Friday, February 09, 2007

Review: Entering Jewish Prayer (Hammer)

This post's real title should be "Book review: 'Entering Jewish Prayer,' by Reuven Hammer." Unfortunately, in the bleeping new version of Blogger, my sidebar's Previous Posts list cuts off blog titles of more than roughly 40 characters. !#$%^&*!!!

Okay, enough kvetching. On with the show.

Back when she was still blogging on a reasonably regular basis, NaomiChana, of Baraita, recommended Entering Jewish Prayer, by Reuven Hammer. (If memory serves me correctly, the recommendation came in a comment on my blog. If not, it came via e-mail.) I recently got around to reading it, and found it packed with interesting information.

Here's one of the highlights, in my opinion:

"The synagogue was the place where for the first time in human history, some sort of communal worship divorced from sacrifice was institutionalized. Never before was there an institution as a gathering place for religious worship in which sacrifice not only would not but could not be offered, an institution that could be housed anywhere, did not have to be in a spot that had some sacred connotation, did not have to conform to some rigid architectural pattern, and was not run by a group of specially sanctified clergy." (Page 62)

And a mystery cleared up (see pages 128-129):

"We know, for example that the ancient method of saying the Shema was quite different than our own. At a public service, in the presence of a quorum at least ten adults, the Shema was not merely read; it was 'proclaimed' (pores al shema). [The footnote refers us to Megilla 4:3.] The leader of the ceremony would proclaim to the people that crucial first line: Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!' . . .

Upon hearing that verse, the people would respond, using the response that was then commonly used whenever the the name of God was recited:

Blessed be the name of His glorious Majesty forever and ever! [Footnote: Yoma 6:2.]

This response appears in every Siddur [prayer book] and interrupts the reading of the biblical passages. The appearance of those words right in the middle of the Torah selection has always seemed strange, but it is understandable when seen as a response to a proclamation."

Since we Jews are a stiff-necked people and have been known to hang on to a custom even when it no longer makes sense, the call-and-response pattern remained even after the practice of "calling" disappeared.

More interesting tidbits, not necessarily in order:

Did you know that the heart of Pesukei D'Zimra (the Verses of Song/"Introductory Service") is the recitation of Psalms 146-150, which are meant to be a stand-in for a recitation of the entire Sefer Tehillim/Book of Psalms? (See page 111.) So maybe it is a good thing that I try, whenever I literally have an extra minute, to recite Psalm 150, instead of skipping directly from Ashrei to Yishtabach, in my standing-on-one-foot weekday-morning service.

Oh, so this is why we don't say Psalm 100, "Mizmor l'Todah, (A Psalm of Thanksgiving)" on Shabbat/Sabbath: "'Todah' is also the name of the sacrifice brought to acknowledge God's kindness. A rabbinic midrash connects this psalm with that sacrifice. . . . In some places the custom grew up of not saying this psalm of the Sabbath or other times when the thank-offering was not sacrificed in the Temple." (Pages 115-116)

It's only a psalm like any other. Why all the repetition, and why twice in every Shacharit (morning service)? "Regarding the psalm [Psalm 145] itself, the Talmud states: "Whoever recites "A Psalm of David" three times a day is assured of a place in the world to come." (See page 117.) Oh. Not to mention hmm. Is the recitation of Ashrei (Psalm 145, introduced by a few verses from other psalms) one of the earliest known "segulot," (which I think means a practice intended to influence God in an almost magical way)?

Here's an explanation good enough to persuade me that the Aramaic portions of Kedusha D'Sidra are not a waste of time for non-Aramaic speakers (see page 204):

"The 'translation' [from Hebrew into Aramaic] of the verse from Isaiah [6:3] . . .["Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of legions, the whole earth is filled with His glory] is also an interpretation in which any Christological reading of the verse is polemically refuted:

"Holy"—in the heaven above where His Shechina [Presence] dwells;

"Holy"—on earth where His power is manifest;

"Holy"—throughout all eternity."

And here are some important definitions (page 236):

"Blessings are words of praise for what God has done. Prayers are requests for God to help us. Sanctifications are those that hallow the name of God—kiddush ha-sham. Havdalot would be those in which a distinction is drawn between categories such as light and darkness, day and night, the holy and the profane." [I prefer the word "ordinary"—some of us tend to use the word "profane" to indicate something less neutral.]

A historical note appears on page 239:

"The recitation of the Hallel—Psalms 113-18—is unique to the holidays and festivals. This is one of the oldest prayers in our liturgy, not only because the text is from the Bible, but because we know that it was recited as a unit in the Temple during Second Temple times."

Those of you who are fluent in Hebrew may want to skip the frequent translations, but others not so knowledgeable may find them helpful. In either case, I think this book is well worth reading for those interested in understanding Jewish liturgy from both a theological and historical perspective.


Blogger alto artist said...

Just wanted to say that I've been reading your blog for awhile and really enjoy it. This is one of my favorite books--you've made me want to re-read it (which I will).

Shabbat Shalom,


Fri Feb 09, 09:05:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks, alto artist. (In my volunteer-synagogue-choir days, I, too, was an alto, but not necessarily an artist at it. :) ) I'm glad you enjoy my blog.

I'm happy to add my thoughts to NaomiChana's book recommendation and pass it along. Enjoy your re-reading.

Sun Feb 11, 12:07:00 AM 2007  

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