Lawrence A. Hoffman, in Keeping Posted (March 1977), pp. 7-10.This short essay summarizes the historical background of the prayer book, explainingwhen and how the siddur assumed the form it does today.
Blessings, Rubrics, and ModulesThe primary unit of Jewish prayer is a blessing. Every blessing in the prayerbook has a name, called a rubric. Larger units of the service, consisting ofmultiple blessings and prayers, also each have a name or rubric.• Rubric is a technical term for a title or heading, and we use it to name anydiscrete unit of liturgy, large or small. The Amidah, the Aleinu, and the Kaddishare all rubrics. Within the Amidah, any of the numerous individual blessings,each with a fixed topic, is a rubric unto itself, e.g. the Avot V’imahot.• For the purposes of this curriculum, we have added a new term for the largersections that comprise the service, modules. Each module has several rubricswithin it. For example, we will refer to, for example, the Amidah, the Sh’maand Its Blessings, and the Concluding Prayers as modules.
A b’rakhah is a blessing or a benediction. These terms mean the same thing.Berakhot (pl., blessings) are the most common kind of prayer in our liturgy.The bulk of the Amidah is a series of blessings. The berakhot were the favoriteform of prayer of the ancient Rabbis and are the most familiar pr ayers to ustoday. Blessings are the route by which Jews greet and acknowledge the presenceof God in the world. The most familiar blessings are those which celebrateand give thanks for the common activities and events of life: these arethe “one-liners” that Jews say, for example, upon drinking wine: “. . . borei p’rihagafen;” or before eating bread, and, by extension, a meal, “. . . hamotsi lechemmin ha-arets;” or upon joyous occasions, “. . . shehechiyanu.”Blessings always end with a summary line: “Barukh atah Adonai. . . [Praisedare You Adonai]” followed by a short summary of the theme of the blessing.One-line blessings consist of the summary line alone. Blessings which arelinked to the fulfillment of specific mitzvot have a similar formulaic opening,but with the addition of a middle phrase emphasizing that this a ction is infulfillment of a commandment: “. . . asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu . . .[. . . who makes us holy through mitzvot and has commanded us to. . .].” Theblessing concludes with a description of the sacred action one is about to do,for example, “l’hadlik neir shel Shabbat [kindle the lights of the Sabbath].”These “short” blessings are easily recognizable.The Rabbis also established what they called “long” blessings. A long blessingmay be a single paragraph or continue over several paragraphs. The long blessings can be described as brief theological essays, summarizing the Rabbis’ideas about the theme of the blessing. The first blessing that precedes themorning Sh’ma, for example, greets the morning light by acknowledging God’seternal presence as creator of light. The Rabbis also liked to bracket biblicalreadings with blessings. For example, when called for an aliyah to the Torah,the honoree says a blessing before the reading, and then another after. Similarly,the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, themselves biblical passag es, are surroundedby blessings on either side. The text of the Amidah has no biblical root at all;it is simply a succession of blessings.Blessings are relatively easy to spot because of their distinctive prose style.While their beginnings vary and can sometimes be difficult to locate, longblessings always end with a two-part summary: the formulaic “Barukh atahAdonai . . . [Praised are You Adonai . . .]” followed by a synopsis of the blessing’stheme. [In some congregations, “Praised are You Adonai” is regularly replacedby an alternative expression.] This is the opposite of what English readershave been trained to expect: we learned long ago that the most importantsentence in a paragraph is the first one. Blessings in the prayer book mayindeed have a beginning topic sentence that begins with Barukh atah Adonai. . . , but just as often they do not. They always do, however, have a summarysentence at the end. This closing “topic sentence” is called a chatimah, literallya “seal,” referring to the seal on a signet ring, once used to close a letter. Itis as if each blessing is a le tter to God—or perhaps, to us, about God—signedand sealed at the end with a liturgical signature.Besides blessings, the most common elements of the prayer book include:biblical passag es (the Sh’ma), psalms, hymns (Adon Olam, L’kha Dodi), andprayers composed by the ancient Rabbis or later generations of Jews (Aleinuand Kaddish).
The different groupings of prayers and texts, which we call modules, haveindependent origins. They were not all created at the same time, and eachone has a particular purpose in the scheme of the liturgy. Only the Amidah isincluded in every service.
The Sh’ma and Its Blessings module is included at morning and evening services,while the Morning Blessings module is recited, obviously, only in themorning.
The Torah service module is included on Shabbat mornings (and two weekdaymornings); when Reform Jews began to read Torah at Friday eveningservices, they simply inserted the entire Torah service module into the eveningservice.
A specific service is composed of the appropriate modules for the day of theweek (Shabbat vs. weekday), time of day (morning, afternoon, or evening)and season of the year (High Holiday, festival, or other special occasion).
1) Using your congregation’s prayer book, identify the modules that are
a) Shabbat evening,
b) Shabbat morning,
d) weekday morning service.
Which modules vary by the time of day? Which by the day of week?
Compare what you find to the chart below.
2) Locate several blessings in the prayer book. Find the chatimah, and then work backwards to locate where the blessing begins.