Archive for the ‘session 6 – the vocabulary of symbols’ Category

Lawrence A. Hoffman, Gates of Understanding 2: Appreciating the Days of Awe (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984), pp. 56–62.This article was written for Gates of Understanding 2, the companion commentary to the Reform High Holiday prayer book, Gates of Repentance. Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of S2K, tells the history of two well-known ritual symbols, the tallit and the yarmulke. Neither one, it turns out, is as ancient as many of us might suspect. When this essay was published in 1984, some Reform congregations were debating the acceptability of the tallit and yarmulke in their synagogues. While affirming that praying with head uncovered is legitimate Reform practice, the author argues for tolerance and acceptance for those who choose to worship with “hats on.” 

Perhaps nothing has been more fiercely debated through the ages of Reform Judaism’s development than the propriety of donning special ritual attire for prayer. At issue primarily were the prayershawl (tallit) and head covering (then called yarmulke, but now, under the influence of Israeli Hebrew, usually referred to as kippah). Both ritual garments deserve our attention, particularly since the debate, though dormant until recently, has once again been joined. Many Reform Jews find meaning in these traditional worship symbols; others charge that their use betrays a subtle move by Reform Judaism “back to Orthodoxy.” 

European RootsWe may begin with the Hungarian rabbi Aaron Chorin (1766–1844) who, in 1826, argued seriously for the right to pray with uncovered head. His idea was only part of a general Reform agenda, which he had first offered in a learned responsum favoring relatively minor liturgical changes in Hamburg (1819). His recommendation did not receive wide favor.Only the Berlin Reform Association followed Chorin’s advice; but from its inception, this body had demonstrated itself to be the most radical of Reformers. Its founder, Sigmund Stern (1812–1867), had expressly organized the association as an amalgam of all radical groups, into what he called “a German Jewish Church.” Its prayer book eliminated almostall the Hebrew. Its first rabbi—Stern had not been ordained—was the noted Samuel Holdheim (1806–1860), known best, perhaps, for moving Sabbath services to Sunday, abolishing circumcision, and viewing Jewish ritual generally as an outmoded vestigefrom an earlier age when Jews had required visible signs of their distinction from paganism. 

In Europe, Chorin’s recommendation that head covering be abandoned was honored in Berlin. A smaller community in Soest followed suit after an 1847 address in which the president of the Jewish consistory of Westphalia urged them to do so. The same view was later presented in a scholarly study of the history of covering one’s head, written by Leopold Loew, another Hungarian rabbi (1811–1875), who included his essay as part of a lengthy tribute to Chorin. But most Jews in Europe retained the custom of the kippah. 

Nothing Aroused Greater OppositionIn America, however, worshiping with uncovered heads was accepted almost universally as a veritable symbol of Reform, with the result that, as Gunther Plaut summarizes, “perhaps no other innovation of Reform aroused greater opposition than this; no other change stirred so many sentiments.” New York’s Temple Emanuel had first discussed the subject via a lengthy responsum of its rabbi as early as 1859. In 1928, Jacob Z. Lauterbach reproduced much of Loew’s essay within the parameters of his own responsum. He concluded that Reform Jews had every right to worship with uncovered heads, that the entire matter was purely one of custom, not law, and that Jews on both sides of the question should showforbearance toward those on the other side, since “hat on or hat off . . . is a detail that is not worth fighting about. It should not separate Jew from Jew and not be made the cause of breaking the Jewish groups or dividing Jewish congregations.” 

The tallit occasioned far less invective. It, too, was banned by the Berlin Reform Association, though it was generally maintained in Europe. In America, it was rarely worn by worshiping congregants, though rabbis frequently donned a tallit—or a more decorous modern equivalent of one—while leading services. In his “Ritual Directions” with which he introduced his 1866 prayer book, Minhag America, Isaac Mayer Wise summed up the regnant Reform attitude here: “It is no more necessary to wear a tallith [sic] in the temple than anywhere outside thereof…. As a memorial, it will suffice that the minister wear it.” 

Origins of the TallitOf the two ritual objects, certainly the tallit is more authentically rooted in Jewish sources. The wearing of tsitsit (the fringes sewn on the hem of the tallit, and the religious rationale for the tallit in the first place) goes back to a biblical commandment (Numbers 15:39–40), which explains that their purpose is:”You shall see [the tsitsit] and remember all the commandments of God and do them. . . . and be holy unto your God.” Scholars are divided on the kind of tsitsit worn in biblical times, but later, by the second or third century C.E., at least, it was common for the scholar class (though not necessarily for the masses) to attach fringes to a large tallit that extended over the whole body. Wrapping oneself had become a significant ritual act expected of judges before trials, teachers before discoursing on weighty subjects, and rabbis preparing for prayer. 

Opinions differed on the extent to which a tallit might be worn. Some wore it all day, though most did not. In any case, it was generally not worn at night, since the purpose of the tsitsit (which were by now attached) was that they be seen, and without daylight they could not be viewed clearly. Palestinian Jews went so far as to omit the last paragraph of the Sh’ma from their Evening Service, since its primary topic is the commandment to wear and to see the tsitsit. 

Through the ages, two major changes in the wearing of the tallit occurred. The first was the introduction of a tallit katan, a little tallit, worn underneath one’s outer garments. This was an innovation to meet the need of generations who had decided that the tallit should be worn all day, but who lived in an environment where outward display of such garb would have marked Jews off adversely from the non-Jewish population. The second was the relaxation of the ban against wearing the tallit at night. All agreed that it should be removed before the Evening Service, with the exception of Yom Kippur, but some Sefardic Jews wore it during the afternoon service. 

At least in modern times both Sefardim and Ashkenazim have favored the reader or the preacher wearing a tallit even at night, “because of the honor due to a congregation.” This latter innovation was known as a custom among some by the 17th century; one hundred years later, it was frequently the established rule.  

Accordingly, Isaac Mayer Wise’s regulation in 1866 was not without precedent. He generalized the wearing of a tallit by the prayer leader at night to every service. Considering the commandment to wear and to see the tsitsit outmoded, and—as a Reform Jew of his time—being hardly able to consider his own wearing of the tallit an “honor to the congregation,” he justified his custom as a “memorial” which, no doubt, he thought would satisfy those in his congregation who might miss the familiar tallit if they did not see it at all. 

Hats On or Hats Off?The yarmulke, on the other hand, has neither biblical nor Rabbinic legal basis. There is no evidence that biblical Jews covered their heads for any other reason except that, as desert dwellers, they needed to protect themselves from the sun. In Rabbinic times, some of the scholar class used headgear, sometimes as a halfway measure to meet the custom ofwrapping one’s body, sometimes as a mark of special piety (one rabbi in Babylonia remarked that he would not walk even the shortest distance without a hat, since God’s presence is everywhere). Later, in Islamic environs, head covering was the recommended way for Moslems to distinguish themselves from unbelievers. Moslem tradition described how Mohammed himself had worn it. Especially on religious pilgrimage to a shrine, Moslems were advised to cover their heads. Jews followed suit, copying Moslem religious aesthetics. They, too, now wore hats, and significant personalities such as Maimonides selected the turban variety favored by Moslem nobles. (Incidentally, many Jews also copied the Moslem custom of taking off their shoes before entering synagogues, and Maimonides’ concern for Moslem aesthetic sensitivities even extended to his desire to do away with the silent recitation of the Tefillah, since the masses made noise during it, thus embarrassing Jewish potentates who had to explain the unseemly display to their Moslem neighbors.) 

Northern European Jews, on the other hand, had no Moslem customs to observe, and they accepted the practice of wearing hats much more cautiously. Only in the thirteenth century was it becoming common, and it was still by no means mandatory, even while praying. A celebrated statement on the subject from relatively modern times is a responsum by the Polish Talmudist Solomon Luria (1510–1573), who was asked whether someone suffering from a headache might eat (and say the accompanying blessings) without wearing a hat. Luria responded forthrightly that there is no prohibition against praying with head uncovered, and that he himself might even do so; but in the end, he notes, covering one’s head has become a universal Jewish custom, and custom counts for something in Jewish reckoning. He did not want to contradict great rabbis who had gone before him, nor to advise dressing in such a way that observers might be led to the false conclusion that people are in the habit of blatantly disregarding Jewish law. Something that seems wrong is, in fact, wrong; inasmuch as people assume that the head must be covered, it would be incorrect to flaunt the opposite practice, thus giving the wrong impression publicly. 

Reform scholars, like Lauterbach, later quoted Luria at some length, but disagreed with his conclusion. They were intrigued by the fact that Luria, one of the mightiest Talmudic scholars of all time, had proven that the whole matter of headdress was only (!) a custom and, as such, could, in their opinion, be abrogated in favor of other customs more in keeping with the dictates of modern times.  

As far as terminology is concerned: the word tsitsit is biblical; tallit emerged later, in Roman times, as the technical name for a cloak of honor (similar to the Latin pallium and the Greek tharos). Tallit is derived from the Aramaic root tly, meaning “hang down.” The origins of the term yarmulke are less clear. Gunther Plaut has argued that it derives from the name applied to a hat worn by Catholic priests at a particular point in the Christian Mass. Sixteenth century Polish Jews wore hats that looked very similar, so that the term for the clerical hat was applied by non-Jews in their descriptions of the Jews. The Church hat was an amice or armuce (with the “c” pronounced like a “k”). A smaller version of that hat, one similar to what Jews wore, was described by the diminutive armucele. In time the “c” and the “l” were transposed, becoming armulece, or, eventually, the slurred Yiddish word yarmulke. Kippah is Hebrew, and can be found among terms included in literature of the first two centuries C.E. 

Women Claiming Ritual PracticesFinally, we should say a word about women who wish to wear either the kippah or the tallit. Authorities are divided on the question of whether women covered their heads in Rabbinic times. If they did, it was only to follow rules of modesty then in effect. They certainly wore no tallit. By the second century, the Rabbis had ruled that women were exempt from positive religious precepts governed by time; and tsitsit, which one must look at during the day, falls into that category. On the other hand, Moses Isserles (the sixteenth-century Polish authority who rendered the Shulchan Aruch acceptable to Ashkenazi Jews) says expressly that if  women want to wear a tallit and even to say the blessing over it, they may do so. Thus, in his Reform responsum of 1971, Solomon Freehof finds no objection in women joining men in the adoption of the tallit.  

Freehof does not argue that the tallit should be worn, only that in congregations where men wear it, women may do so as well. The issue for him is not only that there is no prohibition against the practice. There is also the positive consideration that “in our Reform movement . . . special emphasis is placed on the equality of men and women.” Interestingly, the radical Berlin Reform Association, which took the extreme step of prohibiting the yarmulke, argued equally vociferously for the application of the Reform doctrine of sexual equality. This principle of equality had no sooner been enunciated at the 1845 rabbinical conference in Frankfurt, when the association did away with the women’s gallery in favor of seating women on the same plane as men.  

Given all this information, every Reform Jew will have to determine what his or her position ought to be regarding the tallit and the kippah. The structure of our prayer books already presents us with a possible stand on matters of this sort, although worshipers are free to accept or to reject that stand along with the prayer books in which they are found. What, then, is the structured message carried by Gates of Repentance, and how consistent is it with Reform Judaism as described in the last few paragraphs? Clearly, by its very decision to include ritual garb as optional, Gates of Repentance differs structurally from the Union Prayer Book. The traditional blessing (predating the year 200) appears on page 79. We recognizethat people may now wear a kippah too, but because the kippah (unlike the tallit) is rooted only in custom, there is no traditional blessing for it, and no prayer book space need be allotted to it. But the page begins with the instructions that what follows is “for those who wear the tallit,” implying that some will do so and some will not. Thus, the structural message of the new Reform Machzor is that the wearing of special worship attire is optional.At first it would appear that we have here a reversal of the classical Reform position. Such a conclusion would be only partly correct. To be sure, American Reform worship now differs from what it traditionally has been, in that the tallit and the kippah have become acceptable items. But the essence of Reform Judaism was, and still is, its insistence that the eternal verities of religion go deeper than its obvious trappings. Even the Berlin Reform Association, which did away with special worship attire, did not absolutely prohibit covering the head; rather, they voted for “worship with uncovered head,” with the stipulation, however, that “the wearing of a black skull cap . . . [is] permitted to individuals.” We recall how Lauterbach summed up his epic survey: “Hat on or hat off. . . is a detail that is not worth fighting about. It should not separate Jew from Jew, and not be made the cause of . . . dividing Jewish congregations.”  

Tallit and Kippah As SymbolsThe reality has been, however, that temples which allowed individuals to wear kippah or tallit in theory often asked them to remove such garb in practice. Even as Lauterbach wrote his summation, “hat on or hat off” was in fact provoking the very divisiveness he deplored. Clearly, the matter went beyond the logic of academic debate. The reader of this commentary now knows all the relevant data that Lauterbach’s readers did. Whether these data will be used to harden positions for or against the wearing of kippah and tallit, or to promote a patient acceptance of those on the other side of the issue, is a matter that transcends the facts themselves. 

We should recognize that the issue of tallit and kippah is in the realm of symbol. By invoking the realm of symbolism, we mean that our positions on the wearing of worship attire are deeply rooted in our psyches for reasons we understand poorly, if at all. Yet, we feel so strongly about the matter that we cannot comprehend the rationale of people who differ with us. Discussions are apt to flare into angry debates. 

Still, our new prayer book heralds the fact that the Reform Movement remains open to change, and change in our day implies a willingness to consider a wide gamut of traditional options drawn from our Jewish past. The founders of our movement would have supported our continued emphatic reassertion of Reform ideals, such as the Mission of Israel, the ongoing covenant with God, a religious definition of Jewish identity, and so on. By the same token, they would agree with the view taken by Gates of Repentance: wearing a kippah or tallit to enhance the experience of worship does not belong to that critical core of Judaism deserving of argumentation. Pioneering Reform ideologues proved that one could be a good Jew without covering one’s head; the statement of our generation is simply the obvious corollary: one does not become a bad Jew if one covers one’s head anyway.

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There are many gestures and movements associated with Jewish prayer, from the lifting of the hands for the Priestly Benediction to “bowing before the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed Be” during the Aleinu. Such gestures and movements can add texture to our worship and deepen our personal involvement in the experience of prayer. When specific gestures and movements are visible to other members of the congregation, they may become identity markers for a community. Classical Reform Judaism discouraged gesture and movement in worship; both were considered, along with tallit and head-covering, to be tokens of excessive “ritualism.” Their absence was long a hallmark of Reform Judaism and shaped not only the identities of individuals and communities but their understanding of what proper worship prayer should be. In recent years, many older practices—as well as some new ones—have become increasingly common in Reform Jewish services. Listed below is a selection of the most common gestures and movements associated with Jewish prayer.  Blessing over candle lighting: Covering the eyesAfter lighting the Shabbat candles, gently move the hands before one’s face in a circular motion three times, cover the eyes with both hands, and recite the blessing. At the conclusion of the blessing, the eyes are uncovered.  This moment marks the beginning of the Sabbath. According to the halakhah, a blessing is recited before the action for which it is intended (for example, we say hamotzi and then eat bread). Once the Sabbath begins, however, one cannot light fire. So, after the candles are lit, the blessing is recited with hands shielding the eyes from the light. After saying the blessing, the eyes are then opened and the Sabbath begins.  Recitation of Lecha DodiAt the beginning of the last verse of Lecha Dodi, the congregation rises, and turns to face the door of the synagogue. At the words, “Boi, kallah! Boi, kallah! (Come, o bride!),” people may bow.  In this liturgical hymn, the Sabbath is personified as a Queen. The congregation enacts a formal gesture of welcome, as if they were in the physical presence of royalty, bowing as the Sabbath Queen enters.   Bowing during the Bar’khuDuring the Bar’khu (the “Call to Worship”), the prayer leader bows at the opening word, “Bar’khu (Bless!),” and rises. The congregation then responds, bowing at the first word (“Baruch”), and rising when saying the Name of God.  The most common physical movement in traditional Jewish prayer is bowing; it is an ancient, formal way of showing respect. Because Jewish tradition likens the act of prayer to having an audience before a throne, one bows upon approaching, upon leaving, and at other appropriate moments. The Amidah (standing prayer), in particular, is considered to be a personal meeting with the Holy One, and therefore is associated with a specific series of movements. Traditional practice is to bend the knees when saying “baruch (praised),” bend at the waist at “atah (are You),” and stand erect again when saying God’s name.  Reciting the Sh’ma: Covering the eyesWhile the Sh’ma is recited, cover the eyes with one hand.  This gesture is intended to increase concentration on the words and reduce distractions. The custom derives from the practice of Rabbi Judah the Prince described in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 13b.   The AmidahBefore beginning the Amidah, take three small steps backward followed by three steps forward. Many people do this while reciting the introductory phrase, “Eternal God, open up my lips . . .”  This gesture, borrowed from the etiquette of the ancient court, marks our recognition that we are entering into the presence of a Sovereign. It marks and separates the Amidah from the prayers that precede it, and helps us imagine ourselves approaching closer to the presence of the Divine. The first three backward steps are purely utilitarian, so as to make room to take the three forward steps safely and with deliberation. Many people are careful not to move their feet again until the conclusion of the Amidah.  Tradition teaches that one bows at four places during the Amidah: at the beginning and end of the first blessing, and at the beginning and end of the next to last blessing, the blessing for Thanksgiving called the modim. This practice of bowing is taught in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 34a), and is considered to be an act of humility. According to this passage, kings and high priests were obligated to bow more often during the Amidah than during other prayers—perhaps because they had a greater need to cultivate their own humility.  The third blessing of the Amidah, the Kedushah, is only recited by the service leader in the presence of a minyan. The Kedushah describes the angels singing God’s praises at the same t ime that we do. At the words, “They called to one another … (v’kara zeh el zeh …),” it is customary to turn and bow to either side; and at each of the words, “Holy! Holy! Holy! (Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!),” to rise up on one’s toes, as if reaching upward to heaven.   At the beginning of the Amidah, one may take three steps forward. At the end of the Amidah, many people take three steps backward, representing their leave-taking from this time of special intimacy. Some people also bow to the left and right after reciting Oseh Shalom, the last line of the traditional Amidah.   Over the years, many people have also added these steps and bows after Oseh Shalom to the end of the Kaddish prayer.  Bowing during the AleinuThe literal meaning of the phrase, “V’anachnu kori-im umishtachavim,” is, “We bend the knee and prostrate ourselves. . . .” In fact, the Aleinu began as a Rosh Hashanah prayer, and on the High Holidays many Jews do prostrate themselves. When the Aleinu was added to the daily liturgy in the early medieval period, this full prostration was considered inappropriate, and bowing was substituted. As with other prayers, one rises up when God’s name is mentioned.  Swaying during PrayerThe most “stereotypical” gesture in Jewish prayer is the rocking or swaying called “shokeling.” Based on a Yiddish word, shokeling is often identified with the spiritual practices of Eastern European Jewry, specifically with Hasidism, but shokeling has been a recognized feature of Jewish prayer since at least the eleventh century, when Medieval Spanish sources—Jewish, Christian, and Moslem—made note of this distinctive Jewish practice.  No one knows how the practice began. Most Talmudic sources seem to recommend standing straight and still while praying, emphasizing that concentration during prayer should be absolute. For example, based on Ezekiel’s description of the angels of the divine chariot standing “with legs straight” (Ezekiel 1:7), the Rabbis held that one should keep one’s feet rigidly together during prayer.  Newly emancipated Jews in nineteenth-century Europe, however, considered shokeling to be a medieval practice violating the solemnity and decorum of worship. Having seen this practice in other communities, and having learned various teachings about its meanings, some Reform Jews now bow and sway in their personal prayer practice. While historically inaccurate, this practice indicates the intensity of a community or an individual’s commitment to what they consider to be traditional Jewish practice.

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How do the sign values of symbols evolve? Could the color red be used as easily to tell us “go” as to tell us “stop”? Is there something about the color red that intrinsically makes it appropriate to mean “stop,” or are we eternally tied to an association that once may have been arbitrary but has now become permanent? And how do we differentiate between the values of symbols and the signs with which they are associated? Here are four different explanations of how symbols and their sign values evolve:


1. Assigned arbitrarily

Individuals and their cultures arbitrarily assign sign values to symbols. In other words, anything can mean anything to anyone at any time. According to this explanat ion, all sign values are random, and we can change them at our discretion. For example, although we use tsitsit (the corner fringes of the tallit) to symbolize our coming out of Egypt, we could as easily use tsitsit to stand for something else. The Jewish tradition of midrash, which provides alternative sign values to symbolic biblical verses, seems to endorse this ar bitrary explanation.


2. Fixed by religious tradition

Although initially sign values arbitrarily are assigned to symbols, over time they become fixed by religious tradition. So, while the significance of tsitsit may have once been “available” for multiple explanat ions, tsitsit now stand absolutely as a sign value for the Exodus, and we are enjoined from assigning new meanings to them. Once religious tradition assigns one particular meaning to a word, that becomes its significance. Tsitsit symbolize the Exodus— and that’s that!


3. Determined by “natural” associations

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” is an obvious example. Such associations describe inherent sign values which we cannot change. Other associations that have “natural” sign values are called “icons” and look like what they stand for. The color red possesses the sign value of danger because red is the color of blood and of flames. Accordingly, a red light means “stop,” or, when we get angry enough that we could kill, we “see red.” Many cultures consider the moon and its cycles a natural symbol for women; in  Judaism, the monthly celebration of the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, is considered to be a “women’s holiday.”


4. Reflecting inherent meaning

Some symbols have sign values that connect deep within our psyches, fixed by what seem to be inherent, metaphysical properties. Carl Jung, among others, believed that archetypes, symbolic shapes, and ideas emerging out of human history are commonly shared by the simple virtue of being human. According to this way of thinking, shapes like a cross, that stretch equally toward the four cardinal points, serve as a sign for balance, pointing the way to personal equilibrium. Other archetypes include Mother Earth and Mother Nature, sign values of nurture that we find in myths from around the world.

Although we assume that signs evolve into symbols, the reverse process also can take place. For instance, medieval Jews yearned to be redeemed from “exile” and to return to Jerusalem. They likened their synagogues both to the tabernacles in the desert and to the Temple of ancient Jerusalem. They therefore furnished their new synagogues with objects they thought had been used in the ancient tabernacle, as both a reminder and a promise of the Temple: a parochet (curtain) in front of the ark, a ner tamid (eternal light), and, often, a menorah with seven branches. It is interesting to note that, while the ner tamid remains a powerful symbol for many of us today, the parochet usually does not (and, in fact, the ark in many Reform synagogues does not have one). We may know the origins and explanat ions for the significance of these objects, but if they no longer evoke strong passions from us, they only “signify,” they do not symbolize.




1. Review the four explanations of symbols and sign values above. Which of these explanations best reflects your own understanding of how symbols are created? 

2. Discuss the distinction between sign and symbol. (You may wish to review The Art of Public Prayer, pp. 43-56.) 

3. Choose a prayer, action or gesture in the worship service like the Sh’ma, the bar/bat mitzvah blessing before the ark, or the lighting of the Shabbat candles. What is the function of this symbol in the service? 

4. What are the sign values of this prayer, gesture, or action? (You can figure out the sign value by imagining that you are explaining to a stranger “what it means.”) 

5. What does it symbolize for you? 

6. If you cannot fully explain the symbolic significance of this prayer, action, or gesture, are there personal associations you have for this symbol which are separate from the more formal explanations you gave in #3?

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