Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer

BookUndercurrents of Jewish Prayer

Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


October 26th, 2006

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Traditional Jews encounter the prayer-book—the Siddur—more often in their daily lives than any other text, yet it is mysteriously absent from their otherwise nearly comprehensive curriculum of study. In addition, they tend to recite it mantrically, more for its sound than its meaning. The neglect of meaning is so complete that no edition of the prayer-book has yet appeared with a comprehensive range of commentaries. The present work, the first to examine this paradox, explains it as a reluctance to engage with the intellectual and emotional questions that lie just beneath the surface of the text. An analysis of the opening sequences of the daily ritual reveals that the prayer-book, far from representing one side of a deferential dialogue with an attentive deity, actually challenges God to allow access to the revelation on which human safety depends and to keep his side of the covenant. Confronting the chaotic unpredictability of the human condition, this undercurrent of protest allows Jews to question why God’s urgently needed intervention seems absent. Anger at this apparent absence is qualified only by gratitude at being alive. The core of this book consists of a novel examination of the opening sections of the traditional daily morning liturgy according to the Ashkenazi rite. The analysis is based on mostly untranslated medieval and later commentaries identifying the biblical and rabbinic echoes from which the liturgy is woven, and employs analytical methods of the kind traditionally applied to talmudic and midrashic texts. It shows how each citation and echo imports aspects of its original context into the new composition, forming a countertext to the words on the page. It examines each textual layer, as well as the surface meaning that is usually the only one to be noted, and relates these to the speaker’s actual location—home and later the synagogue—as well as to the time of day when the prayers are recited, as the worshipper faces the dangers of the day ahead. The resulting chorus of ideas—linking everyday life to the sacred narrative from creation to exile—demonstrates the philosophical sophistication of rabbinic spirituality in offering poetic insight into an ultimately tragic vision of reality.

'Breathtakingly original'
Cambridge Day Limmud Handbook

'Schonfield presents pathways of curiosity and historical/poetical exegesis, as well as multilayered readings—which can raise the reader's thoughtfulness and delight in the traditional texts of our siddur . . . Readers of this book will appreciate the detail of Littman Library publications. There is full indexing by topic, as well as extensive indexing of biblical and rabbinic references. One who adds this beautiful work to a professional library will also appreciate the very heavy paper and quality binding that are not so very common these days. This is a serious and meaningful work, satisfying in its thoughtful and thorough text, and its physical realization that will stand as an admired reference.'
- Robert Scherr, Conservative Judaism

'A remarkable attempt to explain and analyse the morning prayers . . . provides the reader with a tremendous amount of interesting information . . . gives several interesting insights into developments in synagogues in Great Britain.'
- Andreas Lehnardt, European Journal of Jewish Studies

'The author with impressive scholarship draws on insights from many different traditions . . . there is no doubt that it adds a wholly new dimension to our sense of what Jewish prayer, and possibly every form of prayer, is about.'
- Fred Morgan, Gesher

'Schonfield asserts his undeniable right to be accepted into the first rank of Jewish liturgical scholars . . . no-one who completes this superb book will be able to look at a prayer book in the same way again.’
- Charles Middleburgh, Jewish Chronicle

'Challenges the customary devotional attitudes and behaviour of most Jews . . . should establish Jeremy Schonfield . . . as one of the most innovative and unsettling scholars in the world of Jewish studies . . . absorbing and intellectually exhilarating . . . [his] familiarity with Jewish sources is intimate, comprehensive, and meticulous. Not only are arguments penetrating, but his findings often jar with our preconceptions . . . The gains of this heady, bracing exploration of sources of the Jewish quotidian are manifest.'
- Haim Chertok, Jewish Quarterly

'His comments are rich in data, comprehensible and interesting for a broad readership, well written and cogently argued . . . The physical production of the volume is also impressive in many ways . . . readers will undoubtedly find here numerous insights into the traditional Jewish liturgy . . . we are here being treated not just to the views of a serious literary critic with a good knowledge of the scientific and historical study of Jewish liturgy but also to a very personal expression of devotion that is familial as well as ethnic . . . we are likely to learn much from the volume and to be deeply grateful to the author for carefully guiding us into what is often novel, and sometimes even exciting, territory.'
- Stefan C. Reif, Journal of Jewish Studies

'a captivating analysis . . . Whatever one makes of the author’s conclusions, the journey well repays the traveler. And for the regular shulgoer, reading Schonfield will ensure that the Siddur is never read cursorily again.'
- Jeff Bogursky, Jewish Book Council


Author Information

Jeremy Schonfield, who was born in London and is the son and grandson of rabbis, studied comparative literature and worked in archaeology in Israel and in publishing in London before becoming involved in Jewish education. He received a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is now both Mason Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Lecturer at Leo Baeck College in London. Although raised in the Ashkenazi tradition he is a member of Bevis Marks Synagogue, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in London, where he sings in the choir and occasionally leads services. He is currently working on a study of the Jewish annual and life cycles as enactments of the Jewish sacred narrative.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
Preface and Acknowledgements8
Note on Transliteration and Conventions Used in the Text16
Note on Extracts from the Liturgy18
List of Extracts20
1. The Incuriousness of the Jewish Worshipper24
2. The Reticence of the Ideal Reader43
3. The Liturgical Narrative: Modern and Traditional Views68
4. The Darkness of Waking88
5. The Bonds of Freedom102
6. The Silence of Language130
7. Building in Babel171
8. The Scattering192
9. The Imagined Temple224
10. Hope in Words268
11. The Liturgical Argument Encapsulated332
12. Other Versions, Other Readings346
APPENDIX Photographs of Ritual Objects Used in Prayer368
1. Vessel used for ritual hand-washing370
2. The arba kanfot—the four-cornered undergarment371
3. The talit—a four-cornered prayer-shawl—and decorative bag372
4. A selection of tefilin373
5. Inside view of tefilin for the head374
6. A parchment scroll of the Shema, of the kind contained in tefilin375
7. A detail of the outside of tefilin for the head376
8. A talit and tefilin in use377
9. A talit and tefilin in use, showing the arrangement of straps378
Index of Biblical and Rabbinic References396
Index of Subjects and Names404