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Richard Kronenfeld
Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Shakespeare and Shabbos, or Davening as Drama Part I

It seems incongruous that Shakespeare, who created the character Shylock, could have any relationship with Shabbos or davening. Let us keep in mind that we are examining only structure, not content. In this first part of a two-part essay, we explore the possibility that the structure of the Shabbos prayers corresponds to the five-part/five-act structure of Shakespearian drama.

We begin by noting that the central prayer of the Musaf Amidah, from Tikanta Shabbos to az misinai nitstavu alecha, constitutes a rare reverse acrostic, the first line beginning with the letter tof and the last beginning with aleph. This leads to a question of the significance of such an unusual construction.

My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, Volume 10, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman says that the reverse acrostic”…[a]ccording to Siddur Rashi, Machzor Vitry, and Sefer HaPardes, hints at messianic redemption that will come through the merit of observing Shabbat…”,while Images of Prayer: An Art Siddur for Shabbat Morning by Arlene Frimark] elaborates further:

“It [Kedushat Hayom] is written in the form of a reverse acrostic, beginning with tav, the last letter of the aleph-bet. Doing so mystically alludes to the concept of a complete cycle: Creation, Revelation, Redemption, and the final return to the Source of all creation. The prayer first addresses Shabbat, the day where one may experience a taste of the World to  Come in this life, and then a future time in which we will lovingly bring offerings to the Temple as our ancestors did. …. The prayer ends by recalling Shabbat as a day of delight, G-d’s gift of a day of complete peace, rest, and renewal; as it says, ‘G-d set apart the seventh day as the most desirable remembrance of creation.’”

In contrast to the reverse acrostic in the Musaf Amidah, the Shacharis service contains a forward acrostic shortly before the Shema. [Art Scroll Siddur, p. 410]  This suggests a change in direction as expected for a cycle. Frimark also identifies a five-part structure to the Shabbos morning service:

Bircas HaShachar

Psukei d’Zimrah

Shacharis

Torah service

Musaf

The New Hudson Shakespeare edition of Macbeth identifies five stages of a drama:

1 – exposition or introduction

2-   complication or rising action

3-   climax or turning point

4 – resolution or falling action

5 – catastrophe or conclusion.

(To be clear, we should note that these five stages need not correspond exactly to the five acts of Shakespeare’s dramas.)

Can this structure be related to the structure of the Shabbos prayers?

To begin, the commentators tell us that each section of the morning service is designed to bring us to a higher spiritual level. [See, for example, http://iyyun.com/teachings/shacharis-the-four-ladder-movement-upward-and-inward] Thus we start with Bircas HaShachar, which focuses on what G-d does for us as individuals, so that some of the blessings are formulated in first person, and on the blessings required before we can study Torah and thereby increase our understanding of what He wants us to do to serve Him better. Next comes Psukei d’Zimrah (verses of praise), in accordance with the dictum that one should offer praise before making requests.

As the spiritual level of the congregation increases, now it becomes appropriate to recite the Shema, the central tenet of our faith, with blessings before and after, followed by the Amidah (standing prayer). On weekdays, this is the individual prayer in which, as the Art Scroll Siddur says, “…we formulate our needs and ask God to fulfill them.” On Shabbos, however, when pleading is forbidden, we limit ourselves to a central prayer emphasizing the holiness of the day.

Following the Amidah is the Torah reading, which we would expect to be the highlight of the service, and then the Haftorah, a reading from the Prophets that complements the weekly Torah portion (parshah). The davening concludes with the Musaf service, which essentially takes the place of the sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Let’s see how the structure of the Shabbos morning service lines up against the dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s plays:

Stage Shabbos morning service Shakespearian drama
1 Bircas HaShachar exposition or introduction
2 Psukei d’Zimrah rising action
3 Shacharis climax or turning point
4 Torah service falling action
5 Musaf conclusion

 

Obviously, we have a mismatch, as the Torah service should be the climax. To achieve that, we would need to combine Psukei d’Zimrah and Shacharis in stage 2, which more appropriately describes their function, so now the Torah Service becomes stage 3 and Musaf becomes stage 4.  Certainly the forward acrostic in Shacharis suggests rising action, and the reverse acrostic in Musaf suggests falling action. There is one problem, however: what do we identify as stage 5?

Let’s try instead to zoom out and look at the entire sequence of services for Shabbos. The complete list is:

Friday night                   Kabbalas Shabbos

Maariv

Saturday morning          Bircas HaShachar

                                      Psukei d’Zimrah  

                                     Shacharis

Torah service

                                    Musaf                              

Saturday afternoon     Mincha

and evening               (Shalosh Seudos)

                                  Maariv for the conclusion of Shabbos

Here we can determine a better correspondence between the prayer services and the dramatic outline. First, Kabbalas Shabbos introduces both the joy and the laws of the day. Maariv    then introduces the two central prayers, the Shema and the Amidah, in the context of a special set of blessings before and after the former, and the replacement of the twelve petitions in the weekday Amidah with a single central blessing related to the holiness of the day. So the Friday evening service is our stage 1.

Now the Saturday morning service through the Shacharis Amidah again represents the rising action as our spiritual state rises. The Torah service is still stage 3, the turning point. Stage 4 will now include both Musaf and Mincha as part of the falling action. In particular, Mincha represents a step down in at least two respects: first, the Torah reading follows the Monday-Thursday pattern, with three aliyahs comprising generally the first Aliyah of the following Shabbos’s Torah reading; and second, while the Amidah is still special for Shabbos, the Kedushah is the regular weekday version.

(Parenthetically, while Shalosh Seudos isn’t part of the formal service, in some sense it serves the same role on the falling side as the Shabbos dinner Friday night does on the rising side. This is reinforced by the fact that while the Shabbos dinner is an elaborate Seudah, the third meal is simple, even Spartan.)

Finally, Maariv for the conclusion of Shabbos is our stage 5, as we return to the regular weekday Maariv with a modest addition of Psalm 91 and the Kedushah d’Sidra immediately preceding Alenu. (The Havdalah ceremony that follows to officially conclude Shabbos is analogous to the candle lighting ceremony that brings in Shabbos, with the reversal that the man of the house performs Havdalah in keeping with the lower level of male spirituality compared with the female.)

So now our table looks as follows:

Stage Shabbos service Shakespearian drama
1 (Friday) Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv exposition or introduction
2 (Saturday) Bircas HaShachar, Psukei d’Zimrah, and Shacharis rising action
3 Torah service climax or turning point
4 Musaf and Mincha falling action
5 Maariv for the conclusion of Shabbos conclusion

 

In the second part of this post, we revisit this correspondence based on the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. This year I was called out of semi-retirement to teach math at a charter high school. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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