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American Liturgy—Albany

(For the Occident.)

When the Beth Din, at its first assembling, acknowledged the necessity of a common Liturgy for all America, and made it its problem to establish the new Minhag, according to the acknowledged decision of the Rabbins, and in consonance with the demands of modern times, the motive which moved the reverend gentlemen composing the assembly, was neither the desire for innovation, nor the thirst for fame, nor a giddy disposition for reform; but only and simply

  1. To bring unity among the members of every congregation, as well as among all the American Synagogues.
  2. To uphold the Word of the Living God, announced through Moses, his servant, in the free country of America.

It is well known that the American Israelites carne from different countries, and, brought with them divers Minhagim; and this circumstance must always prove a source of confusion and disagreement in the various Synagogues and the congregations; whereas the whole people of Israel serve the same one God, read and believe in the one Torah, are inspired by one hope, walk together the same way, abide by the same customs, leaning for support upon the same Providence; why then should they become strangers to one another, by a diversity of forms? Unity is the feature of God’s divine character; unity and peace constitute his holy will; unity and peace are the end and aim of our holy law. Verily, I, myself, am so strange, so lonely when I enter a Synagogue that has another Minhag,* that I can hardly fancy the people worshipping around me to be my Jewish brothers. These different forms, these, so to say, outwardly divers coloured garments, constitute the partition-walls, dividing the Portuguese, German, and Polish Jews from one another, and they are rendered to each other as strangers, although all descended from the same ancestry, and observing the same religion. But the American Jew should know and love his brothers, and thus should the dividing wall be entirely removed.

* We state here, once for all, that Minhag means nothing but form of worship, of which there are, in America, principally, the Portuguese, German, and Polish forms.—Ed. Oc.

Every feeling Israelite must have observed that in late times there have appeared, here and there, critical periods for our religion; I speak of many who lifted up their destroying hand against the Synagogue. In one place the Piyutim (the Poetical prayers) seemed to be wrong, unworthy of being recited; and without question or scruple, without regarding the Din (acknowledged decisions), and without any authority on their part, the reformers undertook to produce a change in the religion, and expelled the Piyutim from their worship; and all they are able to reply to us is, that they did not like so many prayers. In another place the people did not understand the Hebrew; they therefore wanted to pray in the German language, again without any authority. Thus the Din is neglected; and will not the neglect of ancestral authority ultimately be the ruin of the whole religion? In other places they do not even raise any question about such a small matter as the Synagogue; and from a dislike of the old customs, chaunts, tunes, and ceremonies, they convert the consecrated house of the Most High into a place of profane amusement, and instead of having a resort where to sanctify and adorn our souls, we have a house for pleasant meetings; and thus our whole religious structure is put in jeopardy by daring and ungodly bands.

Viewing the motives thus afforded for establishing a general liturgy, I repeat, that the labours of the Beth Din will present “a happy medium” between the extremes, and tend to unite and satisfy all the different par­ties, according to the doctrines of Maimonides (רמב״ם ה׳ פרקים). Be not terrified, my orthodox brother, about the tendency of the “happy medium;” the Beth Din honoured our Rabbi with the solution of this grave question, and Rabbi Wise is, though a philosophical scholar, an orthodox talmudist, not departing one step from the talmudic basis, and he is second to none in America in his acquaintance with our sacred literature. To convince you on this point, I will give you the principles on which the liturgy in question is based, with all the quotations from the Talmud in the original tongue, as I heard them given by Rabbi Wise, when he took the opportunity of an evening’s lecture, to speak on the subject, and you may judge then for yourself, but not hastily, I pray you; for the words were spoken by a man who is true with God, and means it honestly with his law.

  1. To pray three times every day is a Mosaic command, according to the opinion of Maimonides, in his יד החזקה. The Rabbi here stated that Nachmanides (רמב״ן) controverts this opinion; but he justified it with that acumen and sagacity which are only attained by a long study of the Talmud. I presume that the duty of a threefold daily prayer is undoubted, and therefore shall cite no arguments, the רמב״ם being authority enough for us. This, at once, should impress us with the conviction, that no alteration in the service should be undertaken by men not thoroughly versed in the service of our religion, for ספק דאורייתא לחומרא “in matter of doubt, concerning matters relating to the law, we should take the aggravative side.”

  2. Customs (מנהגים) are not generally obligatory; but only local in their nature (שלחן ערוך י״ד רי״ג). The Rabbi showed here through quotations from the Talmud that the Minhag of Palestine was not practised in Babylon and vice versa. In conclusion, he said: “The diversities of the Minhagim now existing in Israel, which have descended from a very ancient date, are the most positive proofs of the correctness of this principle.” We may deduce, therefore, that the establishment of a Minhag in America, independent of all other Minhagim, is lawful and possible to all those who know how to distinguish between law (דין) and custom (מנהג).

  3. Prayer is the most perfect service; more acceptable than sacrifices; as we read in Talmud אמר ר׳ אליעזר גדולה תפלה יותר (ברכות ל״ב) מקרבנות וגו׳ גדולה תפלה ממשים טובים וגו׳ (עיין שם רש״י ומהרש״א)

But we find this view yet clearer expressed by the ריב״ש ן׳ חביב in his commentary to

להודיע מעלת ספור שבחיו יתברך (בכורים פרק ג׳) סדר זרעים בכל בית הכנסת מיוחד להתפלל לפניו. מקרא מקדש מעט. וכל תפלות ותחנות שמתפלל שם כל איש ישראל שקולה כמעלה קרבנות ומתנות כהונה וגו׳ ומכאן הוראה חזקה אצלנו שאע״פי שהאריכה התורה במצות הקרבנות לא הם לבדם סיבת תכליתם בעבודתו אם לא בהצטרף עמם שיר הלוים ותפלת אנשי המעמד. כי הלא המה גם כן תכלית האחרון בעבודתו יתברך. ולזה נקרא התפלה עבודה שבלב וגו׳׃ יותאמת אלינו מכל זה כי לא הקרבן יעקר אלא התפלה בכל מקום אשר יזכיר את שמו כל בית הכנסת מקרא מקדש מעט׃ ובמסכת ברכות הארכתי עיין שם בענינים כל האומר תהלה לדוד וגו׳ מניין שהקב״ה מתפלל וגו׳׃

“It is our duty to make known the relation of the praise of the Lord in every place appropriated for prayer unto Him, and is called a minor sanctuary; and all the petitions and entreaties offered there by any man of Israel, are accounted as though he offered sacrifices, and the offerings of the priesthood. And hence we have a strong right to deduct, that although the law gives long details in the commands for the sacrifices, they are not themselves the final end to be reached in God’s service, unless it be with the addition of the song of the Levites, and the prayers of the lay delegates; for these, together with the former, are the chief object in his service, blessed by He, and therefore is prayer called ‘the service of the heart.’ From all this we may, therefore, take it as an established principle, that the sacrifices are not the principle of worship, but prayer, in every place where He will let his name be called, and which is styled a minor sanctuary, &c.”

The Rabbi next cited a number of opinions (סברים) to support the ריב״ש, and then he expressed his own views on the question. Referring to the Morah Nebughim of the Rambam, and the ancient history of Rotheck, he said, our ancestors were taught the scheme of sacrifices in Egypt, where they saw the beasts which God commanded them to slay as offerings, worshipped as deities by their masters. It was impossible for them to attain, in their state of servitude, that sublime and spiritual idea, that God would forgive the sins of man without offering Him any satisfaction; that He would listen to supplication without first receiving a present; or that He would be pleased with our thanksgiving without propitiating his favour by an outward sign of our gratitude. Two ends were therefore aimed at by the divine commands relating to the sacrifices; first, to build, so to say, a bridge between God and men; second, to withdraw them from the superstition of Egypt. To the question, What will be the service after the rebuilding of the sanctuary at Jerusalem? I must answer, that we must wait till Elijah comes (תיקו), for before that period we expect the fulfillment of the last words of Malachi: “Behold I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the coming of the day of the Lord, the great and the fearful.” But our Torah represents to us our God as the most perfect spirit, and the spirit can only be adored in the spirit, and this can only be effected by prayer.

(To be continued.)