What Happened To Jewish Prayer? – A Mekori Perspective – Part II: External Additions to the Siddur

While siddurim are useful tools for accessing the texts of tefillah and the laws relevant to them, they are also one of the major reasons that many find prayer a cumbersome and almost unmanageable burden. Before the mid-fifteenth century, siddurim were handwritten texts and were not commonly used as individual tools for daily recitation. Instead, they were used as compendiums and reference guides for hazzanim.

The first two siddurim in Jewish history were compiled by Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Rav Amram – ca. 870 CE) and Rav Saadiah Gaon (Siddur Rasa”g – ca. 900 CE), the former being especially for talmidhei hakhahmim and the latter being intended for access by the common man. Other early versions included the Seder HaTefillot of the Rambam, included in the Mishneh Torah (ca. 1180), and the Mahzor Vitri which was produced in France in 1206.

The writing of prayerbooks continued until the mid-fifteenth century with the advent of the printing press. With printed texts being laborious to create and the costs of printing being relatively high, siddurim began to be produced in an encyclopedic fashion. The goal of the publisher was to include anything and everything in the way of prayers, blessings, and poetry (piyyutim) so that he could market his edition as being the most complete. Along with printing also came many errors. Many who worked in manual typesetting were unable to read the text that with which they were working. In fact, some of the phraseology in blessings and prayers said by many today are practices that arose due to typesetting and formatting errors in those original printed siddurim.

As a result of this continual trend, the siddur has gone from being a relatively short kuntres to a massive tome over the last 500 years. Add to this the additions made by the kabbalists (this will be discussed in another post) and the amount of material that must be “gotten through” in a prayer service is incredible.

Another error that has crept in since the printing of siddurim is the idea that “everything must be said.” This is true not only of the daily prayers, but also of holiday prayers. Many do not know that only certain parts of the prayers are obligatory while others are highly recommended and still others are simply customary and may be dispensed with altogether. (Remember all of the long piyyutim added to the shemoneh esrei during the high holiday services?) Many also do not know that the hazzan for special services used to prepare a selection of them that were meaningful to the community – they would not all be said by the community.

The misconception of the need to “say it all” is still prevalent today and many who skip parts of the siddur do so with a feeling of shame, inadequacy, or irreligiosity. It is important remove the occasion of these feelings from Jews because otherwise they will harden themselves against sin through doing something permissible (has ve-halilah). In my opinion, it is a case of “one who intends to eat pork, but ends up [unwittingly] eating sheep [instead]” (cf. b.Nazir 23a). In other words, although they are not sinning or being irreligious, they nevertheless – due to ignorance about what is actually required – feel that by skipping parts of the siddur they are showing a lack in religious devotion. Many thereby become hardened to their actual religious duties. And many eventually give it up altogether. Perhaps if such Jews had the confidence that they were what was required of them (and in most cases more than what is required of them), their contented sense of religious dedication would return. I have watched many people walk away from the practice of prayer, with poor feelings about praying in general and about their own religious self-image.

The expansion of the tefillot is largely due to two types of additions: [1] external additions in the form of prefixal and suffixal selections being added to the main components of the prayers, and [2] internal additions where lines of text have been added to the phraseology of the prayers themselves. The first type of addition is the most obvious and may be perceived by simply comparing the core of each prayer service with the many things that, within the modern siddur, appear before Barekhu and after Uva Le-Tzion (i.e. when praying with a minyan, but when praying alone it would be between Yotzer Ohr and Tehillah Le-David). In the following table, the additions are italicized while the main components are in bold:

[NOTE: ** – indicates something recited only when praying with a minyan only, * – indicates something which is technically an addition, but has been standard since the times of the Geonim, [ ] – indicates something said by relatively few, but still suggested by some to be said]

Shaharit

  • Preparatory recital for tallit
  • Four parashiyot of tefillin
  • Piyyutim (e.g. Yigdal, Adon Olam)
  • Akedah
  • Korbanot
  • Kaddish De-Rabbanan**
  • Mizmor Shir and Kaddish Yatom
  • Pesuqeu De-Zimra/Zemirot*
  • Hatzi Kaddish**
  • Birkhot HaShahar
  • Barekhu**
  • Kriat Shema
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Hazarah**
  • Tahanun
  • Tehillah Le-David
  • Uva Le-Tzion**
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Aleinu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**
  • Seder HaYom
  • Kaddish Yatom**
  • Piytum HaKetoret
  • Kaddish De-Rabbanan**
  • [Shesh Zikhronot]
  • [Aseret HaDiberot]
  • [Shelosh Asar Ikkarim]

Minhah

  • Tehillah Le-David
  • Hatzi Kaddish**
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Hazarah**
  • Tahanun
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Aleinu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**

Arvit

  • Wa-hu Rahum
  • Barekhu**
  • Kriat Shema
  • Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei
  • Kaddish Shalem**
  • Alenu*
  • Kaddish Yatom**

Some initial observations are that both Minhah and Arvit are essentially free of external additions, with the exception of Alenu (which was instituted early in the Geonic era) and the mourners’ Kaddish, which was added because of Alenu. Shaharit has been recipient of the vast majority of external additions and innovations. While what is listed above may vary slightly from one siddur to another, the length is fairly standard. And to say all of this with proper intention (kavanah) and at a speed at which such intention is humanly possible can take close to two hours. Most people, however, opt to simply race through it without much thought.

The core structure of the prayers as instituted originally by Hazal for each of the services is as follows (I have left out mention of each Kaddish):

Tefiyllah Chart 3A

The various components of the prayers fall into three general halakhic categories: hovah, reshut, and minhag.

[i] Hovah (“obligation”) is something that must be done so that by not doing so one is prevented from fulfilling his general obligation to prayer in some part. One cannot and should not dispense with this without express halakhic reasons for doing so.

[ii] The nature of Reshut (“optional [practice]”) is often misunderstood to be something that is unimportant and may be dispensed with lightly. This is a mistake. Rather, a reshut is something that is recommended by Hazal and has been directed by them as something to be said or done, but is not technically obligatory. Therefore, if one does not do it they neither transgress or, in this case, affect the fulfillment of their general obligation to pray. However, not reciting something in the category of reshut means that a spiritual opportunity has been lost and it therefore detracts from their fulfillment of the obligation to pray.

[iii] Minhag (“custom”) in this context – and in a general mekori context – does not refer simply to “what lots of Jews have been doing” or “what your grandparents did,” but is a reference to a custom ratified and spread on the basis of proper rabbinic authority. The term is used, for example, in the hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. Unlike a reshut, something which is minhag has not been rabbinically prescribed per se, but only rabbinically approved. In other words, if someone desires to say it, then there is nothing wrong with it and the practice is deemed proper and permissible, however if one decides to dispense with it completely, then there is no loss whatsoever insofar as prayer is concerned.

The Rambam lays out very succinctly – as is his usual way – the basic order and structure of the daily services, both when praying with a minyan and praying alone (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 7:17-19; 9:1-19).

All of these ideas are more complicated and involve many more details than can be adequately presented here, but I think that the general picture can be properly perceived. In future posts I plan to refer back to these ideas and to deal with them in more detail. The next post in this series is dedicated to the “internal” additions as mentioned above.

There is one more question that I would like to address, and that is: “If not hours, then how long are the prayers supposed to reasonably take?” This is a great question. In fact, the Rambam actually comments on the approximate length of Kriat Shema indicating that it (along with its berakhot) takes about 6 minutes (cf. Hilkhot Kriat Shema 1:12). The Amidah is supposed to take a reasonable amount of time, without being rushed, and one is required to sit (and this literally means “sitting,” not standing) before and after in order to not treat the Shemoneh Esrei as a burden to be dispensed with as quickly as possible (cf. Hilkhot Tefillah 4:16 – “hour” [שעה] is to be understood as a short period of time, as it is translated quite often by Targum Onqelos as רגע, not literally an hour of 60 minutes – see the comments of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l there).

The “sitting” before and after are usually accomplished by either Kriat Shema or Tehillah Le-David (before) and Tahanun along with Tehillah Le-David and/or Uva Le-Tzion (after). Other portions of the prayers are relative to these in length. There are other considerations as well, such as that Shaharit on Shabbat (which contains a lengthy Torah service and an added Amidah and Hazarah) would begin close to sunrise and people would arrive home from synagogue to eat their first meal while it was still morning. The advice in the sefarim is to refrain from taking a nap after the day meal until after mid-day (hatzot) and instead one should learn for several hours until then. This is unlike today where some shuls have Shabbat services that begin at 8:30 am and last for almost 5 hours! Regarding Tahanun, it is unknown by many that it halakhically has no set text, only a traditional one put forward by some of the Geonim and the Rambam. There are many other factors that might shorten the nosah of daily prayer as well, but I will not list them here.

Using some commonsense measurements based on experience, I think it is reasonable to estimate the length of prayers as follows, using a weekday Shahariyth for an example

At home:

  1.  Morning berakhot and washing: 7-8 minutes
  2. Zemirot (Pesuqei De-Zimra): 10-12 minutes

In synagogue:

  1. Barekhu: 10 seconds
  2. Shema and its berakhot: 6-7 minutes
  3. Amidah: 5-10 minutes
  4. Hazarah: 5-6 minutes
  5. Tahanun and bowing/prostration: 2 minutes
  6. Ashrei: 1-2 minutes
  7. Uva Le-Tzion: 1-2 minutes

TOTAL: 20-29 minutes

A half of an hour is more than reasonable to dedicate in the morning to prayer and service to God. Many who read this might say, “What is the big deal? Our shul finishes in a about a half an hour too. So?” But what I am referring to here is a half an hour, not of speed-talking and murmuring and slurring through page after page of rote textual material, but of even-paced, clear recitation of the prayers and berakhot with proper intention. The two are VERY different from one another, as anyone who has experienced both can affirm.

Not only this, but it is a certainty that many of those chosen lead public prayer in the synagogue are not actually saying or reading anything. I have literally counted the seconds it takes various [would be] shalihei tzibur to finish certain sections of the siddur and it is simply not humanly possible for anyone to read anything that fast! And even it were, perhaps by some method or technique of “speed-reading,” this is not the mitzvah of prayer – prayer is careful recitation and enunciation with proper kavanah (intention).

For example, I once heard someone leading Minhah begin “Aleinu le-shabeah …”, go silent, and then six seconds later say “…Adhonoy ehad ushemo ehad.” Six seconds?!?! This same person read the hazarah like a Micro-Machines commercial, stumbling over words and gasping between lines. Shema took about 17 seconds with the berakhot before and after taking 3-5 seconds a piece. I am not exaggerating. Try this yourself privately, you will find that it is not possible without simply scanning the pages with your eyes. It should be said that without proper intention, the shaliah tzibur cannot be motzi the people in anything according to halakhah.

Many mistakenly believe that the public repetition of the Amidah is only for the purpose of providing a service for amei ha-aretz who cannot pray on their own to be yotzei yedei hovatam. This is simply untrue. While it is true that those who cannot pray or do not know how may fulfill their obligation through the hazarah, the intention of the hazarah is public and corporate worship. This means that we are not supposed to sit down and look at our phones or wander around the hekhal waiting for it to be over. Read the Rambam in Hilkhot Tefillah – those in the minyan are supposed to remain standing and to concentrate on repetition no matter who they are. This is because the hazarah is the epitome of the corporate service to God. Unfortunately, however, due to a lack of intention or of being careful with the recitation of the prayers, services within the synagogue have become largely an exercise in futility that accomplishes very little. If we are honest, we know that this is true – or, at least this is how we feel. And more importantly, the younger generation also sees it for what it is and takes it as a sign that prayer is boring, accomplishes nothing, and that religious Jews really don’t care much about it. This alone should give us enough pause to want to work for change in this important aspect of daily Jewish life. HaShem ya`azor.

Does Shorter = Better?

When advocating for a shorter nosah, many have asked me if shorter really is better. They contend that a shorter nosah will just mean that people spend even less time in prayer, that they will fly through the little that is required, and then go about their business. My response is that such an assessment is almost certainly correct, but not because the nosah will be shorter, but because a shorter nosah is simply not enough to change the current situation. Along with restoring the original nosah comes the teshuvah and re-education of religious Jews with regard to the “service of the heart.” It also comes with the responsibility to refuse appointing amei ha-aretz who cannot properly recite the prayers to lead the minyan. And just as the culture of slobbing through the mounds of words in the modern siddur led to people racing through the material as hurriedly as possible, so also will prayer leaders who clearly and evenly enunciate the prayers with proper intention eventually lead to people slowing down. And perhaps the damage has already been done and the change will only take place generationally, i.e. with our children growing up in a renewed reality of public prayer. HaShem ya`azor lanu lahzor bi-teshuvah.

Next post will be about “internal” additions and the requirements for a proper shaliah tzibur.

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