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The Various Rites of Jewish Liturgy

Rav Chaim Navon

            With the ingathering of the exiles, many different Diaspora Jewish communities reestablished themselves in the State of Israel, bringing with them a great variety of liturgical rites and prayer customs. In this lecture, we shall examine the question whether our goal should be to reach a certain uniformity of custom, or whether each individual is halakhically bound to hold fast to his family's tradition. We shall not deal here with the halakhic questions that arise concerning a person who happens to find himself in a minyan that follows a rite other than his own. But rather we shall address the fundamental issue: Is an individual or a community permitted or perhaps even obligated to make a permanent change in his or its liturgical rite?




            It would appear that on ideological grounds we should strive to unite all the tribes of Israel with a single liturgical rite. The Ari, z"l, argued, however, that this is not true with respect to prayer customs:


There are many differences between the [various] prayer books, between the Sefardi rite, the Catalonian rite, the Ashkenazi rite, and the like. Concerning this matter, my master [the Ari] of blessed memory told me that there are twelve windows in heaven corresponding to the twelve tribes, and that the prayer of each tribe ascends through its own special gate. This is the secret of the twelve gates mentioned at the end of [the book of] Yechezkel. There is no question that were the prayers of all the tribes the same, there would be no need for twelve windows and gates, each gate having a path of its own. Rather, without a doubt it necessarily follows that because their prayers are different, each and every tribe requires its own gate. For in accordance with the source and root of the souls of that tribe, so must be its prayer rite. It is therefore fitting that each and every individual should maintain the customary liturgical rite of his forefathers. For you do not know who is from this tribe and who from that tribe. And since his forefathers practiced a certain custom, perhaps he is from that tribe for whom this custom is appropriate, and if he comes now and changes it, his prayer may not ascend [to heaven], when it is not offered in accordance with that rite. (Sha'ar ha-Kavanot, Inyan Nusach ha-Tefila).[1]


We are dealing here with a fascinating position, according to which variation and multiplicity in modes of worship constitute the ideal situation: the Jewish people is comprised of various different elements, each one with its unique approach to Divine service.


R. Avraham David of Buczacz, author of the Eshel Avraham, presents an entirely different attitude:


…According to this, we can somewhat reconcile the custom that has become prevalent to recite [Hodu] before [Barukh she-amar], for this involves the idea of "when the congregation prays," to be included in the prayer of the inhabitants of the Sefardi countries and the Holy Land, through which all the prayers ascend. (Eshel Avraham, sec. 51)


            The Eshel Avraham attaches special value to a uniform liturgical rite, this constituting a form of universal "community prayer" on the part of the entire Jewish people, with special emphasis on the land of Israel. He invokes this argument in order to justify changes in the liturgical rite that had been generally accepted in the Ashkenazi communities.


R. Ya'akov Ariel explicitly argues with the approach cited in the name of the Ari:


…In my humble opinion, the position of Halakha is different.[2] It attaches greater value to communal unity than to preserving the tradition of diverse customs. This unity does not necessarily involve the blurring of glorious and sanctified traditions. Ethnic diversity will be preserved within the Jewish people as a whole, and so too within each and every family in the privacy of their homes. Regarding the local community, however, Halakha's position is that unity is more important, at least in the public aspects of communal life, e.g., a synagogue shared by all the members of the community.

The well-known words of the Magen Avraham in the name of the Ari, z'l, that there are twelve gates in heaven corresponding to the twelve tribes, each one having its own gate and its own customs, are by no means simple. We all know that it was the men of the great assembly [Anshei Kenesset ha-Gedola] who established the liturgical rite. Did they establish twelve different prayer rites? But surely during the second Temple period, the tribes had [already] become intermingled! And furthermore, we find that Chazal did not view tribal separation with favor. For they said that Tu Be'av was fixed as a day of joy, because, among other reasons, on that day the tribes were issued an allowance to intermarry. (Rav Ya'akov Ariel, Techumin IX, pp. 200-201)




            Going beyond the ideological question, we come to what is obviously the principal issue – the halakhic considerations. The Yerushalmi Talmud records a prohibition to deviate from family tradition:


R. Yose sent to them: Even though they wrote you the order of the holidays, do not change the custom of your departed forefathers. (Yerushalmi, Eruvin 3:9)


            The commentators disagree about the context of this statement. The Penei Moshe connects it to the law of the second day of Yom Tov celebrated in the Diaspora, which, the Bavli states, must be observed even in our time, when the original reason for its institution no longer applies: "Be vigilant concerning the tradition of your forefathers" (Beitza 4b). The Hagahot Maimuniyot (end of Seder Tefilot shel Kol ha-Shana, no. 5) and others, however, understand this statement in the context of the holiday liturgy. The Magen Avraham (beginning of sec. 68) cites this statement in support of the prohibition to change one's prayer customs. The Peri Megadim (ad loc.) explicitly issues such a ruling regarding changing from the Ashkenazi rite to the Sefardi rite. The Maharam Shik summarizes the issue as follows:


The Magen Avraham (sec. 68) cites the Yerushalmi that they sent from there that even though we are sending you the order of the prayer service, do not deviate from your local custom…. The Peri Megadim has already written that this proves that one should not change from the Ashkenazi rite to the Sefardi rite. And so in fact is it evident to anybody who can see. (Responsa Maharam Shik, Orach Chayyim, no. 43)


            The Maharam Shik's teacher, the Chatam Sofer, ruled that, generally speaking, a person should not change his liturgical rite, but if he wishes to do so for a good reason, e.g., to enhance his prayer, he may in fact do so:


I have already expressed my opinion to all those who stand before me, that I have received from my teachers, ztz"l, as follows… For all the rites are the same, and whatever is found in the one is found in the other, only you do not know… When the Divine light, the Ari, ztz"l, came, and examined, and established, for he understood the contents of the prayers, he set everything in its place in his siddur and revealed the mysteries of the Sefardi rite, he being a Sefardi.[3] Had he been an Ashkenazi, or had a person like him arose among the Ashkenazim, he would have done the same thing with the Ashkenazi siddur. But now in recent generations, those who become privy to God's secrets, it is enough that they understand the words of the Ari, ztz"l. But there is none among us who knows how to do this from the Ashkenazi rite. Thus, it is better that they pray from a Sefardi siddur, which notes the places for the heikhalot and the yichudim according to the Ari, z"l, than that they should pray from an Ashkenazi [siddur]. This is true despite the fact that all the allusions are found there as well, and one who prays according to the intention of the one who established that rite, his word will run very swiftly. Nevertheless, it is easier for them to recite prayers that they understand than to pray according to the intention of the one who had established [the rite].

For this reason, my master, the Gaon, the saintly priest, R. Natan Adler, ztz"l, he himself passed before the ark and prayed according to the Sefardi rite from the siddur of the Ari, ztz"l. And so too my master, the Gaon, author of the Hafla'a, ztz"l. They alone prayed according to the rite of the Ari, and everybody else who participated in the minyan followed the Ashkenazi rite… For one who does not understand should not change his rite, as we are instructed by the Magen Avraham, at the beginning of sec. 68, in the name of the Yerushalmi, and so too wrote the Ari himself. (Responsa Chatam Sofer, I, Orach Chayyim, no. 15)


            The Chatam Sofer points here to a well-known phenomenon: many leading Torah authorities adopted the liturgical rite of the Ari, z"l. The Chatam Sofer presents a forgiving approach, arguing that those Torah authorities who are familiar with the esoteric lore of the Kabbala may change to the Ari's rite, because it is easier to pray with the kavanot that he had established using the Sefardi rite. But ordinary people like us (and he includes himself in this category) should not change their prayer customs, for the reasons enumerated by the Magen Avraham. The Sefardi rite does not enjoy substantive superiority; it is simply that readily available kavanot were written for this rite. From this it follows that, according to the Chatam Sofer, changing one's liturgical rite for a good reason connected to the Divine service may be justified, even though otherwise this is generally forbidden. His disciple, the Maharam Shick, spelled this out further:


Even though the aforementioned Magen Avraham wrote that every custom has a heavenly gate and that one should not make any changes, nevertheless, it seems to me that the Magen Avraham was not talking about a case where a person's soul yearns for another custom. For we find in the Gemara, and so too in [the book] Chovot ha-Levavot, that if a person finds that his soul yearns for a certain mitzvah or deed, then this mitzva or deed certainly has an added connection to his soul. I explain with this what is meant by the verse, "The steps of a man are ordered by the Lord, and he delights in his way" (Tehilim 37:23). That is, God, blessed be He, places in his soul the desire for that thing, etc. It has already become commonplace in many communities that people who wish to follow the Sefardi rite form their own minyan. (Responsa Maharam Shik, Choshen Mishpat, no. 24)


These authorities were lenient in certain situations, but in general they maintained that one must not change his liturgical tradition. Other authorities, however, argued that there is no halakhic problem with changing from the Ashkenazi to the Sefardi rite, or vice versa. This is what the Maharashdam writes in this context:


Regarding a community whose liturgical rite had followed the tradition of their fathers, and over the course of time and due to the wandering caused by the exile, they arrived in this kingdom, the kingdom of Tograma [=Turkey], and the customs have become mixed up, and nearly everybody has changed over to the Sefardi liturgical rite, being that they are the majority in this kingdom, and their prayer is clear and sweet…

Answer: It seems that while there are certain reasons because of which it is fitting and good that a person should hold fast to the custom of his forefathers, and it is close to falling into the prohibition of "Do not forsake the Torah of your mother" – nevertheless, in this situation it is good and proper to abandon that custom and adopt the Sefardi liturgical rite. The reason that I say this is that, in my humble opinion, we only find [a prohibition] not to deviate from the custom of our forefathers in a matter that involves a trace of prohibition…

For in the [amida] prayers like the eighteen benedictions on weekdays, and the seven on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and the nine on Rosh ha-Shana, I see no differences whatsoever, for there is one Torah for all of us, and whoever deviates from the formulations established by the Sages errs and fails to fulfill his obligation regarding prayer. The difference lies solely in the piyyutim and kerovot recited in the prayer. And a person can see that their absence is better for us than their presence, and especially in our day, when not even a single person in the city knows and understands what he is saying… It is known that in all the prayers recited by the Sefardi congregations there is nothing but what the Sages had enacted. Even the piyyutim that we recite in addition to the prayer… they are all in clear Hebrew, understandable to all. Even the kedusha that we recite on Yom Kippur during the prayer leader's repetition [of the amida] is all in simple Hebrew.

For the aforementioned reasons, it seems to me that not only should we not condemn those who abandon the other liturgical rites and adopt the Sefardi rite, but we should praise them. (Responsa Maharshdam, Orach Chayyim, no. 35)


            The Maharshdam explains at length the superiority of the Sefardi rite: it is clear and understandable, and does not include the Ashkenazi piyyutim that are so difficult to comprehend. But what is more important for our purposes is the fundamental principle that he puts forward. He argues that the prohibition to forsake a custom only applies to something that involves a "trace of prohibition." As for liturgical rites, however, they are all valid and they are all similar in their fundamental elements. The differences between them are insignificant, and therefore there is no prohibition to change rites, and a person may adopt a rite that is more suited for him.




            Another question that arises in this context is whether the prohibition of "lo titgodedu" ("you shall not form into groups") applies when different minyanim following different liturgical rites are conducted in one locality. In order to answer this question, let us return to the talmudic source:


Abaye said: When do we say "lo titgodedu" – for example, two courts in one city, this one ruling in accordance with Bet Shammai and the other one ruling in accordance with Bet Hillel. But two courts in two cities are of no concern… Rava said: When do we say "lo titgodedu" – for example, one court in one city, half ruling in accordance with Bet Shammai, and [the other] half ruling in accordance with Bet Hillel. But two courts in one city is of no concern. (Yevamot 14a)


            Generally speaking, the law follows Rava. According to this, in a locality that has two courts, there is no reason not to have two liturgical rites. When the danger arose that the Ashkenazi court that sat in Jerusalem would cease to function, a warning was sounded that the Ashkenazim living in that city would no longer be able to practice their traditional customs:


Something worse than this, if the Ashkenazi community institutions separate and distance themselves from Jerusalem, God forbid, their bet va'ad [court] would cease to exist. Until now they are judged as two courts in one city, where each may conduct itself according to its customs, and there is no problem of "lo titgodedu." And by right they may hold onto all the stringent Ashkenazi customs, as if they were in a province of Ashkenaz, following their leniencies and their stringencies. This would not be the case when, God forbid, their bet va'ad would cease to function. Then they would be forced to mix with the Sefardim and conduct themselves in accordance with their customs, their leniencies and their stringencies. (Ginat Veradim, 3, sec. 9)


            The posekim imply that in a locality where there are clearly defined and distinct customs, the Ashkenazi custom and the Sefardi custom, the prohibition of "lo titgodedu" does not apply, even in the absence of two separate courts:


The prohibition of "lo titgodedu" does not apply. Since each community follows its original custom, it is similar to a case where there are two courts in one city… each community is considered like a city of its own. (Responsa Avkat Rochel, no. 32)


In the case under discussion, where the communities follow two distinctly different customs, the one not like the other, all agree that even in a matter involving a prohibition, the prohibition of "lo titgodedu" does not apply… As for one city with two communities, all the Sages agree that they are regarded like two courts. (Responsa Maharshdam, Yore De'a, no. 153)


            There is, however, room to discuss whether or not it is necessary that the communal structure of the two communities be absolutely distinct. For in smaller localities today, the communities stand apart only in the synagogue. We don't find a separate mikve or a separate rav for each group. It seems that even in such circumstances, there is room for leniency, because everybody follows the customs that had been observed in the place of his forefathers, and we are dealing with well-known and accepted differences.


To this may be added the argument that the prohibition of "lo titgodedu" only applies in the case of actual laws, but not to matters of custom (this, however, is subject to a dispute among the posekim).


From an ideological perspective, the Rishonim bring two rationales for the prohibition of "lo titgodedu." Rashi explains that the reason is that the Torah should not appear as if it were two Torahs. The Rambam (Hilkhot Avoda Zarah 12:7) explains that "this would cause great controversy." It would appear that the Rambam's problem does not apply to well-known differences in liturgical rites that have been accepted for generations. As for Rashi's problem, there is room to say that this does not apply to ancient differences in custom. But it may also be argued that even in such a case the problem exists that the Torah will appear as if it were two Torahs, and so one uniform custom should be adopted.


In summary, there seems to be a lot of room for various communal and social considerations.




[1] Cited by the Magen Avraham, beginning of sec. 68. The Ari is cited and relied upon by many Acharonim. The Ari adds that the laws recorded in the Talmud were shared by all the tribes.

[2] I.e., different from the position of Rav Dreyfus, which Rav Ariel rejects.

[3] It should be noted that the Ari's father was Ashkenazi, while his mother was Sefardi. Some authorities view the Ari as an Ashkenazi, and thus adduce from him proof that is just the opposite from the proof brought by the Chatam Sofer: Even an Ashkenazi like the Ari chose the Sefardi liturgical rite (Responsa Yabi'a Omer, VI, Orach Chayyim, no. 10 – from which it follows that Ashkenazim may indeed adopt the Sefradi rite). Interestingly, we find a similar disagreement among modern scholars: Prof. Moshe Idel argues that the effect of the Spanish expulsion on the Ari has been greatly exaggerated, inasmuch as the Ari was an Ashkenazi, whereas Prof. Tishbi claims that the Ari's orientation was essentially Sefardi (Zion LIV [2, 4]).


(Translated by David Strauss)

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