Regrettably, most congregants, myself included, do not fully understand every line of the many piyyutim that appear in our liturgy. Generally speaking, the texts that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tend to be somewhat easier to follow than many selichot, kinot, and yotzrot composed for other occasions. Nonetheless, they are not without their challenges. I present here a number of observations that should help enhance our understanding of what most of us see as the most important prayer services of the year.
- Near the beginning of chazarat ha-shatz of musaf on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we find the lines Dibberot elleh divrei ha-berit galleh be-zikhron shillush berit. The tune impels almost all chazzanim to pause after elleh. This, however, is a mistake. The lines mean, “Remove (roll away) the words elleh divrei ha-berit (the three words that follow the tokhachah (or tokhechah) in Ki Tavo and hence represent that tokhechah) through the remembrance of the threefold covenant (with the patriarchs).” Thus, the words elleh divrei ha-berit must be said as a single phrase. It is not terribly difficult to do this.
- People who daven in havarah Ashkenazit should say Ho-ochez be-yod—or ba-yod— middas mishpot, not be-yad, as almost all machzorim—and chazzanim— say. Be-yad middas mishpot has no evident meaning, and the line is based on the verse ve-sochez be-mishpot yodi. This is vocalized correctly in the Machzor ha-Gra, where the text was prepared with meticulous care.
- When davening from the Machzor ha-Gra, I noticed the vocalization taggid le-Ya‘akov davar (not devar) chok u-mishpat. There was no note explaining this, but I realized upon reflection that the line is based on the verse “Maggid devarav le-Ya’akov, chukkav u-mishpatav le-Yisrael.” Thus, these are three separate words—no semikhut. I then saw that in Heidenheim’s commentary, he notes this vocalization approvingly with an illuminating elaboration. He cites a midrash that refers to this verse and says, Amar ha-KB”H le-Yisrael: Im asitem chukkai ein ha-satan nogea‘ bakhem (Tanhuma be-Hukkotai #1, ed.Buber, p.108; Yalkut Shim‘oni on the Torah #671). Thus, we see the full meaning of Be-ein melitz yosher mul maggid pesha‘ (i.e., the satan), taggid le-Ya’akov devar—or davar—chok u-mishpat. Since changing this would probably startle the congregation, I can construct a limmud zekhut for the chazzan’s not doing so. One could argue that devarav is a kelal, and chukkav u-mishpatav are the perat: “his words, which consist of his laws and statutes.” Thus, one can justify, perhaps be-dochak, devar chok u-mishpat. In any event, this midrash, to which the author was certainly alluding, explains the passage in the davening, which is otherwise obscure.
- In U-Netanneh Tokef, the Machzor ha-Gra vocalizes tinnasse’ (in u-vo tinnasse’ malkhutekha) with a patach followed by a dagesh rather than the usual kamatz. That made me realize that this is based on the verse in Bil‘am’s blessing: ve-tinasse’ malkhuto, where that is indeed the vocalization. It is, however, an unexpected form, and the one we usually say is the one we would expect. (Many old machzorim had u-va-shofar [with a patach] gadol yittaka‘,” but this has generally been corrected in the ones currently in use.) Also in U-Netanneh Tokef, the proper form, as Prof.Richard Steiner pointed out to me, is mi-ya‘ani u-mi ya‘ashir, as in al tira ki ya‘ashir ish. This is a hif‘il that represents a change in status as in hivri’ and hizkin. But I would not do this if I were a chazzan, because it would be too startling to the congregation at a high point of the davening. Again in U-Netanneh Tokef, one should say ve-khe-anan kaleh with a segol since the other words are either adjectives representing a current state or present-tense verbs (until ya‘uf).
- In Ve-ye’etayu kol le-avdekha: The proper vocalization is ve-yilmedu to‘im binah, not vi-(ye)lammedu. In every other line of this piyyut, the subject of the verb is those who do not now recognize the true God. It is those people who stray (to‘im with a tav can become almost synonymous with to‘im with a tet) who will learn wisdom. We do not suddenly and uniquely have a sentence where knowledgeable people, presumably Jews, are the subjects of the verb, and it is these people who will teach wisdom to those who do not currently possess it.
- Finally, I note the Rov’s well-known position (explained in Nefesh ha-Rav) that u-ve-toratekha katuv lemor shema‘ Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem echad belongs with the subsequent berakhah. Thus, the chazzan should chant the nusach that ends a section before and not after that sentence. The Rov made this point in the very first talk I heard from him—delivered to a student audience in Rubin Hall– when I was in college. After explaining his reasoning, he asked who in the audience served as a chazzan on yamim nora’im. The so-called friends of one of the students identified him. The Rov asked him to sing the relevant section, which he did in the manner of virtually all chazzanim. He was rewarded with the Rov’s vigorous reaction: “Wrong!”
Except for the material in #4, all of these changes are not merely matters of pedantic detail but enhance one’s understanding of the content of the prayers. They all appear correctly in the machzor edited by Daniel Goldschmidt, but because of its structure and inclusion of much additional material, it is very difficult to use that machzor when one davens.
David Berger is dean and Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University. For many years he was Broeklundian Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He was also President of the Association for Jewish Studies, co-chair of the academic advisory committee of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and has served as a member of the academic committee of the Rothschild Foundation Europe and of the executive committee of the American Academy for Jewish Research, where he is a fellow. He serves on the council of the World Union of Jewish Studies and the editorial board of Tradition.
Dean Berger is the author of “The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages,” which was awarded the John Nicholas Brown Prize by the Medieval Academy of America, and co-author of “Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?” a finalist for the Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought. His book, “The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference,” received the 2003 Samuel Belkin Literary Award. He has written numerous articles on medieval Jewish history, Jewish-Christian relations, anti-Semitism, contemporary Judaism and the intellectual history of the Jews.
Dean Berger has been a fellow of the Annenberg Research Institute, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem and a visiting professor at Yale and Harvard universities.