Sitting vs. Standing During Rosh Hashono Prayers
Shoin! This past week, a number of readers asked for an update on Alex and her car issues; here we go. As of today, we still don’t know the last name of the 16 year old who hit her car and left a note, the car is still in the shop and Alex is still driving a rental. Veyter.
Also this past shabbis, at a pre-mincha class given by Rabbi Avi Miller, he the very bright assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, who excels in imparting his vast knowledge, the Oisvorfer’s eyes were opened wide to a controversy he never knew existed. It surrounded a particular tifila (prayer), one we will be reciting several times over Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur. It’s a prayer Yiddin fight over. They fight for the honor of opening and then closing the ark for this particular prayer and the paragraphs that follow. Intensive lobbying campaigns begin months in advance; the goal being to be selected for this pisicha (opening of the ark), to be the ‘one’ standing at the Oron (ark) when this tifila (prayer or liturgical reading) is recited. To those seeking this honor, it’s the big one! Excepting ‘tifilas ni’e’la,’ the prayer which closes out Yom Kippur and a last chance the change the RBSO’s mind about one’s fate for the coming year, and one Yiddin pay thousands, even tens of thousands for in certain Sephardic and Lebanese shuls, the “Une’sa’neh Toikef” piut (poem or liturgical hymn) is the penultimate prayer of the high holy days. Where sold, it goes for big bucks. Where not, people lobby for the honor of opening the ark for it. More on that below.
Welcome to parshas Netzovim which begins with the words Atem Nitzovim. Literally translated, they mean “you are all standing.” Moishe begins our parsha with these words just after he concluded scaring the living daylights out of the Yiddin in last week’s parsha when he delineated the 98 curses coming their way for bad behavior. According to many, the Yiddin have already been on the receiving side of all 98, oy vey. Shoin, after a fair warning, Moishe begins this week with just kidding: you’re all still alive and well, you’re all standing here today. April fools!
Standing is what we’ll be doing quite a bit of during the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashono which begins this coming Sunday evening. Actually, for those in shul, it’s not just standing; instead, shul is five or more hours of alternating between sitting and standing. We stand for certain prayers, sit for others. We’re up and down like yo-yos several dozen times. Why? Ver veyst? Who decided that it’s required to stand only for certain prayers while sitting for others? Who selected them? Are the ones we recite while sitting any less important? If so, why say them? Who decided which were which? And who decided that we open the Ark for the recitation of certain liturgical readings while it remains closed for others? Are these reading more choshuv (worthy)? Says who?
And with both Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur but days away, Rabbi Miller’s class was mamish timely, it was all about that special Unesana Toikef prayer. And it got the Oisvorfer thinking azoy: how and why did this particular prayer become so important? Why do people in kimat every shul fight for the honor of standing at the Ark while this prayer is being recited? What’s so special about Unesana Toikef? Who wrote it and who anointed it? Why is the Oron opened while it’s being recited? Does the RBSO not hear or listen to us with the ark closed? If every tifilah on Rosh Hashono was selected for its importance and relevance to the day, why not keep the ark open all day on this special day? What’s with all the openings and closings? And before we address that, let’s review the controversy over the Unesaneh Toikef piut. What could be controversial about a prayer? Aren’t all prayers good? What’s pshat? Seemingly the controversy surrounding this prayer revolves around two words. Which words, what words? It’s about the sentence containing the words “kivney moroin”: “all mankind will pass before You like sheep.”
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן (תעביר) לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן. כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ. מַעֲבִיר צאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ .כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי. וְתַחְתּךְ קִצְבָה לְכָל בְּרִיּוֹתֶיךָ (בריה). וְתִכְתֹּב אֶת גְּזַר דִּינָם
What’s so controversial about sheep? And what could be controversial about this next sentence which reads…”Like a shepherd pasturing his flock?” Nu, as the good rabbi explained, not everyone agrees that the Hebrew words “kivnay moroin” translate to like a flock of sheep. That’s it? Yes! And believe it or not, these two words were hotly debated by the Mishneh, the heylige Gemora, the Hebrew dictionary and even Wikipedia who brings down parts of the controversy: OMG! According to some, the words “Kivany Morin” mean like the children of Moroin, meaning a place and having no relationship at all to sheep. There are yet other interpretations of the words. And according to some, earlier editions of his liturgical payers have a slightly different spelling. The bottom line: most translate the words “as a flock of sheep,” ober not all. And not just do they argue over the meaning of the words, they also argue whether or not the words, as we recite them, are correct. Some say that the words we recite today do not square up with earlier writings where we find the words presented slightly differently, ober different enough to change their definition. The bottom line: there are different opinions as to the meaning of these words and whether or not the words we recite are altogether wrong; in other words: we should be reciting two different words which mean something else completely. In more other words: we mamish don’t know if the words as we recite them today in virtually all our machzorim (holiday prayer books), are correct. And guess what? There’s more controversy regarding the entire prayer.
While many attribute this prayer to a Rebbe Amnon, who according to legend, died a Jewish hero at the hands of the Romans, others suggest that it is highly unlikely that this Rebbe Amnon ever penned these words. If not him, who? Shoin that for another day. Ober, who was Rebbe Amnon:
According to the information found in our machzorim, and in other sources, the Unesaneh Toikef was composed by an 11th-century sage by the name of Rebee Amnon of Mainz who, apart from this one story, is unknown to history. As a friend of the (otherwise unnamed) Archbishop of Mainz (or, perhaps, the otherwise unnamed Governor), Rebbe Amnon was pressured to convert to Catholicism, say it’s not so. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer; immediately he regretted intensely giving even the pretense that he could possibly accept a foreign religion. After spending the three days in prayer, he refused to come to the archbishop as promised, and, when he was forcibly brought to the archbishop’s palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin. Instead, the archbishop ordered his hands and legs amputated — limb by limb — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rebbe Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. He was sent home, with his severed extremities, on a knight’s shield. This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. As he lay dying on Rosh Hashono, Rebbe Amnon asked to be carried into the shul where he recited the original composition of Unesaneh Toikef with his last breath (the story contains an ambiguous phrase that some commentators interpreted as saying that he did not merely die but that his body miraculously vanished). Amazing. Wait: there’s more: Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rebbe Kalonymus ben Meshullam, one of the great scholars and liturgists of Mainz, and begged him to transcribe the prayer and to see that it was included in the text of the High Holiday services. Thus, according to legend, this payer became a part of the standard liturgy as it remains today. True story? Ver veyst?
Some say the story is emes, but…But what? Bu that it wasn’t Rebbe Amnon who authored it. Moreover, the discovery of the Unesaneh Toikef prayer within the earliest strata of the Cairo Geniza materials, dating well before the 11th century, makes it almost impossible that he was its author as the legend claims. Some even claim that this entire myseh never took place; instead it was inspired by a similar story among the goyim, a fellow by the name of Saint Emmeram of Regensburg, say it’s not so please. Others argue that the prayer was written by Yannai in the sixth century. Who wrote it? Ver veyst!
The bottom line: a prayer whose authorship is a shtikel contested, and which contains words whose spelling and meaning are the subject of great debate, has become and remains ever popular. Again, aside from the prayer of Ni’ila, it is -in the minds of many- the quintessential piut of the high holy days. Hundreds of orthodox practicing Yiddin all over world understand that the opening of the ark for this particular prayer is auspicious, can change their fate, and is also an honor they mamish cannot live without. Why? Ver veyst. As to the Oisvorfer to whom controversy is nothing special, if you chap, he chaps that controversy notwithstanding, the moving and very stirring prayer Unesana Toikef prayer continues to have great appeal and even monetary value. Though solemn in nature, it somehow uplifting.
Nu, speaking of opening and closing the Oron, the same question can avada be asked of many more readings which were selected for an open ark and for standing? What’s pshat here? And the answers to these questions? Ver veyst! The heylige Oisvorfer has researched this topic and all he can find is this: it is certainly permissible to sit while the Oron is open. Caveat: that is to say as long as the heylige Toirah scrolls are resting inside. In other words: we must stand when the Toirah is on the move, when being taken out and when being placed back. Once resting it is kosher to sit. That is the din (halocho or law). Ober, the minhag (the custom) is to stand. Shoin!
Speaking of standing vs sitting during certain prayers, avada you know that this same controversy exists when it comes to the recitation of the Shema prayer, the kaddish, and even laining (Torah readings). The bottom line: there are those who sit for all, those who sit form some, and those who stand for all. In most Chasidic shuls and among those davening nusach sefard, most if not all, sit for all with the exception of a few prayers including avada the amida, the standing prayer. Very often, in shuls where people are not sure whether to stand or sit for a certain tifila or kaddish, they will just follow the crowd. If others are standing, they will stand as well, their own personal customs notwithstanding. Why? Mostly to avoid embarrassment that they not appear to be irreverent. The bottom line: yesh al mi lismoch (no matter what you do, there is an opinion to lean, or rely on.
The bottom line: whether we stand or sit when the ark is open for the reading of certain liturgical readings could be more related to getting the people of the shul involved. Did our rabbis of yore chap that shul members wanted -efsher needed- some special recognition and kovod and then decided to sort of shout them out by having them come up and open the oron? Sounds logical. Sending people up to open and close the Oron also solved another problem for those in charge of doling out these kibudim (honors). Everyone avada knows that the Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur Toirah readings allow for but six or seven aliyas (people called to the Torah). Along with a few other kibudim which include pisicha, hagbah and gilila, there simply aren’t enough to placate the many egos which make up every shul. The bottom line: people love to be recognized and to feel good. What did our sages do? They created new ones; each opening and closing is a shout out of sorts, each makes its recipient feel good. Why not? Moreover, such recognition, may help the shul. Those shouted out will likely be more responsive when the shul calls for a donation. They will likely be more inclined to give a bit more to the annual appeal. And isn’t that what it’s all about? It is!
With warm wishes to all the Oisvorfer’s readers around the world for the coming new year. May the RBSO, who is zicher standing in judgment while most of us are alternating between standing and sitting, bless you with all you need and wish for.
A gittin Shabbis-
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv