Monday, December 25, 2006

Old time religion

About ten years ago, a few of us got together and tried to establish a new Friday night minyan in our new neighborhood. (The closest shul was 15 minutes away) We agreed to daven nusach ashkenaz, and to start services 5 minutes after candles, but the rest of our negotiations were difficult. I particularly remember the fight over Yigdal. Six of us wanted to sing it after Maariv, seven of us did not, and because we had agreed to settle arguments about ritual by vote, the anti-Yigdal people carried the day. After the votes were counted, we all agreed to accept the will of the majority, but one man (not me!) couldn't resist a final taunt. He looked the leading Yigdal-proponent (also not me!) in the eye and said: "This isn't going to be a Young Israel. No modern customs."

Flash-forward four years. I'm in a new neighborhood with a new group of guys and again we're plotting a new Friday night minyan. This time, the nusach is sefard, and decisions are being made not by vote, but by the owner of the house we plan to use as our synagouge. Again, one of our group (still not me!) wants to sing Yigdal, and again he is rebuffed, this time by the home owner, who uses language strikingly similar to the taunt from six years earlier. He says: "Yigdal? That's so modern. Do you think this is some Young Israel?"

Last week, I finally found the reply both men deserved. According to the Hertz siddur, the Great Synagouge in London elected to conclude Friday night services with Yigdal, in the tradition of communities in Poland and Hamburg. The year was 1722. 1722!!

I've since moved to yet another new neighborhood, and though I've lost touch with both men (also, as readers of the blog know, I've developed an acute distaste for private, breakaway minyanim; I now think they should be discouraged and avoided.) I've met several others who share the view that singing Yigdal is a modern, American innovation. Consider that view debunked.

In fact, consider this: The Yigdal tradition, considered by most Jews I know to be new, and therefore inauthentic is, in fact, older than Hasidic Judaism. The Bal Shem Tov was 24 in 1722. The yigdal custom also predates Volozhin, the "mother of yeshivas" established in 1803.

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