By Rabbi Daniel Roselaar, Rav of Kehillat Alei Tzion
Every siddur and machzor that is published reflects a particular minhag (custom). As Jews have migrated over the course of time, combined with the establishment of new communities and shuls, minhagim have been transferred, imported and subtly changed. People tend to be strongly influenced by what they have grown up with or have become accustomed to, and are often surprised to find that other communities do certain things differently.
Some of the most prominent differences in minhagim find expression in the High Holyday services. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on some of those differences.
A hundred notes are sounded with the shofar on each day of Rosh Hashanah and many of us might be perturbed if we went to a shul where less notes were blown. This practice can be traced back to Rabbi Natan ben Yechiel of Rome (known as the Aruch, c. 1035 – 1106), who lived in the 11th century. It is associated with a Midrashic tradition that when the Canaanite commander Sisera failed to return safely from battle, his mother wept 100 times. Whilst this tradition is almost universal nowadays – apart from Sephardi communities where 101 blasts are blown – this was not always the case. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), maintained that a total of 42 blasts was sufficient, whilst other medieval authorities deemed it necessary to blow only 40 blasts in total. The maintenance of these traditions until relatively recently is evidenced by the rubrics in various British-Jewish machzorim printed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
One characteristic of the Yom Kippur services is the repetition of many of the prayers. The 13 Attributes of God’s mercy are sung three times before we take the Torah out of the Ark in the morning. This tradition is a Kabbalistic addition to the prayer rite, dating from the 16th century and was therefore absent from the editions of the siddur and machzor of the the great medieval rabbis.
The 13 Attributes of God’s Mercy punctuate the other prayer services on Yom Kippur as well. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) cites Rabbi Yochanan’s anthropomorphic description of the Almighty wrapping Himself in a tallit and assuring Moshe that when the Jewish people sin in the future, if they recite these verses they will be guaranteed forgiveness. Of course this is not a formula in itself and the intent of the passage is that these Divine attributes should be recited at the conclusion of the repentance process, to “remind” the Almighty of His kindnesses and that He should be forgiving.
The Tur (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher 1269-1340) cites the Gaonic practice from the 10th century that the the 13 Attributes of God’s Mercy should be recited five times at each of the Kol Nidre and Shacharit services, seven times at Musaf, six times at Mincha and three times at Neila. Some other traditions maintained that they should be recited seven times at each of the first four services and 13 times at Neila, as the day is drawing to a close.
Most machzorim have the tradition of reciting the “Hashem Hashem” verses four times at Kol Nidrei and eight times at Neila. Of particular interest to the British-Jewish reader is the background to their reduced appearance in the Routledge machzor and the traditional British-Jewish prayer rite. In 1892 the representatives of various congregations made representation to Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler for certain revisions and alterations to the order of services in their synagogues. The list of proposed changes was quite extensive, as well as being quite radical in some respects; the Chief Rabbi convened a committee to consider them. Amongst the innovations that were authorised was to allow the 13 Attributes of God’s Mercy to be recited only once at each service, with the intention that this would allow them to be recited with greater devotion and less haste.
Another custom characteristic of British-Jewish communities is the minhag to blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur following the post-fast Maariv service, rather than at the end of Neila, as indicated by many machzorim. In actual fact, this point is the subject of a difference of opinion dating back several hundred years. In the 14th century, the Tur referenced both practices and opined that the correct minhag is to wait until after Maariv before blowing the shofar, since it indicates that the fast has concluded and that it is now permissible to eat. Chief Rabbi Adler was keen to recommend that this practice be adopted, though not particularly on any strong halachic grounds. In his words:
“It must be admitted that the arrangement that has hitherto obtained is of a most unsatisfactory character. In many synagogues the Maariv is read whilst the majority of the congregants are quitting the place of worship, or noisily preparing to do so. In those synagogues where the bulk of the congregants remain the prayer is read, I believe, as a rule, with unseemly haste”.
His solution was quite extreme. Not only did he cite the Tur in advocating that the shofar blowing should be delayed until after Maariv, he also advised that the Ark should remain open throughout Maariv as if it were a continuation of Neila; that the service should be led by the same chazzan who led Neila and with the same “solemnity and impressiveness as the other Services of the day”; and that the recitation of the “Shemot” usually said at the end of Neila (the verses of Shema Yisrael, Baruch Shem and Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim) should also be moved to the end of Maariv. Related and radical proposals that the Chief Rabbi rejected as being too far removed from traditional Orthodoxy were the suggestions that the Kol Nidre passage be omitted, that an alternative Torah passage replace the traditional Mincha reading, and that Maariv at the end of the fast be altogether dispensed with. He did, however, permit a children’s service to be held on Yom Kippur afternoon, with the proviso that no selichot be omitted in order to facilitate this!