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Shiur #03: The Vilna Gaon and Piyyutim (Conclusion)

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


            In this shiur we will conclude our clarification of the Vilna Gaon's position regarding the recitation of piyyutim. We ended the previous shiur with the last question that remains to be answered. Here is the way it was put by one of Vilna's leading Torah scholars, Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen, in his notes (Divrei Shlomo) to the book Ma'aseh Rav, which was published in Vilna in 1888, about ninety years after the Gra's death:




I always wondered why our Master was concerned about interrupting [the prayer service] with piyyutim. For if he was inclined to the position of those who maintain that piyyutim are considered an interruption in the prayer service, and therefore he enacted that they be recited after the Shacharit service, if so, then even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he should have made a similar enactment… And similarly there is a difficulty from the prayers for dew and rain regarding which he was not concerned about an interruption, [as opposed to] the piyyutim that are recited in the Shacharit service [which the Gra refrained from reciting in their place].




            What is evident from here is that the major Torah scholars in Vilna did not have a tradition about how to explain the Gra's practice, and the matter remained a riddle many years after his death. Why did he support reciting the piyyutim of the High Holy Days and the prayers for dew and rain in their traditional place in the liturgy, while at the same time he insisted that all the other piyyutim be recited only after the prayer service? We will propose three solutions to this question.




The Approach of the Netziv




            This question was addressed to the Netziv, head of the Volozhin yeshiva. According to him, reciting piyyutim in their traditional place in the liturgy does in fact veer from the norm dictated by strict law, and the halakhic authorities permitted the practice only because of pressing circumstances:




… this is not in keeping with the strict law, for the rule is that one must not petition for his needs [in the first three blessings of the Amida prayer]. But just as we shout in prayer on Shabbat in times of trouble, and we observe a fast for bad dreams on Shabbat, so too we increase [requests for] mercy, not in accordance with the law. (Responsa Meishiv Davar 1, 13)




            According to the Netziv, just as it is permitted to shout in prayer on Shabbat in times of emergency, and just as it is permitted to observe a fast on Shabbat if one is despondent about a bad dream, so too on the High Holy Days it is permitted to make additional requests for mercy in the prayer, since these are days of judgment, and "if not now, then when."




            The Netziv's position is supported by a law appearing in tractate Soferim.[1] Mention is made there of the additions that we today insert into the Amida prayer during the entire course of the Ten Days of Repentance, but according to tractate Soferim are added only on the High Holidays themselves:




Just as the conclusion [of the blessings] on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is different from that of the other festival days, so too the prayer [itself]. Remembrances are not mentioned in the first three blessings or in the final three blessings, except for on the two days of Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur. And even regarding these, it was only with difficulty that they permitted it. (Soferim 19:6)




            That is to say, expanding the prayers on the days of judgment does not accord with the general principles governing prayer, but rather it is a halakhic deviation, which was difficult even for the Sages who approved it. According to the Netziv, this principle also accounts for the recitation of the special prayers for dew and rain.




            This explanation is not free of difficulties. It should be noted that according to the Netziv, lengthening the prayer service on the High Holy Days – a fixed practice that repeats itself every year – is really a halakhic deviation, which the Sages permitted only by way of a special allowance. The Sages can enact such a deviation in the framework of their authority to stretch the boundaries of Halakha when there is a pressing temporary need. Were this the case, however, we would have expected to find clear and direct prayers, which bear the seal of distress and temporariness, with little attention paid to esthetics or poetic sophistication. But in stark contrast, the splendor of the High Holy Day prayers, their literary structure, the art and sophistication that were invested in interweaving them into the fixed liturgy – all speak for themselves. Who can see all this and imagine that we are dealing with a bedi'eved situation? The difficulty with accepting the Netziv's suggestion drives us to look for a different explanation.[2]




"Making it Longer" – Quantitatively or Qualitatively




            Let us go back to Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen. After having raised the question, he describes how he turned with this matter to another Vilna Torah authority, "the rabbi, the genius, Rabbi Yosef." The latter answered him saying that additions should not be considered as a lengthening of the prayer, because from a substantive perspective, there is no deviation from the contents of the blessing, despite the quantitative addition. Reciting piyyutim is permitted as long as the conceptual borders of the blessing are preserved.




            This answer assumes that the problem of prolonging a blessing is not a matter of the number of words added to the blessing, but rather to the interpolation of contents that are not included in the primary theme of the original blessing. Traces of this assumption can be found in the teachings of the Gra himself. At a certain stage in his life, the Gra taught his disciples his commentaries to tractate Berakhot, and these teaching were recorded by one of the disciples in the book Imrei No'am. Among other things, we find there the Gra's explanation of the Mishna: "One long and one short," which refers to the two blessings recited before the Shema:




Long – that is, that it deals with several matters. The Yotzer Or blessing deals with several matters and is also long in formulation. The Ahava Rabba blessing is short because it deals exclusively with the Torah. Similarly in the evening service, the Ma'ariv Aravim blessing is long because it deals with several matters, even though it is short in formulation. And the Ahavat Olam blessing is short because it does not deal with several matters and it is also short in formulation.




This passage is not completely clear, but nonetheless what stands out is that "length" is not defined solely by the length of the text, but – and perhaps primarily – by the conceptual load added to the blessing. This line of thinking makes it possible to recite the piyyutim for dew and rain, because they expand upon content that is already found in the second blessing of the Amida service.




According to the aforementioned Rabbi Yosef, this answer accounts for both exceptions – the High Holy Days and the prayers for dew and rain. But is it true that the piyyutim recited in these two cases do not add to the content of the original blessings?




Turning first to the rain/dew prayers, we note that rain and dew are mentioned in the standard text of second Amidah blessing. Thus, expanding on these themes does not violate the fundamental prohibition "to recite a long blessing where they ordained a short one." This is because the extension does not add to the blessing any foreign content.




Yet a question may still be raised: Indeed, we always mention dew or rain in the second blessing of the Amida service, but this is done in the framework of singing God's praises. The piyyutim for dew and rain add a new dimension that clearly does not exist without them, namely, the dimension of request. What is more, praise is the sole content of the second blessing, as part of the framework created by the three blessings with which the Amida prayer opens. If so, how can we not see the request in the prayer for rain a substantial expansion?[3] Is this not a real breach in the boundaries of the blessing?




Certain rabbinic sources do, however, imply that while the references in the blessing to rain and dew are formulated as words of praise, they express an implicit request. For example, we are told of several cases of drought, wherein an especially virtuous prayer leader brought about rainfall immediately after uttering the words, "who causes the rain to fall" (see Taanit 24a, Bava Metzia 85b).[4] We can therefore accept the argument of Rabbi Yosef, the colleague of Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen, that the prayers for rain and due merely give explicit expression to the latent wish for rain that is found in the blessing in any case.




However, this still does not provide us with an adequate answer regarding the many additions inserted into the liturgy on the High Holy Days, which appear to deviate from the content of the blessings in which they are recited, as is clearly evident to anyone who examines the holiday prayer book.




The Uniqueness of the High Holy Days




To solve our dilemma, I propose that we reexamine the Tosefta in Berakhot. I am somewhat puzzled by the fact that all those who addressed this question ignored this basic source. Let us recall the words of the Tosefta:




These are the blessings which are [coined to be] short: One who blesses over fruit, and over commandments, and the zimmun blessing, and the last blessing in the Grace after Meals. And these are the blessing which are [coined to be] long: the blessings of fast days, and the blessings of Rosh Hashana, and the blessings of Yom Kippur… (Tosefta, Berakhot 1:6)




According to the Vilna Gaon, as may be recalled, the Tosefta maps out for us the world of blessings. Some blessings are coined to be short, while others are coined to be long. The blessings that do not appear on either listed are discussed in the Yerushalmi, and the conclusion there is that if one lengthens those blessings, it is reprehensible, whereas if he shortens them, it is praiseworthy. In any event, the Tosefta explicitly states that the blessings of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are coined to be long. This is their status lekhatchila, without searching for special allowances or exceptions. This is a clear source for the Gra's customary practice regarding the High Holy Day liturgy.




However, the reason that the Acharonim did not consider this source is equally clear. They understood the Tosefta in a restrictive manner, in reference only to the central blessings of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot, and not as a general guideline that one should lengthen the blessings recited on the High Holy Days. Even the Gra himself explained it in similar fashion, as he writes in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh:




These are the blessing which are [coined to be] long: the blessings of fast days, and the blessings of Rosh Hashana, and the blessings of Yom Kippur, that is to say, of the Jubilee year, which are the same as those of Rosh Hashana (Gra's commentary to Orach Chayyim 68:1)




This interpretation of the Tosefta is very restrictive. According to the Gra's explanation, the lengthening of the blessings of Rosh Hashana does not apply to the entire prayer service, but only to the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings. You might ask: What does the Baraita mean when it speaks of lengthening the blessings of Yom Kippur; surely the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings are recited only on Rosh Hashana? The answer is that we are dealing with Yom Kippur in the Jubilee year, on which the shofar is sounded and the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings are recited (see Rosh Hashana 26b).




This notwithstanding, we know from what we learned in the past that, more than anything else, the Gra is drawn to the plain meaning of a text. Using the criterion of the plain meaning of the text, it is much easier to understand that we are dealing here with the ordinary blessings of Yom Kippur, and not with the blessings recited once in fifty years! Thus, in contrast, when the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 26b) wishes to equate the prayers that are common to Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year and to Rosh Hashana, it does not use the misleading formulation: "Yom Kippur is the same as Rosh Hashana," but rather "The Jubilee year is the same as Rosh Hashana." It is reasonable, then, to assume that the Gra's customary practice is based the simple understanding of the Tosefta, as opposed to the interpretation offered in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh.[5] According to this, the Tosefta speaks of all the blessings in the Rosh Hashana liturgy (and not just the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings), and of every Yom Kippur (and not just that of the Jubilee year). It may also be suggested that in his commentary, the Gra follows in the footsteps of the halakhic decisors that came before him, in order to point out their sources, and therefore he explains the Tosefta in such a way that it accords with the opinions of the authors of the Shulchan Arukh. They did not bestow special status to the entire High Holy Day liturgy, but rather equated it to all other blessings with regard to the addition of piyyutim. But the Gra himself explains the Tosefta according to its almost self-evident meaning.[6]




Two Approaches: Logical or Textual Basis?




To summarize matters, three approaches have been proposed here to explain the recitation of piyyutim on special occasions, according to the Gra:




1. On the High Holy Days there is a great need to expand the liturgy, and the therefore the Rabbis activated a special mechanism that grants an exception from what is required by strict law regarding this issue.




2. Reciting piyyutim is possible when the addition to the fixed text does not expand upon its content, and does not introduce new ideas.




3. The Tosefta describes the High Holy Day blessings as "blessings coined to be long."




It should be noted that the third approach is different in nature from the first two approaches. The first two answers, offered by the Netziv and by Rabbi Yosef of Vilna, are based on logical reasoning, on a rational distinction between the cases. The third, in fact, does not "explain" anything. Even after seeing the Tosefta, we still do not understand why it is permissible to greatly expand upon the High Holy Day liturgy, while regarding other blessings, this is either forbidden, or at the very least "reprehensible." The explanation remains an open question. All that we have said is that the Sages defined the law as follows: Certain blessings are coined to be long, including the blessings discussed here, and therefore there is no difficulty.




Of course, each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages, but I wish to consider the fundamental question: Which route is the preferred way to go? When we are faced with a dilemma like ours, is it more appropriate to look for a solution that teaches us the logic of the law, or to invest in a search for its source? It seems that most experienced Torah scholars prefer the first approach. Indeed, the two Torah luminaries cited here, the Netziv and Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen, went in this direction. We are left with a much greater sense of understanding and of having reached the depths of the issue when we can explain the halakhic distinctions between one case and another, and therefore we tend to prefer this approach. The second approach – finding a source without a rationale – leaves us in the position of being forced to bow our heads and accept what is said in the halakhic sources, without our human understanding playing any significant role. Of course, nothing prevents us from continuing to look for logical explanations, but the Halakha stands firmly in place, regardless of our success in this endeavor.




In my opinion, however, it is precisely the second approach – searching for a source without a rationale – that is preferable in our context, and it is actually this relative advantage that motivated me to suggest it. Why is this approach preferable? Because this is the approach that the Vilna Gaon himself generally preferred, as we shall continue to see in the future. Therefore, if our objective is to reconstruct the Gra's position, we are on safer ground if we choose from the outset an approach that is faithful to his own natural inclination. I wish to expand upon this point.




The Purpose of the Gra's Commentary to the Shulchan Arukh




We have already noted the Gra's approach to the Torah, an approach that is ruled by one central and profound idea. In his opinion, the Torah is built on a literary hierarchy of sources, where each layer stems from and draws from the one above it. Creative study is study that clarifies the relationship between the different layers, and understands the way to find the source of everything in the layer above it (or if you prefer, below it). This essentially is the mission of Torah scholars.




Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin, the devoted disciple of the Vilna Gaon, wrote the introduction to his master's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. There he argues that the Gra's general approach affects his halakhic decision-making. Halakhic decision-making based on a code of law, such as the Shulchan Arukh, is poor quality. Creative decision-making is that which demonstrates how the Halakha grows from it sources in the Gemara and the rest of rabbinic literature. Rabbi Chayyim argues that essentially the Gra's objective when he wrote his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh was twofold: On the one hand, to restore scholarly-creative quality to the art of halakhic decision-making; on the other hand, to enrich the study of Gemara. This objective is achieved through constant occupation with one question from its two sides: How does the Gemara produce halakhic guidelines, and how do we decide the Halakha from the Gemara?




For the Gra, then, finding the source of a law is a goal in itself of the first order; and this is so even without arriving at explanations and rationales. Completing this mission is a major achievement and a source of justified personal gratification. The excitement that this approach stirred among the Gra's disciples clearly rises from the words of the editor of the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Israel of Shklov:




Anyone who comes to cleave to these works on the Shulchan Arukh, which are holy and awesome, there is no greater goal. For if the reader examines once or twice the passages to which the Gra refers, and then repeats them in our holy master's language, he will thus be reviewing all the opinions in the Gemara and in the words of the Rishonim, that accord with the Halakha… We must now come with great gratitude to His great name, that we have merited the great light of the Gaon's commentary, which illuminates each and every word of the Shulchan Arukh and the Rema with sources from the Gemara and the entire Torah. Anyone who studies the Shulchan Arukh together with the commentary of the Gaon carefully learns all the passages and opinions in the Gemara, and the world is filled with knowledge from sea to sea…


Lessons Learned from the Piyyutim Issue




At this point, let us summarize some of the important lessons derived from our study of the piyyutim issue.




We first examined the manner in which the Gra analyzed the issue according to its sources. In this analysis, we uncovered several unique methodological features of the Gra's approach. Typically, the Gra shows preference for the plain meaning of the texts, and hence he understands the words "long" and "short" in their usual sense, and not as technical terms connected to whether the blessing opens or closes with the word "blessed" (as they were understood by several Rishonim). The Gra makes use of the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi in such a way that turns them into the primary sources, while the Mishna and the Gemara become secondary sources that need to be explained in light of the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi.




The Gra bases the Rema's ruling on his novel analysis, despite the fact that the Rema himself appears to have been moved by different considerations. In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, the Gra explains the view of the halakhic decisors that came before him, and there is no hint there of his independent position, as reported by his disciples. It is possible that his own practice was shaped at a later stage. It is also possible that he concealed it when he came to explain the positions of the Shulchan Arukh and the Rema.




The customary practice of the Vilna Gaon - to preserve the ancient custom on certain occasions – has reached us through his disciples, but we do not know of any explanation that they heard from him. We proposed three approaches to understanding the Gra's practice.




This practice of the Gra greatly influenced Jewish liturgy. In those places in the liturgy where the Gra abolished the piyyutim, this became the widespread practice. On the other hand, his attempt to preserve the piyyutim in a new framework was not accepted.




(Translated by David Strauss)






[1] It is generally accepted that tractate Soferim was written in Eretz Israel in the early Gaonic period. It was known to the earliest Ashkenazi authorities, and is cited already in Machzor Vitri. It does not appear to have been known in Spain until the time of the Ramban, who became familiar with it through his Ashkenazi teachers.

[2] True, tractate Soferim says "they permitted it with difficulty," which seems to substantiate the Netziv's theory that the dispensation is bedi'eved. But the Rishonim already noted that our practice does not correspond exactly to the approach of tractate Soferim. The common practice today is to recite "Zakhreinu lechayyim" through the entire course of the Ten Days of Repentence, and we do not accept the limitation appearing in tractate Soferim to do so only on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Tur (Orach Chayyim 582) rejects the position of tractate Soferim on this point, and bases the customary practice on a fundamental allowance to add passages to the prayers that involve "needs of the community." According to this he asks why don't we lengthen the blessings even more, e.g., with "Uvekhen ten pachdekha."

The Tur's argument is, of course, valid all year long, and therefore we must still seek an explanation for the Gra's practice, which accepted only the piyyutim recited on the High Holy Days.

[3] This is connected to the talmudic prohibition, "A person must not ask for his needs in the first three blessings," but it stands to reason that this prohibition applies only to general requests, but not to those directly connected to the content of those blessings, as we shall attempt to demonstrate with respect to the prayers for dew and rain.

[4] This also follows from the fact that "Who causes the rain to fall" is recited only during the rainy season. Were we dealing merely with words of praise, we should recite them even when rain is not needed.

[5] As was mentioned in the previous shiur, the Gra completed his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch in the middle of his life, whereas his customary practices were recorded in the book Ma'aseh Rav based on the testimony of his disciples at a later stage. Thus the disparity between the two works on this point is not problematic.

[6] A note for further study: The Gemara in Rosh ha-Shana states that the prayer leader fulfills the prayer-obligation of the congregants, even those who are fluent in the prayers and ordinarily recite them themselves, "regarding the blessings of Rosh Hashana and of Yom Kippur" (35a). According to Rashi, the Rambam, and others, the reference here is to the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings, and "Yom Kippur" here refers to Yom Kippur in a Jubilee year. From here it follows that the term "Yom Kippur," when it is adjacent to "Rosh Hashana", can be understood as referring to the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year. However, many Rishonim relate to this halakha as applying in our time, when there is no Jubilee year, which proves that they understood the reference here to the blessings of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in an expansive manner, and not as restricted to the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings. See, for example, Ravan (Rosh ha-Shana, 35a, s.v. Rabbi Shimon); Sefer ha-Ittur, Hilkhot Shofar (104a); Roke'ach, Hilkhot Yom ha-Kippurim, 218; Ravya, II, no. 546; Kolbo, no. 54, s.v. yesh omrim she-ha-yachid; Shibbolei ha-Leket, no. 291. It would seem, however, that even Rashi and those who follow in his wake do not disprove our understanding of the Tosefta. Their explanation is plausible in the Gemara, which speaks of "the blessings of Rosh Hashana and of Yom Kippur," that is, the same set of blessings that are recited on both of those occasions. But this explanation is much less plausible in the Tosefta, which speaks of "the blessings of Rosh Hashana and the blessings of Yom Kippur" (this is the reading in all versions of the Tosefta). Here everybody might agree that the repetition of the word "blessings" suggests that we are dealing with different sets of blessings.