BTW – Ba’al Tephila Workshop

BTW is an exciting new way to learn how to lead synagogue services or to understand more about the process of how services are conducted. How many times have you searched the web for a YouTube video or other source that will show you how to do something in a simple direct fashion? With BTW you can now use that same approach to learn how to be a service leader!

The BTW… is divided into a series of Keynote presentations and videos. These presentations and videos will guide you step by step through the process of learning how to lead each service. You can play these at your leisure.

Of course you can ask questions any time by emailing me, Hazzan Michael Krausman at hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org. You can also arrange a time to meet either online or in person for practice or further instruction or just to hang out and chat! You can even email recordings of yourself chanting the parts of the service you are learning and I will happily review them with you. You can also respond to the comment section below with questions, suggestions or feedback.

Here is the first video, the BTW intro. You can also receive it as a keynote presentation if you send me an email.

Enjoy!!

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Share a Prayer: Modim Anachnu Lach; Thanksgiving

With the American festival of Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, the notion of expressing gratitude is very much in our thoughts. For Jews, this is not an annual event but rather a persistent theme in our hearts and heritage. Indeed, we wake up in the morning with “Modeh Ani,” a prayer thanking God for watching over and restoring our souls to us and fill our day with a myriad of Blessings acknowledging the role of the Blessed Holy One in all of our abilities and in everything we experience.

Several years ago when reflecting on the Jewish connection to Thanksgiving I related the following teaching:

… As my good friend Rabbi Mario Roizman points out, as Jews our very essence is to be thankful. Jewish people are referred to in Hebrew as “Yehudim.” We receive this name from our Biblical ancestor Yehudah, the son of Jacob. When Yehudah was born his mother Leah she declared, “Odeh et Adonai, I will give thanks to God; therefore they named him Yehudah.”(Gen.29:35) thus giving thanks is part of our DNA. Indeed, Rabbi Roizman points out that Yehidim can be understood to mean: “the people who say thank you.”

Perhaps the quintessential prayer that indicates how much we value giving thanks is Modim Anachnu Lach. This blessing is found in the Hodaiya, or prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment section of Amidah, a collection of 7-18 blessings that are the central core of each of our daily, festival and Shabbat services. Below is the text according to Siddur Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical Assembly.

“We thank You, for You are ever our God and the God of our ancestors; You are the bedrock of our lives, the shield that protects us in every generation We thank You and sing Your praises-for our lives that are in, Your hands, for our souls that are under Your care, for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and Your gifts that are with us each moment – evening, morning, and noon, You are the one who is good, whose mercy is never-ending; the one who is compassionate, whose love is unceasing. We have always placed our hope in You.” Click here for the Hebrew text.

Our great Talmudic sages mandated that after having made a series of requests from the Blessed Holy One on weekday or even after expressing the uniquely holy nature of a Holiday or the Sabbath, we are to acknowledge the presence of God in all that we have in our lives. Ismar Elbogen one of the greatest scholars of Jewish liturgy of all time, notes that although the present text of Modim can be found as far back as in the 9thCenturay compilation of Rav Amram, earlier forms of this poetic expression can be found across time and liturgical traditions. Elbogen also points out that it is into this section of the liturgy that our sages required that prayers of gratitude for the miracles of Hannukah and Purim be inserted. Indecently, modern prayer books also include a similarly worded prayer for Yom Ha Atzmaut – Israel Independence day.

The devastating loss of the Beit Ha Miqdash, the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. was a watershed moment in the development of the Jewish people. Our great sages in their wisdom opted to replace the biblically mandated sacrificial cult with a system of prayer which would enable us draw close to our Creator by expressing our thoughts, fears, yearnings and aspirations. At first only a simple list of mandated blessings was produced – it was up to the individual worshipper to compose the introductory text that would more deeply express the theme of the blessing. Eventually gifted authors would compose relevant poetry to be uttered by the worshipper. While the current text of our blessing is indicted above, a second version of the Modim prayer that became known as the “Scholars Modim” or, Modim d’ Rabbanan was found to be so relevant that it too is included in our prayer books.Click here for the text.

Thus, in communities where the Amidah is expressed individually by the congregation and then repeated aloud by prayer leader, individuals recite the Modim d’ Rabbanan individually while the leader chants the main version. One of the salient features of this scholarly Modim is the expression of gratitude for the very ability to express our thanks. The commentator on our Siddur Lev Shalem points out that “the ability to express gratitude is seen as a special gift to humanity. The attitude of thankfulness connects us to the world with a sense of humility and a joyful spirit of openness.”

Rabbi Ruven Hammer, noted authority on Jewish liturgy explains the process of bowing as we say Modim Anachnu Lach and the significance of this prayer in a note published in his wonderful commentary on the Conservative Sim Shalom Siddur entitled Or Hadash:

“Bowing at the beginning and end of the Modim blessing indicates that we are bringing our Prayer to an end. We began with bowing to God and we conclude with a bow. We physically symbolize our acknowledgment that God is our true Ruler, to whom all thanksgiving is due. The seriousness with which the Sages viewed this particular prayer can be seen by the fact that the Mishnah teaches that if one who is leading the service says the word ‘modim’ twice, ‘he is silenced’- i.e., stopped from leading the prayers (Berakhot 5:3). As the Talmud explains, ‘It is as if he acknowledged that there are two powers in the world’ (Berakhot 33b).”

Whether is it is because of what is hardwired into our identity as Rabbi Roismam suggested above or whether it is due of the many and sometimes harsh lessons of our history, we as a people never take anything for granted. On the contrary, Jews as people are continually expressing our gratitude. Jews do not only give thanks on special occasions or when we are siting down to eat a festive meal; we are constantly cognizant and appreciative of our special relationship with our Creator – “evening,  morning and noon.”

Here is a classic setting of this Prayer by Jacob Rapaport made famous by the legendary Hazzan Mordechai Hershman:

 

This is Hassidic version by Lev Tahor

 

Here is a contemporary setting of this Prayer by Cantor Jonathan Comisar sung by Cantor Sara Hass and Cantor Lizzie Weiss

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share a Prayer – Music of the Shoah

Just days after concluding the celebration of the festival of Passover, people throughout the world observe Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. When reflecting on the horrors of the Shoah, one realizes that part of the profound devastation of our people that was wrought by the Nazis was the loss of an untold amount of musical and artistic creativity. It is impossible to calculate the sum of Jewish Music that was either lost or destroyed or never even created as a result of the darkest period of Modern history. However, there is a body of work that managed to survive and can still be heard today.

It is natural for the Jewish people to turn to music to express the innermost yearnings of their souls.  Thoughts and feelings too complex or horrible to be spoken in words have always been given voice though the medium of Jewish music. Jewish artistry, just like the Jewish spirit can never be totally quenched, even by the most formidable force of unspeakable evil.

Below are but a few of the great composers and lyricists whose musical gift allowed a small drop of the tremendous sea of emotion that is the Holocaust to be released:

Mordechai Gebirtig, born in 1877, is perhaps the most popular of all composers of Yiddish song. His music was popular not only in Europe but also in America where singers and actors in the Yiddish theater such as Molly Picon sang many of his greatest hits. Gebirtig is best known for the song most often associated with the Holocaust, Es Brent a lachrymose and haunting lament which cries out: “our town is burning, and all around do nothing but sit with folded hands.” Ironically, this song was somewhat prophetic, having been  composed before the holocaust began. Mordechai was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. Here is a recording by perhaps one of the greatest singers of Yiddish songs, Sidor Belarsky singing Es Brent.

Aleksander Kulisiewicz was born in 1918 in Cracow Poland. His dream of becoming a Musician was curtailed when he was deported to Sachenhausen concentration camp. While a prisoner at the camp, Kulisiewicz mange to compose, collect and perform numerous Yiddish songs, despite several attempts by the Nazis to murder him. Here is more information and some musical examples from the US Holocaust Musem :  http://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/music/detail.php?content=kulisiewicz

Shmaryahu Kaczerginski who was born in 1908 was a poet who was active in the Vilna Ghetto. While working as an archivist in a Library outside of the ghetto, he was able to establish underground contacts that enabled him to smuggle arms into the ghetto. Kaczerginski managed to escape the ghetto and join the partisans in 1943. In 1948, he published a collection of 250 songs and poems that had been composed in the ghetto including two of his own most famous offerings, the hauntingly macabre lullaby, Shtiller, Shtiller and the Yugent Hymn (youth anthem) which was to become a popular song among Yiddish movements in America. Here is a recording, drawn from the Judaica Sound Archives of Florida Atlantic University, of Shtiller, Shtiller  by the Great Hazzan Issac Goodfriend.

Hirsh Glick, born in 1920 was imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto before being sent to an Estonian concentration camp. After escaping the camp, Glick joined the partisans and was killed in action. His famous Partizaner Lied (Song of the partisans) became the anthem of the Jewish partisans and is still sung today at most Holocaust Memorials. Click below to watch a video of the famous Israeli artist, Chava Alberstien singing the Partizaner Lied.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wgYnYSg3Zs

Of course it is difficult to discuss the music of the Holocaust without mentioning the Terezin Concentration Camp. Although in reality a horrible Nazi genocide camp, this Czechoslovakian site served as a propaganda tool that was used by Hitler to try and convince the world that the Jews were not being exterminated. A façade was created that included a film production and a visitation by the Red Cross. In reality, severe overcrowding and other deplorable conditions lead to the death of thousands of inmates. Furthermore, many of the ill or elderly were transported from Terezinstadt to Auschwitz for extermination.

The unique aspect of Terezin however, was the massive assembly of musicians and other artists from across Czechoslovakia as well as a handful of other countries that were encouraged/ forced to perform. Many noted composers created various styles of musical works. Of all of the vast amount of creative output generated and or performed at Terezin, the most well know is the operetta Brudibar or “Bumble Bee”, that has been performed all over the world. Here is a most moving story about Terezinstadt and the Operetta Brundibar produced by the CBS news magazine, 60 Minutes.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/brundibar-how-the-nazis-conned-the-world/

Thankfully, despite untold losses that occurred, we still have the opportunity to hear the works of some of the inspired musicians and poets of the Shoah. Their words and music will forever remain etched in our collective Jewish consciousness as a lasting memorial to those who did not survive to tell their story. The memories of the Holocaust will never be forgotten, the Music of the Holocaust will never be silenced.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers and Jewish Musical Heritage. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a Prayer: Private Prayer in a Public Context

We all know that prayer is both a communal and an individual experience. Our tradition is replete with volumes of prayers that have been composed and codified throughout our history. Psalms and other Biblical sources are thousands of years old, yet they still have the power to sustain our liturgical yearnings and help us to reach out to The Holy One. Interestingly, though most of our prayers are couched in the plural – pertaining to the entire community, baked into our formal liturgy are opportunities for individual, personal prayer.

The first place to look for such private prayer opportunities is the very opening pages of most prayer books that begin with the morning service. Originally intend to be recited at home; these prayers were transferred to the synagogue to serve as private mediations which would help prepare the worshipper for the public worship to come. In October 2010 I wrote:

“Those who are familiar with the Siddur (prayer book) will note that even before the formal service begins there is a collection of personal prayers and reflections that can be offered. ‘Elohai Neshama – My God the soul that You implanted with in me…,’ the passionate prayer dating back to Talmudic Times (Berachot 60b) is a perfect example of such a prayer. The text reflects the notion that at night-timeis that part of God that is inside each and every one of us. Elohai Neshama gives us the opportunity to express gratitude to God and to remind ourselves of our connectedness to our Creator and to each other.”

Here is a stirring setting called Elokai Neshama by one of the greatest and best know Hazzanim of all times; Moshe Koussevitzky. Taken form an album entitled; Moshe Koussevitzky Earliest Recordings; a compilation of material originally recorded in Europe, this record was copyright 1967 by the Collectors Guild. The recording is part of a magnificent collection of Jewish Music Located at Florida Atlantic University, the Judaica Sound Archives.
Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

Following the recitation of the Amidah, (see below), is a liturgical compilation known as Tachanun. Tachanun is a section of personal petitions and supplications that are inserted in the weekday morning and afternoon service. So intense is the recitation of Tachanun that we rest our heads on our forearms and say part of the Tachanun in a hunched-over submissive posture. Based on biblical president, our sages felt that since we are at a time in the service when we are most focused on our relationship with the Almighty, we should expand this intense period of concentrated prayer and introspection by adding Tachanun.

On Monday and Thursday mornings we extend the Tachanun with additional supplications. However, Tachanun is not recited on happy occasions such as Purim or Hanukah in the presence of a bride or groom or when a Brit Milah  (Bris) is about to take place. Remarkably, this set of supplications is also omitted in the presence of a mourner and on Tisha B’Av, our day to grieve for the fallen Jerusalem Temple, so as to not too greatly increase our sadness.

Personal prayers by such great liturgical sages as Sa’adia Gaon and Rav Amram as well as some poignant psalms are found in this plaintive collection. These prayers ask God to help us personally through whatever difficult times we may be currently experiencing.

We ask that God “assuage our fears, establish the works of our hands, heal our wounds and save us from our tormentors.” Even in our deepest time of despair we appreciate the ability to place ourselves in God’s hands.

Some of the other themes related to in Tachanun include, the value of a good friend, guidance in avoiding evil or temptation. Sephardi congregations often include the confessional as part of Tachanun.
All versions of this supplication include the prayer Shomer Yisrael – guardian of Israel which, as Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes, reflects the trepidation of the medieval European Jewish community. Tachanun concludes with the declaration, “alone we are helpless”; we rely on God for compassion and guidance. Here is a recording, again from the FAU archives, of Hazzan Israel Rand singing a popular setting of Shomer Israel.

Above I made reference to the Amidah the a formal series of 7-19 blessings that form the core of every synagogue service. Certainly an entire Blog post could be devoted to this quintessential prayer. We begin the Amidah with a most extraordinary process. It is customary to take three steps backwards and then three steps forward while reciting the phrase, “Adonai S’fatai Tiftach…Lord open my lips so that my mouth can find the proper words to address You.”(Ps 51:17) According to the great liturgical scholar Ismar Elbogin, this phrase was introduced by the sage Rabbi Yochannan in the 3rd century. The purpose of this ritual is to symbolically separate ourselves from the rest of the congregation enter into a private audience with the Holy One. In essence, at least three times a day we have the opportunity to have individual “face time” with our Creator.

This private conversation with God is guided by the age-old Blessings of the Amidah – some of which date back to the time of the Ancient Jerusalem Temple. Built into the process of reciting the Amidah, however, are specific opportunities for individualized prayer. Chief among these personal prayers is that contained within the eighth Blessing, the Prayer for healing. Our Siddur, contains a formula into which the names of those for whom we pray can be inserted. Moreover, the version found in both the Sim Shalom Siddur for Shabbat and Festivals and the Weekday Sim Shalom contain an extra line asking the Holy One also support the caregivers of those who we mentioned.

Similarly, the sixteenth blessing, “Shomeia Tephila – The One who listens to prayer”, is also a traditional point at which to insert a personal petition. Rabbi Hammer cites the Talmud (Avodah Zara 8a) for the origin of this custom. Not only can any heart-felt supplication be inserted at this point but prayers for comfort on the national days of sorrow are customarily included here as well. Thus prayers for Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of the Holy Jerusalem Temple and Yom Ha Shoah, the commemoration of the Holocaust are added to the Shomeia Tephila prayer. Interestingly, Hineni, the personal plea of the prayer leader on the High Holidays, ends with the same concluding phrase.

Just as the opening phrase of the Amidah is based on a psalm as instituted by Rabbi Yochanan, the concluding passage also contains a verse from a Psalm (19:15) “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart …” Preceding this is a moving personal mediation –“Elohai N’tzor L’shoni Me’ra – May God keep my tongue from evil.” This prayer is cited in the Talmud by the sage Mar Ben Ravia.

Although several permutations of this concluding meditation have existed in different liturgical traditions, offering some personal thoughts is an essential part of the process of the individual recitation of the Amida. At the conclusion of the Elohai N’tzor, with the words “Oseh Shalom,” we take three steps backwards and bow to the left and the right symbolizing the conclusion of our formal chat with God. Perhaps our sages felt that since we began by asking Divine guidance for our words, we should conclude our conversation with The Holy One with the hope that our language continues in this sanctified vein.
Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

The provision of opportunities for individual prayer in the context of public worship reminds us of the nature of our relationship with God. We are connected to The Holy One on a personal level at all times, even when experiencing the power of communal prayer. It is clear that God is at the same time within us and part of the community at large; the more that we seek God, the closer we feel to God and the deeper our connection to our community through the Almighty.

Share a Prayer: Praying in the Vernacular

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our Daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
In my last post I extolled the vital importance of praying in Hebrew. While it is true that, “for thousands of years Hebrew prayers, such as those drawn from the book of psalms and others, have resonated in our Jewish DNA providing comfort, compassion and inspiration” there is also room in our liturgical service for prayers written in the vernacular. In fact, codified in our Siddur, are prayers, such as the Kaddish that are written in Aramaic, an ancient language that, a one time, was the lingua franca of our people. Similarly, in some traditions, the standard prayers are interleaved with or translated into Ladino or Judeo Espanol – a language spoken by Jews who stem from locations such as the Balkan countries, parts of the Middle East and sections of Europe such as Spain and Portugal. Similarly, there are wonderful very old and brand new prayers written in English and other modern languages, created to supplement and enrich our services.
Aramaic is an archaic  cousin of Hebrew that stems from the ancient Near East. Texts written in Aramaic such as the biblical books of Ezra and Daniel, have been found dating back to the 5th Century B.C.E.  The Talmud, one of the primary texts of Rabbinic law as well as Biblical Translations and the mystical Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar also written in this ancient language, are still studied in their original form today. In our Siddur, the most significant prayer written in Aramaic, is the Kaddish.
Constructed around an ancient Aramaic translation of a passage from the Biblical book of Daniel, “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah m’vorach l’olam ol’olmei al maya….May His Great Name be blessed for ever and ever in to the world to come,” the Kaddish is one of the best know elements of our liturgy. Ismar Elbogen the great scholar of Jewish Liturgy, notes that the great sages of the early rabbinic period attached deep meaning to this biblical phrase and  invoked it at the mention of the Holy Name. Soon this expression began to be used in the context of a formal expression of faith in God’s eternal Kingdom that was customarily uttered at the end of a rabbinic discourse. Although at first, these expressions were improvised by each orator, the formula eventually became the standardized in the form of the Kaddish.
Elbogen notes that the earliest reference to the Kaddish appearing as part of the synagogue liturgy can be found in a Palestinian source dating back to the seventh century. Phrases like, “L‘eila minkol birchata … beyond all blessings, hymns and praises …,” make the Kaddish an ideal vehicle for expressing the greatness and holiness of God.  Similarly, the passage found in the full Kaddish beginning with, “Tikabel Tzlothon … accept our supplications and petitions …” is most meaningful in the context of the service. In the synagogue, the Kaddish serves to separate various  major and minor sections of the service. Thus we find a Half or “HatziKaddish as well as a full Kaddish. There is also a Kaddish D’Rabbanan or “scholar’s Kaddish” which is recited after a selection from rabbinic literature. The mourner’s Kaddish, which is also included at various points during the service, differs from the full Kaddish in that it omits the section asking that our prayers and supplications be acceptable. It is interesting to note that the last stanza of the Kaddish, Oseh Shalom, a petition for peace, is written in Hebrew.
Brich Shemei – “Blessed is the Name,” a prayer said before the ark when the Torah is removed, is another popular prayer written in Aramaic. Taken from the Kabalistic text known as the Zohar (see above) Brich Shemei praises God as master of the universe and asks for Devine favor in granting our prayers and petitions. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, author of Or Hadash, a Comentary on Siddur Sim Shalom points out that the Kabbalistic Mystics maintained that the gates of heaven were opened whenever the Torah was read so they saw  this is as an opportune moment to seek God’s favor.
The conclusion of Brich Shemei begins with the statement, “ Ana Avda D’Kudsha Brich Hu, I am the servant of the Holy One.” We affirm that we place our hope not in any mortal but only in God and the revelation of the Torah.  Bei Ana Racheitz,  “in God we  trust”  the last part of the prayer, is often sung together by the congregation. Here is a wonderful rendition of the Ana Avda D’Kudsha Brich Hu by master Hazzan Aaron Bensoussan taken from his CD, Joyus Chants, recorded with members of the Israeli Philharmonic.

Brich Shemei  is also an example as a prayer expressed in Ladino by many members of the Sephardi tradition in the form of “Bendicho Su Nombre.”  Ladino, like Yiddish its Ashkenazi counterpart, is enhanced by Hebrew expressions as well as by local phrases and idioms. There is a rich culture of music and poetry written in Judeo Espanol which still can be heard in many countries throughout the world. This is a link to the text of Bendicho Su Nombrei in Ladino and English published by the Eitz Chaim Sephardic Congregation of Indianapolis. Here is a video of this prayer performed by Hazzan Sylvain Elzam.


Ein Keloheinu, an extremely popular hymn sung at the end of the Shabbat morning service, is often sung in Hebrew with an instantaneous translation into Ladino by many Sephardi congregations. The text of this hymn which according to the Machzor Lev Shalem published by the Rabbinical assembly, dates back to the first millennium expounds on three different ways by which we refer to The Holy One; Our God, Our Lord, Our Sovereign and Our Savior. The mantra like repetition of phrases is typical of prayers of mystical origin. This is a setting of Ein Keloheinu sung by a delightful Turkish group called Los Pasharos Sepharadis.

Many Siddurim (prayer books) contain beautiful and inspirational poetry that, following the ancient tradition of the framers of our liturgy, expounds on the themes and motives of our sacred liturgy. Some of the most noteworthy writers and thinkers and poets of the past few generations have works published within  Siddurim  or in individual volumes  of contemporary prayer. Perhaps one of the most sensitive, compassionate, inspirational and enlightened modern American composers of Jewish Prayer is Rabbi Naomi Levy. One of the first women to be ordained as a Conservative Rabbi, Naomi Levy has written several books including a volume of English  prayers for various occasions called Talking to God .  Here is a heart rending prayer she wrote in response to  the tragedy of 9/11.

The Hebrew core of our traditional liturgy has sustained us throughout history, and around the globe. Yet in each generation, gifted, inspired poets have given voice to their connection with God and the liturgy through the medium of their native tongue. Whether through translating and interpreting the traditional text or by composing new elements of liturgy that speak to their contemporaries, these talented artists have contributed to the ever evolving and growing opus of our sacred liturgy; providing for the worshipper new pathways on which to seek a closer relationship with the Divine.
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at mailto:hazzan@e-hazzan.comor leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a prayer Yitziv Pitgam: Special prayer for the Second Day of Shavuot

Prequel:

After the  experiencing the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel were given seven weeks to prepare for the watershed moment in the development of our people, the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. Today, in commemoration of these biblical events, we meticulously count the Omer, the days and weeks from Pesach, the occasion marking our physical freedom to Shavuot, the festival celebrating our transformation from a band of escaped slaves into a holy nation.

Indeed, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai constitutes not only a revelation of the Divine word, but a revolution in contemporary culture. The Book of Exodus (19:23-20:21) describes how the entire nation was present as the Torah was revealed. In fact, tradition maintains that not only did the generation that left Egypt witness the pyrotechnic revelation of the Law, but the soul of every Jew that would ever exist was present at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Edwin Farber of North Miami Beach Florida, points out that this public revelation is unique among all contemporary cultures. Rather than having the most Sacred of all of our texts and writings reserved for an ecclesiastical elite, the Torah is open and available to each and every one of us.

Thus Moses began a chain of transmission of the teaching of Torah that links every generation from the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness,through Joshua, through the prophets, through the residents of ancient Israel , through Babylonia and throughout the diaspora to the present day and beyond.

In the Fifth Century B.C.E. Ezra, the leader of the community of exiles who returned to the Holy Land from Babylonia, instituted the public reading of the Torah on Sabbaths, festivals and market days. This public reading meant that all could have easy access to the teachings of their sacred heritage. Dr. Max Margolis, a renowned  Judaic scholar notes in The History of Bible Translations that the practice developed to alternate each line of the Hebrew Text of the Torah, with a translation into the vernacular language of Aramaic. The task of providing this simultaneous translation was often relegated to a professional called the M’Turgaman. At first the Rabbis were against the writing down  of these translations fearing  the  translator might color the meaning of the Biblical text with his interpretation. Moreover, the Rabbis insisted on a clear distinction  between the written text of the Torah and the “Oral Torah” consisting of legal, homiletic and exegetical material. Initially, some of the Targum  texts were codified but remained for a long time the personal property of a few individuals. Eventually, as Dr. Margolis notes, perhaps due to the waning of the skills of those who memorized text coupled with the sheer of volume of material, the Rabbis relented and allowed the “oral texts” to be preserved in written form.

Today, while the Bible has been translated and interpreted into a myriad of languages, the Targum, or Aramaic translation, remains an essential tool of Biblical exegesis. Targum Onkelus, an eponymous work attributed to a well know convert of Babylonian origin is the most popular Aramaic translation of the Torah  mostly because of its fidelity to the original texts. The authorship of Targum Jonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Books of the Prophets is attributed to the Jonathan son of Uzziel, one of the followers of the great Talmudic sage, Hillel.There are other Aramaic translations that are still available, these like translations into other languages, provide a valuable tool to the Biblical scholar – not only due to the insight of the translator, but also because the translation may suggest the existence of a variant original text on which the translation was based.

After having discussed  the importance of the Targum, we are ready,at last, for the subject of this writing,the Piyut or liturgical poem know as Yetziv Pitgam. Recited immediately following the chanting of the first verse of the Haftara of the second day of Shavuot, Yetziv Pitgam is a beautiful composition written in Aramaic, the language of the Targum. Thematically, Yetziv Pitgam is similar to Akdamut, the Aramaic panegyric performed immediately prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot; the inadequacy of human language to praise God, the beauty of creation and a plea for God’s support and salvation. Also similar to Akdamut, this poem is an acrostic of the name of its author, in this case Yaakov ben Meir Levi. There is some controversy as the identity of Yaakov Ben Meir. Ismar Elbogen, the celebrated authority on Jewish liturgy, identifies the Yaakov Ben Meir of our poem as the twelfth  century Talmudic  luminary Rabbenu Tam, a foremost scholar and arbiter of Jewish Law.  He was the grandson of the most well know of all Biblical and Rabbinic commentators, Rashi. Others such as the author of the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Rabbeinu Tam, claim that there was a different poet named Yaakov Ben Meir who was in fact the author of our poem.

The Piyut has a very strict metrical structure with the second and fourth word of each line rhyming and each line ending  with the syllable “een.” Yiziv Pigam is chanted according to a unique ancient melody that can be found in Chanting The Hebrew Bible by Joshua Jacobson. Here is  a link to a quick recording of Yetziv Pitgam I made on my iPhone.

Not only is it an inspirational liturgical poem, but the placement of Yetziv Pitgam is reminiscent of the ancient practice of interleaving the chanting of the biblical text with the Aramaic Targum as mentioned above. In fact as Rabbi Richard Wolpe notes Yitziv Pitgam pays tribute to Jonathan son of Uzziel, the author of the Targum on the Prophets:

“…explicit in the passage “Yehonatan gvar invetan” [for Jonathan, meekest of all men] where the translator is mentioned by name. … Yetziv Pitgam is in the language of the Targum because it serves as a poetic segue into the Targum.”

On Shavuot, when we are so mindful of the place of the Biblical text in our lives, we remember that our great scholarly ancestors built a vernacular translation into the process of reading the Bible so all could clearly understand its Holy message. As we gather in synagogues on Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah, we are cognizant of the tradition that every Jewish Soul was present to receive the Torah personally. What a wonderful time to affirm this connection by learning to read the Torah according to the ancient art of cantillation or by embarking on a corse of Torah study!  Yetziv Pitgam reminds us in structure and in content that having a clear understanding of the language of the Torah enables us to comprehend the blueprint that provides the possibility of a close personal relationship with the God that loves us so much that He gave us our most precious possession, the Torah.

Hag Shavuot Sameiach 

Here is  link to the text in Hebrew and English

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a prayer- Geulah; The Prayer for Redemption

Bridging the recitation of the morning Shema and the Amidah, a series of 7-19 blessings that constitute the core of each formal service,  is the blessing of Geulah – redemption. So powerful is the link between these quintessential prayers that the first word of the Geulah Blessing, “Emet“;  “it is true” is appended to the last line of the Shema, “Adonai Eloheichem; The Lord is your God” resulting in the  phrase, “The Lord is your God, in truth.” This new combination serves as a powerful affirmation of the truth of the Shema and by extension, the Torah from which the Shema is drawn. Similarly, at the other end of this sturdy bridge, tradition has forbidden any interruption between the concluding formula of the Geulah Blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai,Ga’al Yisrael; Blessed are You  Adonai, the redeemer of Israel” and the opening blessing of the Amidah. This injunction is so strong that traditionally the prayer leader chants the concluding formula of Geulah in an undertone so as not to evoke a response of “Amen” from the congregation which may be perceived as an interruption.

Since part of our cultural DNA draws us to the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt as the  primary example of God’s saving power, it is natural for tradition to mandate the mention of this watershed moment in Jewish history in the context of any discussion of redemption. Our attention is drawn sharply to the redemptive power of the Almighty in this context by quoting from the Song of the Sea – an ode sung by the children of Israel as they miraculously crossed the Sea of Reads unscathed, while their Egyptian pursuers perished. “Mi Chamocha Ba Elim Adonai …. Who is like unto you amongst gods, Adonai?…”  Similarly, the Geulah prayer also refers to God’s sparing of the first born of Israel while the first born of Egypt was slain.

Interestingly, there are several elements of this prayer of redemption that are thematically connected to either the Shema at one end or the Amidah at the other end. Such connections serve to fortify the bridge between these two vital components of our service. Rabbi Reuven Hammer the outstanding commentator on our Siddur, notes some of these elements. Referring to God in the Geula Blessing as, Malkeinu, our King, for example, brings to mind the first paragraph of the Shema which is know as Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamim; acceptance of the Sovereignty of God. Similarly, by using the passage, “Ein Elohim Zulatecha; there is no god other than Our God,” a quotation form King David in the biblical book of 2nd Samuel, the author of our prayer suggests an overriding theme of the Shema; the Oneness of God.

On the other hand, the notion of giving us credit because of the Merit of our ancestors, the opening theme of the Amidah, is reflected by the prayer for redemption by reffering  to God  as “Goaleinu V’goel Avoteinu; our redeemer and redeemer of our ancestors.” This notion is also very strongly expressed  in the opening phrase of the concluding section of this prayer, “Ezrat avoteinu Ata Hu L’Olam;You are the eternal help of our ancestors – the the shield and savior to their children in every generation.”

Geula, the prayer for redemption invites each of us to re-live the exhilarating experience of our ancestors as they crossed the Red Sea. Rabbi Hammer cites a beautiful Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 22:3) which summarizes the power of the Geula Prayer – the Prayer for Redemption  which serves to transport the worshipper from the Faith Affirming Biblical passages of the Shema to the personal “face time with God” that is afforded by the Amidah.

“Because of their faith [i.e. the children of Israel] they were privileged to recite the Song[of the Sea] and the presence of God rested on them. Therefore one should join the prayer for redemption to the Amidah, just as they recited the Song immediately after the splitting of he Sea and their attainment of faith. And just as they thus purified their heats before reciting the Song, so must we purify our hearts before reciting the Amidah.”

In jewish Liturgy there is a principle that the M’ein or essence of the prayer must be reiterated at the conclusion of the prayer. This is accomplished in Geulah by the passage, Tzur Yisreal; Rock of Israel. The  Almighty God who’s private chamber we are about to enter is clearly identified to us: “Goaleinu, Adonai Tz’vaot Shemo…, Our Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is His Name, the Holy One of Israel.” We travel across this bridge, replete with a better understanding of the nature of this God for whom we yearn who “humbles the proud and raises the lowly, frees the captive and redeems the meek.” Imbued with the love and devotion we have drawn from the biblical passages of the Shema, fortified by the recollection of our eternal connection to God through our Ancestors and confident in God’s power of redemption, we are prepared to to pour out our hearts to our Creator through the words of the Amidah. Praised are You Adonai, Redeemer of the people Israel.

Here is  link to the prayer in Hebrew and in English.

Here is a link to a wonderful setting of Tzur Yisrael by the pioneering Jewish Rock Group, Safam.

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/141011/Share%20a%20Prayer/04%20Tsur%20Yisrael.mp3]

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at hazzan@e-hazzan.com or leave a comment below.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman