The ties that bind.
Call to Prayer

A Brief Liturgical History

It never seems to occur to most people that the Jewish liturgy is changeable. The prayers  are always the same; they are familiar and solid, use the same language and expressions.

But there's no reason for these prayers to be carved in stone. They're not the way Jews have "always" prayed; indeed, in our earliest history, Jews interacted with God through making sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the rabbis created new forms of worship that didn't depend on Temple sacrifice: synagogue prayer services, and home-based rituals.

The rabbis interpreted the words of Ezekiel, "I have removed them from among the nations and scattered them; I have become a small sanctuary (mikdash me'at) in the countries where they have gone," to mean that the home table would become a new altar for offerings to God; the home itself would become a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary, for the worship of God.

Blessing fire and wine and the foods that we eat, and offering "the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts," together become a substitute for Temple sacrifice. Our words are our offering to God. Nifty, eh? This interpretation helped to transform Judaism into a text-based religion, which enabled it to survive in a post-sacrificial age.

I don't think this is a post-textual age, no matter what the postmodernists say, but I do think the texts we've been using may be ripe for revision and/or revisioning. And that's why I'm interested in the art of ritualcraft: writing my own prayers, blessings, and rituals.

At first glance, this might look like a radical activity. I think there's historical basis for regarding Jewish rituals as changeable, though. So fasten your seatbelts: we're about to go on a whirlwind tour of Jewish liturgical history.

Over the last 200 years, scholars have posited a variety of ideas about how the Jewish liturgy developed into what it is today. What all branches of liturgical scholarship agree on is this: Jewish liturgy has undergone changes and revisions, in response to Jews' changing needs.

First there was the major shift from sacrifice-oriented Judaism to text-oriented Judaism. But even once Judaism became a primarily textual tradition, the liturgy took a while to become standardized.  Today's standard Jewish liturgies came into being through a historical process of argument and interpretation. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the liturgy consisted only of set themes and set opening and closing phrases.  Individuals were free to innovate their own words of prayer around these structures.

"Collections of prayers are a relatively late phenomenon in Judaism; originally the dominant view was that it is forbidden to reduce the prayers to writing," according to eighteenth-century liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogen. "Only after the close of the Talmud, when necessity compelled that the other parts of the Oral Law be written down, were the prayers also reduced to writing, and only after the sixth century were collections of prayers compiled."*

In those days, orally-transmitted prayers and practices were interpreted, and argued, by the tannaim (sages) whose conversations form what we know today as Talmud. When and where to pray; in what language one should pray; with whom, and how long, one should pray; all of these questions "elicited a host of responses from the Babylonian and Palestinian rabbis."** (That's according to Stefan Reif.) The fact that these questions legitimately had a host of responses suggests to me that the liturgy at that time was fluid. What's more, the rabbis were comfortable with a plurality of interpretations, and it was understood that different interpretations and customs held sway in different regions.

The Passover haggadah and the birkat ha-mazon (Grace After Meals) may be our oldest liturgy. As far as synagogue worship goes, recitation of the Shema (the declaration of God's unity) and the Bar'chu (Call to Prayer) seem to be among the oldest practices; communal blessings were gradually shaped into the Tefilah or Amidah ("The Prayer" or "The Standing Prayer,") today a central element of synagogue worship.

Somewhere between the sixth and tenth centuries C.E., liturgical poems called piyyutim entered the nascent siddur (prayerbook). Many folk-based home blessings were conscripted into the synagogue liturgy, too. Around this same time -- known as the geonic period (the post-Talmudic period beginning in about 600 C.E. when the Jewish Diaspora community in Babylon was led by a series of religious leaders known as gaonim) -- rabbinic authorities began to frown on changing the siddur.*** But even the most staid tannaim and gaonim acknowledged either that new changes were possible, or that what they were codifying had itself once evolved.

Over time, the liturgy came to seem unchangeable. But our liturgy is not unchangeable. It developed over time, through a process of argument and interpretation, to suit the needs of a particular, historical Jewish people. The Jews of today are linked to that people, but we are not the same people, and our needs may have shifted.

Judaism has always, in the words of liturgical scholar Naphtali Wieder, had "an excellent digestive system," proven by its ability to absorb all manner of content at different periods. Because our liturgy has changed over time, I think it can and should continue to be adapted to suit the needs of new generations. Writing one's own blessings, prayers, and rituals is a way of following in the footsteps of the Talmudic rabbis and gaonim who originally codified our prayers and practices. A long as it's done with understanding of, and respect for, the tradition, it's a quintessentially Jewish practice.

It's my strong opinion that rituals exist to connect us with ourselves, our community, and/or our (sense of) God. If they don't resonate, we can reshape them. Indeed, I believe that we must reshape them, must invest ourselves in finding and creating meaning in them. The survival of Judaism depends on the personal engagement of new generations, and this is one way for us to engage with the tradition: to wrestle with the proverbial angel.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to balance innovation with tradition, the impulse to update with the imperative to preserve. My short answer there is, "it's complicated, and requires both respectful attention to tradition and the willingness to learn." For my longer answer, stay tuned...

* Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: a Comprehensive History, transl. Raymond P. Scheindlin; Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1993.

** Stefan Reif, "Early History of Jewish Worship,"  in The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship, ed. Bradshaw & Hoffman, University of Notre Dame Press, London, 2000.

*** Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Canonization of the Synagogue Service, University of Notre Dame Press: London, 1979.