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The Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Services According to the Vilna Gaon

September 22, 2014

Question: Why is it that standard mahzorim are so long?

Answer: Additional material composed al pi kabbala, and a cornucopia of classical piyutim. As with any non-hazal instituted practices, they can range from meritorious and desirable to strictly forbidden according to the classical understandings of hazal, and they are never, by definition, obligatory.

Question: How can a universally practiced minhag not be obligatory?

Answer: 1. Just because a practice is widely practiced, even by everyone, it does not fall into the category that hazal meant when they said minhag yisrael din hu, and 2. there need to be practices that are elective in order to allow worthy individuals to practice them as per true middath hasiduth and as did the Vilna Gaon himself. If everything is obligatory, there is no room for some to develop virtue by choosing to do more. This was once obvious, but no longer, especially in certain communities where the highest standards are considered the obligatory minimum.

Question: Why follow the Vilna Gaon, specifically?

Answer: It is not because the Vilna Gaon is always right. He happened to be right the majority of the time, and even Maimonides was not always right. But, like Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon believed in determining the exact letter of the halachic law according to the primary sources, and thus, his rulings would often revert to the understandings once voiced by Maimonides and others but eventually rejected in later years, for whatever reasons. Consider this: If one were to study Maimonidean or Vilnian halacha, he would come to see how each and every ruling fits with the Talmud. However, if one were to study, for example, the Rema’s glosses to the Shulhan Aruch, it would be an exercise in determining and explaining why individual rulings veer from those that seemingly emerge from the Talmud. Therefore, if one were seeking to approach any matter of practical halacha from a critical point of view, that is study halacha as a form of interpretation of the Talmud, he would do best to follow the Vilna Gaon’s methods. The result is usually an intellectually satisfying and honest understanding of the halacha.

Now to business.

The Days leading up to Rosh Hashana

1. When to start saying S’lihoth: The Vilna Gaon Acknowledges the differing customs, and seems to endorse the classic Ashkenazic practice of starting the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana if there are at least four intervening days.

2. Nullification of Vows: The recitation of Kol Nidrei is an ancient practice, but was more linked to the kind of sacred vows that were common in Temple times. The practice of everyone also nullifying their vows the last day of the year just to play it safe is much later, and unnecessary.

The Evening Service

3. Oseh hashalom as the conclusion of the last blessing of the amida instead of the standard ham’varech eth ammo yisrael bashalom: Although the Vilna Gaon opposed this change, it was because he was of the understanding that it was just that – a change in the sages-ordained text, which was not proper. However, later scholars have found more and more evidence (in g’nizoth and recovered manuscripts) that the ancient Israeli and prototypical Ashkenazi rites did use this formula every day, and thus this practice may even date to the times of the last Sanhedrins in Israel. If he were around today, The Vilna Gaon would accept this change to the text of the prayers, just like he accepts the change to the third blessing, hamelech haqadosh from ha’el haqadosh.

4. S’lihoth the night of Yom Kippur: The following (Laws of Prayer, 5:14) has significant bearing on many of the practices the Vilna Gaon opposed on Rosh Hashana. In it, Maimonides discusses the tahanunim, the supplications added after the amida prayers during the weekdays.

When uttering the supplication after the amida, there are those who bow and there are those who prostrate themselves. It is forbidden to prostrate oneself on stones except in the Holy Temple, as we have explained in the Laws of Idolatry. An important person is not permitted to fall on his face unless he is certain that he is as righteous as Joshua. Rather, he should tilt his face slightly, but not press it to the ground. One may pray in one place and offer this supplication in another. It is an accepted custom among the entire Jewish people not to utter the supplication on Sabbaths or festivals. Nor [does one utter it] on Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hodesh, Hanukka, or Purim, or in the afternoon prayer on the eve of Sabbaths or holidays, nor in the Evening Prayer of any day. There are [however,] individuals who do utter the supplication in the Evening Prayer. On Yom Kippur only, one utters the supplication prayer in every prayer, since it is a day of supplication, requests, and fasting.

Therefore, it is entirely fitting with nature of Yom Kippur that supplications be added to the prayers, despite the fact that Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov and often also the Sabbath.

More on this later.

(Even as late as Maimonides’s days, the practice was literally to fall on one’s face when supplicating. It is strange that this practice is now almost never done by any Sephardim, and that the Ashkenazim only lean on their arms supported by a table or lectern, or whatever is nearby, while sitting.)

5. The recitation of Psalm 24 after the evening service, and the recitation of Psalm 27 both in the mornings and evenings from Elul until Sh’mini Atzereth: Both are disapproved of. See Maaseh Rav 43 and 66. This rule, first espoused by Maimonides, makes very much sense if the starting point is that the prayers should be limited to that which the sages ordained. Additions like these are 1. a burden on the community and 2. foster the mistaken, possibly idolatrous belief that the recitation of certain biblical sections have “the power” to influence God and His world. Psalm 24, specifically, was introduced as an introduction to the prayer for livelihood that is printed immediately after it in the mahzorim, and it goes without saying that that prayer is also inappropriate for sabbaths and holidays. See here for more concerning Psalm 27.

6. Sheheheyanu is recited at qiddush of the second night, even if the one reciting qiddush has no new fruit or clothing. The Masaseh Rav brings the story of how someone brought the Vilna Gaon a new fruit the afternoon of the first day so that the Vilna Gaon could recite the sheheheyanu blessing on the second night according to all opinions, and the Gaon instead recited the blessing and ate it right away.

The Morning Service and Musaf

7. Public Prayer and the first Qaddish: According to Maimonides, the public prayer service every morning begins after individuals have recited their morning blessings and the p’suqei d’zimra (ibid., 9:1):

The order of prayer is as follows: In the morning, [while] all the people are sitting, the leader of the congregation descends before the ark in the midst of the people and recites the qaddish. Everyone responds with all their strength: “Amen. Y’hei sh’meih rabba m’varach l’alam ul’al’mei al’maya.” They answer “Amen” at the end of the qaddish. Afterwards, [the leader] declares: “Bar’chu eth Adho-nai hamvorach,” and they answer, “Baruch Adho-nai hamvorach l’olam wa’edh.” He then begins by reciting the Sh’ma and its blessings out loud. They answer “Amen” after each blessing.

The Vilna Gaon agrees to this halacha. The consequences are that the order of the recitation (really should be “study”) of the sacrifices that traditionally precedes the p’suqei d’zimra is 1. not necessary and 2. does not deserve the recitation of the qaddish printed after it unless there was actually a quorum of ten Jewish men (a minyan) that actually studied those laws together. As for the recitation of Psalm 29 every morning before p’suqei d’zimra, the practice was only created centuries after Maimonides died, and the Vilna Gaon, who lived when the practice was new among his community, opposed the practice. (Psalm 29, however, is to be recited as the Song of the Day during Hanukka.) Both also opposed the addition of an unnecessary qaddish to be recited after it.

As for the rest of p’suqei d’zimra, there can be a leader to make sure the congregation is up to speed, but on Sabbaths and Yamim Tovim, it’s really every man for himself until the leader stands to complete his recitation of Yishtabbah or right before it (Maaseh Rav 126).

The practice of reciting Psalm 130 between Yishtabbah and the qaddish was also a much later addition that was rejected by the Vilna Gaon, and unlike in the diaspora, is usually omitted by Israeli congregations.

8. Piyyutim (Poems). See here for some wonderful essays on the topic. (Incidentally, Rabbi Krumbein’s description of the Vilna Gaon’s methods is the same as Rabbi Bar Hayim’s “Torath Eretz Yisrael.”)  The Vilna Gaon believed that it is proper to sing on Holidays, especially when the Torah was brought out from the Ark and during the final qaddishim. However, he did not require the recitation of all the piyyutim as they appear in the mahzor, and he also believed that some were out of place, for example, like those in the middle of the q’dusha. Most mahzorim do not have those anyways. Which piyutim to recite and when needs to be determined based on a number factors, including time constraints, the congregation’s patience, and the quality of the cantor. Piyutim lose most of their transcendental beauty if they are not sung properly, and the specific piyutim recited can vary from year to year. 

9. Baruch hu u’varuch shmo between blessings. The Vilna Gaon was opposed to this practice. The official reason is given in Maaseh Rav and other books, but as Rabbi Maimon points out in his MHK commentary to the Maaseh Rav, there were other reasons. See Aroch Hashulhan, where he shows that this practice originally attributed to the Rosh is not in accord with the basic understanding of the source Gemara which was discussing the proper response to hearing the actual Ineffable Name pronounced in the Temple, and that it creates other halachic difficulties and inconsistencies as practiced.

10. Other additions to the amida during the Ten Days of Repentance, e.g., zochreinu l’hayim and uchthov l’hayim. The Vilna Gaon includes them, but notes that the proper practice during the leader’s repetition is for him to read them as he would the rest of the prayer, without the congregation interrupting him to say them out loud.

11. The priestly blessing should be said during the repetition of any morning and musaf service, and any n’ila service or minha service on a fast day that is late enough in the day, as per the ruling of Maimonides. This is standard practice among non-Ashkenazim worldwide and among Ashkenazim in Israel. Many have tried to reinstate the practice in Ashkenazi diaspora communities, and failed. There are a few stories out there about how the rabbis of Danzig and Vilna and elsewhere interpreted contemporaneous tragedies to be signs that Heaven did not approve of their reinstatement. However, the case needs to be reopened, especially in places like New York City, where there are numerous examples of synagogues that do allow the priests to intone the blessing on a daily basis, and no harm comes to them, while their Ashkenazi counterparts across the street are still fearful of following suit. I have seen such in four out of five boroughs.

12. Avinu Malkeinu: See the first halacha above. Also (Laws of the Sabbath, 30:12):

It is forbidden to fast, to cry out [to God], to offer supplication, or to entreat [His] mercy on the Sabbath. Even when [a community is beset] by a distressing circumstance that would ordinarily require the community to fast and sound the trumpets, we do not fast or sound the trumpets on the Sabbath or holidays. [There are, however, exceptions. They include] a city surrounded by gentiles or a [flooding] river, and a ship sinking at sea. We may sound the trumpets on the Sabbath to summon help for them, offer supplications on their behalf, and ask for mercy for them.

Rabbi Kappah’s commentary to this law includes a responsum of Maimonides wherein he elaborated on this position. He mentioned that the prohibition applies equally to any Yom Tov, and for centuries subsequent scholars applied it to Rosh Hashana as well. After all, why would Rosh Hashana be different from the others? As a matter of fact, the biblical source for this rule, (Nehemiah 8:9-10)

And Nehemiah, who was the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people: ‘This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep.’ For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said unto them: ‘Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’

is specifically describing Rosh Hashana. That is, we learn that it is inappropriate to recite Tahanunim on Yamim Tovim and Sabbaths because it is explicitly inappropriate on Rosh Hashana.

Surprisingly, the Vilna Gaon believes that on Rosh Hashana, Avinu Malkeinu should not be recited at all, whereas it should be recited on Yom Kippur even if it is the Sabbath. This is in contradiction to the standard practice, which mandates the saying of Avinu Malkeinu on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but on neither if on the Sabbath. That means that in years like this one, Avinu Malkeinu should not be recited on Rosh Hashana, although most congregations will say it, but it should be said on Yom Kippur, even though most congregations will omit it.

13. Additional prayers upon removing the Torah from the Ark: These prayers also fall into the category of tahanunim, and therefore are just as inappropriate on Yom Tov as they are on the Sabbath. They are omitted on Rosh Hashana, but may be included on Yom Kippur, even if on the Sabbath.

14. Lifting and displaying the Torah before the reading: The ancient Biblical source (Nehemiah 8:5) cited above in 9 is and the talmudic source (Massecheth Sof’rim) both indicate this, and thus is the practice among most non-Ashkenazi communities. The general Ashkenazi practice requires justification.

15. The Order of Sounding the Shofar: Like the performance of all commandments from time immemorial, the blessing should be pronounced and the commandment performed. The addition of various prayers, like hin’ni muchan um’zuman and l’shem yihud, and the recitation of various verses should not be done. All of these practices were introduced in the later centuries by various mystics; at the time, the mainstream rabbinic leaders, including the Vilna Gaon, opposed these additions. Traditional Ashkenazi practice did not include them, but later prayer-book printers decided to include them. Fortunately, most are still ignored today except for two instances: the additions to the services before counting the omer and blowing the shofar. Both are problematic and probably only caught on because of their involvement with music. The prayers before the omer have  a catchy tune, and the prayers before the shofar blowing were adopted by the hazzanim to add to their performances. (The old time hazzanim were probably the most responsible for the accretion of so many piyutim to the high holiday services.) Years ago, Rabbi Noach I. Oelbaum, who is as hasidic as they come, showed us how the Artscroll Mahzor, on the bottom of page 436, includes a prayer that mentions two of the ministering angels, Elijah the prophet, and one “Yeshua, the Minister of the Interior,” a reference to the Hebrew form of, you guessed it, Jebus! Somehow, Christian doctrine made it into the mahzor, and there really are some sections that should just not be there.

16. The leader’s prayer before Musaf: No other service is preceded by a personal prayer offered by the leader, so why should the musaf service be any different from the others? Further, the prayer as printed has many problematic lines, especially at the end. The likely reason for this section’s persistence is the fact that in the olden days, the hazzan’s recitation of this prayer was done very ceremoniously, as he made his way from the entrance to lectern. According to the Vilna Gaon, this prayer should never have made its way into the mahzor.

17. As per the classic understanding of the Talmud, the shofar is not sounded during the silent amida of musaf.

18. Prostration during Aleinu and the reenactment of the Yom Kippur Temple service: The Vilna Gaon was opposed to any forms of bowing during the amida and repetition that were not mandated by hazal, i.e., anything but the beginning and end of the first (avoth) and second to last (modim) blessings. This would mean that during the High Holiday musaf services, neither the leader nor the congregation should prostrate themselves, let alone on the floor. Concerning the law above as codified by Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon would allow for additional prostration if it were performed as part of the s’lihoth and other supplications, which could technically be included in the leader’s repetition. However, and this a sad irony concerning the reality of the modern day service, most of the additions to the services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are in the piyutim of praise. Aside from the introductions to the confessions and the Avinu Malkeinu prayers, there is very little additional supplication included in the standard Yom Kippur mahzorim. Note how your Kol Bo, Birnbaum, and Artscroll mahzorim only feature s’lihoth as part of the evening and n’ila services.

19. How to sound the shofar after Malchuyoth, Zichronoth, and ShofarothMaimonides and the Shulhan Aruch rule that TSRT is blown for malchuyoth, TST for zichronoth, and TRT for shofaroth. Ashk’nazic authorities from Rabbeinu Tam until the Chofetz Chayim pointed out that it makes more sense to blow TSRT for all three, as we really hold that that set can satisfy all three opinions as to what the proper form of the biblical t’ru’a truly is. Either Sh’varim/T’ru’a is correct, or, if only one of the components is correct, the other component does not count, neither as a blast nor as an interruption between that blast and the surrounding t’qi’oth. The logic behind the former opinion is simpler (MT Laws of the Shofar 3:12):

It is logical that each series of shofar blasts should be sounded three times for every blessing, as [the shofar] was sounded while [the congregation] was seated. However, since they satisfied every possible doubt [by hearing] the shofar while seated, there is no need for the congregation to repeat them in their entirety during the order of blessings. Rather, it is sufficient for them to hear one series for each blessing, and they will thus have heard the shofar during the order of blessings.

The Vilna Gaon explicitly endorsed Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion. Many of the mahzorim have the practice Maimonides just rejected, to blow TRST, TST, and TST sets for all three blessings, because they are also trying to satisfy the opinion of the Sh’la, who believed the blasts should eventually total 100. See 21, below, for more consequences of this conflict.

20. A breath in the middle of Sh’varim/T’ru’a? The combined sound of crying and sobbing is, if actually intoned by a person, interrupted with a slight breath, and therefore, it is no issue to take a slight breath when sounding the Shvarim/T’ru’a. This is the opinion of  Rabbeinu Tam and the Smag, among others, and the Maggid Mishneh claims that it is also Maimonides’s opinion, being that he counts TSRT as four blasts. Others, like Nahmanides, believe that because Sh’varim/T’ru’a is meant to be a unique sound unto itself, it should be sounded in one breath. The Shulhan Aruch says that a God fearing individual should satisfy both opinions, and blow the the first thirty blasts without a breath between sh’varim and t’ru’a, while breathing between the two when sounding the shofar during the leader’s repetition, while the Rema says that the Ashk’nazic practice is to always breathe between sh’varim and t’ru’a, regardless of when. The Vilna Gaon points that in Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion, it is actually forbidden to blow Sh’varim/T’ru’a in one breath, and because we follow Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion concerning how to blow Sh’varim/T’ru’a during the repetition, we must, at that time, allow a breath between the two sounds! That is, we follow the Shulhan Aruch’s opinion in this regard, while the Rema’s opinion is tenable.

21. Prayers after Malchuyoth, Zichronoth, and Shofaroth: The standard mahzorim note that the second prayer after each section, aresheth s’fatheinu, is not said on the Sabbath, and this is due to its supplicatory nature. As we noted above, the Vilna Gaon was of the opinion that if a supplication is inappropriate for the Sabbath, then it is just as inappropriate for Yom Tov. Thus, aresheth s’fatheinu would never be part of the Vilna Gaon’s musaf. However, he does agree that hayom harath ‘olam is always said. 

22. The text of the avoda blessing: At the time, the Vilna Gaon believed that the traditional Ashkenazi practice of ending the third to last blessing of the reader’s repetition of musaf of Yom Tov with the words “she’oth’cha l’vadd’cha b’yira naavod” was improper, and that the usual words, “hamahazir sh’chinatho” etc., should remain. Based on what I wrote above concerning the change to the last blessing of the amida, I would argue that in light of newer evidence (actually older, just new to us) the Vilna Gaon would agree to the change. 

There is a third example of this phenomenon that is no longer so common. In the ashkenazic liturgy, the ending of the last blessing of the sh’ma ends with tzur yisrael w’go’alo instead of ga’al yisrael when yotz’roth were recited on the special sabbaths of Adar. In his day, the Gaon opposed this change, but it turns out the old proto-ashkenazi practice was to use this formula everyday, and once again, the practice was saved for special occasions. Perhaps the Vilna Gaon, would have accepted the evidence that has come to light and would now endorse the practice.

23. One hundred blasts: The custom is seemingly harmless, and in its original form appears in the Aruch, who mentioned that part of the hundred comes from the blasts sounded in the silent amida. (See 14, above.) The Aruch’s opinion was not the standard practice for most of history, and in places where the shofar was not sounded during the silent amida, the practice to make up the the hundred blasts was re-introduced by the Sh’la in the 17th century. The Vilna Gaon never accepted this practice, and on the contrary, according to his complete understanding of the service, the congregation would have to hear 58 blasts after the leader’s repetition in order to get to one hundred. How so? The congregation only hears a total of 42 blasts the entire time, 30 before musaf, and 12 (3 x TSRT) during the repetition. The Rema, for example, says that there is a practice to add 30 blasts after the service, but even according to his opinion, the total is only 72, 28 less than the hundred described by the Sh’la. The idea that there should be 100 blasts total is one that only caught on recently, but was already implicitly rejected by the Rema and the Vilna Gaon and others. Further, they both rule that the shofar should not be sounded unnecessarily after the prayers. In our minyan, the additional blasts double as the initial 30 blasts for those women and late comers who also wish to hear the shofar sounded.

The afternoon of Rosh Hashana and Minha

24. The Vilna Gaon was opposed to the recitation of Tashlich. See here

25. Qiddush L’vana as soon as possible. See here. The Vilna Gaon would thus prefer that Jewish people spend the late afternoons of Rosh Hashana trying to spot the new moon, instead of trying to appease the Devil.

26. A Third Yom Tov Meal? The Rif and Maimonides make it very clear that on Yamim Tovim, including Rosh Hashana and Fridays, one should eat three official meals, just like he would on the Sabbaths. The Rosh disagrees. It is unclear as to why the Shulhan Aruch therefore rules like the Rosh, being that one of his rules is to side with the best two out of three in a dispute between the aforementioned authorities. Perhaps it is due to the kabbalistic streams that came to consider Torah study as a sufficient replacement for an actual third meal that pushed the scales in the Rosh’s favor. However, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary to Orah Hayim 529 includes a brilliant support from the Yerushalmi to the position that a third meal was not eaten on Yom Tov even in Temple times, and in the Maaseh Rav it says that his personal practice was not to have a third Yom Tov meal, except for on the seventh day of Passover in order to get in another meal of matza.

27. A second day of Rosh Hashana, even in Israel, and even in Jerusalem: The Talmud is not explicit in this regard. See here for the main argument. In Orah Hayim 501:2, the Beth Yosef endorses the position of the Rif, Maimonides, Nahmanides, and the Rosh that Rosh Hashana should be universally observed for two days, and in his commentary ad loc., the Vilna Gaon cites the opinions of the Rishonim who agree. He makes no mention of an opposing view, which is a seeming endorsement. This fits well with the Vilna Gaon’s methodology of consulting the sources. Halachic argumentation for this opinion is copious. The arguments  for observing only one day are mostly historical: the Baal Hamaor’s assertion that the Jews of the Land of Israel only observed one day, and years ago I pointed that in many places the Talmud implies that even when the calendar was established on monthly moon sightings, Rosh Hashana was observed for two days in Jerusalem, but in other places it says that Elul rarely had a thirtieth day (which would be the first of the two days of Rosh Hashana). I further pointed out that the medieval piyutim attributed to Rabbi Elazar Hakalir seem to show that he observed only one day of Rosh Hashana. This year I would also like to mention that recent scholarship has shown that our set Jewish calendar, which technically eliminates the need for two-day festivals in the diaspora, came after the passing of both Abaye and Rava. This presents a challenge to the Rosh’s argument, because he assumed that Rava, who discussed the idea of a two-day Rosh Hashana, was himself familiar with the set calendar and was therefore discussing the universal observance of two days. Maimonides himself also assumes the calendar was set in the days of Abaye and Rava. The most we can say is that perhaps more Rishonim, if they were around today, could be convinced by new evidence that the set calendar actually dates to later than they assumed, and therefore they would not assume that many Amoraim discuss it, but for now they have already weighed in: Rosh Hashana is a two-day affair everywhere.


From → halacha, original

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