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Additions to the Amidah: A Mahzor Mystery

High Holidays
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

Jews throughout history have made additions to the Amidah, the silent prayer, in order to enhance the service.

In his new year message, Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, president of The Schechter Institutes, unravels the mystery of how special prayers were added to the Amidah we recite during the 10 days of repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

Read the full article below:

In honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I would like to clear up a mahzor mystery.

If you walk into most Ashkenazic synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or during the 10 Days of Repentance, you will hear these words:

Remember us for life, Sovereign who delights in life, and inscribe us in the book of life for your sake, God of life.

You may also hear this: Who is like you source of compassion, who remembers with compassion your creatures for life.

Or you may hear, Inscribe all the people of your covenant for a good life.

And there is a fourth prayer we recite: May we in the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance and peace in the book of life.

What’s the problem? The problem is that these four additions to the Amidah, which talk about life on the high holidays, are not mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud at all. They are first mentioned and opposed around the year 800 by a scholar whose name was Pirkoiben Baboi, who was discovered in the Cairo Geniza and his writings were published by Professor Louis Ginsberg around 100 years ago in Ginzei Schechter.

Pirkoiben Baboi was vociferously opposed to these additions to the Amidah because he says they contradict what Rav Yehuda says in the Talmud in the tractate of Brachot 34a. Rav Yehuda said a person should not ask for his own personal needs, not on the first three blessings of the Amidah, not on the last three blessings of the Amidah, but only in the middle blessings.

Pirkoiben Baboi says if you want to add personal petitions, add them in the middle blessings as we are told in the tractate of Avoda Zara, folio 8a.

How did the rabbis in the Geonic period deal with this issue? Halakhot Gedolot, which was written a short while later around the year 825, he says, it’s true you may not add these additions to the Amidah. The only one you can add is, בספר חיים – Inscribe us in the book of life – which is found at the very end, apparently according to his custom, after the Amidah.

Another approach was that of Masekhet Soferim, which is attributed to the Geonic period, where chapter 19 repeats these four additions to the Amidah. Even these, somehow, were to be added to the Amidah.

And finally, Rav Hai Gaon or his great, great grandfather, Rav Tzemach Gaon, both of whom lived towards the end of the Geonic period, they said there is no contradiction. Rav Yehuda was talking about the needs of the individual but – זכרינו לחיים remember us for life–  is the needs of the entire Jewish people and, therefore, there is no contradiction. You may not add your personal petitions in the first three or last three blessings but you may ask for life for the entire Jewish people because those are needs of the community.

By the time of Ri HaZaken, RabbI Yitzhak the elder, who lived in France in the 12th century, it was so accepted to recite these additions to the Amidah that he says that if you forget to recite the additions, you must go back and repeat the Amidah.

Rabbeinu Asher, the Rosh, at the beginning of the 14th century, said, wait a minute. These additions are not mentioned in the Talmud. It’s okay to add them. If you forget them, you should not go back because it’s only a minhag, a custom, and not a halakha, a law.

What can we learn from this little machzor mystery?

Number one, that Jews throughout history have added piyyutim or liturgical poetry to the Amidah in order to enhance the service.

Number two, Jews usually pray in the plural. We sayזכרינו , remember us for life,  ,אבינו מלכנו  our father, our king,  סלח לנו forgive us our father for we have sinned,  אשמנו, בגדנוwe have sinned, we have betrayed, etc, etc…

This is because it says twice in the Talmud, all Jews are connected to one another, all Jews are responsible for one another. And, therefore, we pray for the entire Jewish people.

Finally, the most simple message is the importance of חיים or life in Judaism. At this difficult time, as the pandemic still rages throughout the world, we wish the entire Jewish people life and all the people of the world life and we say to God, זכרינו לחיים , remember us for life.

Shanah Tova from Schechter.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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