A New Machzor Prayer Book for Rosh HaShannah

    August 2011          
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Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor

Reviewed by Jay Levinson

The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor
by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Jerusalem: Koren Publishers (2011)

When I first received a pre-publication edition of this Rosh Hashanah Machzor for review, I was rather dubious about the need for yet another prayer book. My qualms, however, were quickly allayed. The translation and commentary make a significant contribution to the liturgical literature.

One can always quibble with small details in translation, and this Machzor is no different. There are fine nuances that might have been expressed using other words. There are words and phrases that might have been translated otherwise. In general terms, however, the English translation is quite readable and tones down the stilted and archaic English typical of many religious texts.

The font selection is excellent, providing the reader using Sephardic pronunciation with the important tool of distinguishing kamatz katan (קמץ קטן) from kamatz gadol (קמץ גדול) Even the reader using Ashkenazic pronunciation should appreciate the differentiation between sheva na (שוא נע) and sheva nach (שוא נח), as well as patach (פתח) pronounced before the letter printed above the vowel..

Some readers might prefer Hebrew on the right-hand page and English to the left. That is a matter of personal choice, and certainly not a difficult feature to overcome. Perhaps best in the layout is the inclusion of a Hebrew word or phrase to help “locate” the reader in the English translation.

Frankly, this Machzor is not for everyone, but then again very few books are appropriate for all. It is written with the Modern Orthodox user in mind, though even the English-speaking chareidi Jew will benefit from the English translations and explanations of difficult Hebrew, particularly in some of the piyyutim (poetry).

The inclusion of the prozbul (פרוזבול) (transfer of debts to a religious court) is a welcome innovative addition to the Machzor, but in keeping with simplicity, only the custom to use prozbul at the end of the Shemitta year is mentioned; the alternative opinion of use just before Shemitta is not cited.

The commentary cites a wide variety of sources. For example, Rabbi Sacks highlights the philosophic differences between Greek thought enunciated by Philo and Jewish thinking. As Sacks explains regarding the Amida, Judaism starts with the universal, then moves to the person-specific. The universe is the context into which man fits. The Greeks take the opposite tact, first emphasizing the individual, then building upon him to deduce the universal.

Sacks certainly does use traditional sources, both classic and modern, in his commentary. For example, regarding Psalm 130 said just before Borchu (ברכו) in the Morning Service, he retells a story in the name of Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, who relates the words of a non-believing Jewish doctor who was in a Latvian concentration camp from which there were few survivors after the Holocaust. He saw yeshiva students reciting the psalm each night and wished that he had their faith.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is quoted regarding the daily morning blessings. When we bless G-d, we are essentially thanking him for his blessings. Every word increases our acknowledgement of the Al-mighty. “The world is full of the light of G-d, but to see it we must learn to open our eyes.”

Not all is philosophical. Sacks brings the question if a hearing-impaired person using a listening aid is considered deaf, hence not obligated to listen to the sound of the shofar. He brings the contrasting opinions of Rabbi E. Waldenberg (commonly associated the Shaarei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem), who rules that this is considered able to hear, and the position of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who has a different opinion.

Not to ignore classic sources, ten reasons given by Saadia Gaon (882/892- 942) for the sounding of the shofar are listed in the commentary. Needless to say, Talmud references and quotations are ubiquitous.

Sacks’ contributions to the volume are significant. Not only does the selection of others’ comments constitute a substantive editorial role. Sacks also adds material in his own name. His analysis is keen and unique. In his introduction, for example, he describes the transition from national responsibility during the First Temple period to individual introspection and repentance (a key part of Rosh Hashanah today) in the Babylonian Diaspora.

Another example of Sacks’ approach is his interpretation of the Ashrei (אשרי) prayer before Mincha. He writes that it is an abbreviation of the morning’s psukei d’zimra (פסוקי דזמרא). It is also a short form of the Book of Psalms, starting with the first word in Psalms and ending with the last.

There is no doubt that this Machzor makes a significant contribution to religious literature. Hopefully it will also enrich the Rosh Hashanah experience of those who use it.


from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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