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Letter to a Pulpit Rabbi

July 20, 2014

From my e-archives:

Sir,

As you know, in the past I have suggested changing the order of certain features of the services on special occasions. For three years now, I have advocated that during the n’ila service on Yom Kippur, we remove the s’lihoth and piyutim from the reader’s repetition of the amida, and instead recite them after the repetition. This was in order to make it easier for the reader to finish the repetition before sunset and allow for the priestly blessing to be included. The current practice makes the repetition too long to complete on time, and then leaves us with the awkward and unnatural practice of having to fill the entire time between sunset and nightfall with the avinu malkeinu prayer, which certainly can not be stretched across eighteen minutes or so. It is a matter of historical fact that the forces that made the n’ila repetition so long, the gradual addition of s’lihoth and piyutim, happened in the Ashkenazic diaspora, where for centuries the priestly blessing was willfully omitted for reasons our current practice dismisses out of hand. (According to the Vilna Gaon, there can not be any “minhag,” no matter how ancient, that entirely precludes the performance of a mitzwa.) The conflict we face has been brought about by the restoration of the priestly blessing to its proper place in the prayers, and that is the reason I advocate the later additions being moved. (Update: see the language of Orah Hayim 723, which records the practice among those who never removed the priestly blessing from the repetition. they had multiple reasons not to let the repetition run past sunset.)

Yesterday, I suggested that the sunrise morning service on Pentecost be preceded by the reading of the scroll of Ruth. As the amida is timed to start with sunrise, adding the reading of Ruth places a further burden on the congregants who stayed awake all night if done as part of the morning service. I maintain that although the current practice happens to be that the scroll is read before the Torah portion, it was not always like that, and only became that way out of convenience. I then showed you that in Massecheth Sof’rim, the source for our practice of reading Ruth, which, by the way, is not recorded (nor advocated) by both Maimonides and the Beth Yosef, it says that the scroll was actually read in parts, the first half the one night and the second half the second night, indicating the practice began in the diaspora, where there are two days of Pentecost. It is also a matter of historical fact that the reading of Ruth took its familiar place in the prayers, on the second day before the Torah reading, in an era when most Jews did not stay up studying all of the first night, and absolutely no one stayed up the second night, and thus the reading of Ruth on the morning of the second day was not a burden.

When we try to declare that we will stick to certain practices, by definition we have to consider that changing circumstances demand that we allow others to fall into disuse. Thus, if you want to now have the congregation pray after not sleeping all night, some other practice is going to have to give way. It should not bother us if the halachic powers that be decide that because we have relatively recently taken on the practice of staying awake all of the night of Shavuoth, we can shift the reading of Ruth to a point of the festival that is more convenient, perhaps as part of the overnight study, as is done in many communities.

I saw the source sheet you prepared for your class on the legal force of minhagim, Jewish practices. I would fully agree with those sources, and like you feel that we must stick to our traditions. However, and this is the key to allowing for the the changes I am proposing, not every innocuous practice that has made its way into the printed prayerbooks or rigid synagogue services falls into the exact halachic category of what our sages termed as minhag. This is a matter of tradition that I have received from many great authorities whom you respect, foremost among them Rabbi Soloveichik and Rabbi Rabinovich, senior. I understand that as the rabbi, you have to take a stand for the status quo, and initiating any change seems like the beginning of a slippery slope. I believe, however, that it is important for men in your position to take stands on these issues, as the most important part of the status quo is not our stubborn clinging to liturgy as recorded in the current siddur, which itself differs from its predecessors, but rather by stubbornly accepting and obeying rabbinic authority to make these changes when necessary. Indeed, sometimes it is the rabbi’s responsibility to adjust the order of the services or their timing as the situations demand. For example, it is not unheard of that one pulpit rabbi determines that the Sabbath Eve afternoon services be held long before sundown, whereas his successor might determine that those same services should be held later. Each practice has its advantages and disadvantages; it is up to the rabbi at the time to determine what better suits the ever-changing congregation. What matters most is that the rabbi holds the authority and the congregation acts on his ruling.

Thank you for your consideration.

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From → halacha

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