Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Judaism used to be easier: Prayer

Judaism used to be easier. The more I learn about the development of our rituals and customs the more I see it. Take prayer for instance.

The notes in the Hertz Siddur say that our practice of saying Psalms before borchu (i.e. psuka d'zimra) every morning is a relatively late development. Once upon a time, the morning service started at borchu, and you could arrive at that point without getting dirty looks, and without being labled a "latecomer."

According to the notes, the psuka d'zimra custom developed slowly. Reverent and devoted Jews would arrive early to say Pslams before the service started; gradually, gradually this became accepted by more and more people until it was universally embraced. Nowadays, the psuka d'zimra practice is so well ingrained the definitions have shifted: Where once only the very pious said psuka d'zimra, today, only the very impious skip it.

Another late prayer development is Kabbalas Shabbos, which originated in the 16th century. In his travel letters, Ovadya of Bartenura tells how at least one community functioned on Friday night in the days before Kabbalas Shabbos. He describes an Egyptian community where the Friday night mincha was said at home. Later, after dark, and after the meal the men said maariv. I don't recall if R' Ovdya said where maariv was prayed - at home or in shul - but I suppose it had to have been at home: Without watches how would anyone know, in the dark, when it was time for minyan?

This may not sound "easier" to those who are accustomed to Friday night services, and I agree that Kabbalas Shabbos is often the highlight of the week. I wouldn't dream of abrogating psuka d'zimra or Kabbalas Shabbos; still, I can't help thinking that it would have been nice to live when mainstream observant/Orthodox Jews didn't decide you were irreligious if you happened to occasionally miss these services.

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