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Koren’s New Selichot: Some Preliminary Thoughts

The selichot (“forgiveness”) liturgy marks the beginning of the fall penitential season. Ashkenazi Jews recite this liturgy from (in most years) the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur. The framing prayers are the same each day, but the poems that punctuate these prayers differ from day to day.  Different communities of Ashkenazi Jews preserve many different versions of the selichot liturgy. This year sees the appearance of a new edition of the “Lithuanian” rite, one of the two dominant rites among Ashkenazim (along with the “Polish”).  The edition is the work of Koren, a press that targets a chiefly modern Orthodox/religious Zionist audience. It features a new translation of the selichot poems, by Sara Daniel, and an introduction and commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter. The edition is monumental, running to over 1200 pages, and I have had time thus far to read through only a small portion: the introduction, and some of the selichot. Here are some initial impressions, based chiefly on a close study of the poems for the fourth day of the penitential period.

The translations of the selichot poems, by Sara Daniel, are in general excellent.  Daniel’s sure voice consistently hits on an appealing combination of faithfulness to the source language and readability in the target language. Below is a representative strophe, from a composition by a certain Isaac for the fourth day (215-19). The rhyme pattern is characteristic of the selichot of the great 11th c. Spanish rabbi, Isaac ibn Ghayyat, but the attribution to him is uncertain.

“My Maker, who gauged the heights with a span,

for You I will prepare a crown [of prayer] in the third watch of the night;

that You might give ear to the people who await Your salvation,

that You might frustrate the violent and the wayward

who arrogantly recognize no other power.

The place where incense was burnt, the Sanctuary, and the place of atonement

where priests once served – they have made into a passageway.

May curse cling to them as the liver to the lobe,

May fierce wrath come upon them with every kind of wound and ill.”

In the Hebrew original, the same double syllable (-eret) ends every single half-line.  To preserve this rhyme in English would have been impossible without utterly mangling the poem, and Daniel wisely does not try. But, as measured in phrasings, the translation maintains a relatively consistent line length, and it finds alliteration where it can, so that it preserves, if roughly, the feel of poetry. Daniel’s rendering happily avoids a wooden literalism. The English flows easily, and conveys both the basic sense of the Hebrew and its significant details.

I note, though the edition draws no attention to this fact, that the translator of the selichot poems is a woman. A translator is not an author, but she is also not not an author. The notion that a woman can find her voice, and indeed become the voice of the community, within the framework of a modern Orthodox prayer book, is a marker of the strides that modern Orthodoxy has taken, in its own halakhically constrained way, toward gender equity.

The introduction and commentary are the work of Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schachter. The introduction is a marvel of erudition, and illuminating especially in its survey of key themes in the selichot poems. The commentary seems to me somewhat less consistently successful. The problem begins with a certain lack of clarity about what the commentary is, and what it is for. Schachter says that his commentary is “thematic, not literary. My interest is in sharing perspectives that will enhance the reader’s experience while reciting the Seliḥot, providing confidence, hope, and optimism as the new year is about to dawn.”(lxxixi-lxxx) Putting aside the interesting question of whether confidence, hope and optimism represent the proper dispositional framework for the selichot, I note the vagueness of this characterization of the commentary’s focus and purpose. In what way is the reader’s experience to enhanced? How is the reading of the commentary supposed to interact with the recitation of the poems? (To put this point differently, Schachter speaks in the same sentence of “reading” and “reciting” without parsing the crucial differences between these verbs). One wonders, too, whether it is possible to split the “thematic” from the “literary” in the case of a poem, which does so much of its thematic work through its literary features.

The comments on the above poem, by “Isaac,” offer insight into the benefits and shortcomings of the commentary. A prefatory note identifies Ibn Ghayyat as the poem’s author, and offers basic biographical facts. It also references a recent doctoral dissertation on Ibn Ghayyat’s seliḥot poems. This is all helpful, though the uncertainty of the attribution to Ibn Ghayyat should be noted. But the continuation is thin; only three lines receive commentary. The second and longest comment attaches to the beginning of the final strophe:

“Mighty One, close to all who call to Him, who hears the needy,

Judge the cause of the poor and needy, vindicate the broken and the battered.

The high and lowly are in Your hands, O Lord of lords.”

These lines call on God to save Israel (“the poor and needy”) from its enemies. The poet is confident that God can do so, because to God belong the “high and lowly.”  Schachter notes that others interpret the referents of the “high and lowly” as angels and human beings, on the strength of various talmudic passages that employ these terms in this way. This interpretation seems clearly correct (or more precisely, the referents are the celestial and earthly realms). But Schachter proceeds to express a preference for a different possibility, on the basis of another talmudic passage: The “high and lowly” are the rich (esteemed) and the poor (disparaged). Expanding on the instability of status, and observing that the clothes don’t make the man, Schachter concludes that, “[i]n this Seliḥa we recognize that wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of human endeavors, we are all in God’s hands, and should order our lives to be worthy of an exalted portion in the World-to-Come.”  But neither the poem in general nor this line in particular has anything to say about the vicissitudes of wealth or reputation, or about the next world. The poem—as Schachter observes in his first comment—is about the persecution of Israel at the hands of the nations, and the hope that God will take pity on his people, and vengeance upon the nations. The comment on the “high and lowly” offers a fine homiletical lesson, not out of keeping with the spirit of the penitential season, but also not immediately relevant to the poem.

Schachter’s relative lack of interest in the literary dimensions of the selichot poems is also acutely felt here. The poem concludes with a striking extended metaphor that alludes to the slave laws of Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25.

“You decreed that slaves are sold for but six years –

How many times six has passed by, though I do not love my masters!

If I am sold to a heaven and will not be released by the passing of time,

Then by law my kin must redeem me – and You are my kin and my redeemer.”

According to Exodus 21, a Hebrew slave ought to go free after six years, unless he declares that he loves his master and wishes to remain in servitude. Why, then, bemoans the speaker, does Israel remain enslaved for many times six years, to masters whom it does not love? Nevertheless, according to Leviticus 25, a Jew who is sold to a foreign master should be redeemed by his family, and the poet reassures that Israel, likewise, will be redeemed by God, who is Israel’s “kin and redeemer.” In the absence of a commentary apparatus that would identify and explain the biblical texts to which these lines allude, the poet’s virtuoso exegesis will pass unappreciated by the casual reader.

I turn more briefly to another poem for the fourth day of the penitential period, by the great poet of early Ashkenaz, Shimon bar Yitzhak (201-05). Here is Daniel’s translation of the second strophe, which again takes care to preserve a more or less regular rhythm:

“For as of old, You have always been my holy God,

Why should we die before You in oppression and hardship?

Remember and arouse Your kindness to renew us as before –

restore my ruins and re-establish my holy Sanctuary.”

Schachter’s commentary begins with helpful biographic information, rooted in impressive familiarity with traditional and scholarly sources. Again, the longest comment, which attaches to the third line of the above strophe, is somewhat idiosyncratic. Schachter finds in this line, not improbably, an allusion to Lamentation 5:21. This observation leads to a reflection on a rabbinic teaching linking this verse to the Eden story, and thence to a lesson about the importance of putting away romantic delusions of recreating Eden, and instead setting our sights on the “ordinary space of everyday existence.” This teaching, though valuable in itself, is only tangentially connected to the poem, which, like Isaac’s, concerns the suffering of Israel in its exile, and the hope for Israel’s restoration, and for the punishment of its enemies.

These two cases suggest that Schachter views the commentary, in part, as a vehicle for introducing spiritually nourishing homilies, even if these are not so much explanations of the poems themselves, but rather only loosely occasioned by them.  Close study of the commentary for the other days can test this tentative generalization.

The selichot liturgy preserves a rich store of Jewish literary creativity and Jewish theology. The new Koren edition makes this material easier to access and appreciate, especially through Schachter’s learned introduction and Daniel’s lucid and engaging translations. I look forward to poring over the whole of it, and reflecting further on the complex genre of liturgical commentary.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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