Intention & Liturgical Change

Liturgy, Tradition, and Change

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Text Box:  Farrisol siddur, Italy 1471 This unusual version of the Birkhot Hashahar appears in a prayerbook for women. The male language of the three gendered berakhot is changed into the feminine. This is controversial even today.
PHOTO: Suzanne Kaufman, from the collection of the JTS library

The Tosefta, a legal compendium organized like the Mishnah (the first document of rabbinic literature) and roughly contemporaneous with it (early third century), describes how different communities had different numbers of berakhot in their weekday Amidah: the preferred option was eighteen, but some communities were known to have nineteen, twenty and even twenty-one. The Tosefta concludes that any of these are appropriate, as long as the thematic content of the Amidah is not violated.

Sometimes liturgy changes for political reasons. Birkat Haminim, the twelfth berakhah of the Amidah, asking that our enemies be destroyed, owes its initial incorporation into the Amidah to efforts to denounce certain Jewish sectarians. Though it has been amended over time due both to changes in our definition of an enemy and to censorship, all of the changes preserved its theme as well as the berakhah structure and concluding formula.

Even the adaptations made out of theological conviction by Reform and Conservative Jewry generally retain the berakhah series pattern with formulae and themes intact. For example, the fourth berakhah of the Shabbat Musaf Amidah, dealing with the sacrificial cult, has shifted in Conservative Judaism from

ושם נעשה לפניך את קרבנות חובותינו....נעשה ונקריב

(There we will prepare in thy honor our obligatory offerings 'we will prepare and present') (Birnbaum siddur, 395-396) to

ששם עשו אבותינו לפניך את קרבנות חובותיהם...עשו והקריבו

(There our ancestors sacrificed to You with their daily offerings... they offered...) (Siddur Sim Shalom, 434-435). Note the shift from "we" and "our" in the first example to "our ancestors" and "their/they" in the second. These small changes in wording avoid the theological stumbling block of an overt wish for restoration of the sacrificial cult while retaining the theme and structure.

When discussing alternative language for berakhot, we must consider that berakhot have always drawn their language from the Bible. All of the standard wording of the first berakhah of the Amidah, for example, can be traced to similar phraseology in the Bible. The liturgical composer might alter the tense of a verb, or cast singular language into plural, or place phrases drawn from two different verses alongside each other, but beyond that the writer rarely would roam, no doubt in an effort to lend the liturgical compositions an ecclesiastical seal of approval. Even the composers of piyyutim largely limited themselves to phraseology and imagery drawn from the Bible; their innovation was to draw upon language from rabbinic literature, known as oral Torah, thereby maintaining the biblical connection.

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Dr. Debra R. Blank

Dr. Debra R. Blank teaches liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was ordained in 1984.