed great esteem in the Middle Ages.(p255)


Can't argue with him here:
For the Additional Service [Meshulam b. Kalonymus] composed two versions of the Avoda, including אמיץ כח, "Mighty in Strength," used in Ashkenaz. Among known Avodot, this work is the least regular in its poetic structure; it is typical of the later Ashkenazic poets as well, in that they often neglect the fundamental principle of poetry, uniformity of pattern. Surprisingly, we find that the poem lacks rhyme. It has been shown that the author's intention was to abridge the Avoda of Yose [b. Yose, an earlier payyetan] to put it into the form more in accordance with the taste of his contemporaries, full of hard words and complicated expressions. Besides the alphabetical acrostic, he also had to devise a relatively lengthy acrostic for his own name. Because he was not able to extricate himself from all these difficulties, his Avoda came out very irregularly — sometimes they were very condensed, jumping from idea to idea, and at other times they went into great detail.(p253)



In which I learn that my usual practices or practices with which I am quite familiar are unheard of in modern times:

The modern suggestion to shorten the weekly [Torah] readings and have the congregation [as opposed to a rabbi or cantor] again do the reading itself has gained no attention anywhere. (p140)


Certainly this paying for ritual functions [aliyot/synagogue honors] was bound to lead to undesirable consequences, especially since for a time, they were even sold at public auction to the highest bidder. (p142)

(you know who you are).

Occasions on which I learn that I'm either uncivilized, or live in an uncivilized country:

In all civilized countries the external form of the liturgy underwent more or less fundamental improvements. Choral singing was introduced everywhere, accompanied by organ in France and Italy, while the liturgy itself remained unchanged.(p319)


In the manner of such customs, the secondary eventually becomes primary, and "May He Who blessed" [מי שברך] became for the unlettered the most important part of the Torah reading. Gradually the unfortunate situation arose that the blessings multiplied to a horrifying degree, leading to the excessive prolongation of the service, diverting attention from the reading itself, and opening the way to all kinds of abuse. The interruption of the Torah reading for the recitation of private blessings was long ago eliminated in all progressive countries.(p161)


Quiet and order, dignity and reverence in worship are such self-explanatory requirements for civilized people, and approach so nearly the precepts of traditional Judaism, that the most conservative circles recognized that they were justified, and everywhere efforts were made to realize them. The refinement of the cantorial rendition and the introduction of harmonic choral singing were also demanded from every quarter and were put everywhere into effect for the beautification of the service.(p325)

It's like Judaism: the musical. Just sit back quietly and enjoy.

Quietly:
Merely listening did not satisfy the congregation; they wanted to pray along with the precentor or they sought to pass the time in other ways. The result of both was disruptive, necessitating a thorough revision in the modern period.(p381)


Just don't enjoy too much:
Often the reading of the scroll [of Esther] was accompanied by customs intended to release the overwhelming feelings of joy, and these not infrequently took on wild form; . . . In Reform congregations, the reading of the Scroll of Esther has mostly been limited to the Morning Service, while in the evening it is replaced by a selection in the vernacular. The noisy disturbances have been eliminated in every civilized country.(p110)


In the course of time, the Joy of the Torah became a popular festival in the synagogue, and the processions a kind of popular amusement for observers; in less cultivated times and places these generated into wild excesses and indecorous behavior.(p160)

Uh oh. Someone may have smiled in shul.

The Frankfurt rabbinical conference (1845) had a way of preventing that from happening too often:
The commission had proposed the introduction of the triennial cycle; this was accepted with a great majority. The festival of the Joy of the Torah was therefore to be celebrated only once in three years.(p313)


But the greatest advance in Jewish prayer since the advent of sliced bread is...
The classical historian of the sermon was Leopold Zunz; his book ... is one of the chief factors that enabled the sermon, in the course of the last century, to regain the place in the synagogue that it had in ancient times. Thanks to it, the last seventy years have seen regular liturgical instruction successfully reassert itself in Jewish communities, irrespective of religious inclination, in every civilized country, and the vernacular sermon has once again become an integral part of the Sabbath and festival service. (p157)

... the (return of the) sermon. But,
in the great synagogues of our time the problem often arises that one does not find individuals who combine intellectual capacity, vocal power, and rhetorical skill.(p158)

On the bright side, nap time returned to the synagogue.

On the need for reform:
The liturgy could not go completely untouched by this mighty upheaval in the lives and thinking of the Jews. Its forms no longer suited the demands of a new age. They repelled both eye and ear, and could neither satisfy the mind nor warm the heart. ... A tiny group of intelligent people sought reforms that would not harm the essence of the liturgy, such as the simplification of the prayers, the elimination of the bad customs that had infected the liturgy, and the introduction of aesthetic forms and conduct appropriate to the house of God.(p297)

I guess that means not sitting in the back of shul talking.

...and the backlash against it
...in other Prussian communities such as Breslau and Koenigsberg, the German sermons that by now had been in use for quite some time were eliminated. Thus for several decades all progress in the synagogue service in the territory of the Prussian kingdom was blocked.(p302)


On nusach:
... synagogue melody was transplanted to the West, to the detriment of congregations and the liturgy. For those precentors schooled neither in the Hebrew language nor in music, the "melody" became the main thing, and prayer was forced into the background, its text mercilessly corrupted.(p384)


And other forms of synagogue singing:
A strange error was the introduction of choir boys in Poland, a practice perhaps still known to this day in the East, and which even in Germany had for centuries the most harmful influence on the liturgy. ... On either side of the precentor stood a singer, who accompanied his singing in a higher or lower voice — and who was therefore called singer and bass—sounding harmonic intervals and sometimes performing small solo passages. This kind of singing could generally be heard everywhere until the middle of the last [19th] century (it was still customary in Berlin until 1840); it intensified the disorder and tastelessness in the extreme.


From the Jews-will-be-Jews department:
On April 2, 1846, the congregation [Association for Reform in Judaism, Berlin] moved into its own synagogue building, and after a long struggle it was decided to hold services twice a week, on Saturday and on Sunday. The leadership of the congregation declared themselves in favor of Saturday services and voted decisively against shifting the Sabbath to Sunday; in the end they came to an agreement that services of identical status should be held on both days, and that neither day should be treated as a solemn one.(p315)


The radicalism with which the Reform congregation developed its liturgical institutions was easy to put into effect, when the congregation was founded for this purpose. But conditions were much harder in the existing congregations in which the new liturgy was to be introduced ... Violent disputes were unleashed even by matters of no importance at all, like calling people up to the Torah by name or the elimination of the first "May the salvation arise," the prayer for the ancient Babylonian authorities who had not existed for centuries.(p317)

It's about the first יקום פורקן, and it wasn't intended to be humorous.

[In 1840's Hungary] Bitter, sometimes bloody battles were fought over the most insignificant minutiae of synagogue construction and liturgical custom.

In Studentville, too. Without the blood.

Take this, Carlebach:
For nearly every prayer an individual melody was formed, and a special recitative for Sabbaths and festivals. Special pleasure was taken in singing the Verses of Song in the Morning Service, which was done at length. In Regensberg a full hour was needed just for the prayer "Blessed is He Who spoke" [ברוך שאמר], and the same amount of time was used by Isserlein in Weiner Neustadt during the period from the first of Elul to the Day of Atonement [presumably for לדוד? selichot?].

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Comments:
Ah, good old Elbogen.

His history is very useful, if sometimes fragmentary. It's in his occasional tendency to editorialize that we find his primary failing: he believed that his idea of Judaism was THE historical Judaism, and that any evidence to the contrary was just an aberration. In this he was no different from Conservative Jews who make this claim (it's true, unless you give credence to any of the hermeneutic developments since the Amoraim), or Orthodox Jews who insist that before the Haskalah everyone was a Torah scholar and every kitchen had two ovens.

~Lawrence
 
I find reading Elbogen to be a little like reading the Hertz chumash -- the polemicizing is dated and I don't agree with it, but it also lends it a certain kind of antique charm. Suddenly we're back in the world of pince nez glasses, bowler hats, and people being really caught up in the pronouncements of the Pittsburg (!) Platform.
-sanpaku
 
and the same amount of time was used by Isserlein in Weiner Neustadt during the period from the first of Elul to the Day of Aronement [presumably for לדוד?].

Highly doubtful, since Psalm 27 was not added to the Elul services until around the 17th or 18th century (from the possibly Sabbatean book חמדת ימים, I think). Hardcore German communities, such as mine, never adopted this innovation.
 
Elbogen never discussed the addition of Ps 27.

Anyway, got any clue what it might be referring to? maybe S'lichot?
 
i love the translator's/editor's comments in the English translation, especially the ones that amount to "[WTH? i have no idea where he got this from]" :-)
 
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