Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Yom Kippur Post-Mortem

I wanted to provide an update on our plans for Yom Kippur services before they actually happened, but things got a little bit crazy, and then they kind of stayed that way. On the whole, services went pretty well. Many thanks to those of you who suggested sources for readings. Special thanks to Rachel Barenblat, who provided an original poem entitled "Kol Nidre," which we used. I'd also like to thank Brother-in-Law if he is reading this. He worked very hard to make these services happen.

I led the kol nidre/ ma'ariv service,* which was held in the Moot Court [insert sarcastic comment here]. I could have done better, but I certainly could have done worse. The remaining services took place in the Hillel building. DH lead shacharit and neilah, I lead mussaf, and Brother-in-Law lead mincha, both before kol nidre and before ne'ilah. Pesukei d'zimra was (were?) lead by a local student. Other students read the Torah portion and the haftarah.

Planning the service was actually a lot of fun. We had to use the Birnbaum machzor, an Orthodox prayerbook published in 1951, and we wanted to adjust the service for our community without creating too much confusion. We referred to four other machzors for guidance: the Conservative Silverman machzor, published in the 1948, the Conservative Harlow machzor, published in 1972, the Reform machzor, called Gates of Repentance,** and the infamous Artscroll, the Orthodox machzor du jour. None of these alone would have been quite right for our purposes. For starters, none uses inclusive language or accommodates a female shlichat tsibbur. Gates of Repentance and Harlow preserve too little of the traditional text; Artscroll and Birnbaum preserve too much. Birnbaum and Silverman have positively awful translations. Only Artscroll has a complete set of instructions. Here's a little summary of the various ways in which we attempted to deal with these issues:

Piyyutim: Traditional High Holy Day prayerbooks are full of medieval liturgical poems, or piyyutim. These accumulated gradually over the centuries, and different communities used different selections of poems. Phillip Birnbaum and Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz (otherwise known as Rav Scroll) edited their respective machzors with the apparent intention of including every piyyut ever written. I'm all for comprehensiveness, but reciting every piyyut in either Orthodox machzor is a bit silly. Some of the piyyutim are in fairly difficult Hebrew, and even those that aren't are difficult to grasp when you're ripping through them at breakneck speed. Our rule of thumb was to omit piyyutim that don't appear in Silverman and to replace a number of the remaining piyyutim with English readings on similar themes. We used one reading from Gates of Repentance, a few from Harlow, and a few from S. Y. Agnon's Days of Awe.

Slichot: Each of the five Yom Kippur services contains a version of slichot, a set of confessions and prayers for forgiveness. The extended versions recited during ma'ariv, mussaf, and ne'ilah include a string of piyyutim surrounding a refrain centered on the "thirteen attributes" of Divine mercy. Artscroll and Birnbaum repeat the refrain seven times in each set of slichot. Harlow and Silverman have it recited once. We decided to repeat the refrain three times, following the custom in our home community. Some of the piyyutim were replaced by English readings.

Avodah: The mussaf service includes a recitation/ partial reenactment of the Temple service for Yom Kippur. In Ashkenazic tradition, the avodah takes the form of a lengthy and difficult piyyut. (I am told that Sephardim use a piyyut that is considerably easier to understand.) Rabbi Harlow had the brilliant idea of replacing the piyyut with a reading consisting primarily of selections from the mishnah on which the piyyut is based. We used his version, reading most of it in English, but switching to Hebrew for the confessions of the High Priest and the prostrations.

Martyrology: The avodah is traditionally followed by a piyyut relating the (largely apocryphal) tale of the death of ten sages at the hands of a Roman emperor. The practice of reading the martyrology at this point is rooted in the (somewhat disturbing) idea that since the destruction of the Temple, Jews attain atonement through the "blood of the righteous." Naomi Chana suggested reading the midrash on which the piyyut was based instead of the poem itself, and she recommended the translation in Stern and Mirsky's Rabbinic Fantasies. I had never read the midrash before this year, so I am very grateful for the recommendation. It is a fascinating, theologically complex piece that certainly deserves to be read in its entirety, as Naomi Chana suggested. However, the midrash is quite a bit longer than the piyyut, and the martyrology is not supposed to be the centerpiece of the mussaf service. We included the entire midrash in our source packets, but we did not read it all aloud.

Additional Readings: None of us is very good at public speaking (although we were fortunate enough to have a student present who was willing to speak briefly before mincha and ne'ilah). In place of a Kol Nidre sermon, we recited Rachel Barenblat's poem. We included a reading from Harlow on fear of sin to get people into the mood for the u'netane tokef prayer, and we read a story from Days of Awe before ne'ilah.

I have a few things to say about this, but not right now.

Okay, folks, it's almost Sukkot. We're going to visit the in-laws in New York, and I have to pack. Chag Sameach.

* Here is some basic information on Yom Kippur and its liturgy. It includes definitions of several of the terms that I use in this post. Others are defined here.
** We also referred to the British version, Gate of Repentance, which is more or less the same.


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