How did Psalm 30 Land in the Morning Service

July 31, 2009

EnglishOne of the pleasures of having come to Basel was, that I was suddenly confronted with what seemed to me rather strange liturgical minhaggim, as up until then I had assumed that my tradition was of course the standard; a common human fallacy. One of the things I discovered, is that, while every synagogue I could remember visiting up until then, included Psalm 30 (מזמור שיר חנוכת הבית) in the morning liturgy, to be recited before Baruch SheAmar, in Basel, it was ignored.

My first indication that this Psalm’s inclusion in the liturgy deserved some scrutiny came even before I encountered Minhag Basel, from hearing about R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s personal minhag of reciting said Psalm only after Barukh SheAmar, for in his opinion it was only within the framework of Pessuqei deZimra that one could begin to recite Psalms in the morning liturgy. (However, he had no objection to the liturgical recitation of Psalms after Pessuqei deZimra.) However, that was a chiddush of R’ Soloveitchik; it never was an established minhag.

So how come that it is recited in most communities, while many Yeckishe communities skip it? Read the rest of this entry »

Testing the Efficacy of Prayer

June 18, 2009

EnglishA few months ago, I cited research that tested even in double blind controlled trials, the efficacy of prayer in healing patients. The results were mixed, but more importantly, I questioned whether it was theologically sensible and halakhicly permissible to conduct such trials, and, as a consequence of a negative answer to both these questions, whether such a scientific confirmation of the efficacy of prayer was even possible, in this premessianic age.

Today I stumbled across an article discussing interesting research:

“The researchers leading the studies applied clinical scientific methodologies to the study of intercessory prayer, but Cadge found that even that approach was fraught with problems. For example, researchers asked whether the people not being prayed for by the intercessors were truly a control group, since their family members were probably praying for them. Researchers also asked what the right “dosage” of prayer would be, how prayers should be offered, and what to do about non-Christian intercessors.

With double blind , scientists tried their best to study something that may be beyond their best tools,” said Cadge, “and reflects more about them and their assumptions than about whether prayer ‘works.'”

Reflecting a recent shift toward delegitimizing studies of intercessory prayer, recent commentators in the medical literature concluded: “We do not need science to validate our spiritual beliefs, as we would never use faith to validate our scientific data.” Read the rest of this entry »

Barukh She-Amar Elucidated I

June 17, 2009

EnglishA prominent fixture of the morning service is the ברוך שאמר. Together with its twin, the ישתבח, (see The Anatomy of a Beracha on this blog for an elaboration on the notion of “a blessing that leans onto another one,” which is why I call these each other’s twins) they frame the central recitation of Psalms and Hymns, setting the tone for our encounter with G”d, as we afterwards pronounce blessing after blessing, expressing our awe, giving thanks and petitioning G”d for our and our community’s needs. The section framed by the two blessings of ברוך שאמר and ישתבח is called פסוקי דזמרא – “Verses of Praise.”

The ברוך שאמר blessing is most sublime, intent on arousing within us the understanding that the chasm between Man and G”d is indeed infinite, which also serves to underline the miraculousness of prayer. Read the rest of this entry »

The Anatomy of a Beracha

June 15, 2009

English“Blessed are You, G”d-Eternal, our G”g-Almighty, Sovereign of the Universe, who …”

The sudden change, within the very same sentence, from addressing G”d in the second person, to the third person, serves to emphasize the remarkable fact that we address G”d directly, in the second person, altogether. An infinite chasm separates Man from G”d, He is unfathomable, even His Name is ineffable. And yet, in the act of prayer, and particularly through the recitation of blessings, we reach over that gap and speak directly to G”d.

The otherworldliness of this experience is emphasized by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, for whom the recitation of the verse ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך (L”rd, open my lips, that my mouth may speak Thy praise – Psalms 51:17) immediately before beginning the recitation of a תפילת עמידה (silent, standing devotion) was instituted because, as we set out to address G”d so directly and so intimately, we become speechless. Only with the added strength G”d grants us can we overcome our speechlessness. Read the rest of this entry »

Basic Building Blocks of Jewish Prayer

June 5, 2009

EnglishJewish prayer is composed three most important building blocks Psalms and hymns, ברכות – Blessings -, and the Recitation of the Shma’.

These three basic building blocks are joined by four secondary building blocks:  Scriptural prayers by key Biblical personalities, פיוטים – liturgical poems -, תחינות – sundry petitionary prayers, and readings.

In this post, I want to briefly elaborate on the function of blessings, Psalms and the Shma’ Yisrael. Read the rest of this entry »

Coming Soon: Posts on the Prayerbook

June 5, 2009

EnglishEver since I encoutered the ancient and lasting Minhag Ashkenaz, which is still alive and well in “Yeckishe” communities the world over (such as the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel), I dreamt of deepening my understanding of the Jewish paryerbook, the Siddur. During my first year as the IGB’s rabbi, I gave a series of lectures on the various prayers in the prayerbook, and have returned to the topic on numerous occasions.

And now, I have been granted the good fortune to participate in the editing and publishing of a new siddur: the New, Revised Edition of the RCA Siddur, to be published by Artscroll Mesorah Publishers. This blessed opportunity prompts research in texts we are very familiar with, that are often little understood.

I will therefore be able to frequently publish short blog posts on this topic, and have created a new “Category” for these posts, entitled “prayer.”

Can Prayer Fail Us?

December 5, 2008

English A week has passed since the horrors of the murders of Mumbai unfolded, and this tragedy has, as tragedies often do, aroused introspection. We ask many questions on many levels. There are political questions, why in Mumbai? and why were Anglo-Saxons and Jews particularly targeted?; there are organizational questions regarding the readiness and effectiveness of the Indian security forces; questions of how do react to the atrocities on the individual, organizational (how should Jewish organizations adapt their security model, should we trun our communal homes into secure, but uninvitng fortresses?) and political levels; and there are questions of faith, too. Read the rest of this entry »