Prayer book for a cantor. Poland, sixteenth or seventeenth century. Vellum. This rare example of an illustrated prayer book is opened to a page with a prayer for the welfare of all involved in the life of the synagogue and the community. Collection Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

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The liturgy of East European Jewry, though by the twelfth century dominated by the overall prayer-book prototype bequeathed by the Babylonian centers, retained traces of the rites of premedieval Palestine along with those of early medieval Italy and Germany. In this way it differed from its equivalents in Spain and France, but the resulting variations were generally limited to rare occasions and special circumstances and concerned detailed wording within benedictions, such as the use of “Ve-te‘erav” in the Birkat ha-kohanim, or priestly benediction. This lyrical formulation (“May our plea be as sweet as once were our Temple offerings”), occurring in the third benediction from the end of the ‘Amidah (‘Avodah), had been part of the daily version of the central prayer service (‘Amidah or Shemoneh ‘esreh) in premedieval Palestine.

The early East European liturgy also came to be more broadly characterized by the content and order of the morning benedictions, the choice and layout of the pre-Barekhu psalms preceding the main prayers, the supplementary poetic material in the repetitions of the additional (Musaf) ‘Amidot on special Sabbaths and festivals, and, above all, the overall selection of piyutim (hymns or liturgical poems). Given the limited nature of these adjustments, it is clear that East European liturgy, especially in its earliest stages, did not undergo revolutionary developments.

The importance of German family customs and local traditions, the mystical concern of German Jewish pietists with single letters and words and with their total number within liturgical units, and the pietists’ detailed exegesis and theology with respect to the liturgy shaped Ashkenazic developments from the twelfth century. Two poetic compositions of uncertain authorship on God’s power and glory, titled Shir ha-kavod (Hymn of Glory) and Shir ha-yiḥud (Hymn of Unity), were introduced via the mystics, and a prayer for Torah scholars and students, judges, and leaders of the Jewish community (Yekum purkan) was retained only among Ashkenazic Jews. After (and perhaps because of) the Crusader persecutions, prayers for the martyrs (Av ha-raḥamim), for the souls of the family dead (Hazkarat neshamot, or Mazkir or Yizkor), and for one’s parents (Kaddish, in a novel application that bore little relation to its original context and use) became integral to the liturgy.

Under the influence of the Masoretic approach, which sought punctiliously to preserve the text and language of the Hebrew Bible, a group of grammarians in Central and Eastern Europe between the eleventh century and the invention of the printing press attempted to force the Hebrew of the liturgy into the straitjacket of the language and vocalization of the Hebrew Bible, thus creating tension between themselves and those who were conservatively committed to the rabbinic style of the prayer texts. Additionally, with the gradual move of Ashkenazic Jewry eastward in Europe, the liturgical codex, called a siddur or maḥzor, took on a larger and more composite form, first spawning rubrics, glosses, and commentaries and then incorporating not only the text of the prayers but also compendia of halakhic rulings along with guidance on broader liturgical matters.

As the Polish settlements grew, the Ashkenazic rite bifurcated into a number of subdivisions. From Hamburg on the Elbe to Salzburg at the edge of the Alps, the communities of the west continued to refer to their rite as that of Ashkenaz or the Rhine (Raynus), while those to the east characterized their liturgical customs as those of Ostraykh, Polin, Pihem, Merrn, Lita, and Raysen. Expressed in contemporary political and geographical terms, the former covered western Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and northern France, while the latter were located in eastern Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. The differences between and within the two were minor and concerned which piyutim were recited and when, the particular order preferred for (usually the same) prayers, and synagogal customs.

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, the expansion of the Polish kingdom and the spread of its authority eastward into Ukraine brought increased Jewish settlement and economic success and a subsequent Jewish mini-Enlightenment. The effects in the liturgical field were a concern for linguistic and grammatical accuracy in the burgeoning printed editions of prayer books, the incorporation of fresh mystical material (e.g., Kabalat Shabat), an interest in more enlightened Hebrew education, and a commitment to editing, translating, and glossing the siddur. This culminated in the production of an “authorized daily prayer book” compiled by Shabetai Sofer of Przemyśl (ca. 1565–1635) and printed in Prague in 1617.

Shabetai’s work concentrated on the use of manuscript evidence, comparison with other rites, the accuracy of the Hebrew, and the importance of meeting the needs of the broader Jewish public. In that sense, it paved the way for some later liturgical changes. With regard to kabbalistic matters, Shabetai cites the Zohar as a respected authority and occasionally notes the views of contemporary kabbalists in support of certain liturgical readings, but he is wary of any religious interpretation that might compete with his scrupulously grammatical approach. It was later in the seventeenth century that Kabbalah made a major impact on Eastern Europe. Some prayer texts and customs of the Safed kabbalists, Yitsḥak Luria and his champions Natan Note ben Shelomoh Spira and Yesha‘yahu ben Avraham Horowitz, found their way into the prayer book, and this process developed further with the 1662 prayer book of Natan Note Hannover, Sha‘are Tsiyon, which was widely reprinted.

The prayer book according to the rite of Luria (nusaḥ ha-Ari) was first published in Żółkiew in 1781 and immediately thereafter in Lwów (1782) under non-Hasidic auspices, but with the rise of Hasidism, these kabbalistic developments reached their apogee and produced the last great changes in the East European rites. Hasidism powerfully and successfully adopted and promoted the rite attributed to Luria, including its special devotional texts (kavanot) before major prayers and benedictions, some Sephardic order and content (for which reason the Lurianic rite is sometimes called nusaḥ Sefarad), and a greater attention to the recitation of Temple rituals. Nineteenth-century editions of the prayer book reflect the resultant tensions and competing influences, and many current Ashkenazic prayer books have moved away from the German Enlightenment tradition represented by the grammarian and liturgist Seligman Baer toward Polish Hasidic preferences.

The dominant liturgical poetry of Eastern Europe, like that of Central Europe, was less aesthetic, more parochial, and closer to Talmudic and midrashic sources than its equivalents in the Near Eastern and Sephardic worlds. It was less technically outstanding and less purely intellectual, but more nationalistic, more realistic, and more tragic. Partly as a result, it ultimately came to specialize in memorial prayers and dirges, and these were still being produced at the time of the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres of 1648–1649.

Suggested Reading

Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, trans. and ed. R. P. Scheindlin (Philadelphia and New York, 1993); Ezra Fleischer, Shirat ha-kodesh ha-‘ivrit bi-yeme ha-benayim (Jerusalem, 1975); Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development (New York, 1967); Stefan C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History (Cambridge, 1993); Leon J. Weinberger, Jewish Hymnography: A Literary History (London, 1998).