This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared as an entry in the Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, published by ABC-CLIO, 2008.
The Judaism of the early Diaspora, including its liturgy, took its cue from Eretz Yisra’el. Jews living outside the Land paid national and spiritual homage to Jerusalem, depended on its determination of the religious calendar, and went on Temple pilgrimages. Worship centres created in places of Jewish population were not fully fledged temples; the Temple was in Jerusalem. Unusually, the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt built an independent temple in the late seventh or early sixth century BCE – an “altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 19:19). Other Diaspora communities in Egypt, Syria, and other regions of the Greek and Roman empires accepted that sacrifices could not be offered outside the Jerusalem Temple but other liturgical practices were possible. At the same time, a standard prayer liturgy utilizing Psalms and other texts was developing in Jerusalem, and a large number (said to be 400) of synagogues existed side by side with the Temple. In Herod’s time there was even a synagogue within the Temple precincts; it must be presumed that here and in synagogues elsewhere in Palestine and in Diaspora countries, worshippers read or chanted Psalms, recited the Shema and Ten Commandments, and read passages from the Torah on Sabbaths and festivals.
The liturgy remembered from Jerusalem was maintained by the exiles in Babylon, with the addition of prophetic homilies from Ezekiel and others, though this type of worship was regarded as inferior to the sacrificial ritual. After the return from exile and the erection of the Second Temple, the sizeable community remaining outside the Land had private as well as community places of worship, including the grand synagogues in Alexandria and Antioch. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the non-sacrificial liturgy of the synagogue became the standard mode of worship, though the hope remained that the sanctuary would be rebuilt and sacrifices reinstituted.
Roman rule was resented, and there was even liturgical resistance, for example, to the words, “Our Father, our King, we have no King but You” in the Avinu Malkenu prayer. After the Jewish revolt was crushed, prayers for the restoration of Zion and the Temple and the coming of the “kingdom of Heaven” were maintained, but Diaspora Jews tried to adapt to their new circumstances and obey the law of the land, and they found it expedient to pray for their Gentile overlords. There were, however, constant reminders of Jewish insecurity and in time great occasions such as Passover and Yom Kippur concluded with the cry, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
In Talmudic times, the development of a set liturgy was hampered by the paucity of manuscript prayer books; prayers were recited by heart and prayer leaders reverted to improvisation. Divergent prayer texts grew, especially between Palestinian and Babylonian rites. Travellers from one centre to the other brought their own customs and liturgical emphases with them. Babylon, for example, placed more emphasis on public prayer than did Palestine. Differences included variants in the concluding phrases of certain benedictions and the preference for one version of a prayer over another (eg Ahavat Olam was used in the morning service in Babylon versus Ahavah Rabbah in Palestine).
In time, the two communities developed different Hebrew pronunciations, systems of vocalization and accentuation, and even divergent scriptural texts. Torah readings in Babylon were on an annual cycle versus the triennial (or three and a half year) cycle in Eretz Yisra’el and parts of Egypt. Maimonides (12 century) calls the annual cycle the universal practice even in Palestine, though traces of the triennial cycle lingered on and the haftarot (prophetical portions) read in some places (eg the Roman usage in Corfu) reflect that cycle. Almost every sizeable community in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean lands had separate Babylonian and Palestinian synagogues.
The Babylonian centre was on strained terms with Eretz Yisra’el. Babylon claimed that Palestinian customs were based on heresy and ignorance, though these allegations may have arisen out of unfamiliarity with the Jerusalem Talmud and the history of Palestinian halachah. The Crusader invasion meant the decline of the authentic Palestinian tradition, though its features have now become known from genizah material. Because the annual cycle prolonged the Sabbath service, some modern congregations attempted to reinstate the triennial cycle, but had little success. After World War I, when an influenza pandemic made it necessary to curtail public gatherings, a few synagogues resorted to a form of triennial cycle, but later returned to the annual cycle.
The diverging liturgies alarmed the geonim to the extent that Sa’adia Ga’on (10th century) feared that Jewish worship would become fragmented and forgotten and Judaism itself would disintegrate. Jewish scholars in Spain asked Amram, ga’on of Sura (9th century), for a guide to the order of the prayers. His response was in effect the first complete Jewish prayer book and laid the foundations for Jewish prayer literature. The second such work was by Sa’adia Ga’on, who addressed himself not only to scholars, but also to the ordinary Jew for whom he provided a commentary in Arabic. The basis of the Ashkenazi liturgy was lain in Vitry, in northern France, where Simchah ben Shmu’el, a contemporary of Rashi (11th century) compiled the Machzor Vitry. The liturgy of medieval Anglo-Jewry was recorded in the Etz Chayyim, produced ca. 1286 by Ya’akov ben Yehudah, chazan of London.
The Babylonian/Palestinian dichotomy did not affect every part of the Jewish world. Ethiopian Jewry, which was unaware of Talmudic Judaism and remained apart from the Jewish mainstream, developed its own liturgy using local languages instead of Hebrew, read the Bible in book form instead of a scroll, and used prayers that made no reference to broader Jewish national events. In Israel, some Ethiopians now study the Talmud, but their community is determined to maintain its own traditions. Ethiopians who attend mainstream synagogues tend to follow the original Sephardi pattern.
In time, a link was suggested between the Babylonian/Palestinian dichotomy and the Ashkenazi (“German”)/Sephardi (“Spanish”) rift. Though “Ashkenaz” (Genesis 10:3) had come to be identified with Germany and “Sephard” (Obadiah 1:20) with Spain, the two groupings roughly denoted the Jews of Christian Europe and those of Mediterranean countries. Their different traditions led in the 19th century to Leopold Zunz, Solomon JL Rapoport, and others arguing that the Palestinian usage in liturgy, religious practice, Hebrew pronunciation, and hymnody survived in Italy and migrated across Europe to become the Ashkenazi tradition, whereas the Babylonian usage, dominant around the Mediterranean, became the Sephardi rite. This explains why some groups (eg Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen) who adopted a Sephardi form of liturgy had no intrinsic connection with Spain. Spanish connections are more evident in Turkey, Greece, Holland, England, and their derivatives.
Differences between the traditions appeared in many areas, but particularly in liturgy. According to HJ Zimmels, “There is hardly any prayer in which the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim do not deviate from each other” (1958, 99). There are varying attitudes toward incorporating piyyutim (liturgical hymns) in the prayer book, the Ashkenazim being more in favour and the Sephardim less so. Ashkenazim were originally more particular about covering the head during worship and standing during the Torah reading. Prayer melodies also diverged noticeably, often reflecting the style of the local environment. Festival customs differed, especially on Passover.
Questions arose as to whether a congregation or individual might move from one affiliation to another or adopt the alternative Hebrew pronunciation. On both issues, rabbinic opinion was cautious but, on an ad hoc basis, a Sephardi was allowed to officiate in an Ashkenazi synagogue and vice versa. There is a debate concerning the liturgical tradition (Nussach Ari) of Isaac Luria (Ari is derived from the initials of the Hebrew, “The godly Rabbi Isaac”). If Luria was an Ashkenazi, why did he adopt Sephardi patterns? If he was always a Sephardi, he was maintaining the family tradition. One view is that his father was Ashkenazi and his mother Sephardi, and by upbringing and personal preference he followed Sephardi customs, though his Siddur incorporates elements of both, which renders dubious the term applied to his rite, Nussach S’pharad. Luria was not alone in preferring elements of the Sephardi liturgy; Ashkenazim occasionally became “naturalised” Sephardim, feeling that the Sephardi ritual was more precise.
Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions both had many sub-groups, which were all adamant that theirs was the authentic usage. Ashkenazim had Western and Eastern European variants with their own further divisions; the Sephardim had the North African and Spanish/Portuguese rites and their variants. All (often with manuals recording their particular tradition) accompanied their adherents on their migrations. Other rites, independent of both, include the proudly maintained Italian traditions, which have ancient antecedents – probably from the time of the Second Temple – that predate the Ashkenazi/Sephardi division. Isaac Luria’s followers liken what they claim to be 12 rites to the 12 tribes of Israel: All are windows opened to God, but the 13th, superior to all, is Nussach Ari.
The various rites differed in style more than substance and often echoed the musical and even pietistic idioms of their environment. Thus German Judaism was known for punctuality, precision and decorum. Chasidic practice, with the same liturgical core, was more passionate and spontaneous. Western Europe adopted stately musical modes, whereas in Eastern Europe the music was more emotional and less formalised. Hebrew prayer remained the core of the liturgy but some more acculturated communities allowed the vernacular on some occasions and used vernacular nomenclature for their officials and rituals. Many of these developments arose out of social history, including the fear of Gentile disapproval at a time when Jews were seeking social and political emancipation. In England, there were fears that Jewish respectability would suffer if synagogues were indecorous, services were undignified, and Jews lacked cultured preachers.
All groups responded to both external and internal influences. External influences included historical events, especially persecution, both of a general Jewish and a localised kind. Deliverences from calamity were acknowledged by means of special Purims with their own forms of worship. Christianity and Islam influenced and were influenced by Jewish worship; there was no cross-fertilisation with eastern religions, though in recent times some Jews have become acquainted with Buddhism and even Hinduism in a search for personal spirituality. Current communities in the Far East, mostly of recent origin, brought traditions from elsewhere and have little connection with local non-Jewish faiths.
Medieval Christian pietistic practices, particularly in commemoration of the dead, came into Judaism in modified form in Germany and moved into most sections of the Jewish world. There were significant Jewish liturgical responses to Christian claims. Apart from abandoning kneeling as a common Jewish practice, the liturgy engaged in subtle polemics upholding the pure monotheism of Jewish belief. More openly, the medieval sixth stanza of the Chanukah hymn, Ma’oz Tzur, referred to persecution by the Roman church “in the shadow of the cross”. Christian censorship of Jewish worship in Ashkenazi countries included attacks on the Alenu because it cited the scriptural verses, “they worship vanity and emptiness and worship a god that cannot save” (Isaiah 30:7, 45:20), which were taken as offensive to Christianity. In 1703, the Prussian government ordered these words to be deleted. Christianity also entered the synagogue through christological sermons that Jews were compelled to attend. In Rome, the installation of a new pope entailed Jewish obeisance in the form of bringing a Torah scroll to the Vatican.
Islamic influence included pietistic practices such as washing both feet and hands before prayer, though washing the feet did not become widespread among Jews; prayer customs and posture; and the poetical style of some piyyutim. Islamic monotheism, being closer to Judaism, did not require extensive liturgical polemics as occurred with Christianity. Islamic fatalism did however affect the High Holyday hymn Unetanneh Tokef, dating from the time of 11th-century Christian persecution. A Jewish response comes in the last line, asserting that human penitence, prayer and charity “avert the evil decree”.
Persecution constantly affected both the Sephardi and, more visibly, the Ashkenazi liturgy. In the resultant passages, the suffering is not blamed entirely on the enemy’s wickedness but at least partly on Jewish sinfulness (“because of our sins we were exiled from our land”). Martyrologies appear in particular in the Tishah B’Av prayers, which now often include Kinnot (dirges) reflecting the Holocaust.
Geographical and climatic influences include prayers for dew and rain (v’ten tal u’matar), which commence in the Diaspora later in the year than in Eretz Yisra’el. In the antipodes, some rabbis (eg Francis Lyon Cohen in Australia), changed the order of the prayers for dew (Tal) and rain (Geshem), inserting Tal on Sh’mini Atzeret instead of Pesach and Geshem on Pesach instead of Sh’mini Atzeret, in the belief that these prayers were for the whole world, not only Eretz Yisra’el. Such modifications have now been abandoned.
Political issues included the prayers to be said for rulers and how to word such prayers in an antisemitic country. In Nazi Germany, many congregations omitted the prayers for the government, though they were retained in the Soviet Union in the communist period by the few synagogues that remained open. English-speaking countries, where Jewish communities have enjoyed great stability, have always made a feature of prayers for the regime. In recent years many communities have introduced prayers for the Israel Defence Force.
Every halachic scholar participated in debates across the centuries as to when and how to say various prayers or whether to preface major prayers and observances with meditations (kavvanot). Poetical accretions were strictly maintained by some communities, especially those that followed Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) of Pressburg (late 18th to early 19th centuries), but were abandoned or modified by others such as Nathan Marcus Adler and his son Hermann, chief rabbis of England, who modified the Anglo-Jewish minhag by liturgical concessions in the late 19th century.
Despite the emphasis on worshipping with a congregation, personal spirituality expressed itself in private prayer, and examples from Talmudic sources were inserted in the siddurim of all rites. Various places in the Amidah were recommended for the insertion of individual prayers, such as prayers for the sick. Introductory reflections on the themes of various prayers and practices were largely the work of Nathan Hannover (17th century), whose Sha’arei Tzion brought kabbalistic themes into the standard liturgy. Mediterranean communities said bakkashot (petitions) in the early hours of the Sabbath morning. Women, who often lacked Hebrew knowledge and did not regularly attend synagogue services, had their devotional books (techinnot), generally in Yiddish or another Jewish vernacular, and women’s groups met to pray and weep together and hear stories from the Bible and Midrash. Meditation, though known already in Second Temple times, returned to Jewish practice under kabbalistic influence. Jewish meditation techniques have been adopted by some contemporary groups, even in mainstream congregations.
Chasidic prayer played a role in the controversies with the movement’s opponents. The latter objected to the unpunctuality and imprecision of Chasidic worship and its innovations, for example, the formula “For the sake of the unification of the Holy One blessed be He and His Shechinah“, which they saw as theologically suspect, tending toward Sabbateanism and a prejudgment of the issue of whether the precepts require kavannah (intention). Nonetheless the emotionalism of Chasidic worship had a wide influence. Since the modern revival of interest in the movement, outsiders, regardless of the doctrines of the movement, have come under the sway of Chasidic practices. Chabad rabbis in particular have attracted many who found establishment Judaism cold and predictable.
Diaspora communities, though not in classical Reform, always prayed for the restoration of Eretz Yisra’el. Even in Israel, the traditional references to living exile persist, and there has been resistance to liturgical changes to reflect the new situation, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s modernisation of the Nachem prayer on Tishah B’Av afternoon. There are differing views as to the religious significance of the State. Some versions of the Prayer for Israel use a text by Chief Rabbi HaLevy Herzog, referring to “the first flowering of our redemption – reshit tzemichat ge’ulatenu, whilst others pray merely for achenu b’Eretz Yisra’el – “our brethren in the Land of Israel”, and others do not recite any such prayer at all. The Diaspora usage of two days of festivals (yom-tov sheni shel galuyyot) where Israel observes only one (except for Rosh HaShanah, which lasts two days even in Israel, and Yom Kippur, which is only one day everywhere), required the development of second-day liturgies and readings, allowing Diaspora communities, for example, a separate day for Simchat Torah where Israel combines Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Diaspora Jews who celebrate the festivals in Israel follow a range of practices on the second days; some rabbis insist that congregants who intend to return to the Diaspora continue to observe two days while other rabbis give more lenient advice.
In the Diaspora, there has always been migrations from one land to another, either forced or voluntary. As a result, the whole range of traditions – and siddurim – has been carried around the world, and immigrants have clung to their ancestral practices in their new milieus. Ashkenazim who came to London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries brought with them the ways of Hamburg, and the “English” rite they established was described as “the Polish minhag (custom) as used in Hamburg”. In larger communities there were several synagogues each following its own ritual; some smaller communities had more than one group praying in different parts of the building. Newcomers were often highly suspicious of the validity of the minhag and the competence of the rabbis in their new locale. Issues still arise when a new rabbi changes the established pattern or congregants insist on using their own nussach when saying Kaddish or leading services.
There are also problems as to the production of standard prayer books. Even where there is relative liturgical homogeneity, as in Britain, there are calls for variant practices to be acknowledged in the Singer (“authorised”) Daily Prayer Book, though the original compiler in the late 19th century based himself on the rule books of the founding congregations of the London United Synagogue. In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America did not entirely succeed in creating a unified liturgy for Modern Orthodox congregations. Though there was high respect for the editorial skills and English style of Rabbi David de Sola Pool, other groups continued to prefer different siddurim.
Non-Orthodox movements often began with liturgical modifications. In the early 19th century, battle was joined on issues such as worship in Hebrew; prayers for the restoration of sacrifices, the return to Zion, and rebuilding of the Temple; and references to a personal Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. The acceptance of instrumental music on the Sabbath, mixed choirs of men and women, Gentile singers, and worship with uncovered heads and without tallitim (prayer shawls), also provoked controversy. Separate seating for men and women was not originally an issue, though mixed seating, egalitarian services including female officiants, and calling women to the Torah, later became normative. Non-orthodox movements formulated their own prayer books, which incorporated modern material from non-Jewish as well as Jewish sources. How traditional a service should be is regularly debated in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and other non-Orthodox groups. Some compromise by retaining the original Hebrew test while adding an interpretive translation, thus sidestepping major theological questions but keeping the emotional flavour of the familiar words. An example is the Reconstructionist use of Hebrew names for God, while the word “God” is reinterpreted as process, not person.
The German Orthodox leader David Hoffmann objected to innovations being “hidden or obscured by paraphrases”. Hoffmann was a powerful champion of tradition and persuaded some German communities to retain the Orthodox siddur and reject a new liturgy that allegorised doctrines such as messianism, the resurrection of the dead, and the rebuilding of the Temple. In the modern period, however, congregations have moved from one category to another, with the consequent changes in liturgy and ritual practice.
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