Sermon: On musaf and dew

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 April 2014

I may have mentioned this before – in fact, I think it is my traditional Shalosh Regalim refrain – but I think our current Siddur is exceptional.
Really extraordinary.
Using this Machzor once again reminds me of how cleverly constructed it is.  How well designed, how good the layout.

And the thing I really love about it – is that it is a proper Jewish prayerbook.
If you were to pick up a copy of the first siddur – the Seder Rav Amram – the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon, the leading Babylonian liturgist of the ninth century who was the first to lay out a complete liturgy – if you were to look at Seder Rav Amram, and a copy of our siddur, you would know absolutely that they are the same thing.
Ours is, in places, abridged and altered in line with our values; we have removed that which has no place in modern thoughtful prayer, but essentially our siddur is a modern version of the classical siddur.

This places a great deal of onus on the Shaliach tzibbur – it presents a challenge of choice.  If we are not to end up doing everything – and to really enjoy and engage with that which we do include we can’t – the shaliach tibbur must chart a course through the prayers, crafting a new liturgical journey each week.  It also makes it something of an oddity in Progressive Judaism – certainly in comparison with, for example, the British Liberal liturgy, or the American Reform siddur.  One of the greater cultural surprises my lovely new colleague faced when she joined us was just the amount of text in our siddur.

And among the things which makes our siddur particularly unusual – and text filled – is the presence within it of Musaf – the additional service for Shabbat – also found in this machzor, for the pilgrim festivals.

Musaf’s presence is very very odd.
Because Musaf is deeply problematic.  It exists as a representation of – in fact in lieu of – the additional sacrifices in the temple.  The centrepiece of the musaf Amidah is a description of those sacrifices.  As such its very presence represents something that does not reflect who we are – a hankering back to sacrifices as the legitimate way to interact with God.
That which is not sacrificial in the musaf amidah is, largely, repetition – of which the early Progressive liturgists deeply disapproved – to quote one, Caesar Seligmann of the Hamburg Temple: “To recite the same prayer twice, in rapid succession – that contradicts the very idea of prayer”.  Repetition was felt to water down the quality of worship.

On the other hand, many of the early progressive liturgists felt that to remove it altogether felt too drastic – Seligmann himself felt it needed to be retained because of the esteem in which it was held.  And, in the case of German Jewry there was an additional factor that spoke for keeping it – that many people were used to turning up for Shul for the Torah service, so the musaf amidah was the only amidah they got!
So in some early liturgies, alternative versions were written, while in the English speaking world, the case for removing it entirely largely prevailed.  Though it had been in the earlier West London Synagogue siddur, for example, it was not included in the later versions of Forms of Prayer, or in the Liberal Jewish Prayerbook.

That it has found its way back into our siddur reflects the strong sense of ours as a classical liturgy.  And on one level I quite like that.  But…
My overriding feeling, for what it is worth, is that it is symbolically problematic and practically difficult.  It says something we don’t want to say and it creates a burden on us as pray-ers, extending the service beyond its natural end.

For me to feel comfortable including musaf it needs a redeeming feature – an additional level of meaning which makes it speak.  So, it makes sense on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, of course, where it has the merit of hosting the drama of Un’taneh Tokef, the blowing of the Shofar, the Avodah and martyrology.
In those cases Musaf has additional seasonal and liturgical meaning beyond its sacrificial intent.

And what of today?
Today, also, Musaf has that kind of potential.
Today, first day Pesach, the musaf marks a seasonal shift – and the liturgical transition from winter to summer.  Musaf Amidah is the point at which we go from adding “Mashiv haruach u’morid ha-gashem” – making the wind blow and the rain fall – in the gevurot, the second paragraph of the Amidah, to adding Morid HaTal – causing the dew to fall.

That we have this transition in our new siddur is in itself an interesting statement.  Some Progressive liturgies removed the additions altogether because they expressed the difficult idea of divine involvement in the natural order.  The last Reform siddur, you’ll remember, did not have the insertion at all.
Other progressive liturgies – such as the current liberal siddur – have a line, but the same line throughout the year, as to change it reflects the climate of Israel – and many early Progressive Jews opposed the inclusion of Zionistic sentiments in our worship.

But we have chosen to include it in our worship – and having done so, we also have the opportunity to mark the transition in some way.
That way is called t’fillat hatal – the prayer for dew – it is classically inserted into Musaf Amidah on First Day Pesach, and it is on the sheets that you picked up as you came in.  It came out of Eretz Yisrael in the seventh/eighth century, and is based around a piyyut – a liturgical poem – written by Eleazar HaKillar, one of the great payatanim, whose poems are used liturgically throughout the year.  It expresses the transition of seasons, and our hope that the summer we are entering should be one of plenty not of hardship.  It marks a moment of transition, and all the vulnerability that that contains – in some communities the clergy wear white for musaf on first day pesach to recognise that, like the Yamim Noraim, this could be considered as a moment of judgement – as can all the major transitions of our year – and of our lives.

So today we will do musaf.
We will do so in order to accommodate the ritual of tfillat tal – To express the liturgical transition which is now part of our regular worship; to our relationship with the natural world, and our dependence upon it.  And we do so to express our link back to the land of Israel – whatever our views on modern Israel – we are bound to connect ourselves liturgically to the soil from which our practices and our prayers grew.  And in so doing, we might also redeem Musaf for ourselves.

So, I invite you to turn to page 325, as we rise for the special Musaf Amidah for the first moment of the summer.