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Thoughts on Our Ritual and Its Recital


As you invite your correspondents to consider the subjects so ably treated in your “Thoughts on the Jewish Ministry,” in the Occident for June and some previous numbers, I take the opportunity of offering a few observations, although not with the hope of exhibiting the question in any new light, for that is almost impossible. But, first, I will remark on a sentence in your paper as follows: “Men do not love those who tell them the undisguised truth, and hence they who depend on the public favour for their living or office, they who are ambitious to become the heads of the people, take great care not to offend those whose favour or partiality is necessary to sustain them,” that you do not do the present ministry in this country justice in saying this; there are many who lecture in English, and doubtless also some who lecture in German, who fearlessly speak the truth to their congregations. And what injurious results have been encountered by the more bold? Has any minister been discharged from his office, merely because he spoke the truth?—because he endeavoured, by pointing out the natural consequences of a sin<<248>>ful life, to draw his hearers to the paths of salvation? I think not; at least, I do not know of any who has so suffered. On the contrary, I think that although such congregations may not unfortunately adopt all that is so recommended by their pastor, although they may not abandon their sinful practices and habits: still they appear to hold such minister in high esteem, and to feel assured that the purest motives of religion and disinterestedness alone have actuated him. Nay more, I am most happy to record that, as far as respects a certain congregation in this city, it is but just to conclude, that not only has the truth been fearlessly spoken, but it has been so tempered with blandness and strengthened by example, that to a certain extent it has had the desired effect; for it is undeniable that several of the congregation alluded to, who formerly visited the Synagogue at most once in three or four months, and some only once a year, are now amongst its most constant attendants, besides having abandoned the desecration of the Sabbath by opening their stores, and many other malpractices; let us hope that this may be extended “ad infinitum.”

I will now consider the branch of the question that I mean to touch upon; that of our form of worship, and method of reciting it by our ministers and selves. I have not been a constant attendant at Synagogue in this city, as the distance of my residence, added to my increasing years, have prevented me; yet without boast I can say that, when a young man, I lost no opportunity of attending divine service, and observed all our rites, forms, and ceremonies to the letter. Yet, I will confess, I always thought, and still think, that our mode of worship, especially, is subject to great improvement. And why should it not be improved? It is of human origin. Our fathers, who composed, adapted, and arranged the service, although wise and pious men, were but men; and men very differently circumstanced from us. Granted, then, that it can be improved, the difficulty arises to find a sufficient ecclesiastical authority to effect it; I do not mean a man or men with sufficient talent or ability to carry out the object, but I mean an authority that would be all-sufficient to all; one that pious, good Jews would acknow<<249>>ledge; and there again arises what you have been so long and so strenuously urging, a meeting of the learned of our people,—men of the present day, who have the same wants and desires as ourselves, when all questions of reformation, &c., would be fully and impartially considered and decided on. And now let us state what we consider faulty: First, our prayers are too long. No man can say the daily Shaharith with devotion under two hours and a half; let any one who thinks he can, read it with proper emphasis in English, and he will find I speak within bounds. Our Minha and Ngarbit are not too long, and can be properly said within reasonable time.—Next, the Shaharith for Sabbath, the way it is now said, takes (including Zemiroth) from three and a half to four and a half hours, deducting three-quarters of an hour for offerings and hashcaboth, leaves as a minimum two hours and three-quarters; these prayers, properly said, would occupy at least four hours. Now as there are very few who can fix themselves to devotional exercises for two hours every morning, would it not be better that they should be materially shortened? It may be answered, “Leave them as they are, and let every man who cannot spare so much time as to say the whole would occupy, say a select part; or even say a prayer of his own or another’s composition, but do not alter our ritual.”

How, I will ask, can it be called our ritual? There is not one man in one hundred that uses it regularly,—they cannot; doubtless all say some prayers; and I will maintain that those who do not use our ritual, do better than if they did so, hurrying it over as they would be obliged to do, to get through it in three-quarters of an hour, or at most an hour; it amounts almost to blasphemy, to be reading prayers of the most sublime composition, addressed to the Omnipotent, in such a rapid way that the quickest ear cannot catch the pronunciation; in fact, very frequently the words are not pronounced, but run one into the other, forming a complicated mass of unmeaning sound.—Again; the same is done with a part of the prayers in the Synagogues, while other parts are dwelt on unnecessarily long.
Another feature, subject to the greatest improvement, is the making the offerings and Hashcaboth as a part of our prayers, <<250>> which, if left out altogether, would enable the reader to say the prayers slower, and consequently with more devotion, and prevent the bad feeling which frequently arises in the breasts of those gathered together, against the individual who detains them; for only those immediately connected by family ties, can feel any interest in an Hashcabah for a person who has been dead for perhaps twenty-five years; or in a string of unmeaning compliments pronounced by the Hazan for those only known to, or cared for, by the one who directs them. Another very objectionable item in many of our prayers, is the repetition to which they are subject; those for the holy day of [Yom] Kippur particularly, at least, one-third might be dispensed with, by which the remainder might be read in a manner suitable to the solemnity of the day, and not in part hurried over as is generally the case. Who that ever heard the Zemiroth on Kippur, but must allow that they are hurried over most shamefully, while they really form some of the most beautiful compositions for the day? All these things pointed out would decidedly be better “in the breach than the observance.” I am aware that the abandonment of the offering system would involve the necessity of raising a revenue equal to that given up by it. Now, in the first place, if I am rightly informed, the revenue from offerings is not so great as is generally supposed; it is something considerable, no doubt, but not so large as but that it might be easily made up by an addition to the seat rent, and by a tacit allowance of voluntary gifts. To effect this, I conclude that fifty per cent. might be added to the seat rent without any material objection; many of my acquaintance offer but about that proportion; and this, it will be recollected, can be recovered by legal process, while offerings (it is said) cannot be; although I cannot understand why a man who, in presence of a hundred witnesses, binds himself by public announcement (nay, almost by oath, for he calls on the Omnipotent to bless him for what he is about to give, as He blessed our forefathers), cannot be made to pay what he offers. Also, a charity-box, or boxes, might be fixed in the Synagogues, and individuals allowed to deposit what they pleased therein, the Shamas being required to empty them every night, so that there <<251>> might be no temptation to robbery. Thus, any one wishing to utter a prayer for his departed relative or friend, could do so to himself in an undertone, and give (by putting it in the box) whatever he intended to offer. I fear that a great many offer from ostentation, and that this arrangement would be the means of losing the amounts so offered (concluding that such men pay their offering bills); but even allowing that to be the case, it would, I consider, be a great desideratum to prevent, as much as lay in our power, all bad feelings arising in our bosoms in a place of worship. And farther, allowing that the revenue of the Synaogue should suffer somewhat, and we gained the object of a more practically devotional service, which, I will ask, is best? There can be but one answer. And what would be much in favour of this plan is, that a person would only have to pay what he offered at once, instead of from five to fifty dollars, as the case might be, at the end of the year, which would not be so much felt or thought of; and depend on it, that many a man and woman, too, would deposit a small sum, when shame would prevent their offering it publicly; so that I do not consider the result would be unfavourable to the revenue after all.

These suggested improvements are, I acknowledge, merely auxiliaries to the first and most desired requisite, which you have so frequently and eloquently urged. I mean a knowledge of the Hebrew language; that is the primary step to be taken, to which all others in the way of improvement would be subsequent; as I will maintain that when the language, in which we recite our prayers, is properly understood by us, it will be impossible to say them without devotion; and all practices that interfere with that devotion will gradually be excluded. At present, however, but few know whether we are praying for a continuation of the mercies we already so plentifully enjoy, or for the salvation of the soul of the great-grandmother of a man just arrived from some foreign country; whether we are reciting the order of the daily sacrifice as it was observed in Jerusalem, or making an acknowledgment of our many and glaring sins. I am sorry here to have to add, that our prayer-books, published by yourself and others with a translation on one side in English, do <<252>> not remedy the evil or supply the deficiency, as but very few possess them (among the males, especially); for from what I have witnessed in the Synagogue in Cherry Street, I conclude not above two-thirds of the congregation possess [prayer]books, or if they do, they leave them at home, as when they visit the Synagogue, they either have to borrow or sit without one. Now if they understood the Hebrew, the sublimity of the language, the new beauties that would gradually present themselves to their mental vision, the pious feelings that the study of it would awaken in their hearts as they advanced, would remedy even this evil, by creating a desire to join in the service, and that with a pure and heartfelt devotion.

I do not despair of seeing the day (old as I am), when a large majority, if not the whole of every congregation, will understandingly join in the service of our Synagogues; for there is a ray of improvement, small and faint though it be; the light of the sun does not burst upon us all at once; but is only faintly perceptible at first, gradually dissolving the darkness of the previous night, and revealing to the watchful eye the beauties that lay hidden in its impenetrable mists; as the refulgent light of learning will for ever annihilate the deep, the all-pervading darkness of ignorance. The “Hebrew Education Society” is an able instrument in the work of reformation; it may act but slowly, but it acts surely. It is refreshing to the soul to reflect on the proficiency in Hebrew exhibited by some of the pupils at the examination last month, by children who before did not know א from ב.

These remarks are, I am aware, but crude; but they are what occur to me as most desirable; and although I may fail in expressing myself in a way to carry conviction, still I offer my aid to remedy what I conceive great evils, and which, to be understood and removed, must be exposed in plain and unvarnished language,—such I have endeavoured to use; and in offering my quota, I can but accompany it with an assurance of sincerity, and a wish that the subject may be agitated until it is taken in hand by such men as are willing and able to effect the desired object.

Philadelphia, June 24th, 1852.

Note by the Editor.—Our correspondent, in his introductory remarks, we must say, displays much less experience than one so aged may be expected to have. Our own life, though not yet so far extended, has taught us that the bold speaker, and the man fearless in the decisions which his conscience requires of him to give, has but little hold on the affection of his hearers, much as they and others may be improved by his labours. Once, we well recollect, a certain person delivered a sermon (it appeared afterwards under the name of “The Spirit of the Age,” in a collection of his discourses), which was long the theme of complaint and coarse abuse by those who thought themselves touched, though no personalities were indulged in, and no hints employed to designate particular acts. Even a man who was well acquainted with legal lore, and who had but lately retired from the presidency of the congregation, declared if he had been present he would have pulled the preacher out of the pulpit, or words tantamount to that effect. We know well enough that no one would have dared to violate thus far the laws of the state, little as he might care for the ordinances of God. But this one instance is enough, and many more might be added, to prove that the preacher who is fearless, runs some risk, not indeed of a direct removal from office, but that of not being re­elected, and with our own ears, we have it charged as a great sin against a certain individual that he was too independent. Our correspondent may draw his own conclusions; we have but one, and this is, that those who seek popularity, and depend on popular election for their daily bread, cannot reprove the masses on whose fiat their earthly hap­piness depends, in the manner the prophets did of old.

What our correspondent means by “as respects a certain congregation in this city, it is but just to conclude, that not only has the truth been fearlessly spoken, but it has been so tempered with blandness and strengthened by example, that to a certain extent it has had the desired effect” (it is needless to quote more), we do not pretend to know. Is it true that the predecessor of this bland gentleman did not strengthen his words by example? and is it true, that it is only just now, that men who formerly did not observe the Sabbath, have left off this grievous sin? Our correspondent must certainly have looked through a coloured medium to see all this. We have also seen what is going on elsewhere, not alone in that one congregation, but all over the country, and can testify that the Sabbath has of late years attracted the attention of many who violated it more from interest than rebellion; and many have, from time to time, closed their places of business <<254>> and gone to the Synagogue on Sabbath and festivals. Of those who attend worship, however, there are no doubt several who do not observe the day of rest, but after prayers, or before even, transact their usual avocations, and then go and appear in the presence of the Most High, and offer him an insincere heart. Oh, how ardently do we desire that the conversions of which we occasionally hear, might be all that Israelites should desire, sincere, full, and uncompromising. But truth will force another confession from all who are acquainted with the frailty of mankind, and they will have still to mourn that all has not been accomplished when people come to a place of worship. It is needless for us to enlarge; but we must protest against this system of self-glorification which each little body of men are so apt to resort to, in order to justify their own acts, or to cast censure on those who have been not well rewarded for what they have accomplished.

As regards our correspondent’s reform propositions, we leave them to speak for themselves. We cannot touch the liturgy, either to abridge or to change it materially, at least not by the decision of one congregation. This is a question for an ecclesiastical authority such as we have frequently advocated; and only after mature deliberation, will even such as these venture to handle so difficult a subject. The time for reciting the prayers has been overrated. But this is a matter of minor consideration; and if the prayers are all necessary, the time can­not be taken into account. Of the abuses of the offering system, we enlarged in our July number, unknown, of course, to our correspondent. His suggestion that offerings could not be recovered by an action at law, is so far erroneous, that the Richmond congregation, which is even not incorporated, as no religious society can obtain a charter, actually recovered the offerings made by a member about the year 1826. Of this fact we are cognizant from our own knowledge. But we do not profess to be a lawyer; still common sense ought not to be opposed by law.