Ask the RabbiBy Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet  

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Why so many prayer books?

Dear Rabbi,

I know the old saying, “Two Jews three opinions.” But why must my synagogue use four different types of prayerbook? One of the four books contains Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, yet another does not. One has the Ten Commandments, another leaves it out. And so many words are different across all four versions. Please explain why this is.

Gregory

Dear Gregory,

The Talmud defines prayer as praising God or beseeching God for one’s needs. Reciting the Principles of Faith or the Ten Commandments does not fall into either of those categories. The prayers were formalised by the Men of the Great Assembly (around 30 BCE), and by the sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. Many rule that one should not add to these prayers.

The 16th-century Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria stated that he did not wish to include in his prayer book any prayer or liturgical hymn not written by earlier generations who had expertise in the esoteric parts of God’s teachings and could correctly compose a prayer. When instituting a prayer for the masses, he felt, one must be extra careful that every word is exact, in alignment with both the Talmudic and esoteric teachings of Judaism. It is not clear who was the first to institute the daily recitation of the Thirteen Principles but there are those who say it is very important to recite them every day; therefore, if one wishes, one could say them after completing the daily prayers.

However, it should be understood they do not form an integral part of the actual prayer service. As for the variation in wording, to be sure there is a style of service conducted by Ashkenazi Jews originating from central and eastern Europe. It can be subdivided into that used in western and central Europe and that used in eastern Europe, the United States and in part of Israel. There is, of course, also Minhag Anglia, which is what we use in the UK. It is technically a sub-form of the latter but has many similarities to the former. There is as well a style of service used by some Jews of central and eastern European origins, especially Chassidism who adopted some Sephardic customs.

There is a variant of this known as Nusach Ari and a broad range of Sephardic versions, ranging from Spanish and Portuguese to Iraqi and Syrian, Moroccan and Yemeni. Add to all that are other versions from Italy, Greece and, of course, also one from Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (the Gra). It should be noted that the structure is very much the same in each version, it is just the variation in actual text based on different traditions. It is said that there are 12 different versions corresponding to the 12 tribes and that in the Messianic era there will yet be a 13th which we will all recite in unison. Until that happens it remains a case of two Jews, three opinions.

Being a jew not just about you

Dear Rabbi,

I’m getting married next October to a Hindu girl I met while backpacking in India. I am having a hard time finding a rabbi and wondered if you could make a recommendation for one who is broadminded and willing to bless our multi-cultural faith. It is important to me and my family that a rabbi is present.

Alec

Dear Alec,

Just when things were getting dull around here! Do you think when they introduced the word chutzpah to the lexicon they had you in mind? You want your cake and eat it! Let’s consider why a rabbi is so important to you. Is it because it makes the ceremony feel more Jewish? What exactly does being Jewish mean to you? Clearly it has nothing to do with traditions, because you are about to throw all that out of the window. Not just by way of your own marriage to a non-Jew, which stops your Jewish line dead in its tracks. But also because you think you are being so cleverly multi-cultural when in fact you will confuse your future offspring who will, in all likelihood, abandon it all. Let me illustrate my point with a conversation heard on the Dr Laura Schlessinger radio show in the United States. A woman called Dr Laura and explained to her: “I’m Jewish, my husband is not, but he is very active in the Jewish community. We are trying our best to raise our children as Jews and give them a Jewish education.

Now my son is almost 13 and he tells us he doesn’t want a barmitzvah. What can we do?” “Let me get this straight,” Dr. Laura replied. “You say your husband is not Jewish?” “That’s right,” the woman answered. So, Dr Laura said: “How do you expect your son to follow Judaism when you don’t?” You see Alec, who you marry affects every single aspect of your life. It affects your community. It affects your children. It affects future generations. Being Jewish isn’t a cultural affiliation or a tradition. Being Jewish means a commitment to a particular way of life and choosing a partner who is likewise committed. Otherwise it’s entering a relay race, but choosing a partner who’s running towards a different finish line.