Article by Rabbi Raymond Apple, who served as minister at the Hampstead Synagogue between 1965-1972.
Just over a hundred years ago an old liturgical debate resurfaced at the Hampstead Synagogue, London, though we wouldn’t have known about it without the minutes of meetings held at the New West End Synagogue.
The debate was over whether to take one year or three to read the Torah – the first option (“the annual cycle”) being the ancient custom in Babylon and the second (“the triennial cycle”) in the land of Israel. No-one is certain how the cleavage began, though the Babylonian custom eventually prevailed for the sake of Jewish unity. It was brought to and established in the land of Israel by Babylonian immigrants.
On 19 May, 1912, a general meeting of members of the New West End – where the controversial Rev. Dr. Joseph Hochman was the minister – set up a committee “to consider the possibility and desirability of introducing the Reading of the Scriptures in the Synagogue in a Triennial Cycle”. The motivation was the feeling that Sabbath services were too long, and that members lost interest and began to fidget and talk once the Torah reading began.
The committee called a number of expert witnesses headed by Dr. Adolph Buchler, principal of Jews’ College; Dayan Dr. Moses Hyamson of the London Beth Din; and Revs. Michael Adler of the Central Synagogue and Aaron Asher Green of Hampstead. Green said that Hampstead and the New West End had a similar outlook. At a meeting he had with his honorary officers, they expressed interest in the triennial cycle, though they felt the question was beyond their competence and should be referred to a ministers’ meeting.
Green realised that any change would entail the amendment of the United Synagogue rules as well as the approval of the chief rabbi. He knew that Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler would not have approved, but this was during the interregnum between Adler’s death and Hertz’s appointment. Green commented caustically that what concerned him was not who but what would be chief rabbi. He hinted that Rabbi Professor (later Sir) Hermann Gollancz of the Bayswater Synagogue was not against the proposal.
He said he had no wish to drive out the orthodox members of the congregation, and if it were his previous synagogue in Sunderland the matter would not even be on the agenda. In Hampstead the opposition was likely to come from “people who do not care one way or the other”. He knew that the din as it stood accepted only the annual cycle – but the fact that ancient Israel had followed a triennial cycle showed that a 3-yearly reading was not unlawful in itself. He felt that synagogues should have a local option. “Our fault,” he said, “is that we mistake unity for uniformity, and uniformity for unity”.
He added, “When we instituted our Synagogue in Hampstead, we used to read a portion of the Bible in English every week, and the late Chief Rabbi told me I could read any portion of the Bible that I liked, provided I gave him the undertaking that I would never read in English on any Sabbath any portion of the Sedra which was being read in Hebrew. His object was that there should never be a thin edge of the wedge to substitute English for Hebrew”.
At Hampstead nothing eventuated, presumably because the United Synagogue was too difficult to budge. The New West End Committee recommended a change, but bigger and more momentous matters were on the communal agenda, and it is unlikely that Chief Rabbi Hertz, though an acknowledged fighter, would take up the triennial cause.