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Steps Toward A Better Understanding Of Jewish Prayer

Step One-Recognize The Important Role That Brachos Play In Jewish Prayer

The first Siddur was compiled by Rav Amrom Gaon in Babylonia in the mid-800’s, not to be a prayer book, but to serve as an answer to a question posed by the Jewish community of Barcelona, Spain.  That community was seeking guidance as to what they should be saying as part of their prayer service each day of the year.  Rav Amrom’s answer was so long and so detailed that, ipso facto, the answer gained recognition as the first Siddur.

How Rav Amrom began his answer is a lesson as to where one should begin his quest to gain an understanding of Jewish Prayer.

The order of prayers and Brachos for the entire year that you requested, that has been shown to us by Heaven, we deem appropriate to set forth and lay out in the manner in which the tradition was passed down to us, as compiled by the Rabbis during the period of the Mishna and of the Gemara. And so we learned: Rabbi Mayer said: a person is obligated to recite 100 Brachos each day. In the Jerusalem Talmud we learned: it was taught in the name of Rabbi Mayer; there is no Jew who does not fulfill one hundred Mitzvos each day, as it was written: Now Israel, what does G-d your G-d ask of you? Do not read the verse as providing for the word: “what” (Mah); instead read it as including the word: “one hundred” (Mai’Eh). King David established the practice of reciting one hundred Brachos each day. When the residents of Jerusalem informed him that one hundred Jews were dying everyday, he established this requirement. It appears that the practice was forgotten until our Sages at the time of the Mishna and at the time of the Gemara re-established it. 

The lesson that Rav Amrom Gaon imparted is that one must begin his study of Jewish Prayer by studying its Brachos, particularly the ending of the Bracha known as the Chasimas Ha’Bracha.  The closing words play an important role.  They summarize the theme of the Bracha.  Know the themes of each Bracha and you have proceeded far into understanding Jewish Prayer.

Subsequent books that provided commentary to the Jewish Prayer book followed in Rav Amrom’s footsteps.  They each begin their discussion by first presenting the requirement to recite 100 Brachos each day.  Modern day editors of Siddurim have abandoned the path laid out by Rav Amrom Gaon.  It is somewhat of a mystery as to why they chose to do so.

A simple exercise that every Jew who prays can undertake is to make a list of all the Bracha endings that he recites during the course of the day and to then test himself as to whether he understands each word in those Brachos and whether he recognizes the theme each represents.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik And Co-Ed Jewish Education

Much has been written as to why Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l, initiated co-ed education at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, the K-12 day school he founded, and why females studied Talmud with the males.  One clue as to why Rabbi Soloveitchik made those two educational choices may be located in the wording of the Hebrew diploma that Rabbi Soloveitchik bestowed upon the deserving graduates of maimonides.  Here is a copy of my diploma.

Hebrew Diploma

Notice how my name appears; i.e. Avrohom Yaakov ben Eliyahu Ha’Kohain V’Rochel Katz.  Rabbi Soloveitchik included my mother’s name as well as my father’s name.  I would like to suggest that Rabbi Soloveitchik included the mother’s name based on his belief that in 20th Century America, a mother bore equal responsibility with the father to provide a Jewish education to her children.  The flip side to that belief is that in order to bear that responsibility, a mother must receive the same Jewish education given to the father.  In other words, Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed grades K-12 not as the years in which to train future Rabbis but as the years in which men and women prepare to be responsible Jewish parents.  Rabbinic training can wait until college and beyond.

That Rabbi Soloveitchik viewed grades K-12 as the years in which to prepare men and women to be responsible Jewish parents is borne out by the choices that Rabbi Soloveitchik made in terms of which Masechtos of the Talmud students were taught and which pages within those Masechtos were studied.  In 7th and 8th grade we studied Mascehes Brachos and within that Masechta we studied about Kriyas Shema, Shemona Esrei and Brikas Hamazone.  In 9th grade we studied the first chapter of Maseches Pesachim that deals with preparing a house for Passover.  In 10th grade we learned the seventh chapter of Mascehes Shabbos and studied the 39 prime activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath.  In 11th grade we studied Maseches Kesubos that deals with Jewish marriage.  In 12th grade we studied Maseches Sanhedrin-that is the one year when we finally studied a Masechta that did not provide us with practical Jewish knowledge.

I would agree with Rabbi Soloveitchik that using the high school years to begin training future Rabbis is a bit premature.  How many of those students ever do become practicing Rabbis?  Why force all the students into pre-Rabbinic training?  Many of them simply tune out and retain bad memories of how they were not able to follow the discussions in their Talmud classes.

I have heard more than once that in some homes in which the mother is a Maimonides alumni that she takes on the responsibility of reviewing with her son his homework in Talmud and preparing him for his tests in Talmud.  That is just one of the dividends being paid over to Rabbi Soloveitchik for recognizing the uniqueness of raising children in America and the difficulties parents face in trying to raise them to be active and well informed members of the American Orthodox Jewish community.

Finding Jewish Theology In The Siddur

Have you ever wondered why students in Jewish Day Schools spend so much of their Jewish studies time immersed in the study of Talmud and rarely if ever examine the Siddur, the Jewish Prayer Book? The following excerpt from page 163 of the book:: Jewish Liturgical Reasoning, by Professor Steven Kepnes, Oxford University Press, 2007, may provide an answer:

If one were to set out to find the textual locus for Jewish theology, one could do no better than to look at the Siddur, the prayer book. Where the Talmud puts laws and legal reasoning at its center and pushes God talk to the margins, theology takes center stage in prayer and liturgy. Indeed, a cursory glance at the Siddur provides a clear refutation to common assertions that Jews are preoccupied with law, history, and their own chosenness to the exclusion of theological concerns. However, if God is the central figure in the text of the prayer book, God also presents a significant challenge to that text. Indeed, God is a challenge to all linguistic and semiotic systems. How does one express and name the inexpressible? How is the transcendent God and creator of the universe to be addressed in human language? What is the meaning of the names and terms that are used for God? My argument in this chapter will be that the prayer book is very aware of these issues and that it possesses both a sophisticated theology and a series of avenues to express knowledge of God and approach his presence.

By dedicating the majority of the Jewish Studies curriculum to the study of Talmud, Jewish schools avoid having to confront difficult theological questions. The irony is that a similar course of study is used to train Orthodox rabbis. The individuals who should be prepared to answer and to help others deal with theological issues, receive little training in Jewish theology.

In my comparative liturgy class, I was immediately confronted with some of those issues. Our entry into Jewish prayer by way of the prayers that are recited just before laying down to sleep led to the following prayer. I present both the version found in Orthodox prayer books and those found in the Conservative one:

Orthodox-Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me -whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion, whether in this transmigration or another transmigration-I forgive every Jew. May no man be punished because of me. May it be Your will, Hashem, my G-d and the G-d of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Conservative- Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered, annoyed or wronged me-myself, my possessions, or my honor. Let no one be punished on my account. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, A-donai, my Rock and my Redeemer.

The version of the prayer presented in the Conservative prayer book is shorter because it omits two sections of the version found in Orthodox prayer books; the confession of sin “done before You” and the statement that I forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me “in this transmigration or another transmigration.” The omission of these two sections of the prayer center on two theological issues: divine retribution and the punishment of good people.

A person who asks G-d for forgiveness before retiring views G-d as keeping a daily account of the person’s conduct each day. If the person has committed more sins than good deeds, the person anticipates that he will be punished. If he has performed more good deeds than bad ones, he expects to be rewarded. To avoid that punishment , a person appeases G-d by confessing his sins sincerely and by committing not to repeat them.

The Conservative and the Reform movements have moved away from viewing G-d as keeping a daily accounting of a person’s conduct. To them, it is unacceptable to believe that the many tragedies that have overtaken the Jewish People over the last two thousand years were the result of sin.

The statement concerning transmigration is a Kabbalistic notion. In the view of the Kabbalists, when bad things happen to good people, it is because those people are being punished for the sins of an evil person whose soul has transmigrated into their bodies. It is important to note that Orthodox prayer books that follow the German tradition omit this paragraph in its entirety. The version of the prayer included herein represents Minhag Polin-the Polish-Ashkenazic tradition.

Where To Begin a Course In Comparative Jewish Liturgy

The first question I needed to answer in structuring my class on Comparative Jewish Liturgy was: where within Jewish Prayer should I begin? I decided to follow the lead of Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx, a Reform Rabbi and Professor of Jewish Liturgy at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, who in her book: בעת עישן ואעירה suggests that there is a link between the prayers that the Jewish People recite just before laying down to sleep and the ones they say just after arising.

The prayers of the night provide an excellent starting point for a discussion of Jewish prayer since for early man, daily darkness must have been a difficult phenomena to understand. It should not be surprising that he would view darkness and light as being ruled by distinct gods who regularly fought against each other. It is further understandable how our forefather Abraham must have appeared as a revolutionary by suggesting the existence of one and only one G-d who controlled both light and darkness. As the world began to understand the scientific basis behind the movements of the sun and the moon, it become easier to accept the concept that one G-d did in fact control both.

With that background, we can explain why the Shema itself contains a commandment that Jews recite the words of Shema upon going to sleep and upon arising. It is at those moments that it is necessary for Jews to affirm the singularity of G-d to the exclusion of any other theory as to why light and darkness appear.

When I began my first lesson in Comparative Jewish Liturgy, I read from an English translation of the introduction that Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx included in her book. I did so not because she is a woman reform Rabbi and I wanted to be inclusive, but because in my opinion, she wrote the best introduction to Jewish Prayer that I ever read. You can download the English translation of her introduction here:


Preparing To Teach Comparative Jewish Liturgy

I recently committed to continuing a weekly course on Jewish Prayer that I began to teach last Spring at the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck, New York. Even before I was asked to return, I considered what would be an appropriate topic to teach and had difficulty settling on a topic. The problem I face is that my group consists of senior citizens who are affiliated with each of the major Jewish denominations while some are totally unaffiliated. That means that I cannot rely on the newsletters that I have written over the past 10 years as my basic source material for the class. Instead, I have to create fresh teaching materials and those materials must be of interest to Jews of all denominations and beliefs.

So I settled on presenting a class on Comparative Jewish Liturgy. I anticipate examining specific prayers that are in prayer books and comparing how each of the denominations presents that prayer, if at all, in their prayer books and then attempt to explain the differences in the wording of those prayers.

Once I decided to teach such a course, the first challenge that I faced was to collect the prayer books of each denomination.  Finding an Orthodox Siddur was not difficult since I am affiliated with Orthodox Judaism and own several Siddurim including the Artscoll and the Koren editions. Thanks to the internet, I found the information I needed to obtain the Siddurim published by the other denominations. There I learned that the Conservative movement had updated its Sim Shalom Siddur in 2002. I was able to purchase the 2008 version of that Siddur that includes the commentary of Reuven Hammer at the J. Levine Bookstore in Manhattan. I look forward to Hammer’s commentary providing me with answers for when the text in Sim Shalom deviates from the text found in the standard Orthodox Siddurim.

On the same day that I purchased the Sim Shalom Siddur, I also stopped at the Strand Bookstore, Broadway and 12th Street in Manhattan, a used bookstore.  I walked out with a used copy of the Siddur, Gates Of Prayer, 2006 edition, published by the CCAR, the Rabbinic wing of the Union of Reform Judaism. It was in excellent condition and cost nine bucks. Some time later I learned that my bargain was not worth as much as I thought. While searching for why the Siddur included an abridged version of Kriyas Shema, I came to learn that in 2006, the same year in which the edition of the Gates of Prayer Siddur that I purchased was published, the CCAR had published a new Siddur, Mishkan Tefila. I then ordered that Siddur from the CCAR and will consult with both the Gates of Prayer Siddur and the Mishkan Tefila Siddur in preparing the materials for my class. I expect that the differences between those two Siddurim will provide me with additional material to discuss with my class.

I also ordered the Reconstructionist Siddur, Kol Haneshama. Once I receive that Siddur, my Siddur library will be complete.

That said, some of you may be troubled by what I propose to do. Should an Orthodox Jew teach the contents of the Siddurim of the other denominations? Am I not lending credibility to those Siddurim?

Let me begin by saying that by agreeing to give a class at a Y, I understood from the get-go that my role was that of a teacher and not a preacher. My goal is to expose my students to a broad spectrum of Jewish thought and to encourage them to spend time studying Jewish materials independently. I remind them of that task regularly. I say: do something each day that involves an aspect of Judaism.  Don’t do nothing.  In other words I suggest that they involve themselves in some aspect of Jewish life each day. It does not matter what subject they choose. I am firm believer that when a person finds an area of Jewish life that interests them, their study of it will lead to them to explore other areas of Jewish life.

I am also mindful that most of my students attend a synagogue, not necessarily an Orthodox one.  In my opinion, the affiliation of each of those synagogues is not a critical factor.  What matters is that my students attend synagogue regularly.  If they are attending a synagogue regularly, it is my obligation to cause that experience to be more meaningful by opening up for them the meaning of the prayers found in the prayer books they read from when they attend synagogue.

Will issues arise that will challenge the continuing usefulness of the some of the texts found in Orthodox Siddurim? Of course they will and as an Orthodox Jew I must become aware of those challenges and to then uncover the answers to those questions.

Remembering The Holocaust At The Seder

I am aware of two attempts to incorporate a Holocaust memorial prayer into the Haggadah.  The first was initiated by the American Jewish Congress in the early 1950’s.  It organized a committee that it called the Seder Ritual Committee that composed and publicized the following prayer:

Seder Ritual Of Remembrance

A second attempt was made by Rabbi Menachem Kasher in his Israel Passover Haggadah that was published by Shemgold Publishers in 1975.

Kasher seder Prayer Of Remembrance

To date I am unaware of any other mainstream Haggadah that has introduced a Holocaust Memorial Prayer into the Haggadah text.

I searched through the records of the Ritual Seder Committee that are stored at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City and found that the Orthodox Rabbinate in the 1950’s and 1960’s gave little support to including such a prayer within the Seder service.  In a letter dated December 7, 1962 Rabbi Samson R. Weiss, z”l, President of the Union Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations wrote to the Committee on Union stationery but indicated that he was speaking for himself and not as Executive Vice-President of the Union.  He chose his words carefully but undoubtedly expressed the opinion of most Orthodox organizations on the question of whether to include the Seder Ritual Of Remembrance in the Seder service:

The Haggadah, though, which dates back in its major parts to Tannaitic times has not changed for centuries. Even the terrible tragedies of the “Gezoroth Tach V’Tat” were not given remembrance in the Haggadah which is exclusively consecrated to our redemption from Egypt and by the recital of which we fulfill the divine precept of telling its story to our children. The great national tragedies are remembered in the Kinoth recited on the 9th of Ab. Recently, special Kinoth in commemoration of our six million brethren were circulated.

With the exception of the Yizkor prayer (or the hashkavah in the Sephardic synagogues), our Yom Tov ritual has been designed by our Sages and their successors to accentuate the Jewish joy and not the Jewish sorrow. The Haggadah likewise reflects this tendency. Unless the inclusion of your Ritual of Remembrance were advocated by the recognized Torah authorities of our age, here and in Israel, I do not see my way clear in joining your committee.

Of the two prayers that were composed, I would like to suggest that Rabbi Kasher did a better job of fashioning a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust while keeping within the theme of the Haggadah.  That theme is known as: maschil b’gnus oo’misayem b’shevach-we begin by recalling the humiliation we suffered and then heap praise on G-d for then rescuing the Jewish People.  Those two contrasting themes were repeated in the 20th Century in the form of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.   Remembering the victims of the Holocaust at the Seder without acknowledging the miracle that is the State of Israel tells only half a story.

To Piyut Or Not To Piyut

The celebration of the four special Shabbosim before Pesach, the Arbah Parshiyos, creates a dilemma for many Ashkenazic synagogues; to recite the Piyuttim, liturgical poems, for the Arbah Parshiyos or not to. Sephardic synagogues do not face the same quandary. They have followed the practice of not interrupting the repetition of Shemona Esrei with the recital of Piyuttim for the past thousand years . Ashkenazic synagogues, on the other hand, have an equally long tradition of adding Piyuttim to the repetition of Shemona Esrei not only on the Arbah parshiyos but during all the holidays as well. That difference in custom explains why the Machzor for Rosh Hashonah followed by Ashkenazim is so much thicker than the Machzorim used for that day by Sephardic synagogues.

So why do Ashkenazic synagogues face this dilemma? Because in many Ashkenazic synagogues the time spent reciting the Piyuttim is often viewed by those present as recess. Congregants choose not to participate in the recital of Piyuttim because in their opinions, the Piyuttim are extremely difficult to understand. The words that comprise the Piyuttim are not commonly found in any other prayer service.

Is omitting the recital of the Piyuttim the only solution? Perhaps being reminded of the history of Piyyut and its purpose will convince Ashkenazic congregations to study the Piyutttim before discarding them.

Piyuttim originated at the moment our Sages first composed Shemona Esrei. Despite composing a fixed text, our Sages did not expect the text to become the “fixed” text that it is today. This point needs clarification. We need to differentiate between parts of the text. Yes, our Sages expected the Chasimas Ha’Brachos, the Bracha endings, the words that come after Baruch Ata Hashem, to remain static. But as to what precedes the Chasimas Ha’Brachos, our Sages anticipated and encouraged flexibility. That is the only way to explain the variety of wording found in the various prayer rites as to what precedes the Chasimas Ha’Brachos of Shemona Esrei. Let us look at a well known example of this type of variation. Ashkenazim complete their recital of Shemona Esrei by reciting a Bracha that begins Sim Shalom during the Shacharis service. Not so during the Mincha and Arvis service. In those services, they complete Shemona Esrei by reciting a Bracha that begins with the words Shalom Rav. Sephardim, in contrast, complete their recital of every Shemona Esrei with the same Bracha; one that begins with the words: Sim Shalom. You will not find any Rabbinic authority that has ever raised a question as to the propriety of reciting either Bracha as part of Tefilas Mincha or Arvis. That dead silence is proof that our Sages expected that we would be creative in choosing the words to recite as part of Shemona Esrei.

Professor Ezra Fleischer, in his introduction to his book: Eretz-Israel Prayer And Prayer Rituals As Portrayed In The Geniza Documents, suggests that from the onset of the requirement to recite Shemona Esrei, two version of Shemona Esrei were recited. The silent version recited by the congregation which followed the fixed text and the version recited by the prayer leader in which the prayer leader would supplement the fixed text with his own original compositions, often in poetic form. S.D. Gotein on page 154 of his book, A Mediterranean Society, An Abridgment in One Volume, University Of California Press, 1999, revised and edited by Jacob Lessner, notes the following while describing the daily morning prayer service as it was performed during the Geniza Period:

The most time consuming portion of the service was the piyyut, the poetical segments inserted randomly into the official order of prayer. (The word is derived from Greek poet[es] and is pre-Islamic. In Arabic, these poetical pieces are called hizana, because it was during this part of the service that the hazzan, or cantor, had to prove his mettle.) The biblical exhortation “Sing unto the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98:1), echoed in the Talmudic injunction “Everyone is obliged to say something new in his prayer every day,” was taken seriously in the Geniza period, thus continuing a tradition of liturgical poetry dating back some five hundred years prior. Tens of thousands (perhaps over a hundred thousand) leaves with religious poems have been found in the Geniza, a reflection of the astonishing output of the more famous liturgical poets of old, as well as the large number of authors, otherwise unknown, who were active in composing these poems.

Some of those piyuttim became so well liked that they became part of what is viewed today as the fixed text. Perhaps the best example of that is the addition of Kedushah to the repetition of Shemona Esrei. It appears that one Shaliach Tzibbur in an effort to embellish the third Bracha of Shemona Esrei known as Kedushas Hashem added verses found in Tanach. Since the prophet Yeshayahu reports that those words are recited by the angels each day, the prayer leader incorporated into Kedushah a reference to the angels as well.

A further example can be found in the text of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei recited for each of the prayer services on Shabbos. A question is asked: why do we recite different versions of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos but do not vary the wording of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on holidays? The correct answer is that each of the middle Brachos of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos represent a Piyut that was added after the fixed text was composed. Apparently each of the Piyuttim was so liked by the community, that they were adopted to be the standard version of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos. Concerning the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Shacharis and Mussaf, it is very evident that they are Piyuttim. Notice the wording of Yismach Moshe:

יִשְׂמַח מֹשֶׁה בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקוֹ, כִּי עֶֽבֶד נֶאֱמָן קָרָֽאתָ לּוֹ.
כְּלִיל תִּפְאֶֽרֶת בְּרֹאשׁוֹ נָתַֽתָּ (לּוֹ), בְּעָמְדוֹ לְפָנֶֽיךָ עַל הַר סִינָי.
(וּשְׁנֵי) לוּחוֹת אֲבָנִים הוֹרִיד בְּיָדוֹ, וְכָתוּב בָּהֶם שְׁמִירַת שַׁבָּת,

Those lines represent three of the lines that remain from a complete alphabetical acrostic that one Shaliach Tzibbur composed and which was adopted to be the opening of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Shacharis on Shabbos.

The middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Mussaf on Shabbos also begins with a Piyut. In this case, it is a Piyut that was very difficult to compose. It is a one word per line alphabetical acrostic that runs in reverse alphabetical order:

תִּכַּֽנְתָּ שַׁבָּת, רָצִֽיתָ קָרְבְּנוֹתֶֽיהָ, צִוִּֽיתָ פֵּרוּשֶֽׁיהָ עִם סִדּוּרֵי נְסָכֶֽיהָ. מְעַנְּגֶֽיהָ לְעוֹלָם כָּבוֹד יִנְחָֽלוּ, טוֹעֲמֶֽיהָ חַיִּים זָכוּ, וְגַם הָאוֹהֲבִים דְּבָרֶֽיהָ גְּדֻלָּה בָּחָֽרוּ, אָז

Some of you may be surprised to learn that the versions of the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei that we recite today are not the original versions of those Brachos. You may be asking: if that be the case, what constituted the original version of those Brachos? The Sefer Ha’Manhig provides a clue:

ספר המנהיג הלכות שבת עמוד קנ’-רשז”ל (רש”י) לא היה אומר ישמח משה והיה אומר
אתה בחרתנו והיה מזכיר ואומר שבתות למנוחה כי לא היה יודע מה עניין לשבת ישמח
משה, ורבי’ יעקב מ”כ (רבינו תם) החזיר הדבר ליושנו, ואמר כי טעם גדול לדבר לומר ישמח
משה דאמ’ בפ’ [קמא] בשבת [י’ ע”ב] מאי דכתיב לדעת כי אני י-י’ מקדשכם, אמר הקב”ה
למשה, משה, מתנה טובה יש לי בבית גנזאי ושבת שמה ואני מבקש ליתנה לישראל, לך
והודיעם, ולהכי תקינו ישמח משה באותה מתנה טובה שלשבת. אב”ן.

Translation: Rashi did not follow the practice of reciting the Bracha of Yismach Moshe as the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos for Shacharis. Instead he would recite Ata Bichartanu and would add the words: Shabbosos L’Menucha. Rashi followed this practice because he did not see a link between Shabbos and Moshe Rabbenu being happy. Rabbenu Tam returned the practice to its former way by explaining the following: there is a very important reason to recite the Bracha of Yismach Moshe as it is written in the opening chapter of Maseches Shabbos (10, 1) why does the verse say: to know that I am G-d
who is the One who makes you holy? G-d said to Moshe, Moshe, I have a wonderful gift in my storage house and Shabbos is its name. I wish to give it to the Jewish people; go and notify the Jewish people. That is why our Sages composed the Bracha of Yismach Moshe on account of the great gift that G-d gave, the gift of Shabbos.

[Bio of author-R. Abraham ben R. Nathan was born in Lunel, Provence, c. 1155 and died in Toledo, 1215. During his wanderings, he noted the differences in custom between various communities, and later composed Manhig Bnei HaOlam (also known as HaManhig) recording them.]

In truth, it is not difficult to envision how the standard middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Yom Tov also served as the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos. Remove all the references to the holidays and leave the inserts for Shabbos, remove the paragraph of יעלה ויבוא and the line that begins והשיאנו and you are left with the core of the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos.

The fact that the same text was recited as the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on both Shabbos and Yom Tov explains some one additional issue. Some are surprised that Rav Amrom Gaon, in his Seder, ends each of the Middle Brachos of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos with the following which the standard ending of the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Yom Tov:

סדר רב עמרם גאון (הרפנס) סדר שבתות-ועומד בתפלה ואומר אבות וגבורות וקדושת
השם . . . ואומר ומאהבתך ה’ א-להינו . . . ולתת לנו ברכה ושלום מאתך. א-להינו וא-להי
אבותינו רצה נא במנוחתנו וקדשנו במצותיך ותן חלקנו בתורתך ושבענו מטובך ושמח לבנו
בישועתך וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת. והנחילנו ה’ א-להינו באהבה וברצון שבת קדשך
וישמחו בך כל ישראל אוהבי שמך. בא”י מקדש השבת.

The words: וישמחו בך כל ישראל אוהבי שמך are currently recited only at the end of the Middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on holidays and not on Shabbos. That Rav Amrom Gaon, in his Seder, ends each the Middle Brachos of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos is further evidence that the Bracha that begins Ata Bichartanu was at one time the Bracha that was once recited as each of Middle Brachos of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos.

One last issue can be resolved if the Bracha of Ata Bichartanu was at one time the standard Middle Brachos of Shemona Esrei on Shabbos. Why when Yom Tov falls on Shabbos do we recite the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Yom Tov with inserts for Shabbos and not the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Shabbos with inserts for Yom Tov? Do we not have a rule: תדיר ושאינו תדיר, תדיר קודם; the activity which takes place more often is giving precedence over an activity which is performed less frequently? The answer: by reciting the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei for Yom Tov with inserts for Shabbos we are not violating that rule because in truth we are reciting the appropriate middle Bracha for Shemona Esrei because we are returning to the original version of the middle Bracha for Shemona Esrei on Shabbos.

Let us summarize. The first reason to recite Piyuttim for the Arbah Parshiyos is to continue the ancient tradition of adding fresh material to the recitation of Shemona Esrei.

Reason number two. The Piyuttim represent wording that is intended to publicize the special occasion that we are celebrating that day. Parshas Shekalim is one of the special Shabbosim before Pesach. Let us consider how the prayer service would present itself if the Piyuttim for Parshas Shekalim are omitted. What would we be reciting that serves as the means of identifying the special occasion of the day? We would be left with the special Maftir and the Haftorah. Do either of those truly convey the reason that we celebrate Parshas Shekalim before Pesach? Let us take a close look at both of them. The Maftir:

שמות פרק ל, (יא) וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר: (יב) כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקדיהם ונתנו איש כפר נפשו לה’ בפקד אתם ולא יהיה בהם נגף בפקד אתם: (יג) זה יתנו כל העבר על הפקדים מחצית השקל בשקל הקדש עשרים גרה השקל מחצית השקל תרומה לה’: (יד) כל העבר על הפקדים מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה יתן תרומת ה’: (טו) העשיר לא ירבה והדל לא ימעיט ממחצית השקל לתת את תרומת ה’ לכפר על נפשתיכם: (טז) ולקחת את כסף הכפרים מאת בני ישראל ונתת אתו על עבדת אהל מועד והיה לבני ישראל לזכרון לפני ה’ לכפר על נפשתיכם: 

Translation: 11. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12. When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them; that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. 13. This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. 14. Every one who passes among those who are counted, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the Lord. 15. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering to the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. 16. And you shall take the atonement money of the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may be a memorial to the people of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.

The Haftorah:
Melchaim 2, 11
17- And all the people of the land went to the house of Baal, and broke it down; his altars and his images broke they in pieces thoroughly, and killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest appointed officers over the house of the Lord. 19. And he took the rulers over hundreds, and the captains, and the guard, and all the people of the land; and they brought down the king from the house of the Lord, and came by the way of the Gate of the Guard to the king’s house. And he sat on the throne of the kings. 20. And all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet; and they killed Athaliah with the sword in the king’s house. Melchaim 2, 12 1. Seven years old was Jehoash when he began to reign. 2. In the seventh year of Jehu Jehoash began to reign; and forty years reigned he in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Zibiah of Beersheba. 3. And Jehoash did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all his days because Jehoiada the priest instructed him. 4. But the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burned incense in the high places. 5. And Jehoash said to the priests, All the money of the consecrated things that is brought to the house of the Lord, the money of persons, for which each man is assessed, and the money that any man is prompted by his heart to bring to the house of the Lord, 6. Let the priests take it to them, every man from his acquaintance; and let them repair the breaches of the house, wherever any breach shall be found. 7. But it was so, that in the twenty third year of king Jehoash the priests had not repaired the breaches of the house. 8. Then king Jehoash called for Jehoiada the priest, and the other priests, and said to them, Why do you not repair the breaches of the house? Now therefore receive no more money from your acquaintances, but deliver it for the breaches of the house. 9. And the priests agreed to receive no more money from the people, nor to repair the breaches of the house. 10. But Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in its lid, and set it beside the altar, on the right side as one comes into the house of the Lord; and the priests who guarded the door put in there all the money that was brought to the house of the Lord. 11. And it was so, when they saw that there was much money in the chest, that the king’s scribe and the high priest came up, and they counted and tied up in bags the money that was found in the house of the Lord. 12. And they gave the money, that was counted, to the hands of the workmen, who supervised the house of the Lord; and they paid it out to the carpenters and builders, who worked upon the house of the Lord. 13. And to the masons, and the stone cutters, and to buy timber and quarried stones to repair the breaches of the house of the Lord, and for all that was laid out for the house to repair it. 14. But there were not made for the house of the Lord bowls of silver, snuffers, basins, trumpets, any utensils of gold, or utensils of silver, from the money that was brought to the house of the Lord; 15. But they gave that to the workmen, and repaired with it the house of the Lord. 16. And they did not ask an accounting from the men into whose hand they delivered the money to be paid to the workmen; for they dealt in good faith. 17. The money for guilt offerings and the money for sin offerings was not brought to the house of the Lord; it was delivered to the priests’.

In truth neither the Maftir nor the Haftorah convey the reason to celebrate Parshas Shekalim before Pesach. Are the So what are the themes of Parshas Shekalim that are found in the Piyuttim? Rabbi Aharon Levy in his commentary to the Piyuttim of Parshas Shekalim provides the following summaries for some of the Piyuttim:

1. Through the prayer of Moshe Rabbeinu the sin of the Golden calf was forgiven. What should have been a death sentence for the Jewish People became the path by which the Jews could assume a prominent place in this world.

2. The donation of a half shekel reported in the Torah served as a means by which the Jews could be counted without any harm coming to them. In the merit of the continued practice of providing the same donation year after year to the upkeep of the Beis Hamikdash, the Jews were saved from the death edict of Haman.

3. In its merit of the the rich and the poor donating an equal amount, a half shekel, the Jewish People grew in number.

4. Parshas Shekalim includes a prayer to G-d that He rescue us from the Diaspora and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash and so that the Jewish People can once again contribute the yearly half Shekel donation.

5. In the merit of the Jewish People contributing a half shekel each year, G-d made a commitment that the Jewish people would never number less than six hundred thousand.

6. Two aspects of the donation of the half shekel troubled Moshe Rabbeinu. Can a people who were destined to grow as numerous as the sand on the beach be counted? And how can a being that was created by G-d ever obtain forgiveness just by donating a half-Shekel?

Why is Parshas Shekalim commemorated on the Shabbos in which we announce the date of Rosh Chodesh Adar or when Rosh Chodesh Adar falls on a Shabbos? Because the requirement to contribute a half shekel to the upkeep of the Beis Hamikdash began on Rosh Chodesh Adar and continued for that full month. In other words, Jewish tax season and it represented a flat tax.