Texts –Part I


For as far back as I can remember, I have davened/prayed on the high holidays from the Kol Bo set of machzors–a fine post-war product of the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York City. It was published for a Yiddish-speaking clientele who were open to some additional fillips and prepared to make some extra effort to make the davening on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot more meaningful (as we would say nowadays).

So, in addition to the straight taitsch or translation of prayers from Hebrew into Yiddish, it included Yiddish commentaries and histories for the most important prayers, the relevant mishnah tractate for each yomtov along with its own taitsch and the classical commentary of Bartenura, also in taitsch, as well as bonuses like Sa’adia Ga”on’s list of ten reasons why we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. But wait! There’s more!

The Kol Bo (the name literally means “Everything in it” in Hebrew) also includes many piyutim/liturgical poems that are omitted from the usual run of services. For those of you who’ve sat in a synagogue for four, six, even eight hours on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur, it may seem absurd to suggest that anything is omitted but believe you me, there are omissions.

The piyutim get short shrift because they’re /hard/. Dozens of them are ignored. The Hebrew vocabulary is difficult and the paytanim/writers of the piyutim expected their readers to know and catch allusions to all of midrashic literature. Thus, for example, Avraham is usually referred to, not by name, but as ‘eitan’/the strong one or as ‘y”did’/the beloved friend. The foremothers may be referred to as the four mountains. Moshe is ‘anav’/the humble one. If you don’t get the code, you won’t get the meaning. Not only does the Kol Bo provide taitsch for all the piyutim, it provides explanations of all the allusions. So it tells you that the y”did is Avraham, and makes that piece of the piyut make sense.

By way of an exercise to force myself to understand better, a few years ago I tried to translate into English one of the few remaining piyutim that is regularly said–‘Amitz Ko”ach. (It appears in the musaf service on Yom Kippur for Ashkenazim.) The first thirteen quatrains are a fly-by history of the universe from its creation to the emergence of the Levi’im/Levites as the tribe designated to operate the temple services. The remainder of the poem consists of the description of the temple service on Yom Kippur.

Well! I was pretty well exhausted by the time I got through those first 52 lines. It seemed as though every word had to be understood within the context of a particular biblical verse or midrashic story. Nothing, but nothing, was in plain language. And even the taitsch, which explained, didn’t give its sources. So there I was, hunched over my bible concordance, my talmudic dictionary, and several collections of midrashim, and muttering to myself as I went looking for exactly where the idea that Cain murdered Abel by breaking his neck came from.

The really startling thing is that this kind of machzor was not designed to be a scholarly text (hence, no footnotes) but rather a working book for a workaday Jew who knew Yiddish better than Hebrew.

And even more startling–its expected reader was often also a woman. The Kol Bo includes plenty of tekhines/ tekhinot/ beseeching preparatory prayers in Yiddish. Tekhines were written for and sometimes by women and address God on intimate terms about the realities of women’s lives. Where they include a reference to the person praying,it is to ‘your handmaiden,

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