Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Appreciating Birchat haChamah

R' Moshe Taragin gave a talk last night on e-Tim, the terrific Toronto electronic shiur resource, giving some good things to think about during the Birchat haChamah, the Blessing of the Sun, that make it relevant to us, through its liturgy, not just an obscure blessing. Some highlights:

1) Rambam has his own mysticism, a naturalistic one: How does one come to love God? By contemplating the grandeur of Creation in all its details. By studying nature, in all its logic, order, system, symmetry, one encounters the Infinite Will that created all of it. The psalms about creation praising God allude to this idea (Ps 148:1-6).

2) Think about Adon Olam - which some use to close the prayers of the day. Master of the Universe who reigned before anything physical was created. His reign was absolute without man or fruit trees to defy His Will. So at the moment when God created the Sun and Moon, His Kingship was absolute. By celebrating the return to that physical moment, the position where the Sun was at the moment of Creation, we celebrate God's Kingship. Psalm 19 also alludes to this, in suggesting that the Sun has volition, deciding to jump out every morning. Before the Sun exercised volition, then, God's Will was the only Will.

3) Hallel Hagadol is also commonly said. The refrain: ki le'olam chasdo, that His chesed is eternal, tells us that the creation of the Great Luminaries was because of His Chesed. And indeed, the great luminaries supply Earth and all life with the energy they need to exist, just as God directly gives us existence-flow. Avraham saw the Sun and realized that it was an instrument of God's Chesed, which resonated with his own attribute of Chesed. So this verse brings us to a re-enactment of Avraham's journey of discovery of monotheism.

4) Why Nisan not Tishrei? Tishrei is the creation of the physical world, while Nisan is the root of Jewish history. Well, if you look at the flow of Jewish history, the Sun is often the instrument of Divine aid to the Jews. The sun rushed down (Gen 28:11) so that Jacob would stop davka where he would dream of the ladder, and then those two hours were given back during the fight with the angel. The sun stopped for Joshua. The sun stopped to make a point that Nevuchadnetzar would see as far as away as Bavel. The sun is harnessed to Jewish history - though we are a small people, we have a great Protector. Many verses in the liturgy remind us of this.

All of these points were reinforced with Talmudic and midrashic aggadita, taken metaphorically as intended - since we have trouble today accepting ideas such as the Harmony of the Spheres literally, we still see harmony and grace in physical law. He closed with some personal observations, for which you should listen to the tape (probably available soon on their web-store), and a wish that next cycle if not this cycle should be observed not only in the proper time, but in the proper place, the place of Creation, Jerusalem at the Temple.

Torah in Motion, the organization that put on this shiur, has two more great-sounding shiurim on Pesach and the Haggadah coming up this evening. Do sign up for them, and for their ongoing shiurim. I've bought tapes of their occasional special-interest conferences, which bring great speakers together to talk about fascinating topics: Tanach, Jewish community interests, historical personages, etc.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Liturgies for Blessing the Sun

The Liturgy of Birkat HaChamah

by Jonathan Baker

Today we can say tremendously long liturgies for what started as a one-line blessing. Yes, Jewish prayer is the result of millennia of accretion, but this liturgy grew faster than usual, growing from almost nothing to a dozen pages in less than 300 years.

The Laws:

The Braita in Berachot 59b tells us that when one sees the sun on the point of its place at the time of Creation, we are to bless Him who does the Work of Creation, just as we bless Him for seeing lightning or an earthquake. And for a thousand years, that was it. Every 28 years, as R’ Zev Sero put it, “when March 26th Old Style falls on a Tuesday”, that is, the anniversary of the fourth day of Creation beginning from the Vernal Equinox, the sun is in the right place, on the Fourth Day of the week, at the right time of day, following the Julian calendar, and so we bless it, and bless God for His Creation of the world in and of itself.

The idea of saying this blessing drips down through the halachic literature (summary from article Chamah, in Judah David Eisenstein's "Otzar Dinim uMinhagim", 1917).

Maharil ordained that the night before, it is announced that when one sees the sun rise the next morning, they should bless.

Similarly R Menachem Azaria of Fano in Seder Alfasi Zuta, that when one sees the sun rise, he should bless.

Mas’at Binyamin notes that it is the custom to say the blessing with the congregation when they come out of shul after the Morning Service.

The Devar Moshe and R' Jacob Emden at the end of the commentary on the Seder Olam writes that this is the best way, because “in the multitude of the nation is the glory of the King,” as is done for the Blessing of the New Moon.

A liturgy assembled in Baghdad in 1925 notes that the Hazan repeats the bracha for the blind and women. Why women? Perhaps they weren’t literate in Hebrew?

The Rema advises one to wait until the sun shows its face, until 3 hours (about 9:40 this year), and R’ Yaakov Emden says, bedieved, until 12 noon. Others say that one should say the bracha at the earliest time, whether or not the sun itself is visible, as long as it’s partly visible.

Even among the early Acharonim however, there is some discomfort with saying the beracha, since it was well known even in the 12th century that the year is not 365.25 days long, but 365.2422 days, as is the basis of our Gregorian calendar. So the sun should return to its original place every 19 years, on the leap-year cycle, not every 28 years on a Julian-based cycle. The Mas'at Binyamin [late 1500s], therefore, recommends saying the beracha without the Divine names, because of this doubt. But most later poskim don't accept this idea.

The Liturgy: Early Creations:

We begin to get hints that people are tarting up the liturgy in the Machzor Vitry, which reports in the name of a Rav Shemaya that Rabbeinu Tam (1200s) wrote a short poem to be said along with the blessing. The next text of a liturgy to accompany the blessing shows up in a manuscript at the JTS, which may or may not be associated with the sun-cycle of 1719. It’s fairly involved, includes a blessing patterned on the Blessing of the New Moon, and some psalms one might say. It’s written in a Sephardic hand, but is undated, so we don’t really know where or when it was written.

For the cycle of 1757, R’ Yaakov Emden suggests, at the end of his commentary on Seder Olam, that we recite the Talmudic passage that itself commands us to say the blessing, to prepare ourselves for the blessing and put it in context.

In 1785, R’ Jacob b. David Meldola, of Leghorn, Italy, a member of the distinguished Meldola family, writes a liturgy that begins to resemble what contemporary Jews have said in recent cycles. He begins with some verses that refer to the Sun: Ps. 84:12, an acrostic of verses beginning with the letters of the Tetragrammaton, (Pm 72:5, Ps75:2, Mal. 3:20, Ps 97:6) and the first six verses of Ps. 148. We’ll call this Meldola’s leket. Then the congregation says the central beracha, followed by Ps. 19 and 121, the Baraita commanding us to say the beracha, the passage “Rabbi Hanania ben Akashia says”, which leads into the Rabbi’s Kaddish. The text concludes with a special Yehi Ratzon prayer thanking God for our reaching this cycle, and hoping we reach the next cycle in health.

Another, briefer liturgy is also known from 1785, from Scandiano in Italy, consisting of the bracha, the baraita of “Rabbi Elazar said Rabbi Chanina said” (from the Shabbat davening), and a kaddish derabbanan. The note describing this, a ms. from the Ginzburg-Moscow archive, attests it was also said in 1757, 1729, and 1701.

By the next cycle, 1813, the Meldola text had become somewhat known. In Reggio, an anonymous printer gives Meldola’s liturgy, with an additional preface: the passage from Genesis on the creation of the Sun. However, Meldola’s ritual appears not to have been known outside of Italy.

In fact, this seems to be the fate of a lot of versions of the sun ritual. Given the 28-year break, and the fact that rituals may be written out on a single sheet of paper, or printed on a 4 or 8-page pamphlet or even a broadside, it’s not surprising that people forgot what was done between one cycle and another. Even in the age of printing, a one-sheet flyer is regarded as ephemera, things that evaporate quickly, disappear easily, because “why do I need to keep this, it’s worth nothing, I’ll get another one in 28 years.” They might print a few hundred copies for local use, but not circulate among the wider Jewish world.

That Rabbenu Tam composed a verse for the occasion, and later people started putting together printed rituals in the 18th century, suggests that there may have been dozens or hundreds of rabbis who created liturgies to enhance the occasion. What about the 18th century might have spurred a wave of liturgical creativity that had not existed before? Could it be the rise of kabbalah and the liturgies that it spawned, such as Kabbalat Shabbat? Not that most of these liturgies are particularly Kabbalistic, until the Chasidim started adding elements, but the enterprise of creative ritual may well have been driven by the existence of new Kabbalistic liturgical elements.

In 1813, the Chatam Sofer wrote a brief pamphlet on the astronomy behind the Blessing of the Sun. In a teshuvah, he outlined a liturgy to be recited, but that teshuva was not printed until after the next cycle. R’ Sofer (Schreiber) did not know of Meldola’s ritual, so he composed his own on first principles, based on the structure of the Kiddush Levanah, the monthly prayer on seeing the New Moon: Psalm 148, the blessing, Psalm 19, the beraita mandating the blessing, Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish. Vilna seems to have adopted this liturgy in later cycles as a standard. The choice of Ps. 19 is a natural, with its references to the Sun, as is Ps. 148. But, he took Mourner’s Kaddish, as that is what is said in the Kiddush Levanah, rather than a Rabbis’ Kaddish.

While Vilna stuck with the Chatam Sofer’s nusach, other parts of Europe mixed it with elements from Meldola’s, or with elements of their own devising. R’ Akiva Joseph Schlesinger, for instance, explicitly mixed the two; later cycles in the Chatam Sofer’s own Pressburg added and subtracted elements (R’ Daniel Prostitz added a psalm, took away another and left out Aleinu in 1841, and in 1869, the nusach already contained all the elements of both the Chatam Sofer and Meldola). R' Joseph Margareten in Erlau (Eger) Hungary in 1897, however, stuck with the strict Chatam Sofer liturgy. Yes, he and his wife Julia Horowitz were the ancestors of today's well-known kosher-products company.

Meanwhile, not everybody had heard of the Chatam Sofer’s nusach beyond Pressburg and Vilna, and Meldola’s text didn’t reach everyhere either. R’ Chaim Rapoport of Ostrow, author of the responsa Mayim Chaim, created his own original nusach for the 1841 cycle. Figuring that a prayer for the Sun had to be, a fortiori, at least as impressive as the prayer for the Moon, he said Psalm 148 from the daily davening, because of the obvious sun connection, then the beracha, the kabbalistic Ana Bekoach (which the Siddur of the Shelah adds to Kiddush Levanah), Psalm 67 from the Kiddush Levana, Aleinu and Mourner’s Kaddish.

Contemporary Mixed Liturgy

The contemporary all-in-one nusach really starts to come together in the 1897 cycle, in the sefer Petach haDevir, by R’ Haim Binyamin Fontrimolli, of Smyrna (Izmir). He mixes Meldola and Chatam Sofer with more kabbalistic prayers, composing a long Leshem Yichud (Kabbalistic declaration of intent) and a Modim prayer to be said at the end. He also adds the Creation narrative on the Sun, and a passage from Jeremiah on the Sun, so that Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim are all represented..

The verses may have been drawn from a haggadah printed in Zitomir just before the 1869 cycle, which included all the verses, a brief Leshem Yichud, and Ps. 84:12 and 148:1-6 as a prelude to the Beracha, but without anything said afterwards. This leads me to wonder if the author of this Haggadah, one R’ Moshe Schub, might have also been operating in a vacuum – creating a purely Scriptural liturgy, without the Beraita, without Yehi Ratzon or El Adon.

By the 1925 cycle, we have Chassidic broadsides with the whole mixed nusach, going down to 1981 when people started publish whole books on the subject, its history, etc. In school we used the booklet put together by R’ Nechemia Polen. I said it twice, first with my parents’ synagogue who went out to Central Park to daven kevatikin, at sunrise, and again at 8:00 at school, on the roof. Today you can get pre-printed laminated cards with the mixed liturgy for Sephardim and Chassidim, and with the Chatam Sofer liturgy for the Litvish Ashkenazim, in Jewish bookstores in Brooklyn.

Contemporary liturgies take the Psalm 19/121 pair, the Meldola leket, part or all of Ps 148, the Jeremiah and Genesis passages, the beraita, short or long Leshem Yichud, Yehi Ratzon or Modim, El Adon, Aleinu, and mix and match to create a liturgy that fits the gefeel of the editor.


One such book, which gave me a lot of the material for this post, is the recent Sefer Kiddush haChamah, by R’ Jonah Buxbaum, from the Skvirer Kollel. He presents first the full mixed-together liturgy, with all the elements from Meldola, Sofer, and Schub, then a long halachic section with basic laws and extensive footnotes reviewing the Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Chassidic teshuvah literature. Next comes a section of testimonies, culled from responsa, diaries, letters and books, of how the service was done in communities all over the world, from 1085 in the Beis Medrash of Rashi down to 1981. Then comes an extensive discussion of the history of the nusach, which served as the major source for this post. Other recent books on the Blessing of the Sun are reviewed at the Seforim Blog.

Before finding this book, though, the nusach question had been bugging me, particularly as we had been trying to work out what we’re going to do at our shul, the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, on that morning. I assembled a chart of 18 different versions of the nusach, both current and historical. The three modern Sephardic ones were reconstructed by Ken Bloom; most of the historical ones came from the JNUL site, the Chabad one came from the Chabad site, Polen came from their book which I kept from the last cycle, and others I found online.

I hope this can help others decide which texts to use in this cycle and (if the Intarwebs persist so long) future cycles..

Who Was the Mahari"l?

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

It is an immutable requirement for the Chazzan of every shul and minyan that our traditional musical nusach hatefillah cannot be changed. This comes from the Psak Halacha of the Maharil, as quoted by the Shulchan Aruch (619:1) and the glosses there of the Rama: “One may not change the custom of a community, even as to its customary prayer-melodies.” The Rama adds: “(Maharil)”. Who was the Maharil, and how did his psak become the rule for all Ashkenazic synagogues in the world?

The Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi Möllin, (b. Mainz, 1356, d.Worms, 1427), the first to bear the title of “Moreinu,” was the Chief Rabbi of the Rhineland. Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz writes that, “also being one of the great prayer leaders of his time, he traveled from one community to another, reestablishing the traditional prayer melodies. By virtue of his great authority, the Maharil succeeded in laying the foundations for the prayer rite (ed: and customs) accepted by all Ashkenazic communities.” He then sanctified those melodies with the title “MiSinai,” to emphasize their ancient and immutable quality. He also standardized the musical modes required for each tefillah around the year. Our Baalei Tefilla must be well-versed in the MiSinai melodies that nurtured the souls of our fathers’ generation, our grandfathers’ generation, and the generations before them. No one has the right to discard even one of these sacred melodies of our tefilla. This requirement to keep the traditional nusach is especially true for the holiest days of the year – the Yamim Noroim, but applies throughout the year, for every prayer, at every service. It also applies to the choice of sing-a-long melodies, which must fit into the given musical mode of the Tefilla. You can rest assured that your Chazzan is exceptionally fastidious in respecting and preserving these guidelines of the Maharil that have governed our Tefilla for the last 600 years!


© 2009 Lincoln Square Synagogue and Sherwood Goffin

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Power of the Niggun: Part 3

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

“A person should not have an ear just to hear songs of others, but also to hear the songs which sing from within his heart.”
Rabbi Yisroel of Modzitz

“Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul”.
Sayings of Chabad

“Rejoice that you have an opportunity to sing unto God”.
Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk

“In all niggunim can be found love and fear of the Lord”.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

“Song reveals the beauty within the soul”.
Rabbi Sholem Dov Ber of Lubavitch

Source: “Songs of the Chassidim,” by Vel Pasternak


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Small-Format Gemaras

On a mailing list, someone wrote:
If amudei gemara were also divided into smaller chunks and larger fonts per printed page, I'm sure that it would induce greater concentration and ultimately better results amongst those who are in need of proficiency.
Such gemaras used to exist, but the only one in modern times has been the Steinsaltz English edition.

A bit of publishing history:

The pagination of the Gemara has remained consistent since Daniel Bomberg published the first full shas in 1520-1523 in Venice. Since then, any reference to, e.g., Eruvin 23a, has always referred to the same page. The arrangement of the columns, between Rashi, text and Tosfos, may differ based on differing relative font sizes, but the same content is on the same page in every printed Gemara.

Shaar-blatt (cover page, usually framed with a gateway, although not in this case, hence the term shaar-blatt) of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder/Berlin 1735 edition:

and a sample page:

Click on the images for larger-size views. Note that I have a foot-rule in most of the images, for comparative size. Sorry it's so shiny, so you can't actually see most of the inch-markers, it's what I could find in the house. Note that this full-size (folio) edition has the same pagination as today.

Starting in the early 1700s, though, people realized that folio-sized Gemaras are inconvenient when traveling. Also, small individual tractates were no threat to the full folio gemara publishers. So there arose a split-page gemara style. Each two-page spread covered one amud of the standard Talmud. So two pages covered Eruvin 23a, then the next two pages covered Eruvin 23b, then two pages for 24a etc.

Shaar-blatt for Amsterdam 1743 Beitzah. This was one of a very few, mostly short, masechtot printed by Proops in this format in the late 1730s and early 1740s. Others include Ta'anit and Rosh Hashanah:

Sample page. Note that this format, unlike most, has two special features:

1) Maharsha on the same page, instead of in the back;

2) Rubricated Rashis - the "dibur hamatchil", cited phrase, at the beginning of each comment in Rashi is in square letters, to bring it to the reader's attention, instead of the semi-cursive (rashi) letters of the rest of the commentary. I have not seen this feature in any other gemara down to the modern era, say, the past 20 years.

Note the pagination in the above example. Both pages are headed

29 Hameivi Tractate Beitza Side 2

but the left page also has a page number 57 in the corner, which is the real physical page (leaf) number.

These small-format Talmuds were fairly popular for over 150 years, until in the 20th century photolithography allowed one to reduce the size of an existing page for reprinting. Since then, almost all small-format Talmuds have been just reductions of the Vilna page. Given the 16" size of a Vilna Talmud page, the normal desk-size sets that one gives for bar-mitzvah presents, a page reduced to 8" becomes so small as to be barely readable. Half-daf portable Talmuds, as described above, were quite readable at 7-9" height, because that was the size at which they were initially typeset.

Thus, since the Vilna edition,

most reduced-size Talmuds have just been reductions of the Vilna pages.

Note the above Vilna page, a full 16" high. It's a real Vilna volume, albeit a late (1920s) printing. A co-worker found it on a garbage pile in Boro Park, and passed it along to me, knowing I like old seforim.

There were some reduced-size real reprintings, such as in Warsaw by the Orgelbrand press and others, which put out a small-sized Talmud set (I have a few volumes):

c. 1864, where the main text and the Rashi/Tosfos were printed in the same size, just with different typefaces, as you can see in the detail below:

This allowed them to crush an entire Bomberg folio page into one small-format page, at a mostly-readable size.

The Lemberg edition of the 1860s was the last of the two-for-one-page editions of the regular Talmud.

shaar-blatt of Lemberg Yoma. This was part of a complete Shas set, as was its copy in the Bennet shas:

sample page:

Note, in the Lemberg edition, the Tosfos Yesheinim, which is on the main page in the Vilna edition in the margins, is relegated to the back of the book, to save space. It's really only the Vilna edition and its imitators that have real prose commentaries in the outer margins, such as Rabbeinu Chananel, Rabbeinu Gershom, and Tosfos Yesheinim on Yoma.

The Steinsaltz English edition also uses a two-for-one-page layout, but their commentaries are all in English. The Rebecca Bennet edition of 1959, small red hardcovers you might have seen in batei midrash or older people's homes, used a reduced copy of the Lemberg edition for the Hebrew side, and Soncino for the English.

Bennet's edition, using the Soncino English translation without authorization, is noted in Habermann's bibliography of the talmud with two words:

Washington Heights, 1959: Without authorization.
This was perhaps the first, but not the last, of a long string of unauthorized reprintings of the Soncino English Talmud: MP Press, which came out when I was in high school in the 1980s, was the first to have folio-size pages for both the English and Hebrew. Soncino later came out with their own folio-sized parallel edition. Then there's an antisemitic website that has about half of the Soncino Talmud. Several people have written to Soncino about it, but they have not done anything to enforce their copyright. Oh well.

I've also seen tiny pocket-sized reductions of the Lemberg text; since you're starting with a smaller page, you can get really tiny yet still readable. This one, from the Moriah press in Israel, is less than 5" tall. Yet it's still readable, starting from the initally smaller-format Lemberg page.

Marvin Heller has written a whole book, a second volume of his "Printing the Talmud," on the subject. It is primarily a bibliography of these reduced-size editions from 1700-1750.

Sizes of Talmuds described in the text:

Full-page Talmuds

Place published


Height (inches)







Warsaw (quarto)



Half-page Talmuds







Bennet (after Lemberg)



Moriah (after Lemberg)



Since it is quite popular to learn on the subway, and as Daf Yomi has gotten more and more popular, it seems to me that one of the talmud publishers, who already has the entire text in computer form, such as the Friedman Edition or the New Vilna Shas, should put out two-for-one-page travel editions of Shas. They already produce reduced-size editions with new Hebrew commentaries for the daf-yomi traveling learner. As the Daf Yomi learners age, larger print would be better, so perhaps it's time to bring back the 2-for-1 page travel editions.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Real Old Amidah

So I’m looking at the Esslingen Machzor, a German manuscript from 1290, on the JTS Library Treasures site. A few pages in we come to the first Amidah, and I’m looking at the page. The site is protected with “do not download or copy “ notices, so I can’t show it to you.

Here’s an approximation (the real lettering is like 16th-century Prague fonts)

And it continues as usual in the High Holidays nusach. But in that smudged area, there is written in small letters, the rest of what we think of as the continuation of that paragraph: gomeil chasadim tovim, etc. The aleph-apostrophe is really the one-character E-l ligature.

But the smudged area intrigues me. I do see erased letters under there, and what looks like it could be a tzadi-sofit at the end of the smudge. Could the hidden words be “qoneh shamayim va’aretz”? That phrase, which survives in the abbreviated amidah at the end of our Friday night services in Ashkenazi prayerbooks, is supposedly the old conclusion of the paragraph in nusach Ashkenaz, before the prayers were updated to match the Eastern prayerbooks, particularly after the AriZal.

The interpolation is clearly in a different hand, with more shaky lines, without the ligatures of the original text on the page. The small lettering in the first line, however, is in the same hand as the rest of the page, and does use the A-l ligatures.

We appear to have physical evidence of the shift in text from the old Ashkenazi nusach imported from Eretz Yisrael via Italy, to the current text, literally, in this palimpsest.