Revisiting the Fire Offerings of Israel
Modern commentary and interpretation may ease some discomfort surrounding ancient liturgy.
Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.
In a session not long ago with Seminary students on religious services, I was asked about the restoration of a phrase from the siddur (prayerbook) that the Conservative movement had dropped as early as the 1940's. By way of orientation, I should preface the incident by saying that services at the Seminary are wholly conducted by students, with a modest degree of oversight by the administration. Our synagogue serves students as a training ground for mastering the intricacies of Jewish prayer.
Like learning to play a musical instrument or tennis, praying in Judaism is a skill acquired only through practice. To study the language and history of the liturgy is necessary but not sufficient. Each year a number of students step forward to function as a staff of gabbaim (managers) to recruit and assist their classmates in carrying out the multiple roles that make the drama of a synagogue service. Overall, the responsibility inculcates a sense of self-confidence vital for good leadership, even as it accentuates the participatory character of the Jewish way of worship.
The Fire Offerings of Israel
The question asked of me pertained to the uncommon phrase v'ishei yisrael, usually translated as "the fire offerings of Israel." It appears in every amidah (silent devotion) in the first of the final three benedictions (berakhot), beginning with the word retzeh. The petition pleads for a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem along with its sacrificial cult.
The literal translation of the full berakhah (benediction) reads as follows:
O Lord our God, favor Your people Israel and their prayers. Restore the sacrificial cult to Your sanctuary and lovingly accept the fire offerings and their prayers with graciousness. May the worship of Your people Israel be ever acceptable to You. May our eyes witness Your compassionate return to Zion. Praised are You, O Lord, who brings back His presence to Zion.
The editors of the movement's prayerbook in 1946 omitted the words "v'ishei yisrael" from this berakhah because of their revulsion at the prospect of a return to animal sacrifices. By the 1970's the movement, for the sake of consistency, also eliminated the final petition of the amidah which intoned a plea for the reconstruction of the Temple in our lifetime.
I admit the proposition to reappropriate the phrase put me on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, I am an avowed anti-messianist. Israel suffers from a surfeit of messianism today that has already made too much non-negotiable. Messianists have turned the Temple Mount into a powder keg with enough force to hurl us into the maelstrom of a religious crusade.