Time to put the poetry back into our prayers

By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen, August 30, 2012
Chazan Jonny Turgel leads a Yom Ha'atzmaut service at Finchley United Synagogue

Chazan Jonny Turgel leads a Yom Ha'atzmaut service at Finchley United Synagogue

I love both English and Hebrew poetry, especially sacred Hebrew poetry, which has a very long tradition stretching back to the Bible.

Prose is the medium of everyday speech. Poetry, on the other hand, with its rhythms and cadences, its innate economy of expression and rich and allusive vocabulary, powerfully engages both the emotions and the intellect, stirring one’s spirits in response to its beauty and enabling the reader to penetrate to the very core of its ideas.

Poetry is Judaism’s preferred medium of expression. Open any Hebrew Bible and one finds that all its words are endowed with musical notes, indicating that it was clearly intended to be chanted, like a song or poem. Attend any synagogue and you will hear the Torah scroll being read to a lyrical chant, with all the rhythms of a poem.

It is the same with the siddur and machzor. The distinguishing feature of a synagogue service is that it is led by a chazan who sings the service melodiously. Indeed, one of the main developments within Orthodox synagogues over the past 30 years has been the introduction of a vast repertoire of new and lively niggunim (melodies) for most of the hymns and prayers, a trend largely inspired by the late Chasidic musician, Shlomo Carlebach, who died in 1994.

The worshippers, likewise, do not merely “recite” the prayers; they also “sing” them; and it is not unusual — especially in smaller, less formal, Orthodox congregations — to hear individual worshippers so ecstatically involved in their prayers that their voices are raised above all those around them. In the larger, more formal, Anglo-Jewish congregations, on the other hand, that is generally regarded as exhibitionism.

The poetic basis of the prayer book becomes obvious when we consider that over one half of it constitutes individual psalms or verses selected from the biblical Book of Psalms. Of the other half, most of the Hebrew hymns and prayers, even including the apparently formulaic blessings, are also endowed with a rhythmic, poetic quality.

As a retired congregational rabbi, I have long been aware that there is a significant proportion of regular worshippers whose Hebrew reading is, to put it delicately, rusty. How, then, can spirituality be nurtured in a situation wherein one’s siddur and machzor are not merely closed books, but, in some respects, a source of embarrassment?

So, one of the main objectives of this project was to provide those who could not comprehend the Hebrew text with a user-friendly paraphrase of the major prayers and hymns, written in rhyming English poetry and in a style that, hopefully, they would find inspirational, devotional and informative. This can rarely be achieved by reading even the best of translations, inevitably confined by literalness and set as a crowded printed page.

Prayer is not meant to be mumbo-jumbo. It was clearly intended to be a personal, urgent and spiritually-satisfying exercise of approaching the Almighty and exercising our minds and emotions to express our love of and dependency on Him. Understanding what we are saying is, therefore, essential; and hence the value of these works.

My purpose is certainly not to replace the siddur and machzor, but rather to enhance the liturgical experience. My target readership is anyone with the urge to participate in the act of prayer; anyone for whom the prayer book is, as yet, too challenging, but who nevertheless seeks a stimulus for religious contemplation; anyone who would like to inject some spirituality and meaning into his or her home, especially on a Sabbath or festival, and any synagogue that would like to place into the hands of occasional visitors a devotional manual that conveys more than a flavour of what the congregation is praying at any given moment.

Educators may also find some benefit. Given the very demanding and varied subjects on the Jewish studies curriculum, fluency in Hebrew reading may not be achieved by all pupils. A school or cheder assembly that follows the lines of a regular synagogue service may also prove too challenging for many.
The introduction of these poetic and devotional readings, on the other hand, may well add interest, relevance and inspiration. A place may also be found for them as a starting-point for lessons on the subject of prayer and liturgy, and also among youth groups, especially at schemes where full services are not held.

From Rabbi's Cohen translation of Adon Olam:

Master of the Universe
Who alone was king,
Before His decision
To make anything.
The prayer of man,
Though lowly in station,
Became the crown
For His coronation...

Into His hand
I commit my soul,
During sleep
And waking hours.
Fearlessly, I live my life,
In His great powers.

translated by
Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen

The Machzor in Poetry: A Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur Companion, Jeffrey M.Cohen, Gnesia Publications, £15.95, and The Siddur in Poetry: A Weekday & Shabbat Companion, £12.95, are available from www.gnesia-publications.co.uk

Last updated: 4:50pm, August 30 2012