Question: I read The Jewish Press’s Luach of February 17 with much interest. You write, “We daven Shacharis as usual.” I find it difficult to understand why you don’t mention reciting the special yotzrot for Parshat Shekolim. Are yotzrot a relic of history? I’m a senior citizen who remembers saying yotzrot as a child. But now, they seem to have disappeared from Orthodox synagogues.
Milton M. Adler,
Cherry Hill, NJ
Answer: You are very keen in noting my omission and quite correct in your observation. Indeed, yotzrot seem to have disappeared from the synagogue liturgy in many congregations nowadays. Later on we will address why they seem to have fallen by the wayside. Please be aware, though, that in many Ashkenazic synagogues, especially chassidic ones, the practice of reciting yotzrot is very much alive.
The term yotzrot refers to a grouping of special prayers that all fall under the same heading, and are also referred to as piyutim. Rabbi Yosef Grossman discusses this topic at length in his masterful work “Otzar Erchei Ha’Yahadut” ot peh, 377). He writes: “Piyut – these are prayers, poetic refrains, or sanctified songs that entered the liturgy of our special machzorim for festivals and special occasions, for the Days of Awe, as well as those solemn fast days that mark our national tragedies.”
The authors of these prayers were gedolei Yisrael, some of whom hail to the period of the geonim in Babylonia. Many of these authors led their congregation in prayer and were able to captivate and stir the hearts of Jews in a unique fashion. They were especially able to strengthen and uplift the spirit of the nation mired in its lengthy and difficult exile during times of distress and tragedy. These heartfelt compositions ably lifted our people’s souls and raised their spirits, renewing hope.
The compositions were based mainly on the words of our sages as found in the Talmud and Midrashim, and contain words of rebuke, reproof, lamentations, and yearning regarding the destruction of our Temple and the exile of the Divine Presence. For the most part, these all reach their crescendo with words of comfort and hope for the future redemption and salvation.
Many of these piyutim were composed in rhyming verse following the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet. They were gathered, and certain prayers took root. Recital remained voluntary and non-binding. In fact, some of the geonim opposed reciting piyutim. One will not find any of them, for example, in the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (the very oldest siddur we posses). Nevertheless, the majority of the geonim did not try to separate the people from these beloved piyutim.
Indeed, some of these piyutim are so stirring due to their style and diction that they were ultimately considered worthy in the eyes of the geonim. Therefore, over time, their recital became sanctified, and more were written as well. We actually find many piyutim in the siddur of Rabbenu Sa’adiah Gaon and the Machzor Vitry (and many other works as well).
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.