On Yeshiva University's "From Within the Tent: The Sabbath Prayers"

Yeshiva University has published a thoughtful and inspiring book of essays on aspects of the Sabbath prayers. A special way to enrich one's own Sabbath knowledge and family discussions on the day of rest.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

"From Within the Tent: The Shabbat Prayers" is the fourth book of Torah essays written by esteemed Rabbis and Professors of Yeshiva University and edited by Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman and Dr. Stuart W. Halpern. The three previous volumes dealt with, respectively, the weekly Torah readings, the haftoras and the daily prayers and the series, all of whose essays are published for the first time, is a sterling example of how diverse, complex and interdisciplinary approaches to Torah can remain within the fold, filling the spacious, welcoming "tent" that is symbolized by Torah Umadda, Yeshiva University's credo. 

The Biblical source of the expression is a reference to Joshua, who is introduced to us as Moses' servant who "did not move from within the tent." This, despite the fact that Joshua will be assuming the heavy weight of leadership after his mentor's death, guide the Israelites as they leave the protected life in the desert, cross the Jordan, learn to live without the manna from heaven, conquer the Promised Land and divide it. He will have to solve endless new problems that Moses did not deal with specifically, but the Torah tells us symbolically that he will not "move from within the tent."

That is the Torah's message about Joshua and it is the reason for the use of the expression"from within the tent" when referring to Torah learning and observant Jewish life that does not shirk from solving new problems, expressing new ideas and delving into sources, but does so without going outside the parameters and framework of mesorah (law and tradition handed down from generation to generation). This principle is at the heart of the informative and inspirational articles in this book, written by rabbis as well as professors, men as well as women. It is a non-confrontational and enriching source of knowledge about the different forms of prayer that make up so much of the day of rest, on which, in contrast to weekdays, prayer is a Torah obligation according to some rabbinic writers.

The writers, including three women, are experts in the fields of history, philosophy, poetry, Tanach, Talmud and Minhag. Each, therefore, brings a unique approach to the aspect of Shabbat prayers that he chooses to analyze. 

Starting with the concept of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's lament for the lost "Erev Shabbat Jew," Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter sets a tone of love for the Sabbath, along with a pang in the hearts of YU alumni (such as this writer) who remember how "the Rav" emphasized the centrality of feeling the experience of mitzvot, while observing them with meticulous perfection.

The experiential theme continues with Dr. Rona Milch Novick's beautiful exposition of the history and values of Sabbath candle lighting and its effect on the family, ending with the evocative words "the peace of the Sabbath descends, the passionate words of the candle-lighting supplication focus on continuity, on children as torchbearers, both nourished by and nourishing, the Torah way of life…" I read parts of this article to the participants in our women's Shabbat shiur (Torah lecture) who all reacted emotionally, saying that it had added much to the significance of this familiar and traditionally women's mitzvah.

In addition to adding depth and knowledge to our prayers, whether Yedid Nefesh (the Friend of My Soul liturgical poem/song) sung on Friday night or the psalms added on the Sabbath to pesukei dezimra (verses of song, a section of the morning service to which more psalms are added on the Sabbath), the Mussaf (additional) prayer and the prayers preceding the Shema on Shabbat, the articles make the reader think about words he or she has been saying for years, such as laasot et Hashabbat – ask yourself, what does that word combination mean?

Reading the book, the reader parts from the Friday night service with an article on Kiddush in the synagogue, goes on to a Sabbath meal primer titled "Friday night done right", and – to enrich the Sabbath table conversation – finds an essay on the rationale behind zemirot (Sabbath songs sung during mealtime) followed by a schematic presentation of the ideas found in selected zemirot.

One of the eye opening topics is that of prayers for the government, then and now, containing the source of the first few words of the 16th century Diaspora prayer for the king, also proving the cleverness of those who wrote it and wanted to allude to something more. Inspired by the article to look through my prayer books, I found my late father's siddur had a  prayer for the welfare of Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary (!) and my bat mitzvah present siddur contained a prayer for the "President and Vice President of the USA". Continuing the theme, the next article takes the issue of the ongoing argument about the prayer for the State of Israel's welfare right by the horns, with an original and moving idea that supports saying the three most controversial words in the prayer, "the first flowering of our Redemption."

That brings the reader to articles on Seuda Shlishit (the Saturday afternoon third Sabbath meal), thoughts of Messiah, blessings for the New Moon and escorting out the Shabbat.

I would suggest that this important book be read by parents and young adults, and quoted a bit each week at the table, thus adding another level of meaning to Balaam's biblical words "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob...." - coming "From Within the Tent."