What are Kinot and Piyyutim?

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

I’m spending the remainder of Tisha B’Av studying Rav Yosef Soloveitchik‘s commentary on the kinot associated with the day.

What is a kina? To explain that, I must first explain piyyutim. Piyyutim are Hebrew liturgical poems. Some are as old as the 3rd century CE, and many are from the Middle Ages. They are elaborations on the themes and emotions associated with the prayer service, especially the services on special days. One is most likely to encounter a piyyut during the High Holy Days, because there are many famous piyyutim associated with those services, and at those very long formal services we often read a few of them.

To get the full effect of a piyyut, it is best to hear it read in Hebrew, because the music of the language does not come through in translation. Many piyyutim are acrostics (the first letter in each line spell a word.) They take the theme of a service or prayer and then bring in images and word-play from midrashim associated with the words in the prayer. That’s why studying them with a commentary can be helpful: otherwise the ordinary person will miss a lot.

Kinot (singular kina) are a particular kind of piyyutim.  They are liturgical poems of lament, formal expressions of grief. The great majority of them are associated with Tisha B’Av.

Here is the beginning of a famous old kina attributed to Elazar ben Killir, who lived in the 6th century CE (translation mine):

On this night my children cry and keen,
For tonight my holy Temple is destroyed, and my palaces burned.
And all the house of Israel tells my agony,
And cries for the fire kindled by the Holy One.

On this night my children cry and keen.

I find that the poets of kinot can help to bring a particular day in the Jewish year to life for me. Just from this one verse, it immediately projects me into the reality of a Jerusalemite in 586 BCE or 70 CE: I am sitting in the ruins of the city, listening to my children sob. They’re hungry. We’re in shock. The unthinkable has happened: God has turned on us.

The kina goes on to elaborate the trials of homelessness, and it accepts that in fact, we brought these evils upon ourselves. The forces of Babylon and Rome were merely agents of the Eternal, taking away the blessings we foolishly took for granted: home, security, peace.

If you would like to hear some kinot chanted, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has a very nice collection of them for sale online, and it makes samples available for free listening.

Reading the kinot, I am struck by the fact that many of the sufferings we remember on Tisha B’Av are felt by far too many people in our own day: homelessness, hunger, and fear. May we rise from today’s fast renewed in spirit to relieve the sufferings of others!

A Blessing for the Images from Pluto

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Science-Photos/image.php?gallery_id=2&image_id=222

Today the NASA spaceship New Horizons will fly past Pluto and snap the closest images ever taken of that heavenly body. I thought some of you might like to learn the appropriate blessing for seeing natural wonders.

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’Olam, she’ka’kha lo b’olamo.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who has such creations in Your world.

(The image featured with this article is in the public domain. It was taken by the New Horizons ship on its approach.)

The Blessing for Study

Class with Rabbi Adar

A lovely and traditional way to begin a study session is the blessing for the study of Torah:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך
הָעולָם

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
.וְצִוָּנוּ
לַעֲסק  בְּדִבְרֵי-תורָה

Ba-ruch a-tah A-doh-nai

Eh-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-O-lam

Ah-sher kid-e-shah-nu b’mitz-voh-tav

Vi-tsi-va-nu la’a-sok b’div-ray To-rah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One,

Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space:

Who sanctifies us with commandments

And commands us to engage in the words of Torah.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!

“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.

I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.”  The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.

“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment?  How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?

The Door to Amazement: Why We Bless

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…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.”  That question leads us to the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?

And what about those for whom the idea of God is more abstract, who find it rather odd to talk to an Idea? Why bother with blessings?

My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own.  When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.

Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. That pause may only be a fraction of a second, it may even become a reflex, but it is a moment of sacred intention breaking in upon the mundane. This week, as I hurry about my work, those little pauses remind me that every mitzvah gives me an opportunity to bring the sacred into the world, even when I have to do them rapidly, even when I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even a moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that, too!)

It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about our days!

The Dance of Jewish Prayer

Are you intimidated or confused by the various motions Jews make during prayer?  People sit, people stand, people turn around and bow to the door, some people fiddle with their prayer shawls.  There’s a sort of hokey-pokey thing periodically, too.  What on earth?

Prayer in Jewish tradition is a whole-body experience. It engages all the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and yes, even the kinesthetic sense. One way to cope with this is to think of it as dance.  Just as David danced before the Ark (2 Samuel 6:14-23), when Jews pray, we dance before the ark with the Torah in it. Unlike David, we wear all our clothes.

First of all, don’t panic. As long as you are reasonably respectful, no one is going to humiliate you or toss you out on your ear. Many of these gestures are individual devotional practices, and only a few of them are “required.”

A few general principles:

1.  MOST CHOREOGRAPHY IS OPTIONAL: Bow, etc, if it is meaningful to you or if you think it might become meaningful to you. If it is distracting or just “isn’t you,” that is OK. However, give yourself permission to try things out and see how they feel. Some people find that choreography makes them feel more in tune with the minyan, or closer to God in prayer: how will you know if you don’t at least try it out?

2.  EXPECTED CHOREOGRAPHY:  Only a few things are “required,” and those only if you are able.

  • If you are able, stand for the Barechu [call to worship before the Shema].
  • If you are able, stand for the Amidah.
  • In most Reform congregations, stand for the Shema.
  • Show respect to the Torah Scroll:  Stand when it is moving or uncovered, and face towards it.  Stand when the Ark is open.

3.  RESPECT THE BODY:  It is a mitzvah [sacred duty] to care for your body. If choreography is going to damage your back or your knees or whatever, don’t do it. If you see someone refraining from something, assume that they have a good reason and don’t bug them about it.

4.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK:  If you are curious about a gesture or practice, it is acceptable, after the service, to ask the person doing it what they are doing and why. If everyone in the congregation is doing it, ask anyone, or ask a service leader. It is never “stupid” or rude to ask politely about a practice so that you can learn.  As Hillel teaches in the Mishnah, the shy will not learn!

5.  ESCHEW OSTENTATION:  Both the ancient rabbis (Berakhot 34a) and Reform tradition frown on showy displays of piety. If something is meaningful to you, that’s OK. But keep in mind that you are doing this for yourself and for prayer, not for a show for anyone else. Also, don’t get so carried away with your gestures that you crash into others around you.

Is there any gesture or movement in services that you have found particularly meaningful or particularly troublesome? I look forward to your comments!

Basics of Blessings

Blessings (berakhot) are the most basic form of Jewish prayer. You can recognize them because they begin with the word Baruch [Blessed]. Ideally, we say a blessing before every mitzvah, before every bite we eat, and before many other life events. The Gemara says that every Jew should try to say 100 blessings a day.

There are three kinds of stand-alone blessings:

1.  Blessings we recite before or when we experience a pleasure of creation. For example, we say blessings before eating food,  to acknowledge that the food comes from God:

Example: Blessing before eating bread:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

2.  Blessings we recite before performing a mitzvah:

Example: Blessing for putting a mezuzah on a doorpost of a Jewish home:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu likboa mezuzah.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to affix a mezuzah.

3. Blessings we recite at remarkable times and events:

Example: Blessing when we hear that someone has died.

Baruch Dayan ha’emet.

Blessed is the true Judge.

There are many, many Jewish blessings to be said for every kind of food, for many mitzvot, and for many different events and experiences. To learn more blessings, there is a list of blessings of various sorts in the Reform Judaism website.

If you listen carefully in the daily and Shabbat worship services, those are also made up of blessings: there are blessings before and after the Shema, and the Amidah is a series of blessings, stacked up like the sacrifices on the Temple altar of old.

If you wonder why Jews make blessings, read this: Why Bless?

If you recite Jewish blessings, when and why do you do so?