Gedalyah Reback

It’s like Dr. Seuss wrote Selichot

I’ve had to get used to Hebrew fast.  My interest was near purely political at first.  I didn’t go to Hebrew school, learnt the aleph-bet at 16 and only took my first class at 19.  All of a sudden, I was in a new world.  But thankfully that year coincided with my religious awakening.  At the same time I was getting a dosage of modern, I was breaking into the syntax of the Torah.  Seven years later I’ve leapfrogged thousands of Orthodox students my age who’ve gone through at least a dozen years of formal Hebrew education.

But none of that, nor the Aliyah, nor the two years of classes at Hebrew University has gotten me to be fluent or prepped of the discontent I’ve had for the selichot preceding Yom Kippur.

I’m hardly the first critic.  They are a nightmare.  Countless words exist in these piyyuts that are never, ever heard in other areas of Judaism.  There’s actually a solid reason for it.  They didn’t exist before the prayers were written.  They were invented by their pious, medieval authors.

"lemed" - I rarely see this word outside of this time of year.
“lemed” – I rarely see this word outside of this time of year.

WHY?  I don’t mean to sound so jaded, but why even dare toy with a diaspora that was already devoid of Hebrew skill?  It already dampers my excitement to keep up with the person leading the congregation at the crack of dawn in a liturgy we only use for two weeks a year.  I’ve spent the last two years using the Sephardi brand of selichot, merely because they were consistent day-to-day.  They’re easier despite the fact half of the text is in simple Aramaic (it uses a lot of Hebrew cognates).

But I’ve decided to spite my discontent for another reason.  Hebrew needs to be complex to be worth learning.  It’s the linguistic facilitator of Judaism; it has to be majestic.  It gives the lyrics some style to enable that sort of creativity.  Considering the derth in Hebrew skill the current diaspora has, these are words we should embrace and try to work into new prayers for use throughout the year.  Why let ourselves be disheartened by “hard” Hebrew when we can just grasp the ram by the shofar?

Park East Synagogue Selichot - Does the cantor have to mask the incomprehension with finesse?
Park East Synagogue Selichot – Does the cantor have to mask the incomprehension with finesse?

Being creative with Hebrew shows the yet-to-be-Hebraicized diaspora population they don’t have to despair not getting a new vocabulary down. They might even get by inventing their own.  Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the first scholars of modern Hebrew did it just as well if not better than the medieval authors of Jewish prayer.  And Hebrew is hardly the first language to have been enriched by a sudden influx of new words.  Did you notice all those italicized words and phrases in my post?  NONE of them existed before William Shakespeare made them up to facilitate his rhymes and inserted them into Macbeth, Henry V, King John, and so forth (Did you notice that Oxford comma there?  That’s for you, Brits.).  His inventions invoke amazement because they are so essential to modern English.

Billy Shakez
Billy Shakez

Some of the best writers in history have gotten by via inventing words.  Sometimes they’re simple modifications from an existing lexicon, but sometimes they had no reason before their rhyme.  Dr. Seuss is a legend because of the endless entertainment his stories, illustrations and morals provided to kids of a wide age range.  But what’s more amazing is that his most famous works are both absurdly short and littered with totally unreal words.  He’d have been the king of modern rap.  Though at this point in the article you shouldn’t be surprised – Jews obviously have a talent of tongue and know the pen is mightier than the sword.

Sup, dog?
Sup, dog?

Hebrew has had waves of innovation for its ancient and enriched vocabulary.  The maskilim thought it was worthy to emphasize the language’s seldom appearing terms because they increased the language’s prestige.  Throughout the beginnings of Modern Hebrew, even as late as 1917, the usage of new vocabulary (Hebraicized versions of European words or completely invented terms from classic Hebrew roots) increased five times.  Lexical creativity drove the renaissance of Hebrew and Jewish nationhood.

Is it really something to lament we get to encounter such a beautifully different flow of lyric and rhyme?  The real tragedy (which sort of stokes the fire of resentment against this tough brand of Hebrew) is that the words are put on a pedestal and isolated to this corner of the liturgy.  In this dynamic political and social age for Judaism, there’s at least a handful of new prayers that we could use for defense and prosperity; they seem like perfect candidates to collect these lonely words.

The lyrics of selichot – and kinot and other rarely utilized elements of Jewish liturgy – should start getting renewed attention.  It never hurts to write a new prayer.  Maybe our generation’s poets have what it takes to be the best rhymer of all time and brighten our days?  Then again, maybe you’re a night owl like me and do your best, most comprehensive work after midnight.  While you aspiring authors consider your options, entertain yourselves with this epic confrontation:

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.