Episode 36: The Poetry of Prayer (with Rabbi Reuven Kimelman)
2:02PM Dec 22, 2022
Shalom, shalom everyone! Welcome to the Light Lab Podcast! Eliana Light here back with another episode focused on T'fillah, prayer and liturgy where we hold the gems of our liturgy up to the light and see what shines through and play with prayer. So glad to have you join us. I hope your winter has been meaningful, I hope that any holidays you might have celebrated have been fabulous, and that there has been light and joy in your life. Hopefully, this podcast can be just a little bit of sprinkle of a bit of that light and joy. Today, my friends, I'm very excited to present an interview with Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman, or as I came to know him first, Professor Kimmelman. Rabbi Kimmelman is a professor of classical Judaica at Brandeis University. And that's where I met him. It was my first semester of college and I signed up to take a course on liturgy. I always loved leading to the last leading services. It started because I just really liked singing and being in front of people as wonderful diva-ish child. And then I grew to love the community feeling and the singing together aspect. But it was in Professor Rabbi Coleman's liturgy course that I began to fall in love with liturgy, as an art form, seeing its poetry, and thinking about the choices that a person made in crafting the liturgy .Taking language and ideas from Tanach, from the Jewish Bible, and other sacred texts, and creating these new beautiful poetic forms. And seeing the Siddur as something that again, people put together with meaning, with intention and with choice. So I was beyond thrilled that Rabbi Kimmelman agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. But beyond that, and I'll say a little bit more of this about at the end of the episode, he will be teaching a class through the Light Lab that you are welcome to sign up for. It's a three part course, technically six, but I'll explain what that means. A three part course on the three paragraphs and parts of the Shema, one of the central prayers and pieces of liturgy of the Jewish heritage that comes from our sacred texts from the Torah. And he, I mean, it's really like if you listen to this episode, you'll hear so many different source texts and connections. He has it all, really one of the foremost liturgists of our time. So I'm so excited for these classes. On January 25, February 1, and February 8, Rabbi Kimmelman will be teaching from 3-4 Eastern Standard Time. And then the days after that on those Thursdays, January 26 to February 2, February 9, at 7pm, I will be doing a deep dive, which is a Light Lab mode of exploration into pieces of liturgy, where we do hevruta, partnered study. We look at very particular questions, we sing through or chant through different pieces of the prayer to move it through us, and then we respond in our own way. More information about all of that, including links to sign up and share can be found in the description of this very episode. But for now, I'll just tell you a little bit more about Rabbi Kimmelman before we start our episode. Like we mentioned before, Rabbi Kimmelman is a professor at Brandeis University. He's also the Rabbi of Beth Abraham, New England Sephardic Congregation of New England. He specializes in the history of classical Judaism with a focus on the history and poetics of the Jewish liturgy. His forthcoming book is the Rhetoric of Jewish Prayer, a historical and literary commentary on the daily prayer book. I am so excited for that book. Oh my goodness. His other book is the Mystical Meaning of Lecha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat. Professor Kimmelman's other writings focused on the literary meaning of the Bible, the interaction between Judaism and Christianity, the ethics of conflict and war, and his mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel. We are so so honored to be joined today by Rabbi Kimmelman.
Welcome, Professor Kimmelman, Rabbi Kimmelman, Reuven. I didn't know which one to call you. So I just use all three. Thank you for being here with us today.
It's a pleasure, especially in light of the topic.
Exactly, exactly. We like to start way at the beginning on this show, so I'm wondering if you could share what your relationship to T'fillah was when you were growing up?
I started davenning regularly, probably about the age of 14. Before that, I had attended Camp Ramah. But I didn't take it very seriously. The age of 14, I spent a year and a half in Israel in yeshiva. A pretty key role, a consequential year in my religious development, and my commitment as a Jew. But I would say T'fillah was not central to my life, even though it was significant activity. I think what made it more central than anything else was my relationship with my mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel. I studied with him for about six years. His book on prayer made a major impact upon me. And his understanding of theology opened up the gates of prayer for me. So if I had to point to something really significant or consequential in my life, I would give the proper respects to the person who was most influential in my religious life.
Beautiful. And I'm wondering what that shift was for you from A to B, kind of before your time with Rabbi Heschel. What was challenging or frustrating or nonsensical about prayer? What did you think the point of prayer was, visa vie what you thought God was? And how did that change?
I don't think you start off with a concept of God, and then go to prayer. I mean, people can talk that way. But I don't know anyone who actually does that way. Most people through prayer, change their understanding of God. Heschel's great insight here was, we, we think that we pray, in order to change God's plan, as if we control things. And his argument was that prayer is an invitation to God, to intervene in our lives. So instead of seeing a God as the object of our prayer, we become the subject of divine concern. So the word l'hitpallel, which has many different meanings, but he perceived it in the reflexive as an invitation to ask God to make us the object of divine concern. So therefore, the issue is not what will God do for me, but how does one align oneself to God's concerns? So they're gonna be very much involved in prayers of redemption in the prayer. And the other, which made a big impact upon me was the prayer, ahava rabah, ahavat olam, because ahava raba ahavtanu talks about ourselves as objects of divine love. In that sense, it was the opposite of a Shema, which is a commandment to love God. And the argument there is, how could you possibly love a God who doesn't love you first? So the Ahava Raba was placed before the Shema, otherwise, we have a commandment to love God, which is really doesn't do much. But if you think that God is concerned about you, it's not easy to reciprocate concern, then to any should concern. So according to the Siddur, as opposed to, let's say, Sefer Devarim, we are commanded to love the God who loves us. And so not easier to love somebody who loves you. First, you can't help but admire their taste. But secondly is, the feeling of being loved, cultivates the capacity for love. So that really kind of turned me on to Siddur, and I never thought about the subject-object relationship, until I reread Heschel intensely, can change my whole attitude toward things. So I would say that's a very consequential stage of my development.
Very, and I remember this teaching from when I was in your liturgy class at Brandeis my very first semester. And I can say that, that class even though I had a relationship to T'fillah, but it was mostly because I loved to sing, and I loved the feeling of everybody together. And I kind of knew what the words meant. But I had never looked at the siddur as a piece of text in the way that I had looked at other Jewish text. And I had never thought about the choices that were being made by the people who wrote or edited the Siddur. And that idea of we love the God who loves us first has really stuck with me, along with so many other teachings from that class and I'm wondering, how you got in your life from this kind of renewed interest or understanding of T'fillah into looking at liturgy as your academic focus?
Well, it first started way back in the 1960s. For some reason I don't recall, I wrote an article in Hebrew on the meaning of the Shema. I no longer recall what stimulated it. It was published in Shanna B'Shanna, which is a journal of the Israeli Chief Rabbiante. I got interested in the Shema, and I would say I have rewritten that article, maybe now six times. It started off as a four or five page article. And it's now about 207 pages. Because my, ah, the reason I get so excited teaching Siddur, is because most of the students know the Siddur means they know it, but they don't understand it, nor that they were think of its literary structure, its historical development, how the two go together, they don't realize how sound plays such a role in understanding, and when a prayer said silently it's not the same thing as said out loud. So if I say the prayer meshatchim, mefarim, maritzim, makdishim, mamlichim, you can hear the mems. And we say vikdusha uv'tahara, b'shira uv'zimra, you can hear the ahs, and you realize that there are two angelic choirs singing together and you're participating in it. Now you don't have to believe, in my opinion, in angels to appreciate the poetry of the prayer. In some sense, when you get involved in liturgy, we're involved in what I call a suspension of disbelief. You stop disbelieving, it's like reading, or seeing a movie or novel -you know it's not true. But while you're watching it, if you want to feel it, you make it like it's real. And in making it look real, it becomes real. So I call this suspension of disbelief. And through suspending disbelief means the normal skepticism, and one gets involved in it, and feels it, then becomes much more credible, because you're a participant rather than a spectator.
Hmm, that's beautiful. I think perhaps that is the biggest takeaway from your class was allowing myself to look at the Siddur as poetry. And it becomes davka more alive and more vibrant. So it started with an interest in the Shema. I'm wondering for you, as that article evolves, what you're, the core of what you're trying to get across when it comes to the Shema, which I would say is the prayer that probably most Jews are familiar with.
The first paragraph of the Shema, I would say is probably known by heart by more Jews, than any other line. I mean, the paragraph and the opening line, I would say most Jews know by heart, Shema Israel. But if you ask somebody, what does Shema Israel mean? Right? What's its message? The structure of it, why God's name is mentioned two or three times? And why is it Shema Yisrael starts with the singular and moves to the plural? And even if you ask people what the word God is one, what is the word one mean? Is it one mean two, even that would be very difficult for most people to interpret, even though everybody feels they understand it while they say it. But if you ask them what they mean by what they're saying, they begin to stutter. Even more so, you take the second paragraph, I mean, actually first paragraph, the Shema, not realizing that it's has a literary structure to it. And the first line should be followed by a colon. So goes, v'ahavta et adonai eloheicha b'chol levavcha u'vchol nafshecha u'vechol meodecha, there are three elements there. Then you put a colon. Once you do that, you realize that the rest of the paragraph is explicating. What would it mean the b'chol l'vavcha, what would it mean, v'chol nafshecha, and the most extreme expression, what does u'vechol meodecha mean? So if you look at the Shema as a way of interpreting that line, then you see it as a literary unit. Once you see it as a literary unit, you realize that if you put it out of order, or if you missed the word, you missed the point. So you have to really pay attention to the sounds, the poetry, probably also the history, and together meaning emerges. But you just don't read a line as it means the following. So this attention to language, the attention to sound and poetry is extraordinarily significant and appreciating the Siddur. After all, don't forget, the Siddur was not originally read. The Siddur was heard. People don't realize that. We read with our eyes. In antiquity, nobody read with their eyes, and almost all prayers are recited out loud. Therefore it was a was primarily an oral experience, not a visual experience. And we have to restore much of it and of course, a great chazan. For example, the Kol Nidrei. I mean without the music, what is Kol Nidrei? Because you don't even know the words, but people want to be in synagogue to hear what those sounds, those sounds evoke all types of things. And it's evocative sound, which makes it. Unatane tokef, for example, a great chazan can make you really feel that life is at stake. But I mean, it's not just the reading of the word as primary, without the hearing, because only the hearing gets you emotionally involved. It's really that you read something, you can emotionally feel it. Like you hear it, you put two together, and you shake it all about. That's what it's all about.
I think it's interesting to think about this from an accessibility perspective, also. Because most of the people who are in synagogues are not fluent in Hebrew, they don't understand word for word, what they mean. And sometimes if we look across to the translation that's on the page, it doesn't mean much if we just take it at face value if we take it literally. But the sound is something that we that we can get carried away in, which I think is beautiful.
Oral, oral, put the two together, oral oral.
Yes, we need both.
They both really converge. And that's why my favorite thing I enjoy doing one of the most is teaching rabbis the Siddur. Because if I teach them, they'll teach others. So there's a ripple effect. And it's - I love it when I have rabbis, and they're Reform, Conservative, Orthodox rabbis all in the class, because there's a common denominator, which is ignorance of the Siddur. And then it's a common elimination because they all -the major texts for a rabbi, is that the chumash. The major text for a rabbi is the Siddur. And if he understands it, he'll make others understand it. And I think that appreciation of the Siddur is going to lead to revival appreciation of prayer.
So what would you those rabbis and by extension, those of us listening, to know, what is misunderstood? Let's first talk about the Siddur as a whole, as a corpus, as a unit?
That's a fascinating question. What is it for example, I just published an essay, entitled the Theology of the Siddur. And I began looking for material to research on the subject, and found that nobody ever been an essay on the theology of the Siddur. There is people who write on specific prayers. But nobody says doesthe Shacharit service as a whole have a message? And is it coherent? Let's appreciate the theology of the Siddur and its liturgy, but in order to do that, you have to understand its history, when it got into the Siddur, and to what sense, is it coherent? Let's just start off with something very common. Adon Olam. There is no prayer better known than Adon Olam because you can sing it to anything. I even heard it one time sung to Silent Night. I mean, the person didn't know it. He was as Sephardic Jew. But he was having it be December and he was walking in a mall and he came to synagogue and someone told him, what tune for Adon Olam? So he's saying, let's do to Silent night. My point is anything you think to Adon Olam. Now, one of the most popular songs of Adon Olam, Adon Olam asher malach, is Hashem li v'lo irah. Adon Olam, which means God is my God. I do not fear. Who do I not fear? Adon Olam! Why would a person end a prayer saying I do not fear Adon Olam? Apparently he has no understanding what the words mean. He follows what the tune makes it. But here's remarkable, if you walk up to the average person said, What does the word Adon Olam mean? He would say Adon Olam is master of the world. Almost everybody translate like that. Some translations get it right. They say I don't know mom is eternal Mr. Which actually it is. Because Adon Olam is written by a Spanish poet. Spanish poets mimicked Biblical Hebrew, the word Olam in Tanakh only means temporal. Later on, it took on a spatial meaning. But if it weren't for that, if you look to read a Adon Olam, then every phrase begins with a temporal phrase, so Adon Olam, next line is b'terem kol. B'terem is prior, that means temporal. Then it says acharei, which is after, then it says, azai, relate to all the terms your temporal. So the argument is that God is an eternal God, not that He is God of the world, that is other places. Here we established God's eternity. And the theology is, says God preceded creation. God succeeds creation, because God is not dependent upon anything. Therefore what? God is eternal. And it says Eternal God, who is my God, that's your thesis. But if you misunderstand the Hebrew, Olam because you're thinking in rabbinic Hebrew terms, not in biblical Hebrew terms, you missed the point. That's why understanding philology is important, history is important., literature and poetry is important, and theology is important, but they have to be all done together.
It totally opens it up in a new way for me also because to say, the God of eternity that which is constant and not dependent on anything else in the universe, I have a relationship with and that is what makes me feel safe. It totally changes it, at least for me. So, yeah, thank you for that.
You just summarized Adon Olam. The first 6 lines deals with God's sovereignty and eternity. And the last four mindset is sovereign eternal God hears about me. Therefore what no reason to fear it's remarkable structure. And its structure is so good you can you cannot find a tune that you cannot apply to what? To Adon Olam, the beat is just superb. And that's why it caught on.
It's superb. And I also find, oftentimes, for myself, one might think because I'm a musician, I would want to sing all of the t'fillot. But I think it actually causes me to listen more intensely to the words if I read it, like I love just reading Adon Olam. Adon olam asher malach beterem kol yetzir nivrah, right, just hearing it. It gives me chills in a way that even a beautiful melody couldn't do that because it's letting the words stand on their own.
Or you can see this specifically in the spelling out of the divine name without pronouncing it. Hoo haya. Hoo hove. V'hoo yihiye. You can almost breathe it, you see it? Hoo haya, if you don't breathe it, it's like Elohai Neshama shenatata bi. Atah barachta. Atah yatzartah. So a prayer about the soul is understood through breathing. Because the more you breathe, the more you the word soul and breathing of course in Hebrew is the same word. So the Elohai Neshama makes you breathe by having the ah endings. Berachta. Yetzarta. Nefachta. Neshamra. Yousee that? Ah, ah, ah,ah. To become aware of your breathing while you're talking about the neshama. And the neshama in the Bible is called neshamat elohim. God breathed into you the soul of life. So in breathing becomes more credible. If you sit there, not breathing.
And the Adon Olam verses v'hu haya v'hu hoveh v'hu yihiyeh, past, present and future. It's connecting my breath to the everlasting temporal nature of God. It's connecting that spirit together. Right meaning my breath the part of me that is, I might say like, divine. If that's part of God, that's also forever. My breath is the same breath that has been here since creation. That even adds I think, at least to me, a more spiritual depth to just saying it.
Because even Adon Olam, every mind ends up. Right? Yikra. Tzara. Ekra. Yira. Ah ah ah. All 10 lines end with an ah. So the rhyme scheme even Adonai melech, adonai malach, adonai yimloch, you see that? In English I say he is he was he is he will be is not as strong as hu haya hu hove hu yihiyeh, different ballgame.
It totally is. Are there other prayers in particular that you find to be the most misunderstood that you would want, the rabbis in the cantors to teach the people or any of our listeners?
The two most disinterested prayers are probably outside of Adon Olam, the two most beloved prayers. The first is Kaddish and the second is Lecha Dodi.
Oh, yeah please share.
Neither one has been properly understood. Let's start with Kaddish. Kaddish, the Kaddish has nothing to do with people who are deceased. Let's call it Kaddish Yatom, which is a late development and in the Kaddish, probably kicks in around the 20th century after the Crusades. The Kaddish is primarily a prayer for redemption. And the redemption comes about by making God's great name and sanctified. But originally, the Kaddish was a bridge prayer between Yishtabach and the Barchu, who has its original location at the end of pseukei dezimra. How do we know this? Because the language of the Kaddish mimics the language of Yishtabach. If you take the Kaddish and take the Yishtabach you will find overwhelmingly common terminology. Just to give you an example, the opening to words of Kaddish are yitgadal v'vitkadash. Gadol v'kadosh. Yishtabach begins hael hamelech hagadol v'hakadosh. Okay, now, the second part of the of the Kaddish is yehei shlama shmei rabah m'varach l'olam u'leulmei almayah. Now that in Aramaic, is almost identical to the response to the barchu, barucha adonai hamvorach leolam vaed. Both lines have 3 elements. A reference to God, the word, a form of the word baruch, and the phrase of eternity. Meolam vaed. Right? So those are the three basic elements of ancient prayer. Reference to God, using the word Baruch, and referring to God. They are found in yehei shmei rabah in Aramaic, and are found in the response to the Barchu in Hebrew. So you see that originally it was a marker to bridge the gap between Yishtabach and Baruchu. Why do you need to bridge it? Because in the ancient times about 12th century Germany, we found also evidence in Egypt, a person had a right to stop the service before they moved on to the Shema, if he had a complaint against the congregation. Or it was a poor man who felt that his needs were not taking care of he could stop the service and make a complaint. So now the question was, how do you get back into the service? After all, we just finished yishtabach, we have to move into Barchu. So we have a prayer whose function is to bridge the two. And his constant is praising God, there are 10 words of prayer, yitgadal v'yitkadash. Strangely, we call it the Kaddish. And the opening word is Yitgadal. The word Kaddish doesn't appear there. And the Kaddish first appears in the siddur of the Sadya Gaon, and he refers to it as Yitgadal. How did the name go from the opening word which makes sense? Most prayers in Judaism are called the opening word. The Adon Olam is the opening word. So why don't we say call it Yitgadal? How did he move from Yitgadal to Kaddish? Not only that, not only the first word, but the word itself doesn't appear in the prayer. It's amazing. It's an amazing transformation, what happened there. So it's a whole discussion that we could spend the whole time on on it, but it's misunderstood and its function. And if you see it as an extension of Yishtabach, then it becomes a marker of the service, then it became a marker with a finale of a service. So it turns out that the eschatology or the understanding of redemption, of the Kaddish is almost identical to Aleinu. Because both of them were competing to be the finale of the service. Now we do both. So for example, almost all schemes of redemption, for example, the Amidah are talking about restoration. Restoration, rebuilding of Jerusalem, restoration of exiles, coming to the Messiah, all these are restorative movement visions. And none of them are in the Kaddish or the Aleinu. The Aleinu and the Kaddish each only have one thesis, the universal extension of the mind sovereignty, recognized by all humanity. That combines the two. So Kaddish became kind of a eschatological finale, just like the aleinu is. Its original role was to bridge the gap between Yishtabach, and Barchu, I would say that that understanding is quite rare.
I wanted to stay on the Kaddish just for a second. And first of all, to also say that the image of someone interrupting a service is very powerful to say, we're all here as a community praying. And I feel slighted by the community or I don't feel like I'm a part of the community. We have to fix this here and now, I cannot imagine that happening in most synagogues today. And it just seems, but it seems to make sense if we're praying as a community and this is our time together. What might that have looked like.
Praying together here, for example, you know, according to Jewish law, if people do not like the rabbi, it's not a big deal. I mean, the rabbi is partially effective. But if they don't make the chazan, you can't be a chazan. If people know, the halacha is, if the chazan knows, there's somebody in the congregation who dislikes him, because he's done him wrong. And he and he can't be the chazan. He has to reconcile it because a chazan is a shaliach tzibbur? How can I represent somebody I don't like? The rabbi doesn't have the responsibility. Good, effective. Everybody likes the rabbi is probably not doing his job. But a chazan is supposed to be beloved because he represents you. Remarkable. So when those days are creation, what about somebody who's been slighted by the community, or a poor man who's about to take care of? So you get a right to introduce into, into interfere into-
Interject. No interrupt, actually, the service? That's about the 20th century. But in for about the 10th-12th century, we have evidence both from Germany and in Egypt, so Sephardic and Ashkenazi, where people had a right to stop the service, and the community had to deal with it. Remarkable. I mean, if anything, create a sense of community, and you're not slighted, and of course you stopped the service. It wasn't the wealthy people, they always got want anyhow, no - it was what those who disregarded so it really created community unity. Remarkable phenomeon.
And it also doesn't anymore, though. Yeah, I don't think so. But it also brings to life the words I'm thinking now of the Haftarah. for Yom Kippur, you know, God really saying, none of this actually matters if you're not going to do right by your community. And to say that it's not just about the sacrifices don't matter, but these prayers, you know, if they're not leading us towards better community. Yeah, that's really powerful. I'm also wondering, partially because I went to a Shiva minyan this morning, so it's on my mind. When you see the development of the Mourners Kaddish and kind of what role that fills in a Siddur.
What you see is when you went to a Shiva minyan, first place the person someone died? No?
Someone dies and the very close to you. You don't feel very social. Especially if you lost a parent who was not over 80, young. Or you lost a child, which is really terrible. That happens, right? You really start what, insulating yourself. And you really feel that nobody has any idea what you're going through. Secondly, is, since I'm a rabbi, I'm amazed how many people at a shiva are angry. The most common phenomena are women who are angry with their husbands for having died on them. It been a little more healthy and considerate he would still be around. Like, he left me alone. Mourning, there is anger there. They're always expressing it till you talk to them quietly. There's a lot of anger. There's a lot of anger against God, what do you do to me? And it was everybody feels in the first three days. So their anger at the deceased, a frequently anger at God. And also they get angry at the community. How can you you don't really know what I'm going through, even though you talk. So it's a kind of it's say, this involvement in the community, both theologically and socially. And the last thing I want to do at that moment is praise God. What does it mean you make me do? The minyan makes me cause others to say yehei shmei rabah, remarkable. Secondly is I can't say Kaddish unless what? They're there, so I need them. And frequently, we go to many synagogues, if the Kaddishers don't show up, they don't have a minyan. So the kadddish creates a mutual sense of responsibility. We need each other, we need, and when I have to go to minyan every day, I don't feel it initially. But I do it for you, I become a major part of the minyan. I need them, they need me, I gotta show up. So I get reengaged in the community. And I cause others to praise God, which kind of removes my cynicism, which is after death, and frequently is also nihilism. And then there's a lot of what, anger which people translate as atheism, whicch is kind of a joke. Oh, I'm so angry at God, I won't believe in him. I mean, it's almost like childish. Right? What they're really saying is, I'm angry at God. Because if you believe in Him, he's like, I'm gonna give him something he doesn't deserve. In the meantime, you into what, affirming her existence, so remarkable. But you don't have the logic of mourning is not the magic of normal life. And it takes a good week to overcome it, a month. And when your spouse dies, in my experience, a year isn't enough. It takes about 18 months, when you lose a spouse who you love. That scar remains forever.
Right. And it seems like a beautiful meshing of kind of the prayer on its own and the theological implications of it, meeting the real people who are saying it and the community that is a part of it. That's really beautiful. The second prayer that you said was the most misunderstood was the lecha dodi. So I would love to hear, I would love to hear what you have to say about our beloved lecha dodi.
Well, I have a whole book on Lecha Dodi. In Hebrew, it's called Lecha Dodi v'Kabbalat Shabbat, Hamashnut Evistic. It argues -
What does that title mean in English?
In English, it's Lecha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat, the Mystical Meaning. Okay, so it's a title. The title was called the mystical meaning of Lecha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat is a Hebrew book, but there's a very extensive English summary of the book, about 20% of the book is English summary. Anyhow, the point of Lecha Dodi, it was - It was created by Kabbalists. So you sing Lecha Dodi, if you're competent somebody in Hebrew, you understand every line you're saying. But you understand no stanza, you have no idea why those lines go together. You say shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad, hishmianu el hameyuchad. Okay. Next, Hahsem echad u'shmo echad. What was the connection? L'shem ultiferet v'lithila. In other words, you cannot make sense of any stanza, if you only understand in terms of its biblical background, or its rabbinic background. You have to understand it and will by virtue of its Kabbalistic background, don't forget the Lecha Dodi. No the lines, each line makes sense on its own
And it makes sense together.
If you put the lines together, it doesn't go here. Meaning if you try to move almost all the words in Lecha Dodi are biblical except you meyuchad, that cannot be understood biblically. For example, shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad, the statement in the Talmud about the nature of the Divine voiceat Sinai, but most of the lines you will not understand, if you only understand it as rabbinic sense. Now, Lecha Dodi was written by Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. He was a Kabbalist in the city of Tzfat, and the brother in law, the most famous Kabbalists of Tzvat, Moshe Cordovero, they probably compose Lecha Dodi about 1555. Give or take. In any case, it was written for Kabbalists by Kabbalists, of Kabbalists. What does that mean? That means that everything has four levels of meaning, and Kabbalistic reality, four levels of meaning they are space, time, human, divine. So everything operates on a human level, I mean, not a space a level, a temporal level, a human level and a divine level. So, when you realize that all of reality has four axes, then everything you understand you would have to understand in four different ways. Let me give you an example. So it's the, the Talmud says, lo karva yerushalayim ad shechiluv ba et hashabbat. Jerusalem was not destroyed, so they desecrated within it the Sabbath. What's the connection between desacrating the Sabbath and destroying Yerushalayim? So you make up an explanation. So in Kabbalah they're intrinsically connected because all spatial terms have temporal coordinates. So if I asked you, what is the most holy thing in time in Judaism, you would say Shabbat. What's the most holy thing in space, Jerusalem, therefore, the two are connected. So therefore, if I desecrate the Sabbath in Jerusalem, I desecrated sanctity in time. What do I lose? Sanctity in space. Jerusalem. If I want to regain sanctity in space, I have to rededicate myself to sanctity in time, because time and space are two dimensions of the same thing. So whatever happens in space, reverberates in time. What reverberates in time reverberates in space. So Lecha Dodi has nine stanzas. The first two and the last one deal with Shabbat. The middle six deal with the rebuilding of Yerushalayim. Hitna'ari, and they're all reversable. Hitna'ari, hitorerei, uri uri. So if you're, I say awake, what? You're asleep. I say get into the dust, you're in the dust. They're all verbs of restoration. What's the goal? To restore Yerushalayim to its sanctity. How do we restore Yerushalayim to its sanctity? By observing of Shabbat. Because time and space. Now let's look at the opening line. Lecha dodi likrat kallah penei shabbat nekabelah. How many words there? Exactly. Seven. Right? Good. Now, which makes sense, is the Talmud out of the Sabbath? Lecha dodi. Now who is dodi?
Who is my beloved in this scenario? That's a good question.
Who is my beloved in this scenario? It's a great question. So according to the Ramak, which is his brother in law, the word Dodi is a code word for the divine name. Because daled and hay are interchangeable with regard to the Divine. I could abbreviate God's name by saying daled, put a slash above it, hey, a slash above it. So dodi is 4 letters. Spelled backwards? Is yud daled vav daled.
Woah, yud hey vav hey!
What do you get. Yud hey vav hey! Now the point being that nothing is as it appears. Now it's not because what appears is wrong, is everything is more than it appears. So when I say my beloved I could refer it also what to the Divine. So now let's try this out. Lecha Dodi, I'm talking to my beloved guide. Lecha dodi likrat kallah. Both of us are gonna go, right, greet the kallah. Now who is the kalah? The kalah has four dimensions. They are space, time, human, divine. What's space? The kallah is Yerushalayim. Isaiah refers to halakalt hayofi, as a bride, but a kallah is also what? Shabbat is called a bride. Not only then, one's wife is called the bride. Not only that, the Shechina is referred to as a bride. So in going toward Shabbat, I'm going toward the rebuilding of Yerushalayim. I'm reestablishing the relation with my human beloved, in order to link up with my divine beloved, which what I just said, because according to Kaballah, a man is called a palga. A palga means he's half. He can't become whole till he has a woman. When the woman and man become whole, only as a whole, whole, can the unit you really unite with shechina. The Shechina does not unite with half elements. It only unites with whole elements, but every male and female is only half. Together to become a whole. So therefore going to greet my human bride, I'm going to greet my divine bride, I'm going to greet Shabbat, and Yerushalayim, and how do you know this? The last few words: lecha dodi likrat kallah, penei shabbat nekabelah. So penei shabbat becomes what? Pennei kahllah.
Otherwise you would say Lecha dodi likrat kallah, penei kallah. The bedekin ceremony, you go to the kallah. With the kallah is what, see how the word goes? And what's the kaballah? It should say t'kabelah, you! N'kablah is wait! Because God and Israel have a rendezvous. When do they meet? On Shabbat. See how it goes? Now, if you want even go stronger? You wouldn't believe this. The lecha dodi likrat kallah, you know many letters that are? Exactly 15.15 in Kabbalah stands for the first two letters of the divine name. Yud and hey, yud is 10 hey is 5. The last phrase of the opening line, this, the refrain has 11 letters. Vav. Hey. So what is spelling out? Yud plus hey plus vav plus hey. Because the function of Kaballah and doing a mitzvah is unifying the Divine that brings about the reparation of the world! That's the Tikun. So in saying lecha dodi likrat kallah, you're doing an act of yichud. Now the word yichud, rings on many levels. Yichud is husband wife relationship, but it's also human divine relationship, because the same word combines both and that is the word davek. So in the book in chapter two of Genesis, male and female are the davak b'isho. In Deuteronomy atem hadvikim adonai eloheichem chaim kolchem hayom. So the both Deuteronomy and Genesis use the same word, cleaving, davak, to understand the divine human relationship. And the husband wife. Remarkable. So the two go together. And Lecha Dodi is all based on it. So if you every stanza, you have to understand on 4 different levels. And if you do, it suddenly becomes coherent. So everybody loves it, because you can sing it beautifully. Everybody loves to sing it, they love the tune. And they feel very romantic when they're singing it. But they don't realize they're understanding on one level. And to really appreciate it to the all four levels, every stanza's written in four levels, suddenly will all make sense if you understand Kabbalistically.
It's mind blowing. And I think even because I know personally, I have trouble in my life with the Kabbalistic nature that is very binary in in Kabbalah, there is male and there's female. And I don't necessarily see that in the world, but still about coming together with other people in intimacy and closeness in any sort of relationship. It's really powerful. And I think it brings up this important thing that I learned in your class that I continue to learn from you and that I try to show through the light lab is, you know, we would read the Torah. We we don't take any line on its own ever. It's surrounded by commentaries, and we want to learn different opinions and who, how has it translated differently? And what are different people say about it? And yet the Siddur we so often take at face value, and then we're missing all of this richness. The problem is, of course, that in the act of prayer, in the potentially emotional, personal, vulnerable act of prayer, is there a chance for us to stop and learn these things? How do you see the kind of more academic learning or the digging in to these gems of the liturgy? What place do you see that having in prayer practice? How might that be balanced?
Well, actually, you made a very insightful statement, The chumash, a classical chumash is surrounded with commentary. So we always we studied chumash with mefarshim. We have Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, right? Mostl siddurs, especially those translated into English, come without commentary. Now more and more the different movements of almost each one put out a Siddur recently, with commentary: Reform Mishkhan T'fillah, Conservative Lev Shalem. So there's and even the Orthodox I know of several, one put up at the RCA itself. And one put up, the other one put out by the former chief rabbi of England, modern Orthodox. And then of course, Artscroll, you have your right wing orthodox. Now almost all of them have commentary. Bery little of the commentary is with literary and historical issues. Most of the commentary of almost all these movements, except probably the Reform was written, the only one that was written by professional liturgist. Almost all of them are sarmonics, and hortatory. So, if you read the Modern Orthodox one, it's full of Solovechik. If you read the Artscroll, it's full of right wing guys. You read the Conservative, it's full of poetry, things like that. There are some elimination of the actual texts, or there is almost no room or place for a literary development. Now, the poetry for example, Lev Shalem does the best job in laying out this, the prayer so you see the poetry. So many of the siddurim, which is poetry, they write it as prose, you don't even know it rhymes. The layout on the page, like reading E. Cummings, for example. I mean, if you made it to prose you want it's going on there, the layout in the page is significant. And it's significant to poetry. So we're getting better, we have a long way to go, which is why I recently I'm now publishing a book entitled, The Rhetoric of the Liturgy. And it's a historical and literary commentary to the daily prayer book. And it takes every single prayer in the liturgy in the morning Shacharit service, explaining its historical development, its literary structure, and what makes it work as a prayer. So, but it may take a full book, one day, maybe I can shorten and put into actually a Siddur. But it takes a lot of background to give the information just like we did with Lecha Dodi. The how you're, what I just explained the opening line of Lecha Dodi, how would I put that all on the page, it will take maybe a third of the page already. We should put up what is called, just like the JPS puts out a chumash with extensive commentary, which has probably done wonders for the understanding of the Torah. Hopefully, one day we'll do the same with the Siddur. We have commentary and extensive literary and historical commentary to make says, how does this selection become prayer-able?
I'm very excited for for your book. I think it's so important and I think we can find spaces like this podcast, hopefully other classes and connections that we can host, you know, here at the Light Lab to give people the space to study. You know, there's Torah study, in on a, you know, Tuesday morning at a synagogue is separate from the reading of the Torah on Shabbat and yet if you go to one, it informs the other. I'm wondering then in your own prayer life, just as a person as a Jewish person, how has your academic work in the liturgy informed your prayer life?
Well it's transformed it. When I say Adon Olam, I don't know, I can't, it's no longer a song, it's theological poetry. Even the Shema, and Lecha Dodi, my gosh, right? I can't rush through it anymore. If I'm rushing through a prayer, I gotta slow down. And I got to think what I'm saying, and I got to see all the words fit together. And then you when you in my sense, I work intellectually then emotionally. Some people, there are all different types of people. As always arguing for the the preferability of one over the other, but I work intellectually by either do actually, I get myself emotionally involved. But if it doesn't appeal to me intellectually very difficult time, emoting. Other people work in the reverse. So each person has to find out what what kind of works for them and what how does it work? So for me also very important, is niggunim. Extraordinarily important. The right niggun, a good niggun, the best in the business is Chabad. Chabad has 10 niggunim more than that, but some of them are really prayerful. It's almost difficult to sing them without feeling prayerful. They do, but they're quite a few others. Of course, nowadays, we have Carlebach, we have Debbie Freeman. I mean, there's no shortage of people. And if you go online, you'll see all types of podcasts that people putting up prayers, singing songs, the number of women with guitars we're now singing prayers online is galore. Right now though, it is very enriching. Extraordinarily original. The worst thing is to have prayer dominated by a single gender. That's absurd. You got it? You need women doing it. You need men doing it. And each people, people bring to bear what they are. So it's we need multiple, multiple, I would call it And also people explain the prayers. Because what you, who you are, you bring to what you analyze who you are, and your emotion, what makes sense to you. And therefore no single individual can do this everybody, as very important, by the way in in commentary, there's very few Siddur comments or almost none which have feminine voices. Lev Shalem has now several poems by women, and Mishkan T'fillah, the Reform do it. But I mean, the women's voice, especially I think, if I'm not mistaken, half of the non orthodox rabbis now are women. So I've been led to believe, and the other movements is like 50/50, something like that. So the women are therefore contributing major elements, which the male experience, male experience was frequently meant the human experience, different from male, you got excluded. So now we're hearing feminine voices, theological voices, liturgical voices, it's clearly enriching, though possibilities and allowing women to find their place is amazing. So lecha dodi may be a great one.
I want to go back quickly as we kind of wrap up this conversation together to what you said about needing to take your time. Because I have found that ever since that class with you, the more I learn, the more I fall in love with the liturgy, the slower I have to take it. I'll spend the entire time focused on one phrase that feels so potent or powerful, or one paragraph or one idea. And yet the Siddur developed over the course of thousands of years to have so many words in it. What is the balance? How do we balance that both as an individual person who's in the service and the leader's going to do what they do? And as people who are planning and leading services, how do we make space for both the maybe we feel halachically obligated to say all of the words, or we like the kind of chugging forward meditative motion of saying all the words, balanced with being able to savor these beautiful gems of texts that we have.
Well, if you can keep a secret, I'll tell you.
I assume you can keep a secret. I'm just worried about the people you tell whether they can keep it as well.
So listeners, you gotta keep it.
When I pray alone, not in a minyan, I will sometimes skip parts of pseukei dezimra. Because if I have this, otherwise, I'll be there all morning long. So I'd rather focus and by the way, the Ashrei is so rich. One time said to one of my teachers, you know what, if you really sing Ashrei well, you could just you could, that's it, you said everything. It is so rich in its poetry and its structure. And if you appreciate it, there's just too much in there. Now, I'm also a rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue. They say everything out loud. And we sing the whole Az Yashir on Shabbat, we sing it out loud, it takes a long time. But boy, is it different when it's sung out loud by whole congregation and a tune which moves you. So it takes, we take a lot more time to pray. And another because you say everything out loud. And the more you sing it, the better it is. And the best thing is to start out with a niggun, a wordless niggun, and before you begin. To set the mood! All this takes time. So we do in our synagogue although I'm not publicizing it, is Musaf, we frequently do just do, just do Kedusha, we don't repeat it. We have a rule in our synagogue that if we go over a certain amount of time then we do not do the full Musaf. I'll tell you the repeat, the repetition the Musaf can take another 5 6 7 8 10 minutes, especially because we do Birkat Kohanim all the time, twice on Shabbat. So we have a certain time in or people know we're going to get done. And sorted. The result is we have more people coming at the beginning. People used to come in half hour late, an hour late, right? More as we begin, we have more people there because they know we're going to end on time. And everything done we're going to sing. So we have very little mumbling, a lot of singing. And of course everybody sings together, which makes it much more meaningful. So I would say if you have the the actually the the Torah Shulchan Aruch says is much better to have mot the kavanah than harbeh without kavanah. So this realization that the devotional element is significant as the loving requirements, especially Pseukei Dezimra, the halacha does not demand the whole thing. You got it? So I would say it depends what your service is. But if you don't spend a little bit time of prepping yourself by niggunim, or some people actually do that Birkot Hashachar, they act them out. They go like this or cover their eyes and say the bracha pokeach ivrim. You get it? Or malbish arumim. So the act which went up because originally they were said when the thing was done. Now we say it all together in the service, which kind of runied it. Because they were originally prayers of hana'ah, not sheva. Sheva is praise. It's applicable all the time. Hana'ah, when you're saying it, you have to have a sensual experience, you got to feel something. You say malbish arumim, they would, they would get dressed. Now, we say malbish arumim using the exact same words, that the Torah uses, when God garbs Adam and Eve. Right, it says, vaya'albishem, they were arumim. It's just remarkable. You hear it, not only that you experience it, it's like what? You hear the biblical echoes. And many of the brachot, malbish arumim. Almost each one of them has a biblical echo. So not only are you saying it by yourself, you're kind of standing in the mind of a 1000 generations, and you're going back as it were, to the original human beings. It's pretty remarkable. I mean, as a, I'm not talking historically, as a poetic self conscious of thing, it can be remarkable if you know what's going on. That's all.
It is 100% and I'm so glad to know that doing a little with kavanah, with intention is better than doing a lot without. To know that that's halachic precedent, that helps me a little bit.
That's about P'seukei Dezimra, but not with regard to the Shema.
Okay, sure, we got to see the whole things of that, that makes sense. But also, just how much the world of the Siddur is open to you. And even, you've discovered a few of these things. Each of them can be potent and powerful and you don't know which one is going to really hit or shine for you until you have the whole spread of them open up before you. It's really powerful. If there's someone who wanted to learn more about Siddur in this kind of poetic or intellectual way, where would you suggest that they start? The Siddur is very large, you know, where should we begin here?
Oh, I would start with Birkot Hashachar. The morning prayer. I would start with a prayer after defecation urination Asher Yatzar. The appreciation of the body, right? It was remarkable. Right at one time was over here to teach a group of nuns something about Judaism. So what am I gonna do? I taught them Asher Yatzar, I taught the here's a blessing after every urination defecation, you express your appreciation for how wisely your body is built, mafli la'asot, it's a wonder, look at your body is an expression of wonder. The things sometimes break down. We think of the complexity how really breaks down it's built into my computer. Right? And then I would go to Elohai Neshama, go from the body to the soul. I would spend time with those two prayers. You said quite a bit already. Right. And we rush through them.
I mean, I say them every morning. I normally have a lot of work to do in the morning and I rush through them. But on Shabbat I don't rush through them because I have nowhere to go. It's wonderful. You get it? So I focus your attention on it. And the fact that every time I come out of the bathroom, I see a blessing. Thank God for such a wisely, bechochma, and it's mafli la'asot, you got it? It's a wonder! My body is wondrous. That says I can't think of anything better. Because when you think your body is wondrous, you think, well, why is it so wondrous? And you begin to appreciate Adon Haniflaot, the Master of Wonders, that's how I would do it. And then I would do the Birkot Hashachar, each one of them. I used to teach elementary school and had every kid acted out, they would act out the blessings, they would go around, they would, I would say to them open you up, put your hands up in the air, make them wide. Now turn around, and we would see each of the baruch atuh each one. And then the last words we'd cover eyes and say pokeach ivrim, or we would touch our clothes, malbish arumim. I did this for 10 years old, 10 year olds, they loved it. But they will usually put it back in original context. So original context is, I think, extraordinarily important.
Extraordinarily important. And I hope listener you realize that we could have spent hours upon hours upon hours here talking about any one piece of liturgy, any one piece of text, there is so much more to learn. And I really appreciate that you joined us today to give us even a little taste of the poetry and the structure of the Siddur. And I hope when your book is published that you'll be back on to share even more gems with us. Thank you so so much for joining us today.
It's been a pleasure. And thank you for inviting me and it's a wonderful opportunity to get people involved in the Siddur and in prayer.
Amen. Amen. And thank you so much for listening. Again, you can sign up for our three week course in the various parts of the Shema, a deep dive into the Shema, those Wednesday classes are going to be with Professor Kimmelman, the Thursday evening sessions are going to be with me. You don't have to come to all of them. Sign up for the ones that you can. We really hope to see you there. Our podcast is edited by Christie Dodge. Thank you Christy. Our show notes are done by Yaffa Englander. Thank you Yaffa. Our theme song is A New Light by me, and I hope to see you and learn with you very soon. Take care friends.