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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The nusach challenge

Going to synagogue daily and repeating basically the same prayers day after day is one of the major challenges of the kaddish year. Boredom or disengagement can set in.

True, the prayers are not exactly the same every day, but the variations are minor. The length of the tachanun (supplication) is longer on Mondays and Thursdays than other weekdays, and sometimes it is omitted altogether. Sabbath and Yom Tov (holiday) prayers are different than weekday ones. Certain phrases to and emendations of the Amidah (standing prayer) appear between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  However, in a general sense, the form and substance of the liturgy is a constant. Moreover, since saying kaddish compels the mourner to attend synagogue daily, you end up spending a lot of time--over an hour a day--engaging with these prayers. Saying kaddish makes up only a small portion of your time in shul (synagogue).

How then to keep the experience of prayer fresh, to make saying them meaningful? As the Mishna in Perkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), in the name of Rabbi Shimon, states, "don't make your prayer a fixed activity, but rather an appeal for mercy and beseeching God (אל תעש תפילתך קבע, אלה רחמים ותחנונים לפני המקום (2:18, see also Talmud Brachot 28b-29b).

A female friend of mine who recently finished saying kaddish for her father devised a solution that worked for her. She was more focused on saying kaddish than on engaging with the prayers. Since she wasn't being called upon to lead prayers, she could create her own environment in which to say kaddish. She did this by putting on headphones, listening to inspirational music and doing breathing exercises while waiting for the kaddishes.

I couldn't do this since, as a male, I was frequently called upon to lead services, and my general stance was to accept the responsibility to do so when asked. What I decided to do was to channel my energies toward greater engagement with the prayers, to deepen my connection with them while using the opportunity to learn new synagogue skills. The goal was to sharpen my consciousness and attentiveness in shul, thereby reducing, to the extent possible, the feeling of being on auto-pilot.

I attempted to achieve this goal in two ways: 1) to relearn how I pronounce the prayers and, 2) to learn to pray comfortably in different nusachim (forms of prayer). I termed these experiences learning to "switch hit" (a baseball metaphor that refers to a batter being capable of batting either right-handed or left-handed). Let me explain.

I learned to read and pronounce Hebrew at Ramaz, a modern Orthodox and Zionist-oriented day school in New York, which I attended through fourth grade. After we moved to California, I went to a Hebrew School affiliated with the Conservative Movement. In both settings, I was taught to pronounce Hebrew as it spoken in Israel, the so-called Sephardi pronunciation. Sephardi pronunciation differs from the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which is why one can hear Hebrew pronounced differently depending on the shul one attends and who is davening (leading prayers). The Sephardi method originated with the Jewish communities of the Middle East who trace their origins to the Spanish exile; Ashkenazi refers to those descended from Central and Eastern European Jewry.

There are three main differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi pronunciation. One is that Ashkenazi Jews pronounce the vowel "Qametz gadol," when stressed, as "oh" or "uh," resulting in, for example, the name David being pronounced either as Dovid or Duvid. Another difference lies in which syllable gets stressed; in Ashkenazi pronunciation, the penultimate syllable is generally stressed whereas in Sephardi Hebrew it is the ultimate syllable (compare kíddish vs. kiddúsh). A further difference is how the letter ת is pronounced. In Ashkenazi, the letter has an "s" sound, and is referred to as a sof, unless the letter has a dagesh (dot), in which case the letter is a tof and is pronounced as a "t." In Sephardi Hebrew, the ת is always pronounced as "t" regardless of whether or not the letter takes a dagesh. (Compare Shabbos vs. Shabbat or the word את being pronounced "es" vs. "et".)

Not only was I brought up to read Hebrew in the Sephardi manner, but also to believe that this method of pronunciation was superior to Ashkenazi Hebrew. Even more, I was inculcated to believe that Ashkenazi pronunciation had a negative association, as a relic of exile, redolent of Yiddish and the Eastern European Jewish culture that was essentially destroyed during the Holocaust. I inherited the belief that Sephardi pronunciation represented the new and more relevant Hebrew, since it is used in Israel, which symbolizes the Zionist ideas of self-reliance, statehood and return from exile. The early Zionists, who were by and large Ashkenazi Jews, most likely adopted the Sephardi pronunciation precisely to create a sense of rupture between themselves and their own Eastern European heritage. Their disassociation from the European diaspora became embedded in their very manner of speech.

Many religious non-Zionists, including Chassidic sects and Charedim (so-called Ultra Orthodox Jews), use Ashkenazi Hebrew, even in Israel. They do so because it is part of their heritage, but also, perhaps, to define themselves as indifferent to Jewish nationalism.

There are, however, many Jews, especially in the New York area, that identify themselves as Zionists but pray using Ashkenazi pronunciation. I used to attend a synagogue in Manhattan that celebrated, as the rabbi would say it, Yom Ha'atzmaus, that is, Israel independence day as pronounced in Ashkenazi. In addition, using Ashkenazi pronunciation does not necessarily imply a negative attitude toward the Jewish State; there are many Zionists whose Hebrew simply reflects how their parents pronounced the language and how they learned Hebrew in Jewish day school.

There are different theories about how the two pronunciation methods developed, but the argument that Sephardi is truer to how Hebrew is "supposed" to be spoken is not well-founded. If anything, Ashkenazi pronunciation, at least insofar as it preserves distinctions between different vowel sounds and the presence or absence of a dagesh in the Tof, is more complex than the Sephardi system. (Some argue that Yemenite pronunciation is the most accurate since it is the only Hebrew that distinguishes all ten consonants.)

I happen to pray in synagogues where one commonly hears both types of pronunciation. My father, z'l, was raised in a traditional Yiddish speaking family, and so originally learned to pray in Ashkenazi. In his teens, he joined B'nei Akiva, the Orthodox Zionist youth organization, that emphasized using the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew as spoken in Israel. I noticed that when he would recite kiddush or other prayers, he would switch, I believe unconsciously, between Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciation, as if he had never quite worked out the inconsistencies between the two. (Since I've begun paying attention to this, I've noticed others who pronunciation is similarly inconsistent.)

To honor my father as well as my Eastern European heritage, and to strengthen my focus on the prayers, I decided to learn how to pray in the Ashkenazi style, insofar as it distinguishes between the letterת   with and without a dagesh. This forced me to return to the siddur (prayer book) to read anew the prayers that I otherwise knew by heart in order to make the necessary adjustments in pronunciation. Fifteen of the 19 blessings that make up the Amidah--all but blessings numbers 3, 6, 7 and 11--have at least one instance of a Sof, i.e., a ת without a dagesh.

At first, I made the adjustments only in my private prayer. Sometimes I would say the entire prayer to myself using Ashkenazi pronunciation; other times I would switch off between Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciation each paragraph or every two, three or four paragraphs. In the process, I learned the some general grammatical rules about when the Tof/Sof takes a dagesh and when it doesn't. I also had to accept that some words that I was very familiar with, such as the word Torah (תורה), usually does not take a dagesh; for example, in blessing number five, neither ת in the word לתורתך has a dagesh and so is pronounced "l'sorasecha." I had to be especially careful about the word את, which appears eight times in the Amidah, and is always pronounced "es."

Once I felt comfortable enough with my Ashkenazi Hebrew, I tried out leading the evening Ma'ariv service using this pronunciation; it's the easiest service to lead, as it does not include a repetition of the Amidah. After I felt comfortable with Ma'ariv, I tried my hand at the afternoon Mincha service. After a few more weeks, I felt comfortable enough with my Ashkenazi pronunciation to lead the entire morning Shacharit service. Sometimes I would accidentally slip up and pronounce a sof in my accustomed Sephardi Hebrew. Even if I "erred," I would just continue with the Ashkenazi pronunciation. I would decide just before approaching the bima (prayer stand) if I would go with Sephardi or Ashkenazi pronunciation. If I felt tired, I would use my default Sephardi method. No one ever mentioned to me about why I davened sometimes in Ashkenazi and sometimes in Sephardi, which probably says as much about my ability to daven fluently in each system as it does peoples' limited attention to such details while in shul.

As to kaddish, I found it easy to learn to say it using Ashkenazi pronunciation since I have heard it recited that way so many times. It is noteworthy that, at least in the beginning of the kaddish, many of the words have a ת as their second letter (or third if the word is preceded by a ו (vov)), and so the prayer sounds much different depending on how the words are pronounced:

                                                                       . . .יתגדל, ויתקדש
 . . .יתברך, וישתבח ויתפאר ויתרומם ויתנשא ויתהדר ויתעלה ויתהלל

Yisgadal, v'iskadash . . . vs. Yitgadal, v'itkadash . . .

I would choose to pronounce the kaddish depending on how other kaddish-sayers were pronouncing the words. If I knew all or most were using the Ashkenazi pronunciation, I would use that as well, and visa versa.

My second liturgical challenge during this kaddish year was to learn to daven comfortably in Nusach Sephard.

The idea of nusach refers generally to the liturgical traditions of specific communities. More specifically, it refers to the structure of the prayer service as well as the content of the prayers. While the general structure is the same regardless of nusach (e.g., for shacharit: P'sukei D'zimrah, Kriyat Shma, Amidah, Tachanun, Aleynu), there are distinct differences between various nusachim, including the addition of certain phrases, the point at which the Torah is returned to the ark, when the Cohanim (priests) bless the congregation (duchaning), as well as the wording of the Amidah.

There are three main nusachim used in traditional synagogues: Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sephard and Nusach Edot Ha'mizrach. The latter is used by Jews from the Middle East who trace their roots back to the Spanish expulsion. Nusach Ashkenaz is used by Jews of central and eastern European origin, and may date back to Palestinian Jewish communities in the pre-geonic period (before the year 609 A.D.). Nusach Sephard was adopted by Chassidic sects in Eastern Europe in the 1700s and incorporates elements of Nusach Edot Ha'mizrach. The Chassidim felt that the Sephardic liturgy, used by the Jews of Safed in the 1500s, when kabbala (Jewish mysticism) was being developed by Isaac Luria, was superior to Nusach Ashkenaz. (There are some differences between the version of Nusach Sephard used by different Chassidic groups; the Chabad version is referred to as Nusach Ha'ari, Ha'ari being another appellation of Isaac Luria.) This change in nusach was one of many complaints against the Chassidim of the mitnagdim (opponents of Chassidism).

The Amidah consists of 19 blessings; its general structure, as well as the theme of each blessing, is the same in all nusachim. Yet there are some distinct linguistic differences. For example, in blessing number four, we thank God, in Nusach Ashkenaz, for granting us דעה בינה והשכל (knowledge, insight and discernment) as opposed to חכמה בינה ודעת (wisdom, insight and knowledge) in Nusach Sephard. There is at least one word variation between Nusach Ashkenaz and Nusach Sephard in 13 of the 19 blessings (blessings 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19). 

In the diaspora, some non-Chassidic Ashkenazi synagogues have adopted Nusach Sephard. In Israel, Nusach Sephard is the dominant form of prayer in Ashkenazi shuls. Just as the founders of the Jewish yeshuv in Palestine--the community that would develop into the Jewish state--instituted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew, the yeshuv's religious leaders decided that the main nusach should be Nusach Sephard. One reason for the adoption of Nusach Sephard "was that Eretz Yisrael was regarded as part of the Sephardic world, so that it was felt that new immigrants should adapt to the local rite." It is equally as likely that the adoption of Nusach Sephard was another instance of the settlers' desire to distance themselves from traditions associated with their European heritage.

I spent ten days in Israel last summer while saying kaddish for my father. At one shul where I prayed, the Gabbai (prayer leader) noticed me saying kaddish and asked me whether I wanted to lead prayers. He told me I could choose to lead prayers in either Nusach Sephard or Nusach Ashkenaz; it is common in shuls in Israel that either nusach can be used by the prayer leader. However, the large print siddur on the bima was Nusach Sephard, indicating that this nusach was the preferred one. So I decided I would lead services in that nusach even though it was less familiar to me. I took it as a challenge and a learning opportunity, one that would allow me to grow spiritually by forcing me to slow down and focus on the words of the prayers instead of simply having them flow from my mouth as usual.

After I returned from Israel, I has occasion to daven Mincha at a Chabad in Manhattan. I raised my hand when the Gabbai asked if anyone had a chiuv (obligation) to lead prayers. Chabad, I knew, uses Nusach Ha'ari, which, as noted, is based on Nusach Sephard. Chabad also used the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation. And so I davened in the less familiar nusach using my newly learned Ashkenazi Hebrew. (To extend the baseball metaphor, batting left handed against a left handed picher.) I prayed slowly, purposefully and accurately. When someone shook my hand afterwards, I felt not only a sense of pride, but that I had brought honor to my father's memory.

I now know how to pray four different ways: Nusach Ashkenaz using Sephardi pronunciation, Nusach Ashkenaz using Ashkenazi pronunciation, Nusach Sephard using Sephardi pronunciation and Nusach Sephard using Ashkenazi pronunciation.

While the general rule is that one should preferably pray in one's familiar nusach, dealing with unfamiliarity presents an opportunity to go beyond one's comfort zone. When you say kaddish for a year, you are bound to pray in synagogues that have customs different than the ones to which you are accustomed. I am still trying to make peace with being an orphan, with having lost both of my parents. But, in some small but significant way, having become more capable of praying in different types of synagogues has itself provided me with a lasting source of comfort.