Elkan’s view from Netanya

ELKAN’S VIEW FROM NETANYA 2nd September 2015

A week on Sunday will mark the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days of prayer and introspection when Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, gather in synagogues of multiple denominations all over the world. Much of the call of these services is based upon music, emotion. history, the attraction of the familiar, the memories that these festivals have for us.

Much of it however is based around The Machzor, the festival prayerbook. Good commentaries can explain the services, and interest the mind during those periods when inevitably attention wanders. One of the problems involved in using a Siddur or Machzor is that over a period the content and order of the prayers change and what may be suitable for one generation is not necessarily valid for another.

The oldest Yom Kippur Machzor that I have is dated 1808. It contains a prayer for “Our Most Gracious Sovereign Lord King George the Third, Our Most Amiable Queen Charlotte” and includes both the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and his wife with whom he scarcely lived. The service is considerably longer than our liturgy, with a great number of Piyutim, early mediaeval poems that have long since fallen into disuse.

The translation was the work of a remarkable scholar called David Levi, a hat maker by profession who translated both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayerbooks (I also have a copy of his 1796 Shavuot Machzor), produced a Chumash, a Haggadah, Hebrew-English dictionaries, and engaged in learned arguments with Christian scholars. After his death in 1801 there was a dispute between his son who owned the copyright and a different printer. Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell ruled in favour of Isaac Levi and out of gratitude the printer published an engraving of the Chief Rabbi as the frontispiece.

When this Machzor was published the Battle of Trafalgar was not yet two years old, and Waterloo lay seven years in the future. There were probably less than 30,000 Jews in the whole country, the largest provincial community was Portsmouth and in the nascent Empire probably the most significant settlement was Jamaica.

And yet, with some difficulty, I could still use that Machzor today!