Monday, October 08, 2007

Maccabean Psalms in the Birnbaum Siddur? An unorthodox comment in an Orthodox prayer book, via Nachman Krochmal's influence

The Birnbaum Siddur (Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem, 1949, edited by Philip Birnbaum used to be ubiquitous in English speaking Orthodox synagogues. Due to a variety of historical circumstances, use of this particular prayer book in synagogues has waned.

Be that as it may, many still use, appreciate or at least fondly remember this siddur.

In addition to its clean printing and strong binding (mine is from 1949 and in great shape), the siddur featured a fine translation, along with interesting notes that offered commentary as well as historical information about the liturgy. Birnbaum was, in my estimation, a good scholar, possessing a poetic mind, and a gifted translator.

One should make no mistake, the siddur is Orthodox, despite occasional citations from Wissenschaft scholars like Zunz (these are, in any event, essential to presenting any sort of historical view of the liturgy). There is no deviation or omission from the "standard" text. Passages that could call for an apologetic or critical comment receive neither. It quotes well known homiletical explanations (like the reason for the number of knots and strings in tzitzis).

However it is most interesting that he occasionally slips in something rather unorthodox (or subtly makes an emendation via the translation--post forthcoming). For example:

(click to enlarge) Readers will recognize this as part of the daily Pesukei De-zimra, the morning recitation of a selection of Psalms. Psalm 149 is part of that liturgy.

Commentary detail:

Readers will know that according to tradition the entire book of Psalms was written by King David. More perceptive readers will know that many Psalms are ascribed to other figures, such as Moses, Assaf, the sons of Korach. Indeed, the Talmud states that the collection of Psalms include compositions by ten people, David included, who also collected them and compiled it as one book.

Orthodox Judaism holds to this position, despite the presence of a psalm like 'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion, ' (Psalm 137), which plainly is set in the post-exilic period, centuries after David. Traditionally this psalm was (and is) seen as written by David, however with prophetic inspiration and insight.

With the rise of biblical criticism in the 17th through 19th centuries, the ascription of this psalm (among others) to David became untenable. Among Jews an early figure who taught that psalms were written in the 2nd Temple period was Nachman Krochmal (Ranak).

In his posthumously published Moreh Nevukhei Ha-zeman (Guide for Today's Perplexed, being one possible translation) he offers the view that many of the modern discoveries in Bible scholarship were known to the rabbis of the Talmud (proofs, as he saw it, supplied) but they explicitly taught otherwise, for the needs of their own time were better served by the older teachings. Thus, the people in the time of the Talmud were edified to think of a psalm like 'By the rivers of Babylon' as written by David, as it enhanced people's perception of divine involvement with the world, and that is why the Sages, who knew better, taught such things. These days (Ranak died in 1840) people realize that a psalm like this one was not written by David, thus it is no longer edifying or useful to maintain this view. Therefore the actual authorship of these and other psalms--which were known by the Sages--ought now be revealed and expounded, as the new knowledge and keener historical understanding is what edifies people these days.

Krochmal, who wrote the book for 'kol ohev sekhel ve-shomer torah,' wrote the following in his introduction:

In the book there is a section which deals with the authorship of many of the psalms. Paralleling the Talmudic designation (BT Shabbos 118b) of Psalms 113-118 an 'Egyptian Hallel,' Krochmal thought that the last five psalms (146-150) also formed a unit, a 'Greek Hallel,' being that they were written in the Hasmonean period to commemorate the Maccebean victories over the Seleucids of Syria, and were in fact modeled after the Egyptian Hallel.

Let us then revisit the Birnbaum Siddur, commentary on Psalm 149:

'The Maccabean warriors were described as "fighting with their hands and praying with their hearts.' Where do Maccabeans come into the picture? This, I submit, is a very subtle allusion to the idea that this psalm (and presumably others) were written in that period. Birnbaum doesn't mention it, but the Psalm also mentions חֲסִידִים, otherwise known as Assideans, players in the Maccabean revolt.

Here is Krochmal's treatment of Psalm 149:

One last word:

"Orthodox Judaism believes in the divine authenticity of whole Bible and knows neither of the various authors of the Pentateuch, nor of Pseudo-Isaiah, nor of Maccabean songs under the name of David, or of Solomon's Ecclesiastes from the days of the second Temple, and so forth."

I quote Samson Raphael Hirsch here not because he personally was entitled to define what is and is not Orthodox, but because this post provides the context in which he wrote the above. Indeed, if we are simply describing the Orthodox position, rather than fighting for what it can encompass or may one day be, he was no doubt right.

Ranak's view was unorthodox and so was Paltiel Birnbaum's comment on pages 63-64 of his Siddur Ha-shalem.

Suggestion for further reading:

[I] Moreh Nevukhei Ha-zeman

[II] Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age by Jay Michael Harris

[III] All roads lead back to On the Main Line

1 comment:

  1. I prefer the De Sola Pool siddur to Birnbaum, Artscroll or Harlow.



Related Posts with Thumbnails