Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book review: The Koren Sukkot Mahzor, The Gross Family Edition, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Koren Sukkot Mahzor, The Gross Family Edition
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016

Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Over a thousand years ago, Rav Amram Gaon set out to organize the corpus of Jewish prayer, and he created what we now call the Siddur (which means, quite simply, order) or Seder of Rav Amram. Subsequently, and over the course of generations, many new siddurim have been fashioned, and, in addition to the daily and weekly ritual cycles, a separate “order” was created for the annual festivals and holy days. This organized corpus of festive prayers is known as the mahzor, from the Hebrew word for cycle.

Koren Publishers recently released a beautiful Mahzor for Sukkot, the latest volume in a larger set of Mahzorim produced for all of the holidays. Like the others in this set, the Mahzor for Sukkot features an elegant introduction, translation and commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As in all of Koren’s publications, the eponymous font is clear and easy to read, but what makes this series special is the meticulous and illuminating translation and commentary.

Translating a text of this sort is much more difficult than most people imagine. Finding the right words to convey both the meaning and tone of the original, whether the text is biblical or rabbinic, and even more so in the case of piyyutim, poses a challenge. Rabbi Sacks is uniquely capable of meeting this challenge. His eloquent English rendition conveys the solemnity of prayer in a modern yet serious tone, which, remarkably, retains the feel of the original. Even readers who are well acquainted with the mahzor have much to gain from reviewing the prayers and learning the words and their meanings from Rabbi Sacks. I imagine many people say the Hoshanot year after year without really understanding the meaning or message of this powerful prayer. With this new Mahzor, both the definitions of the words and the larger message being conveyed by the prayer become clear – and therefore more meaningful.

I do have one or two suggestions for improvement: The editing is somewhat uneven with regard to sources and citations. While the sources for most ideas are cited with precision, others are more vague. Thus, for example, on p. 372, the citation reads, “Zohar;” no page, chapter or section are cited. Pages 492-495 attribute an idea to Rabbi Soloveitchik, but no specific source is cited. On p. 499 an explanation is given in the name of the Malbim which distinguishes between the concepts of sasson and simcha (“Simcha, joy, refers to inward emotion. Sasson, gladness, refers to the outward signs of celebration.”) There is no citation of the precise source in the Malbim (this idea is found in the Malbim’s commentary on Isaiah 35:1). It should also be noted that other commentaries came to the opposite conclusion (see commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Esther 8:16, and Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik’s comments in Reshimot Shiurim Sukkah 48b: “Sasson in Hebrew denotes an inward feeling, and simcha notes an outward action, as the verses indicate - sasson in Psalm 119:162, and simcha  in Isaiah 55:12”).

Another suggestion involves the internal structure of this new mahzor. As anyone who is familiar with the generic, “everyday” siddur knows, a mahzor is not really necessary; the prayers for most holidays are included in the vast majority of siddurim. The problem is one of convenience: Using a “regular” siddur would require us to flip through the book several times during the course of holiday prayers.  We would begin with weekday prayers, switch to Shabbat prayers at a certain point, move back to weekday prayers, flip pages toward the end of the book in search of the correct Amidah, jump to Hallel, search for the Torah reading, look for the shir shel yom, and so on.

Theoretically, the purpose of a mahzor is to simplify the technical side of praying on holidays. In general, the mahzor is organized according to the sequence in which the various prayers are recited. While this may sound simple, prayers on Sukkot present a unique challenge. Although the Koren Sacks Sukkot Mahzor is almost 1500 pages long, it cannot easily contend with the variety of choices that the user must make. For example, Ma’ariv, which appears on p. 1336, is recited both at the end of the first day of the holiday (i.e., on Chol HaMoed), as well as on Shabbat Chol Hamoed, and again at the close of the entire holiday. Upon opening the mahzor to the correct page, the reader is forced to make several choices: Do I say morid hatal or mashiv haruach? Should I add Ata Chonantanu? Is Yaaleh v’Yavo appropriate? The Hoshanot present a similar challenge: Calendric variations produce various possibilities for each of the days of the festival. While the Koren Mahzor offers clear instructions, the overall user experience is not all that different from using a “regular” siddur.

This problem did not go unnoticed or unaddressed by the publisher, who devised an innovative though partial solution: Whereas a table of contents is usually a simple device that informs the reader what is in the book, starting with the first page and proceeding through the book in numerical order, the Koren Sacks Mahzor uses the table of contents to contend with the unique challenge of prayers that are repeated at various junctures over the course of the holiday. The Table of Contents does not list the numerical order of the pages; instead, it lists the sequence in which the prayers are said on each day of the holiday, providing a guide to finding the right page.

On the other hand, would it have been wise, despite the repetitiveness and the massive size and weight of the volume, to include the same “weekday Ma’ariv” three times? I imagine that some readers would prefer this repetition – each Ma’ariv appearing in its precise location, complete with its particular nuances -  at the expense of omitting some of the less utilitarian features of the present edition, such as the entire tractate of Sukka, or the piyyutim which have fallen into disuse in many communities.

Carrying one’s four species as well as a 1500 page mahzor can be unwieldy. Given this reality, I would strongly encourage the publisher to produce a “smart” siddur/mahzor version, which can be used on a smart phone or tablet. This would solve many of the problems I have raised, and the prayers would be presented in their proper sequence. Obviously, this solution would only work for Chol HaMoed, and not Shabbat or Yom Tov; it would nonetheless make the prayer book/Mahzor much more efficient and user-friendly.

A final suggestion is closely related to those I have already raised: The “smart” table of contents notwithstanding, some prayers are found in completely unpredictable places: For example, the prayer recited before leaving the sukkah at the end of the holiday is found on page 186/7, together with the Ushpizin, in a section labeled “Meditation in the Sukkah.” In most mahzorim, this prayer is found – quite logically – at the end of the book. Moreover, explanation is sorely lacking in this section, regarding the particular Ushpizin recited on each of the days of the festival, as well as the ways in which the unique spiritual personality of each of these “guests” impacts our experience of the holiday. Why, for example, do we invoke the “skin of the Leviathan?” What does this creature have to do with the festival of Sukkot?

The Koren Mahzor will enhance your holiday. It will elevate your prayer experience, and enrich your knowledge and understanding of the festival and its liturgy. Rabbi Sacks, who has emerged as the preeminent spokesperson for Judaism today, is to be congratulated for this latest volume. I wish him many more years of health and productivity. May he continue to lead, with both his spoken and written words. I look forward to his next project.

Rabbi Ari Kahn is an author of books on Torah and Jewish Holidays.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Parashat Ki Tavo 5776 - Dirty Little Secrets

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tavo
Dirty Little Secrets

What causes a society to unravel? What offenses bring about a polity’s destruction? What types of behavior cause a society to forfeit its right to exist? In a sense, this has been the major theme of the book of Devarim: Moshe’s parting words to the nation abound with warnings against the sins that will result in exile from the land they are about to inherit. Indeed, Moshe’s exhortations and admonitions comprise such a large part of the text that it is difficult to “rank” them in terms of their destructiveness.

Nonetheless, Moshe gives the nation instructions regarding a unique ritual that they must perform upon entering the Land of Israel: In a demonstrative public setting, all the tribes are to be organized into two camps, standing on two facing hills. There, the entire nation will pledge allegiance to God, declaring their general and individual commitment to the laws and mores of the Torah. This foundational event seems perfectly logical; as they enter the next phase in their life as a nation in their homeland, a re-statement and ratification of their “constitution” seems appropriate. However, this ritual does not end with a general statement of purpose: Eleven laws are singled out, proclaimed, and specifically accepted or affirmed.

Perhaps predictably, the first of these eleven laws is the prohibition of idolatry. Despite the fact that this prohibition has been taught so many times, the precise formulation in this instance is somewhat surprising:

“Cursed is the person who makes a sculptured or cast idol - which is repulsive to the Almighty, your God even if it is a piece of fine sculpture - and places it in a hidden place.” All the people shall respond and say, ‘Amen’. (Devarim 27:15)

The setting is dramatic, and the use of a “curse” certainly adds flair. And yet, the content of this curse seems strangely self-limiting: The prohibition against idol worship has never before been limited to graven images “in a hidden place.”

The second “curse” prohibits disrespecting one’s parents; the progression seems to be taking on a recognizable pattern, reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. However, the next three curses are concerned with laws not found in the Ten Commandments: Moving a boundary marker, misleading the blind, and perverting justice for the disenfranchised. While we might try to “squeeze” these laws into the Ten Commandments framework, it is not an easy fit.

The following four curses all involve sexual sins, followed, once again, by a law that refers to something secretive or hidden.

“Cursed is he who strikes down his neighbor in secret.” All the people shall say, 'Amen.' (Devarim 27:24)

The penultimate curse is for the person who takes a bribe, followed by a more general statement:

“Cursed is he who does not uphold and keep this entire Torah.”
All the people shall say, 'Amen.' (Devarim 27:26)

While we are not at all surprised to find idolatry and sexual sins singled out (though not necessarily the particular sexual sins mentioned here), we ought to be quite surprised by the emphasis this list places on things that are hidden. Generally, when we imagine the types of transgressions that bring about the collapse of societies, our thoughts naturally gravitate to things that go awry in the public sphere. Public desecration of holy places, corruption of public institutions, even depravity in the public eye seem far more dangerous to a society than things that happen in the privacy of an individual’s home. And yet, the transgressions they must proclaim at this great founding assembly are precisely the opposite. This unexpected emphasis is intended to teach a subtle lesson: When it comes to public deviation from the law, the Torah-mandated judicial system is capable of dealing with the problem, whereas the surreptitious sinner poses a greater threat to the stability of the society.

Secret sins, the sins committed behind closed doors, cause moral corrosion from within. These sins do not reach the public eye or ear, yet it is precisely these sins that harm the body public, one individual at a time. The dissonance between the public façade and a private life that is in shambles erodes the individual’s dedication and identification with the collective, and society cannot long endure if it is supported by such feet of clay.

Before we launch the great enterprise of living as a holy nation in a holy land, a public declaration must be made, a public commitment – to the decency and holiness of each individual’s personal life. Temptations would abound in the new land, and the preceding chapters in the book of Devarim set out the apparatus for creating a holy collective: Courts and judges, a police force, and sanctions. Yet on the individual level, in the privacy of one’s own home or mind, rationalization and justification of sin are a far greater danger. Therefore, at the very outset, each and every member of the nation must participate in a ritual that reinforces his or her understanding of the consequences of sin on the most personal level: Rather than a list of the legal sanctions that would ensue, Parashat Ki Tavo frames the consequences in terms of curses. The repercussions of private sin are framed in the most private terms. The double life of the secret sinner is a cursed life; it undermines the individual’s connection to society, and eventually undermines the foundations of society as a whole.

The antidote to this ripple effect of dissonance and dis-cohesion is mutual responsibility. The symbiosis between the individual and society must be at the very forefront of our consciousness as we build our brave new society. Therefore, the people are to stand on two hills, facing one another in an arrangement that is made up of individuals, families, tribes, and an entire people – because their commitment must be to each of these levels. The responsibility of each to all and of the collective to each individual within it is profound: We are all on the same boat. If I bore a small hole in my private quarters, the boat takes on water, and everyone on it is imperiled.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

New Book!
A Taste of Eden
(More) Torah for the Shabbat Table

Echoes of Eden