What would Moshiach Eat?

Two interesting moments at shul this morning, back in Thornhill:

1. My Rabbi paused before Aleinu to say a few words:

Aleinu is a prayer about the coming of y’mei hamashiach – the days of the Messiah, or the Messianic age, depending on your point of view. In that light, I would like to make sure that the latkes have been put in the oven, so that they will be warm by the time we’re finished praying. You can’t have y’mei hamashiach without latkes.

On the surface, I’m sure this was just a humourous interlude for most – but it struck a great theological chord for me. That a rabbi who strongly identifies with the Reform Movement would make a reference to the coming of the messiah, and leave open the possibility that someone might accept a personal messiah, and not just the generic “messianic age” is a huge indicator of the uniqueness of the Reform Movement in Canada, and in particular, my Rabbi. It was a joke, a casual reference, not intended to be a drash or a d’var t’fillah. But in those few, brief sentences, there resonated a resounding cry of the possibility for Reform Judaism to embrace in practice the spectrum of beliefs that it purports to do so on paper.

2. Not having put much thought into it before, I noticed this morning at the start of the amidah that our congregation repeats the line “Adonai s’fatai tiftach ufi yagid t’hilatecha” chanting it twice – in Hebrew both times. While there’s nothing that says you can’t chant it twice, there’s also no specific reason to do so. One might ask: why is this prayer read twice? What is it about this specific line that merits a double reading? The answer – nothing. Then why do we chant it twice?

Before I go out in search of the actual answer, I want to posit a hypothesis…

A number of years ago, due in large part to the influence of the rabbi, our shul made a conscious decision to increase the amount of Hebrew used during services. As a result, almost the entirety of Shabbat Shacharit is now conducted in Hebrew. My guess is that on the way, the pre-Amidah line was read in both Hebrew and English, to facilitate the transition. At some point, the English was dropped, but people were accustomed to chanting it twice, so the English was just replaced with Hebrew, resulting in a doubly-chanted Hebrew line.

That’s my hypothesis. Tune in next week when I hope to have an answer from the Rabbi.

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3 thoughts on “What would Moshiach Eat?

  1. Knowing nothing about this synagogue’s actual situation, I think you’re right about the repetition. It was minhag in URJ congregations for quite some time to sing that line in Hebrew and then in English. I’ve been to a few in recent years where they dropped the English, but kept the melody. People became used to singing the melody twice through, so they continue to do so.

  2. While I don’t have an authentic answer for the Adonai S’fatai question, (every single melody I have ever heard of the line, sings it twice!) I might offer a thought on the switch to more Hebrew. While there is no question there was a somewhat conscious decision to increase the amount Hebrew in our worship, I would like to suggest that the switch was also somewhat organic. When the congregation was first founded, the vast majority of the membership were coming from places that didn’t understand the worship service. Prayer in the vernacular was a given until there existed enough literacy to begin the introduction of more Hebrew language prayer than simply the Shema/V’ahavta. As the congregation grew in both numbers and knowledge, Hebrew prayer was a natural evolution. It became somewhat ludicrous to chant half of the Ashrei in English when the congregation was clearly ready for more, and they became more comfortable with the language. It is a bit like the old teachings of Franz Rosenzweig. As he became knowledgeable and more comfortable with ritual acts, he added them back into his daily life. So it was at our congregation. When the congregation was ready for the next step, we took it, and thus we have what you witness today. Speaking as one who was there in the trenches, it was never an easy transition and many people fought through each and every word. But, given that Hebrew is the language of our prayer, and that our services are so dependent on the music which most often is written in Hebrew, literacy became a must. I have never once regretted the fight and I must say that I am proud to show off the prayer literacy of my congregation.

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