History and Liturgy: The Evolution of Multiple Prayer Rites

History and Liturgy: The Evolution of Multiple Prayer Rites

BY: Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman

The family tree of Jewish liturgy – the siddur and the mahazor (as it is correctly vocalized) – is a long and complex one. It spans the entire history of the Jewish experience, from the earliest origins of the Jewish people to the present day. The story of the many Jewish prayer rites (nusha’ot) is in fact the story of the diffusion of the Jewish people and their tradition throughout the world and the development of the great Jewish communities of past and present. We seek to present the history of Jewish liturgy in a short summary, hoping that our survey will reveal the manner in which local tradition and custom served to enrich Jewish life.

    Rabbinic tradition attributes the core of the liturgy to the Men of the Great Assembly, the sages who led Israel after the time of Ezra (c. 400-250 BCE). Prayer texts, especially from the Dead Sea Scrolls and a section of Ben Sira preserved only in Genizah manuscripts, show that some of our contemporary liturgical language and themes were in use in the Second Temple period. Analysis of the usually-partial prayer texts preserved in Tannaitic literature indicates that already in the time of the Mishnah there were various versions of our statutory prayers. Further, our version follows the Pharisaic masorah that was paralleled by a variety of alternative texts used by other groups as evidenced in the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, the Scrolls preserve blessings for each day of the month that parallel our blessing on the creation of the lights, the first benediction before the Shema.

    The non-Rabbinic liturgy left its mark in the language of early prayer and especially on piyyut (poetic liturgical texts). But, ultimately, the formulation of our statutory liturgy was to some extent stabilized in the oral traditions of the Tannaitic period and was later expanded into two versions, that of Erets Yisrael and that of Babylonia. The Tannaitic stratum, even though non-standardized in exact wording and often represented in competing versions, was the basis of the development of the Amoraic liturgy that also was never fully standardized. Nevertheless, we can speak already in the Talmudic era of Palestinian and Babylonian rites.

    Characteristic of the Palestinian rite is the birkat ha-mitsvah recited before keri’at Shema, the blessing “Tsur Yisra’el ve-Go’alo” (the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer) recited immediately after the Shema instead of our “Ga’al Yisrael” (He Who redeemed Israel) blessing, a different recension of the eighteen (or nineteen) benedictions of the Amidah, and the closing of the last Amidah blessing with “oseh ha-shalom” (He Who makes peace) in place of “ha-mevarekh et ammo Yisrael ba-shalom” (He Who blesses His nation Israel with peace). A further important feature was the role of Byzantine period piyyut. Poetry was a prominent part of the liturgy of the Second Temple period, as is evidenced in sectarian texts and fragments preserved in Tannaitic literature. From Tannaitic times, there developed a kind of proto-piyyut clearly evidenced in the statutory prayer of the Tannaitic period. This poetry developed into the full-fledged piyyut of the Byzantine period, which continued the old sectarian approach of having unique liturgical poems for every holiday and special Sabbath.

    Clearly connected to piyyut is the contribution of Hekhalot or Merkavah mysticism to late Rabbinic and Byzantine period liturgy, especially the Kedushah hymns and prayers such as E-l Adon. The Babylonian liturgy adopted very little liturgical poetry when compared to the piyyut of Palestinian tradition.

These two rites began to spread to other locales as the Jewish people itself migrated and established new communities. Already by the end of the Geonic period, a version of the Palestinian rite had spread to Italy, but we cannot speak of its canonization in any way. In Babylonia, however, the prayer book as a literary unit went through the two major redactions that, in fact, constitute different “recensions:” those of Rav Amram Gaon (d. c. 875 CE) and of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (882-942). These prayer books were massively influential, as we will see below.

As Hellenistic Judaism began to disappear in the Greco-Roman world, Palestinian Rabbinic worship took over in two primary forms, the Romaniot rite and the Roman rite (Nussah Italki), both of the Palestinian type. The Romaniot liturgy was used in the Byzantine Empire, Greece and European Turkey until the 16th century or perhaps later, when it was pushed out by the Sephardic rite as a result of immigration of expelled Sephardim and of the later Kabbalistic and halakhic influences of the Shulhan Arukh. This rite, like the Sephardic, places the Hodu section before Barukh she-Amar, inserts “ve-yatsmah purkaneih vi-yekarev meshiheih u-parek ammeih be-rahmateih le-dor va-dor” (may He cause His salvation to sprout, bring close His Messiah, and redeem His nation in His mercy for all generations) into Kaddish, and uses Keter as a prelude to the Kedushah of the Musaf service. Numerous piyyutim were also included. Variation in the manuscripts and editions indicates that this rite remained fluid virtually up to its extinction. A similar siddur served the Jews of Corfu, Kaffa (Feodosiya, on the Black Sea) and other parts of Crimea.

In Italy, the Palestinian liturgy and the complex of Palestinian piyyut yielded a second prayer rite, the Roman, that was characterized, like that of the Land of Israel, by “le-eila le-eila” (thoroughly beyond [all praise]) said all year round in Kaddish. This rite was used in some synagogues in Salonika and Constantinople and remains in use in Rome, in parts of Italy, and in Italian synagogues in Jerusalem. In addition to “le-eila le-eila,” it uses Keter for all Kedushot, has special Shema benedictions for Friday evening, and includes many unique piyyutim. Today, however, assimilation of Italian Jewry and immigration to Italy of Oriental Jews – many from Libya – has resulted in the decline of the Roman rite. It remains, however, an important historical bridge to Ashkenaz, even as Ashkenaz was so strongly influenced by Babylonian Geonic traditions. It was not long before the same Palestinian materials, taken from Italy to Germany, formed the basis of what we might call a proto-Ashkenazic rite.

Meanwhile, the two canonizations of liturgy in Babylonia were playing a central role in the newly-emerging Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. For reasons that are not totally clear, the version of Rav Sa’adyah typifies the Babylonian liturgy as it was exported with other Babylonian halakhic traditions to the emerging Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula.

    The so-called Babylonian rite is reflected in the Sephardic prayer book, originally of the Iberian Peninsula, which, after the expulsion from Spain, spread to North Africa, Italy, Holland, parts of Germany and England, the Balkans, and the Near East, including the Land of Israel. This nussah also puts Hodu before Barukh she-Amar, inserts “ve-yatsmah purkaneih vi-yekarev meshiheih” into Kaddish, and uses Nakdishakh (for Shaharit) and Keter (for Musaf) as preludes to Kedushah. Very few piyyutim were originally included in this rite.

When it spread across North Africa from Spain, the Sephardic rite met competing Palestinian traditions that had stretched westward, as is known from Egypt and from Kairouan in North Africa where both traditions met and fused. As a result of this fusion, as well as of the presence of local rites before the expulsion, a variety of North African versions of the Sephardic liturgy emerged, to some extent including different piyyutim but with the same exact text for the statutory prayers. That of Tripoli diverges most greatly from the others. At the same time, many Jews, especially in Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire, continued to practice their tefillah as they had done in Catalonia, Aragon and Castille, thus avoiding the influence of the local rites. This early Spanish rite is the forerunner of what later became known as the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy.

Simultaneously, the Seder Rav Amram was somehow carried to Germany where it had a strong influence on the emerging Ashkenazic liturgy and its halakhic basis, so that, for example, the fixed parts of the Ashkenazic selihot (penitential prayers) are found entirely in Seder Rav Amram. By the 10th century, the Ashkenazic rites in northern France and Germany had come into being. The northern French rite was used in England until the expulsion of 1290 and died in France with the persecutions of the 13th-14th centuries. It was also used by three communities in Piedmont (northern Italy): Asti, Fossano and Moncalva, and it is accordingly called Nussah APaM. There, it was still employed during High Holy Day services until modern times. The German branch preserved more Palestinian usages in the mahazor, such as “Tsur Yisrael ve-Go’alo” and a short “Emet ve-Yatsiv” (True and Established) blessing before pre-Amidah piyyutim. It included a full set of piyyutim for Shaharit, Amidah, Kedushah and Musaf (depending on the occasion) by Palestinian and German authors. This early Ashkenazic rite remained in use in Germany (west of the Elbe River), Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, northern France and some communities in northern Italy.

    An additional codification of prayers was that of Rambam. His prayer rite was designed to combine the Sephardic liturgy that he knew with his halakhic rulings. Based on an early Sephardic nussah and deviating from the Geonic tradition of Sa’adyah, Maimonides’ liturgy had its greatest effect in Yemen where it was basically adopted in two versions to which we will return below.

    Thus, by the early Middle Ages, the Palestinian nussah had spawned the Romaniot, Italian and early Ashkenazic rites, while the Babylonian rite had generated the early Sephardic liturgy and a Maimonidean/Yemenite rite. None of these nusha’ot was free of the influence of the others, especially as a result of halakhic debate in the emerging and constantly growing literature of posekim (decisors), mefareshim (commentators) and teshuvot (responsa).

Thus far, we have been assuming the classification of nussah ha-tefillah into two main groups: Palestinian and Babylonian. But this is true only regarding the influence of Palestinian piyyut or its absence. By the early Middle Ages, almost all communities (Italy and Iran possibly excepted) followed the Babylonian statutory prayers in some form or other and the one-year Torah cycle, rather than the Palestinian triennial cycle. Nonetheless, Palestinian influence survived in the areas listed above, especially in elements incorporated together with holiday piyyut, such as the Ashkenazic recital of “oseh ha-shalom” and “le-eila le-eila
on the High Holy Days.

While by this time Hellenistic Jewish prayer rites, if they existed at all, had already fallen away, as mentioned above, we can assume that Jews on the fringes of the main Jewish communities had their own liturgies. This is certainly the case with the Persian rite that must have developed in medieval times, which assimilated earlier poetic texts and versions of statutory prayers. Regarding choice of liturgical poetry to accompany the statutory rites, great divergence in local custom was extremely common throughout the Jewish world.

    An example of such a local rite is that of Comtat Venaissin in Provence. This nussah was used in just four towns: Avignon, Carpentras , L’Isle sur la Sorgue and Cavaillon. It is mostly like the Sephardic ritual but has influences from the northern French Ashkenazic tradition. The liturgy uses Nekaddesh, Na’aritsekha and Keter during various Kedushot, and “Shalom Rav” appears in the last blessing of all Amidot. In fact, however, while the statutory prayers were similar in these four towns, the piyyutim differed, showing that even close proximity and a common minhag did not prevent the rise of mahazorim with different poetic insertions. This rite fell into disuse in the 19th century and is probably typical of numerous early Ashkenazic and Sephardic nusha’ot that were never clearly delimited and are no longer practiced. Some other such rites, besides the Persian that we mentioned above, are the Aleppo liturgy, which is close to Persian rite but has some Palestinian influences, and the versions of Indian rites distinguished from the Iraqi nussah by their piyyutim.

    Let us return now to trace the evolution of the three main rites we are discussing: Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Maimonidian/Yemenite.

    The Ashkenazic liturgy as it was brought to Germany from Italy with an admixture of Geonic influence, especially from the Seder Rav Amram, formed only the basis of the fully developed rite and thus can be called proto-Ashkenazic, as mentioned above. In the 14th century, the textual and halakhic aspects of minhag
Ashkenaz were standardized by R. Jacob ben Moses Moellin (Maharil, c. 1360-1427) in Mainz. He and his circle, for the most part, produced the Ashkenazic siddur – not the one in use today but rather a version that did not yet reflect Kabbalistic influence or the editing of modern grammarians. This Ashkenazic rite then split at some point into western and eastern branches – “German” and “Polish.” The Eastern branch was used in the eastern part of Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary and the rest of Austria, Russia, Romania, and the rest of the Balkans. In matters of some piyyut and rituals for special occasions, like selihot and kinot (elegies), there is a further division into “German” (adopted in the Rhine River region), “Polish” (adopted in Austria and Bohemia) and “Lithuanian” versions. Local customs were so carefully preserved that thirteen or more versions of Ashkenazic selihot have been printed. These different Ashkenazic rites reflect the emerging geographical identities of European areas and also the halakhic leadership of various Jewish communities. Meanwhile, France as a whole, and especially Alsace, continued to use a ritual similar to the proto-Ashkenazic one discussed above.

    When Lurianic Kabbalah began to exercise its influence, Eastern European versions of the Ashkenazic nussah assimilated it in the 16th century, the time when Poland was a great religious, intellectual Jewish center. Hasidism would later intensify this process, so that the final product in most of today’s Ashkenazic prayer books has been termed by some “Pseudo-Sefarad,” containing a core of Ashkenazic rite with some added “Sefarad” elements (see below). Some German Jews, even those who had accepted innovations after Maharil, declined to adopt most of these changes and continued western Ashkenazic prayer as it was. But most, and eventually all, western European rites accepted some Kabbalistic innovations such as the Kabbalat Shabbat service and “Lekhah Dodi” (Go forth, my Beloved).

    Sephardic prayer books were radically affected by the rise of Lurianic Kabbalah. This movement influenced virtually all Jewish communities where pietists tried to follow the kavvanot (mystical prayer intentions) of the Ari (R. Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) and rabbis strove to have their communities employ a prayer book arranged in accord with Kabbalistic teachings, even if the worshipers themselves did not know Kabbalah. This resulted from the religious elite’s acceptance of Kabbalistic doctrine and its consequent belief that only prayer books conforming to this doctrine should be used. Thereafter, virtually all local rites were eliminated, the Persian being a good example, and all Oriental communities adopted this new version of the Sephardic nussah. The Spanish-Portuguese liturgy, in Amsterdam and elsewhere following the expulsion from Spain, maintained a version of the mostly pre-Kabbalastic siddur which is used until today, although it, too, adopted Kabbalat Shabbat, “Lekhah Dodi” and some other changes.

The confrontation between Lurianic Kabbalah and the Maimonidean Halakhah and liturgy in Yemen caused a major controversy still being argued over today. Two versions, “Baladi” (traditional Yemenite) and “Shami” (Syrian), developed. Baladi refused most Kabbalistic innovation as heresy, while the Shami received a strong Kabbalistic overlay.

    In the aftermath of the Lurianic influence, we now have the following main rites: western Ashkenazic, eastern Ashkenazic (with Kabbalistic influence), Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardic with little Kabbalah), the Yemenite versions, and Lurianic (Sephardic and Nussah ha-Ari). Effectively, the original main rites had each split by this point – not only geographically, but also along lines of acceptance or rejection of Kabbalistic teachings and their effect on the prayer book.

    The next major development was the rise of Hasidism in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As a result of their strong connection with Kabbalah, the Hasidic masters adopted a variety of Sephardic – better, Lurianic – prayer customs. But, contrary to popular belief, they did not adopt the Lurianic siddur. Rather, they created a hybrid of the Ashkenazic rite, along with its piyyutim, and the Lurianic rite, so as to include the kavvanot that, nevertheless, were soon abandoned under the pressure of opponents of Hasidism. This resulted in the creation of a number of “Sefarad” versions and of the Ari nussah of Chabad. Chabad’s text was originally rationally edited, as were a few others, but the work of printers seeking to provide various nusha’ot in parentheses for multiple Hasidic markets created siddurim with multiple versions of the same prayer merged into one. To fix this, at a later point major Hasidic groups began to issue their own versions of Sefarad. Today, there are multiple editions of Nussah Sefarad and Ari Hasidic prayer books. At the same time, in Eastern Europe and later in Israel, many Hasidic customs affected the Ashkenazic siddurim that were now substantially different from those used, for example, in Eastern Europe at the time of the Vilna Gaon (Gra, 1720-1797). Examples of Hasidically-influenced alterations include the insertion of Tehillim 30 (“Mizmor Shir Hanukkat ha-Bayit le-David“) before Barukh she-Amar, “Le-Shem yihud” (for the sake of the unification [of God]) pronouncements before tallit, tefillin and sefirat ha-Omer, “Berikh shemeih” (Blessed is His name) before hotsa’at sefer Torah (the bringing out of the Torah) and many more such changes. A particularly interesting example is the expunging of “ve-yismehu bekha” (and may they rejoice in You) from the Shabbat Amidah and its replacement with “ve-yanuhu” (and may they rest [on Shabbat]).

    In Western Europe, another set of developments took place in modern times. The text of the siddur was edited by W. Heidenheim (1757-1832) and later by S. Baer (1825-1897), great German experts on Hebrew grammar and liturgy who believed that the pure state of the Hebrew language was its biblical manifestation and that it should therefore be the language of prayer. They each produced a prayer book in standardized biblical Hebrew grammar, while the Sephardic Lurianic rites, and even the Hasidic Sefarad versions, continued to use the Mishnaic grammar of the earliest prayer books. Besides altering the text of the siddur, the work of these scholars in producing authoritative prayer books led to the erasing of local differences. The effect of printing also contributed to this standardization, first for Ashkenazim and gradually for all the rites. The correction and standardization of Nussah Ashkenaz in the 19th century created a common, unifying text, which was then updated, primarily in America and Israel, to include the Hasidic influences on East European Ashkenazic siddurim. The French Ashkenazic community, however, because of its own local history and because of the process of moderate reform that preserved official Consistoire Orthodoxy as the norm, uses a prayer book that maintains some aspects of the pre-modern Ashkenazic rite and has accepted only a minimum of Kabbalistic changes.

    The Sephardic prayer book of the Edot ha-Mizrah also underwent standardization as a result of printing and later halakhic rulings. Generally, printers attempted to publish Sephardic prayer books that followed the Lurianic liturgy. Nevertheless, these were merged with pre-existing local customs and liturgical poetry. At the same time, the influence of the Rav Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh and Beit Yosef created a need to conform existing siddurim to its rulings. This process was completed only when so-called Beit Yosef siddurim were issued under the authority of R. Ovadiah Yosef who, in fact, drew on wide-ranging halakhic literature, including Ashkenazic authorities.

From the time of the Ari and Rav Yosef Karo on, constant arguments had been waged between those attempting, but failing, to maintain local tradition, which was often closer to Rav Sa’adyah Gaon and Maimonides, and those leading the winning march of the new “Sephardic/Oriental” version. Nevertheless, previous to Rav Ovadiah, and to the move of Oriental Jews to Israel, France and then the United States, various local rites existed, and some of them are still used, such as the Algerian, Moroccan, Libyan, Egyptian, and Babylonian or Iraqi nusha’ot. Today they survive along with the standardized Rav Ovadiah prayer books advocated by assorted yeshivot and rabbis.

    Meanwhile, the Ashkenazic rite went through a final stage of division with the development of the American and Israeli versions of the Eastern European (Polish), Ashkenazic minhag. Basically, the American Polish rite, used by most Ashkenazic synagogues, represents a German/British nussah with East European additions, while the Israeli liturgy has more Sephardic additions like Barekhu at the end of the tefillah and Pittum ha-Ketoret said every day. Israelis also follow many more Gra rulings than do Americans. Curiously, however, many Religious Zionist Israelis, even of Western European origin, adopted a version of Hasidic Sefarad as their rite after coming to Israel, while East European Jews who came to America tended to abandon their allegiance to Hasidic Sefarad and adopted instead the Ashkenazic rite so common already in the U.S. Only later, with the immigration of many Hasidic and East European Jews after the Holocaust, did the Hasidic rite, in all its variation, become common in some segments of the American Orthodox community. For a variety reasons, primarily the influence of yeshivot and of Israel, American Ashkenazic prayer is growing to be more Israeli over time. It is also worth mentioning that distinctions among Hasidic Sefarad prayer books are no longer geographically based but, as mentioned above, result from the printing of prayer books by the various Hasidic groups, a process still continuing today.

    Finally, we should mention the Esperanto of prayer rites. In the early days of the State of Israel, then-IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wanted to create a common nussah for use in the Israeli army. He sought to avoid the need to separate soldiers for religious purposes and to overcome calls for separate Ashkenazic and Sephardic military units. To this end, he adapted Hasidic Sefarad, in a version close to that of Chabad, into what he called Nussah Ahid (the unified rite) actually a form of Chabad text with some modification. This rite never really succeeded, since Israeli Orthodox Jews preferred to follow a pattern of simply allowing the preceptor to lead the prayers according to his own nussah. In fact, this pattern prevails even in some synagogues, despite not being in accord with most halakhic rulings on the subject. Nonetheless, this approach solved the very same problem, and obviated the need for the unified rite.

    Having traversed 2,000 years of Jewish history, we conclude with an observation. Local custom in prayer has been a major feature of Jewish life for its entire history. Instead of feeling uncomfortable when we enter a synagogue where things are done differently from what we are accustomed to, especially as we travel the ever-shrinking globe, we should revel in the beautiful diversity of our local customs, and in the way each Jewish community sought to fulfill its spiritual and halakhic requirements. Judaism has never insisted on uniformity, but rather has its own concept of halakhic pluralism and diversity of Minhag. The history of Jewish prayer books and their various versions and rites reflects the history of the Jewish people, its intellectual and religious development, and its migration throughout the world. We should appreciate it as a sign of the power of the masorah to serve the Jewish people in every time and place.


Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman is Chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and serves as Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU.