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Hey, want to hear more Hoffman?

Lately I've been reading a lot of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Also some Tzvee Zahavy and some Ismar Elbogen -- but mostly I'm reading Hoffman. He writes:

Of all the books that line the shelves of a Jewish library, it is the Siddur, not the Talmud and not even the Bible, that Jews know best. The prayer book is our Jewish diary of the centuries, a collection of prayers composed by generations of those who came before us, as they endeavored to express the meaning of their lives. To know the prayer book is to know our history from within.

...It can equally be called the spiritual "tel" of the Jewish People. A tel is an archaeological term for a mound of earth that turns out to house successive layers of civilization that have been covered over by the sands of time. Archaeologists dig deep into the dirt to retrieve secrets of the past buried in its physical detritus: clay pots, stone slabs, fragments of homes, jewelry, and even old toys...

That's from the introduction to the first volume of the My People's Prayer Book series. We'll be reading four volumes of that series over the course of the liturgy class I'm taking; this week I've been working my way through the first one, the volume on the Sh'ma and her blessings. (This blog post won't dip into the body of the book, though -- just the opening chapter.)  I've written before about how Hoffman compares Jewish prayer to jazz, a theme he takes up here too:

What the melody line is to jazz, the thematic development is to rabbinic prayer. For instance, the Sh'ma must come before the Amidah, not afterward.... Jewish prayer has its own proper structure, played out in time, first one theme and then another, until slowly but surely the whole service is completed, like a piece of jazz that starts somewhere, goes somewhere and ends somewhere, albeit with no predictability regarding each and every note the performers choose in executing the pattern.

Hoffman asserts that the rise of poetry in our liturgy arose as prayer became more standard. As Jewish prayer became less free-form, the yearning for "something new every day" got channeled into poems. I think immediately of Ezra Pound's dictum, oft-quoted at Bennington, that poets must "make it new" -- take the stuff of ordinary reality, and wreak whatever alchemy is necessary to bring something new to life in and for the reader. Prayer needs to do this, too.

Of course, in the days of the great payytanim (writers of liturgical poetry -- we're talking 4th to 6th centuries C.E.) the siddur still wasn't a fixed, written document. In 860 C.E., a Gaon ("excellency" or "genius") named Amram in the caliphate of Baghdad prepared a complete list of all the prayers and the rules of how they were to be performed. (More about Amram here.) As Hoffman tells the story, Amram had a chip on his shoulder where the Palestinian Jews were concerned. (Palestine and Babylon had long been home to two major, not to say rival, Jewish communities; there's a reason there are two Talmuds, the Bavli / Babylonian and the Yerushalmi / Palestinian.) So he made sure his instructions included reminders not to pray like the Palestinian Jews did.

In this way the first prayer book was born. Just as the Caliph of Baghdad in those days dictated details of Muslim law and practice to the faithful across the empire, Amram Gaon set out to do the same thing for Jews:

Amram's book was copied by scribes all over the Jewish world, and soon became the standard book of Jewish prayer. It reflected what had become Babylonian practice in Amram's academy, locked out Palestinian alternatives, and closed off the creativity that had marked Jewish prayer for centuries.

At first, Hoffman says, the Palestinan Jewish community "more or less thanked the Gaon for sharing, telling him that local custom outranked law, especially Babylonian law." But in 1099 when the Crusaders conquered Palestine, the Jews there fled -- and when they returned, after a century of diaspora, they had adopted Amram's prayer code as their own. That there was once a flourishing Palestinian liturgical alternative is something we know thanks to the Cairo genizah (repository for old and damaged texts) where bits and pieces of Palestinian prayer books were found at the start of the 20th century.

Hoffman tells us that Amram Gaon "had no use for poetry, for instance; poetry was a distinctive trait of Palestine, not Babylonia." I guess it's not surprising that I would have mixed feelings about someone who so strongly favored both prose and liturgical fixity.

Of course, this is only the beginning of the Jewish liturgical story. Jewish liturgy underwent another major change with the advent of the printing press and movable type. Eventually kabbalistic ideas and interpretations found their way in, too. And the liberal movements of the last few centuries have adapted printing and prayerbooks to their own theological needs, in all kinds of fascinating ways. But those are ideas for another day...

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