Author Archives: Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

About Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.

Music and Jewish Prayer

Reprinted with permission from Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books).

Music and ritual have been united since the most ancient times. Even storytelling was accompanied by music. The bards were musicians as well as tellers of tales. Certainly the psalms were songs as well as poems, as the headings of many of them indicate. The religions that sprang from Judaism have all used music and chant as part of the experience of worship, and there is every reason to assume that this was influenced by the practice of the parent religion. Over the centuries, music that accompanies worship has been developed into a high art.

The Talmud teaches that "If one reads [Scripture] without chant or studies [Mishnah] without melody, of him is it written, ‘I gave them laws that were not good’ (Ezekiel 20:25)." Melody adds not only to the beauty but even to the quality of the words. To this day, learning in traditional yeshivot is done to the accompaniment of a kind of singsong melody. The Torah is not read during the synagogue service; it is sung.

Cantillation of Biblical Texts

The chanting of the Torah follows notations which were applied by the classical tenth-century Masoretes (those who carefully preserved the text of the Torah). Each sign (trop–actually from a Greek word, tropos, meaning "manner") indicates a musical phrase. There are various melodies for this chanting, differing among the ethnic groups that make up the Jewish people, but there are similarities between them, and all of them help to clarify the way in which the Hebrew words are to be put together. They indicate where a phrase begins or ends, and actually aid in interpreting the meaning of the text.

These same signs are applied to all the books of the Bible, but they have different musical values depending on which book is being chanted: the Torah, the Prophets, or different books of the Writings. One must learn to read not only a particular sign but to know how it is sung when found in different texts.

Since there was music in the Temple (the choir of Levites who sang the appropriate psalms accompanied by musical instruments), it is likely that this practice would have been taken over when psalms and other prayers came to be recited in synagogues.

Nusah: Musical Modes for Prayer

In regard to prayer itself, there are no musical notations in the printed Siddur, but there is a musical tradition called nusah which has been transmitted from generation to generation. Nusah refers to the musical motifs that are utilized in various combinations when chanting the prayers. The nusah sets a pattern for a particular service, much as a leitmotif does for a character in an opera.

These musical modes differentiate between one service and another. Weekday nusah has one set of tones, the Sabbath another, the holidays yet another, and the High Holy Days a completely different one. There is one tune for the Sabbath day and another for the conclusion of the Sabbath. These tunes reflect the mood of the time. We begin the Sabbath, for example, with exaltation and joy. We conclude with nostalgia and the sadness of parting. The melody creates the mood and reflects the appropriate feeling that should accompany the words. Here too the musical traditions differ from one ethnic division of Judaism to another and reflect the music of the place where each group lived.

When properly understood, nusah is a great aid to prayer. A worshiper hears the leader use a certain melody appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, for example, and this helps set the mood for that day. Obviously this depends also on the knowledge that the worshiper brings or the memories he or she has acquired over a lifetime.

The one instance with which most of us are familiar is the Kol Nidre melody on Yom Kippur, which seldom fails to stir deep feelings within us, despite the fact that the words of the Kol Nidre are particularly lacking in emotional appeal. In this case it is the melody and the implication of the whole setting that moves us. One would have to go into the psychology of music to know what there is about the combination of tones that so affects the human being, but all of us know its power from personal experience. From the passion of opera to the passion of the most modern expressions of popular music, we see the way in which masses of people can be moved to ecstasy, to tears, to excitement by the sound of music.

Niggun: A Wordless Melody

The Hasidic practice of emphasizing song was part of their method of attaining true prayer. The wordless melody-the niggun–was a brilliant method of demonstrating the extrasemantic dimension of prayer. We may even go so far as to say that words can be impediments to the deepest communication, for what words can adequately express our feelings about God? Nor can they truly capture the depths of our emotions at times of grief or of overwhelming joy. In the words of the Hasidic master R. Dov Baer, "The ecstasy produced by melody … is in the category of spontaneous ecstasy alone, without any choice or intellectual will whatsoever."

Words can become idols. They concretize that which cannot be concretized. Ideas can intellectualize experience. Melody is pure soul. One understands why many western congregations have included "readings"–translations of prayers without any melody–into the service. But we would be well advised not to abandon the use of chanting in prayer. We need not turn the service into a performance and the cantor (hazzan) into a performer in order to avail ourselves of the musical tradition to enhance our worship. Prayer is not a spectator sport. The role of the hazzan is to help us pray, to be the expert we may not be, to inspire us and guide us in a true experience of prayer.

Who Sings, Who Leads

There are two basic methods of using melody in prayer: the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic. In the first, most of the prayer is said individually in a singsong pattern, with the leader of the service beginning and concluding each section and leading the chanting of certain appropriate portions. In the second, the congregation chants most of the prayers aloud in unison, word by word, with certain sections chanted by individuals. In either type of service, melody adds an important dimension to the experience of prayer.

Hebrew & Prayer

The classic Jewish prayers of antiquity and many composed in the centuries since then are in Hebrew. (Some are in Aramaic, a closely related language.) The talmudic rabbis composed the earliest prayers in the Hebrew of the Bible, archaic even for the rabbis, and while they permitted prayer in other languages, the tradition of prayer in Hebrew remained strong throughout the centuries. In this article, a contemporary scholar of Jewish prayer addresses the challenge of making prayer in an unfamiliar "sacred tongue" nonetheless meaningful. Reprinted with permission from Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books).

The language of Jewish prayer is Hebrew. Certainly it is permissible to pray in any language. The Sages of the Mishnah indicated how important they thought it was that we understand what we say:

"These may be said in any language . . . the recitation of the Shema, the Prayer [the Amidah], and the Blessing After Meals" (Sotah 7:1).

If that is so, what need is there for the non-Hebrew speaker to pray in Hebrew? Franz Rosenzweig remarked that "the uncomprehended Hebrew gives him more than the finest translation…. Jewish prayer means praying in Hebrew." There is an emotional element that reciting prayer in Hebrew can add even to those who do not comprehend every word. There is a feeling of identification with an ancient tradition and with other Jews wherever they may be which enhances the experience of prayer.

There is nothing magical in Hebrew, but there is something culturally meaningful that is lost when traditional prayers are said in other languages. Even if one does not understand the words, a glance at the translation will enable one to bring some level of meaning to the recitation, which is then supplemented by the emotional impact of the Hebrew text. Furthermore, by learning about the texts themselves, you can apprehend the sense of the texts, if not of every word.

Obviously, the more one knows the text in its original language, the better. The real meaning of the text lies in its original language. The terms that are used, the multiple meanings and echoes within them, can seldom be fully conveyed in translation.

Language is Culture, and Translations are Inexact

Languages are also reflections of specific cultures. When God is called "go’el" and the English renders it "redeemer," we have entered into another thought-world with connotations not to be found in the Hebrew. For Christianity–and English is a Christian language–redemption means saving someone doomed to perdition because of sin. For Judaism, it means rescuing Israel from the enslavement of foreigners.

When we thank God for "torah u-mitzvot,” we are not speaking of "law and commandments." "Law" is a set of legal norms. Torah is God’s instruction, either in a specific book or in all of Jewish tradition as it has developed. "Commandments" has the harsh sound of orders given by a commander. Mitzvot are both actions we are expected to perform and actions of a positive nature which stem from religious convictions.

All of this is on the most basic level of semantics. If it is true, as has been said, that reading a work in translation is like kissing through a veil, what shall we say about trying to pray through translation? Beyond the basic level, there is the level of emotion that only the Hebrew can properly achieve.

Even a Limited Amount of Learning Can be Valuable

What are we to do, therefore, when so many Jews do not understand the language? It is fatuous to say, "Learn it!" as desirable as that would be. But we can say, "Learn the vocabulary of prayer." It is possible to study enough about the prayers so that even if you do not understand every word, the main words and phrases will be familiar to you.

Glance at the translations as you pray to remind yourself of the meaning, but do not depend on them. For if all translations are interpretations, translations of prayers are even more likely to be explanations and to contain the theology and philosophy of the translator. If you have read about the prayers, you will know enough to assign whatever meaning you feel appropriate at the time you are saying them.

Rosh Hashanah: Rabbinic Development

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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The [post-biblical] development of the High Holy Days may be traced through sources compiled in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple (in the year 70 CE)and later recorded in the Mishnah (edited in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince). How much of the material was created only after the destruction and how much may have been produced earlier is a matter for conjecture. One should note, however, that discussions about the prayers of Rosh Hashanah are already recorded in the teachings of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, which would date these materials to the first century CE.

rosh hashanah shofar tefillin

More significant is the specific designation in these sources of the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei, as Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, and a definition of what this title means: “The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year [Rosh Hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee?” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.1). That is, the first of the seventh month was the time to begin the numbering of the year and the counting of the years for the seven‑year cycle (the sabbatical) and the 50‑year cycle (the jubilee).

Of greatest import, however, is the information given in the Mishnah about the role of judgment on the first of Tishrei, now designated simply “Rosh Hashanah”:

“On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before Him as troops, as it is said, “the Lord looks down from heaven, He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings” (Ps. 33:13‑15) (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

The Mishnah also describes the basic prayers and shofar‑blowing practices for Rosh Hashanah, which form the heart of the synagogue service today (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4.5‑6; 4.9). The three major themes of the day‑-kingship, remembrance, and shofarot–are also established in the Mishnah, as are specific regulations concerning the sounding of the shofar during the prayers (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4.5).

The History of Rosh Hashanah, From the Torah to the Temples

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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

Torah References to the “First Day of the Seventh Month”

In Leviticus, the first day of the seventh month is described as follows:

In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord (Leviticus 23:24-25).

In Numbers, we read:

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations…. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord (Numbers 29:1-2).

The sacred number seven seems critical here. Just as the seventh day of the week is holy, so the seventh month of the year has special significance. Since each new moon is a sacred time, it is logical that the seventh new moon — counting from the month of Nisan, in the spring — should also acquire a special aura of holiness. That special sacredness is commemorated by the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn. Aside from sacrifice, this is the only specific action mandated for this day in the Torah. Sounding the shofar is mentioned in both sets of verses, although no explanation or reason is offered. Taken together, the three elements of these verses — the lack of a name for the holiday, of a reason for the celebration, and of an explanation for sounding the shofar — pose a puzzle for us: why doesn’t the Torah describe or emphasize this holy day any further?

Many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God’s assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year. There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), “the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2), and another in the fall at “the turn of the year” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). The spring celebration was more cultic in nature, being connected to the cycle of sacred festivals and the reign of kings, while that of the fall emphasized the agricultural cycle.

Unetanah Tokef

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Find out here. Or wondering when is Yom Kippur 2015? Click here to find out!

[Though this article mentions Rosh Hashanah specifically, it should be noted that the Unetanah Tokef is also part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.]

On both days [of Rosh Hashanah], the magnificent U­netanah tokef (we shall ascribe holiness to this day) is chanted prior to the Kedushah. Although there are popular legends concerning the origin of this piyyut, we do not know who wrote it. What is certain is that the poet was extremely gifted. The structure of the poem and its language suggest that it was composed during the Byzantine period.

The concepts on which it is based come from Jewish apocalyptic literature and parallel Christian writings based on similar sources, the most famous of which is the Dies irae (day of wrath)-‑found in the requiem mass-‑which offers a vivid description of the day of judgment for all humankind. In Unetanah tokef, however, the subject is not the final judgment but the much more immediate, yearly day of judgment–Rosh Hashanah. The text of this piyyut follows.

We shall ascribe holiness to this day.

For it is awesome and terrible.

Your kingship is exalted upon it.

Your throne is established in mercy.

You are enthroned upon it in truth.

In truth You are the judge,

The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,

He who inscribes and seals,

Rosh Hashanah Liturgical Themes

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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.

The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah reflects the dominant thematic strands that are woven together in this holiday: the celebration of God’s coronation and kingship, the creation of the world and the beginning of a new yearly cycle, and the recognition of the seventh new month as the time when individuals, nations, and indeed all humankind are judged.

These themes convey a variety of feelings, and the prayers and observances of the day likewise impart a mixture of rejoicing and apprehension, of confidence and trepidation.

mahzorThe idea of kingship is, as we have seen, an ancient one that may have been connected to Rosh Hashanah from its inception. The concept of creation is closely allied to that of kingship. God becomes king when the work of creation is completed and God rules over all He has made. This link between the themes of kingship and creation is reiterated in that between creation and judgment. Rabbi Eliezer offers the following commentary on this subject, in his reading of the verse, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month” (Lev. 23:24).

“The world was created on the 25th of Elul… Thus we find that Primal Adam was created on the first of Tishrei…at the 10th hour he disobeyed God’s command, at the 11th he was judged…. The Holy One said to him: Adam, you are a precedent for your progeny. Just as you came before me for judgment and I absolved you, so shall your progeny come before Me for judgment and I will absolve them. When? On Rosh Hashanah, ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month.'”

This midrash explains why days of judgment such as Rosh Hashanah can be celebrated with joy: God’s pardon is built into the scheme of judgment.

The centrality ofjudgment as a theme in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy stems from the teachings of the early Sages:

“There are four periods of judgment: Passover for produce; Shavuot for the fruit of trees; on Rosh Hashanah all creatures of the world pass before Him as a troop of soldiers, as it is said, “He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings” (Ps. 33:15); and on Sukkot for water” (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

Enhancing the Amidah

This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.

Since the Amidah isthe central prayer of any service, it is important to address the piyyutim added to it for Rosh Hashanah. During the opening blessing of the Amidah, the leader–called the shali’ah tzibur (the representative of the congregation)–recites a reshut, a poem asking permission to interrupt the standard prayer with special additions. Mi‑sod hakhamim (from the teachings of the Sages) asserts that whatever the shali’ah tzibur will insert is based on traditional teachings, midrashim, and talmudic statements.


On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the leader continues with Yareiti (I am in awe), a piyyut expressing one’s feelings of trepidation at the task of being the shali’ah tzibur on this awesome day. Yareiti was written by the 11th–century poet Yekutiel ben Moses of Speyer and is similar to other, more elaborate piyyutim such as the Hineni, which introduces the Musaf service. These piyyutim stress the inadequacy often felt by the shali’ah tzibur, who recites them to request God’s guidance in the task of leading the prayers and forgiveness for any mistakes that he or she might make in the process. The leader asks God to grant these requests based on the merits of his or her parents and ancestors and of the people he or she represents.

On the second day we recite a different piyyut, Atiti le‑hanenakh (I have come to implore), on the same theme. Written by Simeon bar Isaac of Mainz (whose piyyut Melekh amon is recited earlier in the Shaharit service), Atiti le‑hanenakh allows the shali’ah tzibur to question his or her worth in even more vivid terms and to plead for God’s mercy upon His people.

The weight of responsibility upon the leader of the service is very great. It is for this reason that these heartfelt pleas are uttered by the shali’ah tzibur at the beginning of each repetition of the Amidah. But what is the status of the "representative of the congregation?" In the earliest references to prayer, we find that there was always a leader for the service whose responsibility it was to guide the participants in the liturgy. The official status of shali’ah tzibur, however, ultimately came to apply to the individual who recites the Amidah. Since the Amidah is the central prayer of each service, it is the obligation of each person to recite it; but because of the prohibition by Jewish law during the early centuries of committing prayers to writing, a problem arose for those individuals who did not know the prayer by heart and therefore could not recite it. Because of this problem, some authorities felt that it was sufficient for a person to recite a brief and abbreviated version of the Amidah. The ultimate solution, however, was to have the Amidah recited aloud by one who represented the congregation, the shali’ah, or messenger. Since the prayer of the shali’ah tzibur is thought to represent that of the individual, it is important for the messenger to perform perfectly. As the Mishnah puts it, "If one recites the Amidah and errs, it is a bad omen for him. If he is the ‘representative of the congregation,’ it is a bad omen for those who sent him, since a person’s messenger is considered to be the person himself" (M. Berahot 5.5).

Piyyutim: Religious Poetry

This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.

The institution of the piyyut (from the Greek poietes, poem) is an ancient one dating to early liturgical poets such as Yose ben Yose, Eleazar Kalir, and Yannai, all of whom lived in the Land of Israel sometime between the third and sixth centuries. Their work was emulated by the payytanim of Spain, Italy, France, and Germany during the Middle Ages. These poems were composed to add variety to the service and were intended for the use of the leader of the service, rather than for the congregation (except for refrains which the congregation could repeat). Worshippers would often come to a service expecting to hear a new poetic work of devotion that would enhance the experience of worship.

Just as English poetry developed a canon of different types of poems–such as the sonnet, the ballad, and the ode–specific forms developed for the piyyut: the Yotzer for the first blessing, the Zulat after the Shema, the circulare with two lines, the siluk before the Kedushah, and so on. Piyyutim that were particularly popular became staples of the service. In the 1920s, Israel Davidson collected some 35,000 poems written by 2,836 poets, which were incorporated into the Sabbath and Holy Day prayers.

The serious tone of the Yamim Noraim [Days of Awe] and their unique place in the Jewish year made them a particularly appropriate time for reciting piyyutim. Today, only a few of the most popular piyyutim remain in printed Mahzorim [holiday prayer books], and the variety and novelty they were meant to introduce have been lost. Unfortunately, even these remaining piyyutim may be difficult for us to appreciate today, as they require a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, rabbinic interpretations, and biblical allusions.

The piyyutim have gained such importance in the holiday services that the practice developed of opening the ark and standing while some of the piyyutim are recited. Interestingly enough, this practice is not a matter of Jewish law, but rather of local custom. Paradoxically, it is because the piyyutim are not part of the ancient, mandatory liturgy that many communities sought to enhance their status by having the ark of the Torah opened while they were recited.

Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah

The focus of this article is on the additional service of Rosh Hashanah. Reform Judaism does not follow the practice of having an additional Amidah, so they have moved the elements of the service discussed in this article back to the morning service. This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Amidah always begins and ends with the same paragraphs, while the middle section‑-the most important part of the prayer–­changes to suit the occasion. In the case of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah, there are three blessings in this middle section: Malkhuyot (kingship), Zikhronot (remembrance), and Shofarot (shofar). These blessings represent the basic themes of the day. They were, at one time, part of the morning service and were only later transferred to Musaf.

In ancient times, the core of these three blessings existed as an independent prayer for Rosh Hashanah that was connected to the sounding of the shofar. They may have been created even prior to the destruction of the Temple and only later were incorporated into the framework of the Amidah. The blowing of the shofar, as we have seen, was the main ritual performed on Rosh Hashanah and the only one mandated by the Torah for this day. During the Second Temple period, the sounding of the shofar was introduced by a series of biblical verses that conveyed the purpose and intent of the act. As the Mishnah teaches:

“No less than ten kingship verses, ten remembrance verses, and ten shofar verses must be recited…. We do not recite remembrance, kingship, and shofar verses that are punitive in nature. We begin with verses from the Torah and conclude with a prophetic verse” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4.6).

While the Mishnah (compiled around 200 CE) does not describe a fixed list of verses to be recited, this text does insist that any verses read on this day contain the proper theme and be positive in nature. Even after the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarotsections were incorporated into the Amidah,it remained the prerogative of the individual to choose the verses to be recited. Eventually, specific verses were chosen and became a fixed part of the service.

The Origins of the Shofar

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This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Most holy days have some specific action‑symbol connected to them. On Passover, it is the Pascal Lamb and the unleavened bread that we eat; on Sukkot, it is the four species: the lulav (composed of the palm branch, the myrtle, and the willow) and the etrog (citron) that we wave, along with the Sukkah, the booth in which we sit; and on Rosh Hashanah, it is the shofar, ­the ram’s horn that we sound and heed.

Biblical References to the Shofar

The commandment to sound the shofar is found in Leviticus: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Lev. 23:24), and in Numbers: “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” (Num. 29:1).

Although it may have been the practice to sound the shofar on every new moon, the specific commandment applies only to the seventh new moon. Aside from cessation of work and the bringing of specific sacrifices, this is the only biblical commandment connected with Rosh Hashanah.

Reinventing a Pagan Ritual

Anthropologists and historians of religion have argued that this symbol was not born de novo when Judaism came into being. Long before the inception of the religion of Israel, there existed religions in which the sounding of the horn was part of ritual practice. Judaism, then, did not invent this ritual, but rather reinvented it, divesting it of all former pagan meaning and incorporating it into the framework of monotheism.

Some scholars have suggested that the making of loud noises on the New Year (a common practice even in the modem world) was originally connected with an attempt to frighten demons away so that the forces of good would triumph and the New Year would be a happy one. There is no evidence that this approach informed the act of blowing the shofar in the religion of ancient Israel. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the Talmud ascribes to the shofar the power “to confuse the accuser,” suggesting that the sound of the shofar would destroy the power of Satan to speak against Israel on these holy days. Latter‑day mystics, following this talmudic tradition, added a collection of verses from Psalms to be read before the blowing of the shofar. One of them, Min ha‑meitzar (out of the depths), is composed of an acrostic that reads kera satan (destroy Satan).

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