Where did the prayers in the prayer book come from?
Answering that question is the work of a detective — or a graduate student — or both. One such detective is Yitz Landes, a Teaneck-born doctoral student in the Department of Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity at Princeton University.
This summer, Hebrew University’s Magnes Press published Mr. Landes’s Hebrew-language book, “Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah,” based on the master’s thesis that he wrote there. Birkat ha-Avodah is the prayer toward the end of the Amida that begins, in Hebrew, with the word “Ritzeh.” In English, the text starts with “Be pleased, Lord our God, with Your people Israel and with their prayer, and restore the service to Your Holy Temple; be pleased to receive the prayers and fire offerings of the people of Israel in love.”
In the mid-20th century, the Conservative movement tweaked the prayer to be less full-throated in its call to revive worship through animal sacrifices. But Mr. Landes is looking at its earlier evolution, focusing on its awkward balancing of Jewish worship now, which is through prayer, and Jewish worship in the past and hoped-for future, in the Temple, which involves ritual sacrifice.
“I was very interested in the shift from Second Temple Judaism to post-Temple Judaism,” he said. “The ways in which Jews dealt with that by imbuing ritual with new meaning. I’m also interested in the longing for the Temple in Jerusalem. This blessing in particular was really a great text to focus on to address those two issues.”
Mr. Landes said the detective work of tracking the origins and history of the prayer book is “interesting and exciting. In general, the siddur is a very complicated thing to understand. It’s hard to know where it comes from.”
In a more boring world, the authors of the prayers would have registered their work with a copyright office; modifications also would have been preserved for posterity. History would be clear.
That, of course, is not how the Jewish prayer book came to be.
There is an enormous gap between the first descriptions of the structure of Jewish prayer, in the Mishna from the second century, and the first scraps of parchment with the text of prayers, found in the Cairo Geniza and dating from perhaps 800 years later.
That’s a lot of time.
And the two sets of data don’t always align.
“There are references to Ritzeh in rabbinic literature that don’t necessarily line up with what we have in the siddur,” Mr. Landes said.
Where the references do line up, that’s also a problem, because the earliest Mishna manuscripts are also long past the time of the Mishna’s composition. If the prayers had changed since the second century, it’s possible that the Mishna, which began as an oral tradition, had been modified along those lines by the time it was first written down.
So Mr. Landes has looked beyond the usual sources of the Mishna and Talmud, with their description of liturgy, and the actual recorded prayers from centuries later.
In one chapter, he looks at “a fascinating Christian source from around the fourth century, which seems to have incorporated the Amida,” he said. “This prayer seems to have been translated into Greek and Christian elements were embedded into it.”
Remove the Christian elements, and this source might offer a glimpse at how the Amida was prayed at this formative time.
Another source is piyyut, the elaborate poems written precisely during those centuries between the Mishna and the manuscripts. (The Hebrew word piyyut derives from the Greek word poetis, meaning poet.)
“It’s fairly certain that the authors of the piyyutim lived in the fifth century in the Land of Israel,” Mr. Landes said. “Using their work I’m able to reconstruct their versions of the Amida.”
And then there’s the question of what can be learned from the existing, medieval manuscripts. “I go through a lot of medieval manuscripts in the book,” he said.
Different communities have different texts. “The Persian siddur is very important,” he said. “French and German siddurim as well.”
“By comparing them, we’re able to pay attention to the common elements and isolate the common elements to reconstruct the different kinds of kernels of earlier formulations that are shared by multiple communities. I put together a history where those elements were there earlier than other elements.
“One of the arguments I make is that the blessing we have today is a combination of two blessings joined together over time. Essentially, the two themes were two separate blessings. The first concerned the continued presence of God in Jerusalem. The other was about the acceptance of sacrifice and prayer. Then those two blessings were joined together, a common thing we see in Jewish liturgy. In another context, the Gemara says, given there are alternate versions of a prayer, we say all of them. It’s a very common operating mechanism in Jewish liturgy. Instead of choosing one of competing versions, we just say both.”
Did this research have any impact on his day-to-day life as a praying Jew?
“Certainly,” he said. “In preparing the book, I had to familiarize myself with the scholarship in general on prayer. The heightened attentiveness to the meaning of prayer had an impact. Certainly when I lead services.”
For his Ph.D. work at Princeton, Mr. Landes is looking at the spread of rabbinic Judaism. “I’m focusing specifically on the transmission of rabbinic literature. How it might have gotten from Place A to Place B. How it got from the land of Israel to Babylonia and North Africa.”
This research too is taking place among manuscripts of the Mishna and piyyutim.
Mr. Landes went to Princeton for the chance to learn from “scholars who don’t do Jewish studies,” he said. “In Jerusalem, I was used to talking about the Mishna or Amida and people would know what it was referring to. At Princeton, I’m having to always explain these things to scholars of the period who aren’t familiar with them. It helps me realize things that are unique about them.
“The Mishna is a very weird book — if you can even call it a book. A very weird text. A big thing in the current study of rabbinic literature is orality. Most of it was transmitted by heart for a long period of time. There are a lot of assumptions within Jewish studies about how Jewish manuscripts are produced that strike outside scholars of the period as odd and surprising. It has forced me to question those claims as well.”
One example concerns the very nature of the Mishna, which the rabbis who composed and studied it described as the oral law, too sacred to be written down. But whatever the holiness, keeping the Mishna oral had economic ramifications and perhaps economic causes.
“Judaism never really had state-sponsored scriptoria, places where manuscripts were written,” Mr. Landes said. “So who was paying for the manuscripts to be written? It would take the hides of dozens of cows to physically produce the manuscript of the entire Mishna. One could perhaps argue that oral transmission was cost-effective — in antiquity, it was much cheaper to teach somebody the entire Mishna by heart than to buy them a written copy.”