Sunday, September 25, 2005

World Congress of Jewish Studies - Liturgy

The lecture by Avi Shmidman dealt with poetic expansions of Birkat haMazon. Versions of the Grace after Meals composed for special occasions abound in the Genizah (Avi has identified more than 200 different compositions), and one was found in the Dura-Europos synagogue. These versions contained a more specific, personal liturgy, appropriate to a wedding, a house of mourning or the Shabbat following Tisha b'Av.

The question Avi dealt with in this lecture was whether these compositions were meant to replace the standard text of the blessing, or to supplement it. This is a question that has been asked about other forms of Piyut - especially the monumental compositions we get a glimpse of in the High Holiday mahzor, the Yotserot and Kedushta'ot. Ezra Fleischer has claimed that they were indeed intended to stand on their own, as a sufficient form of prayer. The difficulty is in proving this.

Shmidman pointed out that many liturgical Genizah fragments were clearly copied in a way designed to skimp on space and outlay, leaving it to the reader to supply many different elements. Therefore, the absence of the standard blessings is not a sign that they were not meant to be said - perhaps the scribe assumed that his reader knew those blessings by heart.

However, there are some (13) pages which supply a complete text, and leave nothing to the imagination, or the memory. They spell out all the verses and all the blessings to be said, without abbreviation. But they do not provide the canonical text of the blessing. Therefore, it would seem clear that these copies reflect a practice that required the recital of some elements of the blessing - the "Baruch Ata" formulae, and certain verses that preceded them - but not others, which were replaced by the poem.

This is, though, an intermediate stage. Originally, it would seem, most of the verses were dispensed with as well, and the poetic compositions were recited in pristine independence. Later, however, the need was felt to add biblical verses - perhaps, to anchor the frighteningly original lines in a more familiar text. This later stage is reflected in the akwardness that these verses create, interrupting the flow of the poem into the traditional blessing.

I often feel that kind of akwardness on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when the hazan (and the congregation) tries to incorporate the unfamiliar structures of the piyutim into the regular forms of prayer. For instance, the difficulty with refrains. The piyutim were written to allow the congregation to respond to the leader with a shorter, repetitive exclamation. In the shuls I have davened in, people seem reluctant to make do with this short response, and squeeze in the entire line of the piyut. And so it becomes easier for everyone to just mumble the passage to themselves.


Anonymous Avi Shmidman said...

Indeed, the problems with rosh hashana / yom kippur piyyut recitals are intensified further by the current tendency in Israeli shuls to skip the first three piyyut compositions for shacharit, thus obscuring the unity of the kedushta as a whole. Originally (and for many hundreds of years) shacharit of each of the yamim noraiim was embellished by the addition of a single whole kedushta, which provided a unified set of 8-12 piyyut compositions which integrated at set points into the repetition of the amidah. However, since we drop the first three (and since we also exchange the last part - the silluq - for a different one [unetane tokef] foreign to the original composition), we are left with a seemingly random assortment of piyyutim; the insight behind the original set is unfortunately no longer apparent.
In other news, I'd like to correct one point in the ManuscriptBoy's excellent summary of my WCJS lecture. The Biblical verses were never contested; indeed, virtually every original form of piyyut includes such prooftexts at some point before the conclusion of the bracha. Rather, the later additions which I referred to were the fixed liturgical lines of "u'zchor lanu brit avoteinu" (at the end of the 2nd bracha) and "malchut beit dovid tachazira l'mkoma" (at the end of the 3rd bracha). These phrases seem somewhat artificial (since they don't lead naturally into the doxologies which follow), yet the motivation behind their addition is clear. The Talmud requires that birkat hamazon mention brit in the 2nd bracha, and malchut beit dovid in the third, yet many of the poetic versions ignore this requirement entirely. These added phrases cover the necessary topics, thereby validating the poetic versions for use. Thus, it seems that originally the piyyutim were said alone, with Biblical verses, but without any set liturgical phrases. Then, at a later stage, the set liturgical phrases noted above were added into the 2nd and 3rd blessings to satisfy the talmudic criteria.

1:13 AM  

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