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An Atheist’s Plea: Don’t Skip the Piyutim!

The High Holidays are almost here. We’ve been saying L’david for a few weeks. We’ve been blowing the shofar for a few weeks. S’fardim have been saying S’lichot for a few weeks, and Ashk’nazim will start soon. My parents, of course, haven’t been doing any such thing and have no idea what S’lichot are supposed to be. (I once wished my mom a chag sameach on Sh’mini Atzeret, and she had no idea what it was. I was born on Sh’mini Atzeret. I’m pretty sure she was there!) It’s not just my parents, of course. A whole lot of Jews are mostly disconnected from Jewish practice, and, well, I can’t really blame them. Not everyone is interested in Judaism; being Jewish is just a thing they happen to be, like you might be from Ohio or have blond hair or whatever, and you see no reason to spend your life going to Ohio-themed festivals or going to blond people services. (I’ve never been to Ohio and I don’t have blond hair, so maybe I’m way off-base here. Not the point.) But for those of us for whom Judaism is more than a once-or-twice-a-year thing, well, the High Holidays are almost here, and with them will come hours upon hours of interminable synagogue services.

Well, they’re already quite long, so it’s OK for them to be a little bit longer, isn’t it?

Synagogues here in Non-Orthodoxistan have a few big challenges around this time of year. The main thing are disengaged Jews who are nevertheless engaged enough to show up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and this silent majority is also the silent majority of your fundraising for the year because you sell High Holiday seats for obscene amounts of money to people who won’t be members because they don’t come at any other time. And the service, well, it’s a lot of unfamiliar Hebrew, for a long time. For the disengaged, this is boring, and there’s some logic in making the service shorter, with some vernacular, with the highlights, etc. If you bore the disengaged too much, they won’t come next year and you’ll be out a bunch of money. But if you’re going to have an all-Hebrew traditional-style service, why oh why does it matter to the disengaged what’s actually in it? They just want to feel the meaningfulness — you know, the d’var where the rabbi (or whoever) talks about change or whatever — and get the hell out. To them, skipping around in the machzor is par for the course; what’s the harm in skipping around a little bit less? Now, sure, some piyutim do add a whole lot of extra time that doesn’t need to be there, and in some situations, like Yom Kippur Shacharit between Yimloch Adonai L’olam and the K’dushah (specifically in that section), there are just too many of them and you might as well stick to the highlights. I think that’s reasonable. But the disengaged will not care one way or the other about the r’shut after Misod Chachamim. It won’t matter.

Meanwhile, for the engaged Jews, the High Holiday liturgy is a deep and fulfilling experience. I mentioned Yom Kippur Shacharit, but… what disengaged Jews even show up to Yom Kippur Shacharit, anyway? You go on Kol Nidrei, maybe N’ilah, and that’s it. The morning service on Yom Kippur is SEVEN HOURS LONG, if not longer. No, if you’re there for seven hours, clearly it’s because you’re getting something out of it other than boredom. So a good question to ask is this: what is in those seven hours, anyway? Why is it so long, when a regular Shabbat morning service is, I dunno, like, two hours and a bit? And almost half of that is the Torah reading. The Torah reading on Yom Kippur is a lot shorter. So what is it?

Here, as always, it’s worth looking at what I consider the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar, Pesach. Pesach marks the beginning of Am Yisrael as a whole, the moment when we became a people. The Torah mentions Yom Hazikaron briefly and Yom Hakipurim a bit less briefly, but the Torah does not devote half a book to telling their stories, nor does it exhort parents to tell their children — four times — about why we continue to celebrate them. This extreme importance is given only to Pesach, b’rosh kol moadot. On Leil Pesach, one very important piece of liturgy separates it from all other nights, and that is the Haggadah. We mark this momentous occasion not with a general feeling of holidayness but with a concrete expression of the holiday, a seder with a specific order and a specific set of paragraphs to read and a specific set of foods to eat. In some traditions, even, the food is removed from the table! Why? So that the children will notice how different this night is from all other nights. When we ask mah nishtanah, we’re not asking about theology or about stories; we’re asking about the concrete, practical aspects of the evening’s progression. We’re not eating our usual food; we’re not eating our food the usual way. We raise our cups, but we don’t drink. We say bore p’ri haadamah instead of hamotzi even though the lachma anya is right there in front of us. To the disengaged, again, these differences are not important, because there’s no point of comparison. Saying hamotzi at a different time is meaningless if you don’t usually say hamotzi at all. But even to the disengaged, the act of the seder itself is special and holy, even if the meaning of some of it is not the intended meaning, because the seder is familiar and happens only once a year (counting both nights as one event).

Now, I’m an atheist Jew. I said that in the title. So when I say that the seder itself is special and holy because it’s familiar and happens only once a year, I mean it; I’m not being reductionist. We say that Hashem is m’kadesh Yisrael v’haz’manim, but as I see it, we are m’kad’shim Yisrael v’haz’manim. If we did not make the seder night different from all other nights, it wouldn’t be. What is the meaning of Shavuot or Tish’ah B’av or Yom Kippur to a non-Jew? It’s just a regular day. But we, we Jews, make it special. We make a little-h havdalah to discern between holy and chol, a discernment that is not made by non-Jews generally. We imagine God as the king sitting on a throne, high and exalted, on Rosh Hashanah, and you know, I don’t know whether most believing Jews believe that God is literally sitting on said chair at that particular moment, but I can tell you that before I started my engagement with Judaism, I was not imagining God in that position, even before I stopped believing. When I go to shul on Rosh Hashanah morning, I want to feel the awe and majesty of this vision, because that’s a big chunk of what Rosh Hashanah is all about. I can’t wait around for God to put the image in my mind. The metaphors we use on the High Holidays help us make sense of the holiness of the day, and that’s extremely important because, without them, that holiness simply is not there. I’ve heard enough lessons explaining the concept of holiness and how it’s really a separation, a dedication of something to God, whether it’s a place like a synagogue, an object, a time, or even the whole Am Yisrael itself, but we are the ones who make that dedication.

This brings us back to the question posed above: what makes the Yom Kippur service so long? Well… its holiness! Yom Kippur is supposed to be the holiest day of the year, so you gotta pack a bunch of holiness into it. It won’t be holy by itself. So you start with Kol Nidrei, a special service with a special name, with a shatz wearing special white clothes, slowly intoning a paragraph with a complicated melody three times. At this point, it doesn’t actually matter what the actual text is — it’s just some Aramaic legalese anyway — but the solemnity of it all carries the weight of the holiday. Maariv proceeds mostly as normal. Then you do a bunch of special stuff with a S’lichot service tacked on after maariv, go home, come back in the morning with your HP and MP restored… but you’re still hungry. More pomp and circumstance (hopefully) when you get to Hamelech, and Shir Hamaalot responsively, but our first big, special thing happens right after Bar’chu. See, Kol Nidrei is its own thing. You’re wearing a talit for it, which is especially weird, right? There’s no real point of comparison for Kol Nidrei. It’s not maariv plus; it’s… Kol Nidrei. Not so shacharit, which really is shacharit plus. Right there at the start, instead of “yotzer or uvore choshech”, we have “hapoteach lanu shaarei rachamim, umeir einei ham’chakim lislichato”, and then “yotzer or uvore choshech, oseh shalom uvore et hakol.” But we’re not done yet: “Or olam b’otzar chayim, orot meofel amar vayehi.” This line is important. It is used to introduce piyutim called yotzrot, placed here at the beginning of the Yotzer Or blessing. If you are familiar with the structure of the service, this extra text here is a big signal that something special is happening. If you aren’t familiar with the structure of the service, meh, it doesn’t really matter so much what’s going on here.

We’re going to take a little break here to sing some piyutim, because this is a special Reddit post: I’ve been off of Reddit since the crap of June 30, and I’m just coming back to make this post, basically. The piyut I want to sing is the very popular Chanukah piyut, Sh’nei Zeitim. Ready? Here you go! What, you’re not familiar with Sh’nei Zeitim? Pshaw, and you call yourselves Ashk’nazim. Well, you see, Sh’nei Zeitim, beloved Chanukah piyut, is sung — no, sorry, was sung — right before Or Chadash in the Yotzer Or blessing on Shabbat Chanukah. Traditionally, on chagim and special Shabbatot, especially in the German and Polish traditions (not sure about Litvak and Galitzyaner), there were special additions to the service inserted at various points within various blessings. You can still find some of them in the Artscroll; for example, on Pesach, there’s a little sign pointing to the page for B’rach Dodi before the end of Gaal Yisrael at shacharit, and before Pesach, there are amidah insertions on Shabbat Hagadol. But they are not commonly done, and other mainstream siddurim don’t have them (that I’ve seen). At least Tal and Geshem are still around, honestly. Who knows if they’ll still exist in a hundred years. All of these piyutim have added to the specialness of the different special days on the calendar. The days on the calendar are still supposed to be special, right? Shabbat Hagadol is… well, a thing, but it’s not a thing with any meaning, because, as we discussed earlier, we do not give it meaning. There is no special observance to imbue Shabbat Hagadol with extra holiness like there used to be. Without special observances, days are not special. The same is true for the other special shabbatot. The chagim, well, the nusach is different, at least, and there’s Hallel, but they could be a lot more special if we kept in the piyutim. People would come just for the piyutim, because they’re unique for the occasion. The disengaged would maybe have to wait another 20 minutes before kiddush, but, like, we do read Shir Hashirim on Shabbat Pesach, right? We still have double Torah portions sometimes. It’s OK! Kiddush can wait!

On Yom Kippur morning, there isn’t even that excuse. The Artscroll says “some congregations omit the following prayer”, but I don’t think the Silverman or the Birnbaum say that (I don’t have those two machzorim at home, sorry). Don’t omit the following prayer! Don’t skip the piyutim! This prayer here, S’lach l’goi kadosh, b’yom kadosh, marom v’kadosh, is not particularly meaningful in its text, but it is very meaningful in its placement in the middle of the first b’rachah of the Sh’ma. We don’t usually say piyutim there, so doing it now makes Yom Kippur more special. That said, it is kind of long and boring, but… who says it has to be sung by the entire congregation out loud? Read the first stanza in nusach, quickly scan to the end like you’re already doing for the rest of the blessing anyway, and read the last stanza in nusach. There, that was 3 minutes total, for a massive increase in holiness. There’s another piyut in my machzor before the line “Baruch k’vod Adonai mim’komo”, and OK, maybe skip this one, but then again, embellishing the K’dushah is another way to increase the holiness of the day, and you could embellish this one as well as the ones in the various amidot throughout the day. But there’s really no good reason to completely skip the first piyut here. Don’t skip the piyutim!

Then we get to the repetition of the Amidah. Here’s where things start to get really heavy, not specifically in the subject but in the quantity of the additions. But here’s the thing, and I think this is a lot more important than people give it credit for: a b’rachah in the repetition is an emotional experience. It’s an intense experience. It’s not just a pro forma reading of some words. A good leader understands this, and when the service lands at the end of one of the seven b’rachot of the amidah, it’s a thunderous and cathartic A-A-MEN. But a catharsis requires an intense experience to conclude. It feels hollow to just skip straight to the end, and yet, that’s what happens. When it’s done properly, we have: a fairly slow and elaborate recitation of the main body of the Avot, then a momentous Misod Chachamim, then a r’shut, Emeicha Nasati, which is generally done in the same nusach as Misod. There’s a second piyut here, Imatzta Asor, and then we finally get to Zochrenu L’chayim and Melech Ozer. It’s a good couple of minutes there between start and end of Avot, so when that “magen Avraham” hits, it’s a big moment. Unless you skip the piyutim. Don’t skip the piyutim! Then it’s not a big moment at all; it’s fast and hollow, like singing the Victory Kaddish at the end of a Friday weekday minchah before Shabbat. There’s a time for formula and a time for solemnity, and Yom Kippur is a time for solemnity. Then we have G’vurot. Atah Gibor, M’chalkel Chayim. Piyut, Taavat Nefesh, usually skipped. Piyut, Ad Yom Moto, usually skipped (despite being a pretty great text, actually). Mi Chamocha, V’neeman Atah, done. Skip the piyutim and that b’rachah ends weakly instead of strongly. Don’t skip the piyutim! The time it takes to chant these piyutim — at least one of the two in each of these two blessings should be chanted or sung fully, in my opinion — is essential to the catharsis of the chatimah, and simply the act of saying them, even mostly silently, increases the holiness of the occasion. Then you have another r’shut, Ichadta Yom Zeh Bashanah, Yimloch, and about a billion piyutim. This, I think, is where it’s good to be judicious. The r’shutim are important and directly refer to the increased holiness, but all the other ones, well, not so much. This is the point where you’re really going to lose people if you don’t keep it fairly snappy. But… there aren’t really that many, are there? The majority should still be sung. Don’t skip the piyutim! When we get to the K’dushah, that itself is cathartic because we finished the long section of piyutim and are now in the firmly familiar territory of the K’dushah that we all know the words to. There are actually no piyutim here (there are at musaf; don’t skip the piyutim), and we get to k’dushat hayom and S’lichot. This section, like after maariv, is special to Yom Kippur already, so what additions it contains aren’t particularly important towards creating the day’s holiness. There’s a piyut, Yom Asher Ashamenu. I think it’s probably OK to skip this one. But don’t skip Mi El Kamocha. Don’t skip the piyutim!

Then we have no additions until the musaf Amidah, and that’s about the same other than the fact that there’s the Avodah — don’t skip the r’shutim, don’t skip the piyutim! — and there, well, there’s a lot of stuff there that may be worth skipping, honestly. The Avodah is really long. But don’t skip the piyutim! Sh’nat Osem, don’t skip it! Definitely don’t skip Mar’eh Chohen, for the love of all that is Jewish. (The Machzor Lev Shalem skipped it, and therefore I no longer consider myself part of Conservative Judaism.) Ashrei Ayin Raatah, don’t skip it! Everything after it, meh. But don’t skip the piyutim!

I think you can follow the logic for the rest of Yom Kippur. There’s a calculation that needs to happen in general: does the piyut add to the solemnity of the day? Can it be done fairly quickly if it’s not a crowd favorite? Do you actually need to spend 10 minutes on the nai nai nais of V’yeetayu? Will it detract from the solemnity if it is skipped altogether, like part of what makes Yom Kippur special is just being removed for the sake of the convenience of people who aren’t there anyway? For the piyutim, the answer is: Don’t skip the piyutim! And this goes for all of the other piyutim throughout the year, too. The piyutim are part of what makes each special day special. When we skip them, we make them less special. It’s not worth ending services a couple of minutes earlier for the sake of skipping them. Don’t skip the piyutim!

But… maybe you don’t know any melodies for the piyutim, and neither does anyone else? Who cares. Use a Carlebach tune. No, I don’t want to sing Carlebach tunes either, but it’s fine, everyone does it. They’re all on YouTube. Or, I don’t know, do some research, or come up with your own melody. Find the nusach that was used in Germany and/or Poland in the 1870’s (Abraham Baer’s Baal T’fillah is available online). Listen to Virtual Cantor. Find a Sephardic High Holiday tune and adapt it. Or just use the regular Misod Chachamim nusach for the first few and last few lines and do the rest silently. These are surmountable problems. Just… DON’T SKIP THE PIYUTIM!

To conclude, because this is really long and it’s 1 AM and I have work tomorrow and holy crap this is why I stopped going on Reddit (that and the third-party app thing), don’t skip the piyutim. We create our own holiness in our holy days, and we depend on that holiness that we create to properly feel what we’re supposed to feel, what the liturgy exhorts us to feel. We depend on the pacing and the catharsis. To skip the piyutim is to take all of that away. Don’t skip the piyutim!

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