Review of Daniel Sperber’s On Changes in Jewish Liturgy

by Dan Rabinowitz and Eliezer Brodt

Daniel Sperber, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy, Options & Limitations, Urim Publications, Israel: 2010

The ever prolific Professor Daniel Sperber’s most recent book focuses on Tefillah. This book, as some of his others, has drawn some sharp criticism, most notably from Professor Aryeh Frimer in Hakirah (available here). To be sure, this post does not attempt to defend Professor Sperber or the feminist movement with regard to these issues, but, in the course of our review we hope to offer some relevant comments that will further this important discussion. Our main interest remains the substance of the book on this important topic – changes to the Jewish liturgy.

This book grew out of a lecture given at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Professor Sperber then decided to revisit the broader issue of the parameters of acceptable changes to the liturgy.

The prayerbook has become – and this is not a new trend – a battleground. In 19th century, the battle lines were drawn between Reform and Orthodox movements. Of course, earlier heterodox movements had also created their own prayerbooks, such as the Karaites, but in those instance, the prayerbook was more a reflection and outgrowth of the movement and was not, in and of itself, one of the wedge issues. In the modern period, however, the advent of the Reform movement argued for a variety of changes to the prayerbook to account and adjust for modernity. In this instance, it was both the substance of the prayers as well as their execution (Hebrew or not) that was at issue See generally, Jacob J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe, New York, 1968.

Earlier examples of prayerbook controversy touched upon other theological debates; for example, some questioned the inclusion of Machnesi Rachamim as it can be read as a request for assistance from angels and not God (see here). Others questioned the inclusion of piyutim generally. Ibn Ezra’s critical comments regarding this topic are well-known. Sometimes prayer itself was employed for polemical purposes. Naftali Weider discusses a version of the blessing over the Friday night candles that incorporated a polemic against Karaism (see N. Weider, Hisgavshos Nusach HaTefillah B’Mizrach U’BeMaariv, Jerusalem, 1998, 329). And, of course, one must mention the oft-discussed blessing against heretics [in some versions] in the Shemoneh Esrei (see, most recently, Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim, Oxford Univ. Press: 2011).

Thus, it is scarcely surprising that discussing changes to the prayerbook might arouse controversy. That said, we must note – and this is the essential point of this book – the texts of the prayers have never been static, and they have been constantly evolving. At times this evolution was controversial while at other times the evolution and changes to the liturgy appears to have passed almost without notice.

Dr. Sperber focuses in this book on historic changes in an effort to support change today, mainly changes that are more sensitive to women. Sperber discusses a variety of changes to the prayerbook that are non-standard. For example, we have added whole sections, a liturgy for Kabbalat Shabbat (essentially created in the 16th century), abbreviated others – yotzrot, piyutim – and changed texts for a variety of reasons – grammatical, Kabbalah, and nationalist. For the most part, to those familiar with the history of the prayerbook, as well as Sperber’s prior works, much of this book is well-tread territory. Moreover, as Sperber notes, the notion of a a fixed nusach is absurd insofar as a large segment for those professing orthodoxy regarding the siddur, themselves pray in an entirely new nusach, one developed in the the past 200 years, namely the rite known as nusach Sefard. While this nusach may have antecedents in the Sefad Kabbalistic movement, that only moves it back to the 16th centruy, a veritable spring chicken vis-a-vis the purported codifiers of tefilah, Anshe Kenneset ha-Gedolah.

Sperber’s focus is on changes that incorporate women more directly into the tefilot as well as adapting the tefilot to be more sensitive to women. He then discusses exactly what the acceptable parameters for change are and discusses specific examples of historical change. He provides detailed discussions both in the body of the work as well as the numerous appendixes.

Sperber does an admirable job distinguishing between permanently fixed language to which change is prohibited, and the lesser fixed portions for which change is permissible. Sperber notes that even is quasi-fixed prayers, like those appearing in the first three and last three blessing in Shemonei Esreh, historically, we have altered those blessings. On this point Professor Frimer takes issue with some of Sperber’s conclusions, but some of Frimer’s criticism is rather weak. Rather than directly addressing the issue, Frimer attempts to delegitimitize and discredit the manuscripts that Sperber relies upon. (p. 76 note 38) Frimer merely states that we know little about those manuscripts that Sperber relies upon, or, in other words, Frimer, without any compelling argument or proof doubts the veracity of the manuscripts. This argument has been used by many in what has been coined the Chazon Ish’s Shitta about new manuscripts and the like. In this case the attempt is really to go further and dismiss much of the Geonic literature that has been discovered in the past century and, and Frimer’s reliance upon this argument demonstrates a serious lack of awareness of the scholarship in the area of manuscript authentication (a topic which we hope to return to at length in a future post).

Indeed, independently of the manuscript sources, Sperber goes even further showing that during the Ten Days of Repentance, we add and alter the first and last (supposedly immutable) blessing, but those alterations cannot be dated to Hazel or the Anshei Kenest ha-Gedola but date rather to the Geonim. Some, however, have argued that changes by the Geonim or Rishonim proves nothing, as they are special but we are not. Their argument goes (and Frimer is an ardent supporter of this) that somehow those persons were allowed to change prayer. Unfortunately, this argument is unsatisfying. Simply put, that rationale begs the question of what power did those persons use to make changes? Was it based upon their own view that they were worthy of changing the prayers? That is, if the only rule is “great people can change prayer” who told them at the time that they qualified as “great people?” Or, is this entirely post-hoc rationale just the tautology that because they changed the prayers and only special people can change prayer they must be special people? Sperber, however, has surveyed the literature and offered concrete rules of when and how to change the prayers that do not fall prey to these logical infirmities. Indeed, he would concede that certain prayers are immutable.

Sperber’s also takes a more reasonable view of which prayers are ripe for change. His view is that if some find it offensive, we should, if we can, attempt to appease those persons. Others, have taken the somewhat counter-intuitive position that even if some find a prayer offensive, if there is a non-offensive explanation for the prayer, that is satisfactory. Of course, this position ignores the very real fact that some may be offended by those prayers, no matter how many explanations are offered. Sperber’s position is that insofar as there is no prohibition to change, why not attempt to remove the offensive text entirely?

One of the changes that Sperber suggests is related to the שלא עשני אשה controversy, and concerns the suggestion to remove it completely as it is offensive toward woman. This suggestion has been discussed in numerous articles, and Sperber cites many of them. Everyone feels they can add their two cents on the suggestion, so we will too. I will begin by saying that having davened in many shuls of all kinds in my life, I have almost never even heard them say this berachah out loud in the first place. While many woman, especially today, find this Beracha offensive and for this alone there might be grounds to remove it (as other berachos were removed over the ages for similar reasons – see Tzvi Groner’s excellent book for a good list) I (EB) personally do not understand why this issue is so contentious.

I will just quote three ideas from others on the topic which I honestly believe is not apologetic but, of course, some may disagree.

R. Yaakov Emden writes:

מה ששמעו אזני בשבוע זו… כי ערל אחד חרש רעה על היהודים שמברכים בכל יום ברוך שלא עשני גוי, אמר היהודים אינם מחשיבים לגוי אלא כבהמה מפקירים דמו וקנינו רוכושו, אמרתי אני שגם זה הבל זה הערל לא לבד ערל בשר אלא גם ערל לב הוא, ושלא היה לו לב לדעת מה שאנו אומרים עוד שתי ברכות הסמכות לזו ברוך שלא עשני עבד, ברוך שלא עשני אשה, הלא בודאי אין אנו נוהגין מנהג הפקר לא אפילו בעבד כנעני שחייב במצות שאשה חייבת בהן, ואמר איוב אם אמאס משפט עבדי כו’, אצ”ל באשה שלנו שאנו חייבים בכבודה וכבדה יותר מגופינו, הלא יראה מזה שנשתבש אותו המוציא דבה עלינו בעבור זה, אבל הענין ברכה זו לפי שהגוי אינו מצווה בתרי”ג מצות כמונו יוצאי מצרים ולכן אינו מצווה גם כן על שביתת שבת ויום טוב כמונו, כמו שהוא ענין בברכותינו על ,שלא עשנו עבד ושלא עשנו אשה שהעבד גם כן אינו מחוייב במצות רק כאשה, ואשה אינה חייבת רק במצות עשה שאין הזמן גרמא, ונכנעת תחת בעלה והוא ימשול בה, מ”מ חביבין עלינו כגופותינו כן הוא הענין בגוי [הקשורים ליעקב, עמ’ ריט].

R. Reuven Margolios writes:

ולאשר האשה אינה נענשת על בטול המצות עשה שהזמן גרמא וחלקה בעולם הבא כחלק האיש הי’ מקום למי אשר לא הגיע לחזות בנועם ה’ לומר מי יתן והייתי אשה שאז נפטרתי מעול כל מצות אלו לכן תקנו חכמינו ע”ה שימסור כל איש מודעה כי המצות האלו כן תקנו גם הודאה כוללת לכל זרע ישראל שנתחייבו במצות הרבה בכדי להגיע לחיי עולם הבא בעוד אשר הנכרי המקיים מצותיו השבע הוא בן עולם הבא והי’ מקום להמתרשל לומר מי יתן והייתי בן לאחד מגוי הארצות ולא נתחייבתי בכל אלו, לשלול זה יודה כל בן או בת ישראל לה’ על שלא עשהו גוי להורות שעושה המצות מאהבה (טל תחייה, עמ’ מז).

In regard to the topic of feminism in general see the Kesav ve-ha-Kabbalah who writes an important insight in his work on the Siddur:

והתבונן עוד כי מצות התורה יש להם סדר מיוחד לאיש איש כפי כח הכנתו הנפשית, יש מן המצות הערוכים ושמורים לכל נפשות זרע ישראל, ומהם נערכים במשקל ובמדה נאמנה לנפש זולת נפש, כי מהן המחוייבות רק לכהנים לבדם, ומהן ללויים לבדן ומהן לכהן גדול לבדו, ומהן לזכרים לבדם ולא לנקבות, כי לפי שהתורה מאת אדון כל היוצר רוח האדם בקרבו לא יפלא ממנו דבר, לחקוק חקים ומפשטים לפי ערך ומדרגת כל נפש, עד שיהיו מקובלים על לב כל אחד מהם, והם אפשרי הקיום לפי הכנת נפשו, עד”מ שאין ספק כי זרע אהרן הכהן מוכשרים הנפשות שנאצלו בהן כחות יקרות בשיעור רב מה שאין שאר זרע ישראל מוכשרים אליהן, וכן משפחות הלוי, וכפי הבדל נפשותיהן נבדלו בענין המעשים והעבודות המקבילות נגד נפשותיהן המעולות. וכן הכהן הגדול בעבור היות נפשו עוד נבדלת מכל אחיו הכהנים בכחות יקרות פנימיות הנודעות ליוצר כל ית’ , לכן מוכשר לקבל עוד מצות היתרות על שאר הכהנים, וכן הבדל כחות הנפש שבין זכרים לנקבות, הוא המסבב הבדל חיוביהן במצות, כי המצות הערכים במשקל ובמדה נאותה לפי הכנת על נפש ונפש, עד שאין מצות ממצותיה וחוק מחקותיה יוצא מגדר באפשרי משום נפש, לפי חלוף מצבי הנפשות בכחותיהן , ועל זה אמר ומתקן ומקבל. התורה במצותיה מתקנת ומסודרת, עד שהיא מתקבלת בלב כל איש ואיש לפי מצב נפשו וכח הכנתו, ואין אחד מהם יוכל לומר קיום דבר זה אצלי מסוג הנמנעות (עיון תפילה, דף נ ע”ב-נא ע”א).

Another offending passage Sperber discusses (pp. 46-47) is found in the Ve-hu Rachum tefilah where it says ושקצונו כטומאת הנדה. Sperber brings versions that did not have these words and suggests that we take it out. He then concludes (p. 50) that maybe this whole tefilah of Ve-hu Rachum should be made into a private tefilah and not obligatory, as its a late addition to the liturgy in the first place. Now it should be noted that although this sounds radical, in reality it is not. The omission of this prayer is common amongst Chassidm for far weaker reasons. Many omit it for any and all yarzheits of anyone who ever wore the mantel of “Rebbi.” Thus, Sperber appears to be in good company.

In regard to Sperber’s suggested change to add in the Imahot in the first bracha of Shemonah Esrei, although he does provide evidence that changes were made even in these berachos, I (EB) find it hard to accept these suggestions and I would have to agree with the issues Frimer raises in this regard.

One last point: while this study definitely shows that many changes were made in our liturgy, it is still not clear as to when and how and why. Exact guidelines, if there are any, need to be defined more clearly it is buried in a mass of amazing historical and bibliographical notes. Summaries and more exact conclusions should be written out more clearly, as this is such a dangerous topic as Sperber himself is well aware (see p. 129 and 124).

Here are some general notes and sources to add to Sperber’s plethora of sources. We would just like to mention that today, because of the internet, the study of Siddur has and will greatly change. Many rare and early printed siddurim and manuscripts related to Siddur are available for viewing in ones’s own home instead of being only available in far-flung libraries, available to professional scholars. Using these sources alone can revolutionize the study of the development of the Siddur.

Suggested Additions

p.9 on the Prayer for State of Israel see Joel Rappel, “The Identity of the Author of the Prayer for the State of Israel,” in Shulamit Eliash, Itamar Warhaftig, Uri Desberg, eds., Masuah Le-Yitzhak: Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac ha-Levi Herzog Memorial Volume (Jerusalem: Yad ha-Rav Herzog, 2008; Hebrew), 594-620, and his “The Convergence of Politics and Prayer: Jewish Prayers for the Government and the State of Israel,” (PhD dissertation, Boston University, 2008).

p. 23. regarding studies on Kabbalat Shabbat: to date the most comprehensive study on this topic is from Rabbi Y. Goldhaber, Kovetz Beis Aron V’Yisroel, 64: 119-138; 70: 125-146; 73: 119-13. Hopefully he will collect and update all this into a full length book in the near future.

p. 32 note 2 there is a typo it should read Shmuel Askenazi.

p. 36 see also D. Rabinowitz, “Rayna Batya and other Learned Women: A Reevaluation of Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein’s Sources,” Tradition 35 (2001).

p. 33-39:On the Shelo Asani Ishah controversy see E. Fram, My Dear Daughter, HUCP 2007, pp.37-41.

p. 34. On Rabbi Aaron Worms of Metz see the important article from Y. Speigel, Yerushasnu, 3, 2009, pp. 269-309; R. Dovid Tzvi Hillman, Yeshurun, 25, 2011, pp. 619-621.

p.40 and onwards; related to the שלא עשני אשה controversy see Yoel Kahn, The Three blessings Boundaries, Censorship, and Identity in Jewish Liturgy, Oxford 2010.

p. 41-42: On R Abraham Farissol see David B. Ruderman, The World of a Renaissance Jew, the life and thought of Avrhom Ben Mordechai Farissol, HUCP, 1981.

p. 52 D. Rabinowitz, “Is the Modern Placement of Bameh Madlikin A Polemic Against Hassidim?” Or Yisrael, 2007, 180-84.

p. 73 note 4 there is a typo, it should say R. Dovid Cohen.

p. 80 see D. Rabinowitz, “The Pitfalls of Changing the Liturgy: On Changes to the Nikkud of Kaddish,” Or Yisrael, 158-62, 2007.

p.100 See E. Brodt, The Avudraham and his usage of the Tur and Pirush of R Yehudah Ben Yakar (In print).

pp. 108-109: In regard to R. Emanuel Hai Ricchi see: B. Naor, Post Sabbatian Sabbatianism, pp. 53-57: Yeshurun, 24, p. 444.

p. 109: Darchei Noam is worth mentioning as this work is one of the only works that received a Haskamah from the Gra, see Eliach, Hagaon 3, p. 1257.

p. 133: It should say the brother of the Ketzot Ha-choshen, R. Yehudah author of the Terumot Ha-Kerei.

p. 157: On R. Yakov Emden’s Siddur and additions from others over the years. It is worth mentioning that a few years ago the printing house Eshkol printed a new version of the siddur including many new additions of R. Emden himself, from a manuscript of the siddur. One of the important features in this edition is they put all the material that was not R. Emden’s in different fonts so one can see exactly what was added by others over the years. Additionally, they provided a photo reproduction of the original siddur at the end of volume two.

p. 177: Sperber brings the special work of the Aderes on Tefilah. Sperber notes this books is full of textual changes, some based on manuscript but mostly on his own. To be more exact and correct, what Sperber writes about this work a very small part was printed in the Journal, Knesset Hagedolah. Many years later a few pieces of this work was printed in the journal Yeshurun. In 2002, Y. Amechi printed this work from manuscripts with many notes. In 2004 Ahavat Sholom printed this work again based on even more manuscripts. They also included other articles of his printed elsewhere related to Tefilah. The main thing worth noting is that this is a very special work related to Tefilah.

p. 179 on the well-known reason why during the week we say Magdil and on Shabbat we say Migdol, see: Shut Lev Shlomo, Siman 23; Noam Megidim, p. 13b; R. Reuven Margolios, Haggadah Shel Pesach p. 60; Y. Speigel, Yeshurun 6, 1999, pp. 759-762.

p. 189: A wealth of sources on the topic worthy of mention, regarding adding Zachrenu Lechaim during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah can be found in R. Dovid Zvi Rothstein, Sefer Torah Menukod, in Kovetz Ohel Sarah Leah, 1999, pp.632-771. See also the important article on this from U. Fuchs, Tarbitz 75 (2006), pp. 129-154.

Original post from January 24, 2012 can be found on the Seforim blog.


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