Sometimes The Siddur Has Silence that Speaks Louder Than Words
If one was to ask a class of observant Jewish students what the first prayer in the siddur (hebrew prayerbook) is just about every hand would go up in the air. It’s seems like an obvious answer for most of us. But of course, if this was a real classroom I would be pulling a Lisa Simpson and complicating the matter by pointing out some geeky fact that turns the questions on its ear. You know the type, the preschool kid that tells the teacher she’s wrong because it was Copernicus that proved the world was round. No one likes a know it all. But, truthfully the answer is not quite as cold cut as it seems. And my reason for pointing out my odd fact is not to be an intellectual elitist, holding on to some more stringent view. Let me explain. First off, it would be helpful if before we start talking about liturgy we understand what we are discussing.
The Development of Liturgy
Liturgy has always existed within our tradition. The most published portion on the holy scriptures, probably more so than any book, is the Book of Psalms which is clearly written as a collection of musical and liturgical standards. Repeating holy scriptures was our first stab at formal prayer, and in some cases fixed prayers later became enshrined in holy scripture. The influence went both ways as scriptures and Temple prayers developed.
When the Temple era came to an end, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. prayers took center stage as prescribed in Isaiah chapter 1, to offer sacrifice of the lips instead of animals. Fixed prayers from the Temple were now elevated in significance, and new prayers were added over time to deliver something worthy of saying for just about every occurrence and season. But the siddur, the prayerbook we know today would not make its rise until around the 15th century at best and not widely available as a complete work until the mid-to-late 19th century. For most of our history people have just repeated prayers they knew from their common recurrence in our life-cycle events. And when in doubt people would turn to their rabbis for advice. Through out the ages we have learned these prayers like one learns a song, that is our liturgy. The tune and delivery I use my be different from yours, but that’s the nature of song. But no matter how it’s delivered, it’s a homelike tune we all relate to on some level.
The Development of the Nusach Ha-Ari z”l
As the treasury we know today as the siddur was being developed, so too the school of Jewish mysticism was on the rise. The mystics were a group of elite rabbis who collected prayers, but for a different reason than to just know what to say on a given occasion. They knew the prayers by heart, they didn’t need a script. Prayers collected by the kabbalists were incorporated in their own siddurim, but these books mostly served as commentaries on selected prayers. The commentaries contained many diagrams and instructions on how to focus the mind in a meditative way though kavannot (Heb. “Intentions”).
As I briefly touched upon in my last weeks look a the kavannah of Psalm 67 for the Sefirat ha-Omer, the Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – was one of the first of the great rabbis to really take the mystical traditions of the Lurianic kabbalists (the followers of the ARI Z”L, the great mystic of the 16th century) and present their customs in a complete liturgical work for congregational prayer and daily devotion. The Baal haTanya’s siddur was intended to teach the common man how to pray, a much needed aid that was starting to take root during the late 18th century in Europe. His simplification came by focusing on documenting the things that needed to be said, and leaving out silent meditations.
The Baal haTanya provided his chassidim with a siddur that made full use of the richness of Jewish prayer that Eastern European Jews enjoyed and carefully conformed it to the teachings of the ARI Z”L. The text the holy Ari adopted and taught from was the Sephardic tradition, the liturgy documented by the Jews of Iberia and intern favored by the Jews of the near-east. The Baal haTanya conformed his text to that style and incorporating many of it’s unique prayers.
However, interestingly, prayer books like Eastern Europeans enjoyed were not at all common in Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities. There was more documentation about their prayers and customs in classical legal works and kabbalistic commentaries they called “siddurim” than in any book dedicated to how to say your prayers or lead a service. Simply put, it wasn’t as needed because there was greater familiarity with the Hebrew prayers for the Jews of the near east. In the end as Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews began to formulate true prayerbooks for their prayer services like Ashkenazim (Eastern Europeans) invented, they brought in the silent meditations presented with their highly involved diagrams. Why? Partially because of their familiarity with them. Secondly because, in the days before the prayer books the diagrams were often enlarged and displayed in synagogues and holy shrines for one to use as prayer aids. It just seemed right that they belonged.
The Shviti: Placing Hashem Before Us
Those of you who have visited any Jewish shrines know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention charts and mystical diagrams. We call them Shvitis, they often take on the form on an enlarged writing of the Four-Letter name surrounded by verses of Psalms or prayers. The most famous of these is probably in the form of the Psalm 67 menorah. Others incorporate many mystical ways of reading Divine Names, but that are not meant to be pronounced. Why do we call them Shvitis? Because they usually bear the words of the Psalm that says:
“I have set
before me at all times.”
| l’negedi tamid
לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד |
Now one might ask, how intrusive into the text of the siddur can these mandala like meditations be? I mean, if they are useful why are they left out of the Baal haTanya’s siddur? You might say, who is he to leave out these things that are so authentic and sacred? Well, if we use a siddur as a seder (an order) of prayers and devotions, and go through it from waking up to going to sleep, then the first occurrence of shviti is at the beginning of the siddur. That’s right. When one wakes up they are to immediately have in mind this verse “I have set HASHEM before me at all times.” For this reason in many Sephardic and Edut haMizrach siddurim the first words you will see is these words “sheviti Hashem l’negedi tamid.”
If this was a real classroom I would hear just about every western, observant Jew gasp. This is problematic because at this point in history we all accept that the first words of out of our mouth and before we open our eyes is the prayer Modeh Ani, that we greatly thank G-d. Of course we also obsess over the different customs of washing among the different sects of Judaism, but we all accept in unity that we don’t intone the Four-Letter Name of Hashem in the first prayer we say of the day and instead wait until we get around to taking care of our business. So we all start with this prayer that refers to G-d, but without explicit use of the Four-Letter Name (יהוה).
So ingrained is it into the mind of observant Jews that this prayer is taught and known by the children as some of their first words. Really, before some Jewish toddlers can tell you answers to simple questions they already know how to say this prayer by heart. Though in our different communities we might truncated the prayers to make them easier to say for children at first, Modeh Ani is not one of them as we want them to learn it in full. This is our first confession of the day. I don’t want to spend too much time of it, as we will get to this prayer next week, and I’ve already taken us the scenic route to the point of all of this.
At this point, many would say “Oh, okay, I understand now why the Baal haTanya would leave it out. You don’t want to confuse people so that they might say the words of sheviti Hashem. Good thinking.” But still there will be the few who will grumble, and whisper to each other “See I told you those sephardim, chassidim, and kabbalsists are playing fast and loose with orthodoxy.” Considering myself to be the product of all of the above I would ask someone to cough up their copy of the Shulchan Aruch for a second. I’d hold it up and make the point that there is nothing more Orthodox than the Shulchan Aruch, which would become known to anglos as The Code of Jewish Law. I wouldn’t even site the words of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the Sephardic Kabbalistic master known as the Maran who first authored the work. Ironically I’d cite the words of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserelis – who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses to the work:
“I have placed Hashem before me
at all times:”
This is a paramount principal
of the Torah
and attribute of the steps of the righteous
who walk before G-d.
“שויתי ה‘ לנגדי |
הוא כלל גדול |
הורה ובמעלות הצדיקים |
אשר הולכים לפני האלהים: |
Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1
We don’t need to turn far. If we take “the book” when it comes to Jewish practice and turn to the very first reference page and paragraph, and here we have it. This would also be repeated by the Baal haTanya in the Shulchan Aruch haRav, Mehadurah Batra 1:5, just with the quote of our biblical verse at the end instead of being the leading words. According to the “code” the first thing we are supposed to think in our mind at the start of the day is “I have placed Hashem before me at all times.” Here the Rema is himself quoting the Rambam – Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic scholar, master rationalist, and first exhaustive codifier of Jewish law (see Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed 3:4)
Now, there is probably a reason other than just typesetting that explains the juxtaposition when the Baal haTanya repeats this law; to make it clear to his reader that this is a thought and not a statement he moves it to the end and adds the words “k’umo shekavut / as it is written.” He wants his chassidim to know this is a thought, it’s not spoken words. Like it’s written, it remains written but not said. As I have pointed out, when he created his siddur the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L known as Siddur Torah Ohr (the precessor to Siddur Tehillat Hashem) he focused on the spoken words and not the meditations. However, if you look closely, it was not a forgotten point. It just became mentioned in the notes (which are exact quotations from his Shulchan Aruch).
Nusach ARI Z”L as a Process, Not a Possession
And this is primarily the differences between the Nusach ha-Ari (Chabad) tradition and the Nusach ARI Z”L siddurim of either Sephardic or other Chassidic origins. The nusach of the Sephardim/Mizrahim and other Chassidim have been heavily influenced by the teachings of the ARI Z”L and following his teachings so their prayers are Nusach ARI in their own right as well. However these other texts tend to contain many meditations and silent things that are not meant to be spoken out loud, and contain local variances and customs. This pretty much sums up the differences. The ARI Z”L never wrote a siddur of his own, and for that matter never wrote any writings for himself. Instead we learn of his wisdom through his student Rabbi Chaim Vittal and his other disciples, so we all just copy his teachings. Thus no one can lay claim to having “the” Nusach ARI. The Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L is a way, not a thing.
I say all of this because as we start to step into the study of the siddur I am going to be presenting the text according to the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L. This is most often going to be based on the text of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, the text I have adopted and utilize in my daily prayers. Though at other time I will mention the Nusach Edut haMizrach, the tradition of the Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews; which is my tradition by birth. I do this to be intellectually honest, I can only share what I know. This is what I understand so that’s all I feel free talking about. But I will try to touch on other unique aspects of the different traditions when possible. But I hope we all understand that when we talk about the siddur we are talking about a growing and living thing that we all need to be flexible and giving towards. Because it’s something different to us all. And that is okay and possible, without compromising anything! Nachon, got it?
The Kavannah: How to Sheviti Hashem
Now on to the fun part. As we have discussed, the generally universal tradition today is to always start our day with a prayer of thanks; this is the Modeh Ani. It is the custom to not open one’s eyes nor say any other word in the morning until we give thanks. But we don’t say any Divine Name until we wash out of respect of G-d and in respect of our need for self-care right away. However, before we open our eyes it is a good practice for us to mentally make ourselves aware that Hashem is before us at all times. We can even visualize the Four-Letter Name (יהוה), but not say it. This is something we should all be able to agree on, it is appropriate.
But why should we do it? If it’s a kavannah – an intention – what is it’s purpose? What do we want to achieve or recognize by this? To find the answer lets continue looking at the text of the Shulchan Aruch:
“For the manner that a person sits,
moves and conducts himself
when he is alone in his house,
is not the manner one sits, moves and deals
when before the presence of a great king.
Likewise, in the way one chats openly as
he wishes while he is among his household
and relatives, is not the same way as when
he speaks in the court of a king.
How much more, if a man strongly takes
to heart that the great king,
The Holy One, blessed be He,
whom the whole earth is filled with His glory,
stands over him and observes his deeds.
As it says, “If a person hides
out of sight, will I not see him” says Hashem.
[Considering] this he will respect
and surrender to awe
of the Holy One, blessed be He,
and be bashful before Him always.
One should not be ashamed
who mock his service to Hashem.
Even secretly when lying in ones bed
know before whom he is lying.
Immediately arouse oneself from slumber
with agility to serve the
praised and exalted Creator.”
ותנועותיו ועסקיו |
והוא לבדו בביתו, |
כישיבתו ותנועותיו ועסקיו |
והוא לפני מלך גדול; |
ולא דיבורו והרחבת פיו |
כרצונו, והוא עם אנשי ביתו |
וקרוביו, כדיבורו |
במושב המלך. |
כל שכן, כשישים האדם אל |
ליבו שהמלך הגדול, |
אשר מלא כל הארץ כבודו, |
עומד עליו ורואה במעשיו, |
כמו שנאמר: “אם יסתר איש |
במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה‘”, |
מיד יגיע אליו היראה |
וההכנעה בפחד |
ובושתו ממנו תמיד. |
גם בהצנע לכת בשכבו על משכבו |
Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1
The Rema, does such a great job of explaining this concept so it’s hard to top that. But he gives us a lot to think about. Everyday as we consider this the meaning of it grows. Let’s take a few minutes to walk through some of these thoughts together, these are just a few ideas of what we can think about:
Make The Name of G-d Apparent – even before we have opened our eyes or moved to get up we are to think about G-d. Placing G-d before us means that we make a mental commitment to act as though we are in the presence of G-d. Just like if we were in the presence of a king or judge we would want to behave becomingly, we should recognize our lives are watched over by G-d. This comes with a benefit, on one hand we have G-d looking out for us to administer liberty and justice. But we also have a responsibility, to recognize that G-d demands that we behave as decent people in our dealings even when we think that no one else is watching. Before we open our eyes, we determine to behave as noble and dignified people in our dealings; both in public and private. If we can do it in our private lives we won’t have slip ups of bad actions in public.
Choosing to Use Noble Speech – what’s funny about the wording that the Shulchan Aruch uses is that it describes a person that is in their own home, among their own guests and surrounded by their own family and feeling free to speak openly he just “blabs” with his mouth widely letting loose whatever he feels like without regard. Before we say a single word we determine to employ noble and becoming speech. One of the terrible things about lishon hara – evil speech – is that most of us would never allow ourselves to say the types of things publicly that we say privately, we would be too ashamed. So we should think about being in the presence of the greatest King, G-d Himself, then we would watch what comes out of our mouth and speak in a dignified way. This means, even in the way we speak to ourselves in our thoughts. Think about it, some of us say demeaning things about ourselves that we are too considerate to ever say to another human being
Consider Where G-d Is At In Our Lives – the entire world is filled with G-d. We understand, in kabbalistic principal, that G-d is the Ain Sof; without limits, without end. But that also means that though G-d is not one thing or a person, His very sustenance and glory fill the entire universe. G-d’s glory exists in everything and everywhere, no matter how much any of us try to take credit or mold things our way. We need to consider that there is nothing outside of His realm of influence or where His rules of goodness need not apply. We need to think, how would we act if G-d was a person standing over us and observing our deeds? It’s not that G-d is watching over us like a prison guard waiting for us to slip up. Actually, the relationship is one in which G-d is given credit for everything we enjoy and every opportunity we have through a blessing. In order for us to do something that is wrong most people out of seeming shame decide that they will not say inappropriate blessing for whatever action or item they are illicitly enjoying. But just because we don’t mention G-d doesn’t mean His ways don’t exist; that’s as silly as pretending your spouse doesn’t existing if you turn around their portrait. We should discipline ourselves to know that godliness is displayed through creation, progress, wisdom, prosperity, etc. Everything we see is a manifestation of G-d’s order, if we understood that then everything we see will begin to remind us of G-d and His ways.
Be Bashful Before G-d – often times when people speak in the English vernacular we refer to this concept as being “ashamed before G-d.” Though this is not a mistranslation, it’s not exactly a one-for-one rendering. Even before we get up out of bed and out of the sheets we need to understand that we are completely exposed before G-d. But its more than that. As we begin to engage in our daily needs and we assess the day we can stand amazed at how brilliant the Creator is. Everything we begin to do and enjoy has blessings traditionally associated with them. Sometimes the truth of it just hits us, we just have to say “wow, it really is amazing that all these things necessary for life work out for me day after day.” Life is a complex function, with many dependencies for us to just to wake up let alone get through the day. G-d is called Chai haOlamim – The Life of the Worlds – all the universe and life within it is an extension of Him and sustained by His will. Even us. We are just a small part of this big universe, yet even as simple people we benefit from so much that we can be humbled. We feel so small before G-d and the universe that we become like a child with a surprise gift that is so bashful for being remembered that they want to hide shyly. We should always try to retain this type of wonder with the world.
But Don’t Be Ashamed Before Men – even before we move from bed, to get out from under the sheets we make a conscious choice to not feel embarrassed or foolish for our wonder of life and our respect to honor the little things in life, realizing that all these small things when they come together make our world so much better. There is nothing mature or smart about taking for granted the gift of life and the wonders of the world as the self-proclaimed intellectuals of our age like to flippantly do. They say that nothing you do as an individual matters that much. Some suggest that religious people thinking G-d considers their needs and betterment to be egotistical. Others suggest a faithful person is needlessly groveling and that his humility is a sign of mental weakness. Either way, it can be hard to face the world some days because people are so jaded that many will attack your devotion for reasons of humility or ego; you just can’t do anything right. But we aren’t supposed to hide from the world, we are called to transform it. That mean’s we also aren’t to conceal our service to G-d and pride in being our true selves, because it is through those things that we exemplify the truth of our values. Our actions speak louder than words.
Wake Up With Enthusiasm – if we really took to heart the idea that G-d watches over us then we would realize that we are laying before the Great King. Just as people jump up from bed with excitement if an important guest suddenly showed up, we need to wake to the day in order to serve G-d. We wouldn’t leave a king waiting at the foot of our bed, no we would jump up quickly and honored to be of service. How do we do accomplish this? By arousing ourselves to get up and wake the day. It means more than just getting up. The battle of our day starts even before we open our eyes or say a word, it starts when we actually wake. We should arouse ourselves to wake with all the agility and excitement that a youth would show toward their beloved.
When we begin the day by placing Hashem before us we recognize that G-d is present. As the day and world unfolds before us we begin to see that G-d is present in the world, in our deeds, and in our happenings. If we want to encounter G-d then we need to get up and see Him in action. As we lay there without saying a word we begin to arouse ourselves to rise up and meet G-d where He is, emulating G-d’s passion to be active in the world. This gives meaning to the scriptures when it says “has kol basar mif’neh Hashem ki naior mim’on kadsho / be silent all flesh before Hashem, for He is aroused out of His holy habitation.” (Zechariah 2:17)