Yamim Noraim with Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik

“As the Measure of Knowledge such is the Measure of Love” - Maimonides.

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg, MD FACR, | updated: 12:00

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg
Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg

"Areshet Sefatenu"

In Worship of the Heart, Essays on Jewish Prayer by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (edited by Rabbi Shalom Carmy) the Rav dissects the mitzvot into the two well known components: “maaseh ha-mitzvah” (the piecemeal process of actual execution) and “kiyyum ha-mitzvah” (compliance with the norm).

He describes maaseh ha-mitzvah as a religious technique, a series of concrete media through which the execution of the mitzvah is made possible. For prayer maaseh ha-mitzvah is expressed by the standard text template. The Rav then forwards the following analogy:”There is technique in painting, the proper selection and use of colors, the expert strokes of the brush, and so on. Yet the painting as a piece of art is something different from all these details. It can never be integrated through a piecemeal, additive process, combining the various phases of the execution of the detailsof the artistic work. It is the personal element, the talent of the artist, the instantaneous creative spark that makes the work worthwhile from an artistic viewpoint.”  Whether the artist is focused on a realistic depiction of his subject or creating paintings with no representative subject matter utilizing color, shape and texture, mastery of technique is a prerequisite.

Working in a biomedical research laboratory the concept of the technical “piecemeal process of actual execution of a project” resonates with me. Whether the scientific approach is by a hypothesis-driven paradigm or by data driven inductive methodology the technical requirements are exacting and demand meticulous experimentation. Being involved in the development of a scientific tool or in the discovery of a new phenomenon typically requires multi-step, complex protocols that entail timely introduction of various components and conditions.

Often these experiments must be repeated due to a narrow tolerance to errors. And while the tedious technical execution of these tasks seems so disconnected from the overall goal they are critical and clearly indispensable. These rigorous technical scientific executions seem to be akin to the artist’s “brush and color techniques” and the “piecemeal, additive process” the Rav describes above.

If an artist is required to employ a meticulous technique to express an idea and the scientist must follow an exhaustive process, why not apply a similarly exacting standard to the technique of prayer?

In Halakhic Man the Rav states: “The mystics cleave asunder the barriers of the objectivity and the concreteness of the commandment. On a wondrous craft they navigate the waves of a mysterious subjectivity that surges and flows, that is constantly changing its shape and form, that is always metamorphosing, assuming new images, different guises; and the waves come and sweep the craft and carry them unto paradisiacal realms. Not so halakhic man!”. In Halakhic Mind The Rav carries this viewpoint even further: “Mystical trends which dominated Bergson’s biologism and intutionism, phenomenological emotionalism, the so-called humanistic hermeneutics, and the modern existential philosophy have played an important role in the confusion that pervaded European thought…….When reason surrenders its supremacy to dark, equivocal emotions, no dam is able to stem the rising tide of the affective stream”.

For the Rav the prayer technique was rooted in careful halakhic interpretation of text and liturgical nusach as well as adhering to demanding standards. One example of the Rav’s approach to prayer can be demonstrated by his perspective on the public repetition of the amida especially on the High Holydays, the Yamim Noraim.

The Rav posited that Tefillat Hatzibur, communal prayer, is defined and expressed by the repetition of the Amida by the Shaliach Zibbur. The Rav always stood at attention during the entire repetition. The Rav was so persistent in following this minhag (custom) that one Shabbat while quite frail, the Rav collapsed during Chazarat Hashatz  (cantor's repetition aloud of the silent prayer) and was rushed to the hospital.

The Rav insisted on standing at attention even during the repetition of the long amidot on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since all prayers on Yom Kippur included additional selichot and were quite lengthy, the Rav was standing at attention virtually the entire day. Every year just prior to Kol Nidrai the Rav would gather three men and using his own language (rather than the standard Machzor text) ask for hatart nedarim. The Rav would then specifically request nullification for his custom to stand at attention, lest his strength fails him during the coming Yom Kippur.

The Rav was vigilant in listening to every word of Chazarat Hashatz. In spite of the fact that the Maimonides Synagogue was filled during the Yamim Noramin (the High Holydays) there was total silence during the Amida repetition. Occasionally the Rav would ask that the Shaliach Zibbur (prayer leader) repeat words that were not clearly heard. During the Avoda, the description of the High Priest in the Temple) for example, the Shaliach Zibbur, flanked by two assistants who attentively supervised the recitation would start at “Shivat yamim kodem leasor” and slowly recite aloud the entire text while the Rav was repeating every word quietly.

It was indeed a most beautiful example of u’neshalma parim sefateinu (our lips take the place of offerings). In contradistinction to the current trend of introducing modern melodies into the prayer text which are sung by the community to the point where one cannot hear every word of the Shaliach Zibbur, there was almost no communal singing at the Rav’s minyan. The emphasis was entirely on meticulous recitation of the text with proper grammar and punctuation using the traditional liturgy rather than engaging the congregants in aesthetic popular singing.

In order to clearly express the central ideas of the text the Rav required that the Shaliach Zibbur pause between certain words and conversely connect specific phrases by refraining from taking a breath. These changes were based on logical and careful analyses of the sources and at times reflected seminal concepts related to the prayer service. This emphasis on form was especially prominent during Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot portionso of the prayer on Rosh Hashana and the Avoda on Yom Kippur.  The Rav’s emphasis on sentence structure and its impact on the textual meaning are demonstrated by the pause he introduced in the middle of the following sentence in the Avoda service:

Ana (PAUSE)... Bashem Kaper Na Lachataim etc… 

This pause highlights the idea that the Kohen Gadol asks the Almighty to atone our sins on Yom Kippur through the medium of His Name. This concept of atonement, kapparah, through the medium of His name parallels the idea expressed later in the same prayer: Ki Bayom Hazeh Yechaper Aleichem to be interpreted not as on this day but through this day, by the unique power of Yom Kippur’s sanctity; Itzumo Shel Yom Mechaper.

The parallel structure of Ba-yom and Ba-shem (through the Yom Kippur day and through His name) was developed by the Rav in a 1979 lecture during which he made the following comment:  “If the Name of Hashem provides Kapara and the day of Yom Kippur also provides Kapara, then it would therefore seem that the two are equivalent. It is interesting to note that the great rabbis, gedolei Hassidim, never used the appellation “Yom Kippur”; they referred to the day as Yom Hakadosh” (see Before Hashem and Benei Yissaschar, Tishrei Mamar 8).

It is critical that the reader is not left with the impression that Torah study, prayer or the performance of mitzvot were for the Rav purely cognitive, intellectual acts. Whoever witnessed the Rav’s radiant, broadly smiling face at the close of the fast, Motzaei Yum Kippur, would have instinctively recognized deep emotion, a reflection of his innermost joy. Through the power of intellect executed with precise technical performance, prayer emerged as a potent emotional tool triggering a truly redemptive experience. “As the measure of knowledge such is the measure of love” (Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Repentance 10:6).

Intriguingly, a prominent hasidic leader, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn of Lubavitch (the “Rashab,” 1860-1920), who worked closely with the Rav’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Solovetichik, in confronting reform and assimilation concurs in his Kuntres HaTefillah, Tract on Prayer:

“A person must toil to prolong his reflection and to absorb himself exceedingly well in the essence of the G-dly matter that he comprehends, so that it is felt within his mind. His comprehension is amplified and broadened thereby, affording him a very clear understanding and grasp of the matter in all of its details, and with greater depth, as explained above, until the illumination of the light is tangibly manifest in his mind. Then, automatically, the light is drawn into his heart. The heart, too, then sharply senses the G-dly matter, and the heart’s emotions become ecstatic with true love and awe. This is termed hispa’alus atzmi’im. In other words, his ecstasy is not an artificial one. Rather the heart is truly excited over the G-dliness itself, on account of the sensation of G-dliness felt in his heart”.

For modern man living in the digital age of instant messaging and conditioned to chronic distractions, the challenge of focused prayer, genuine worship of the heart is daunting. The exigent journey in Tefilla from the cognitive-technical to the emotional-redemptive is a lofty goal.

Areshet Sefatainu Yeaarv Lefanecha - (may the expression of our lips find favor before You).

*Adapted by the author from his article Hineni He’Ani Mi’ma’as, in Mentor of Generations, Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Edited by Zev Eleff, 272-280, 2008.