Congregation Agudat Achim

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Adult Education Blog with Rabbi Spitzer


Is it a mitzvah/sacred obligation to light Hanukkah candles in the synagogue, or is this a minhag/custom, similar to putting up a mezuza on the synagogue door?


Why do we no longer pronounce the name of God?


What makes Psalm 30 a “Psalm of David”?  Is he the nominal author?  If it is David what temple is being dedicated?  The text of the psalm doesn't  seem to mention anything about a temple?


The two translations of Psalm 30 shared at the 31 October Learner’s service were significantly different.  Is the actual translation ambiguous?  I have sometimes wondered if the translations in our Siddur carry a strong perspective of the editors and get away from actual meaning. 


Given the topic of the session,  I was expecting the sanctuary service to start with Pesukei de-Zimra (or with psalm 30).  Are those preparatory parts done before going to synagogue, in principle?

Similar question regarding Nishmat, Psalm 30 is on p 52-53 where it says “Weekday Services” at the bottom rather than Shabbat services.  At p 63 it switches to “Shabbat Services”  in the middle of a Psalm.  I don’t get the flow at all.


What makes Shacharit a “service” but Pd-Z not a “service”?

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

The motivating or underlying principle governing the mitzvah/sacred obligation of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle. For that reason, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) discusses the placement of the Hanukkiah, and says that lighting in a place where no one can see it, such as more than 20 cubits in the air, or in a private alley, is invalid.

This is codified in Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, which says (SA OH 671:7): “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkiah close to the entrance [of the house] on the left, so as to have the mezuzah on the right and the Hanukkah light on the left. But if there is no mezuzah in the entrance, place [the Hanukkiah] on the right. If one places it in the doorway itself, one should place it on the leftmost half of the entrance. In the synagogue, one should place [the Hanukkiah] at the southern wall. We kindle and recite the benedictions in the synagogue for the sake of publicizing the miracle. Gloss: A person does not fulfill their obligation with the lights of the synagogue, and needs to kindle again in their own house.”

So, it is a mitzvah on the community to publicize the miracle by lighting the Hanukkah lights at the Synagogue (outside is better than inside), and we even say the blessings, which call the act a mitzvah, as we do so. Note that it is also customary to light the Hanukkiah again in the synagogue in the morning, but like counting the Omer at synagogue in the morning, one does so without the blessings—this is clearly a custom. However, Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazi gloss on the Shulchan Aruch makes sure to remind us that this does not exempt anyone from their individual mitzvah to kindle Hanukkah lights at their own home. In this respect, it is similar to doing the Shabbat Kiddush at the synagogue on Friday night.

As you point out in the question, the mitzvah of mezuza falls only on a domicile in which one sleeps/dwells, and since we do not sleep (regularly) in the synagogue, it does not strictly require a mezuza. However,  it is customary to nonetheless hang one, in recognition the synagogue’s status as sacred space. Lighting the Hanukkiah in the synagogue is more obligatory than hanging a mezuza there—but it does not exempt any individual in the community from lighting at their own home. I am fascinated by the connection the Talmud makes between the holiness of the Hanukkiah and the holiness of the Mezuza, so that a person entering a house on Hanukkah will be surrounded by mitzvot on all sides.

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

  • Traditional answer: To pronounce God’s name is to invoke God’s essential nature—this is potentially dangerous, both to your person (God might enact divine punishment, lightning bolt zap, etc) and to your soul (an incorrect usage of that name is the technical definition of blaspheme, of using the name in vain).
  • Historical answer: Jews have never really used the ineffable name of God, preferring to refer to the name using words like Hashem/lit: “the name” or Adonai/Lord. In the Temple, only the High Priest used the Name, only once a year, on Yom Kippur. And after the destruction of the Temple, the knowledge of how to correctly pronounce that word was lost. Since we don’t want to pronounce it incorrectly, we don’t pronounce it at all. If you read vowels on that word, they are either the vowels of the word Adonai (‘-oh-ah) or of the word Elohim (‘-oh-ee); the first would render the word Y’HoVaH (Jehova), the second Y’HoViH; neither of these are understood to be the correct pronunciation. Some have conjectured YaHVeH (Yahweh)… I have heard one suggestion of YaHuVaHu (yahoo-wahoo). There are a lot of possible ways to pronounce those letters. Since we don’t want to pronounce it incorrectly, we don’t pronounce it at all.
  • Linguistic answer: The tetragrammaton, the 4 letter name of God, is actually a form of the verb “to be.” But it is a non-existent form of that verb. YHVH doesn’t actually mean anything—but it is an amalgam of the words “HYH/was” “HVH/is” and “YHYH/will be”—so you might translate it as Eternal. Given that it is not actually a word, it is unpronounceable.
  • Spiritual answer: God is unknowable, ultimately. And we symbolize that by practicing that even God’s name is unknowable.

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

Many Psalms have a superscription/title. These can be a single word or lengthy comments. Many seem to be musical directions addressed to the "leader" or "choirmaster", including such statements as "with stringed instruments." Others seem to be about when to use the psalm, for what occasion, such as "On the dedication of the temple", "For the memorial offering." Many are dedicated to individuals, about half of all the psalms are dedicated to David or “of David.” Other names include Asaph, Moses, Solomon, Sons of Korach etc. Does this mean that those individuals wrote them? Perhaps, perhaps not. There is definitely a rabbinic tradition that many/most of the psalms were actually written by King David, just as his son Solomon wrote (according to tradition) the Biblical books Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs. Psalm 30 actually has two superscriptions, and some scholars suggest that one of them was added later, or that the psalm was edited at a later date. Perhaps this Psalm was meant to be recited in honor of the repairs or renovations of the Temple. Or it could be about a synagogue. The mystics who added it into the siddur thought that the bayit/house/temple that is mentioned in the superscription was the body (that is, the house of the soul) as there is a tradition that the soul leaves at night and returns at waking. The midrash understood the psalm’s superscription to be an expression of David’s yearning to build the Temple.

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

Every translation is an interpretation. That’s true of any translation, but for Biblical Hebrew, it is especially true. One reason why has to do with grammar (and here, I’m going to get a little wonky/technical—feel free to ask another questions if I don’t explain it well). Biblical Hebrew doesn’t have tenses the way 21st Century American English does. We have past, present, future. But Biblical Hebrew has perfect and imperfect—perfect refers to completed action, and imperfect refers to incomplete action. But there are truly a lot of ways to understand incomplete actions: they could be future actions “he will bless” or they could be possible future actions “he may bless” or they could represent a hope for future actions “may he bless,” or they could be ongoing actions that began in the past “he blessed/blesses” and more possibilities. In addition, psalms are poetry, so there are other conventions at work in poetic language different from prose—for example, you might translated something differently because of poetic parallelism, of a similar phrase nearby in the psalm. Another aspect is that some translations try to be gender neutral with regard to God, and some refer to God as He. Finally, words can mean different things in different contexts.

Take an example from Psalm 30: Verse 6

Siddur Sim Shalom: His anger lasts a moment; His love is for a lifetime. Tears may linger for a night, but joy comes with the dawn.

Siddur Lev Shalem: Surely God’s anger lasts but for a moment, and when God is pleased, life is granted. One may lie down crying at night, but wake in the morning with joyful song.

The Koren Shalem Siddur: For His anger is for a moment, but His favor for a lifetime. At night there may be weeping, but in the morning there is joy.

Jewish Publication Society TaNaKh: For He is angry but a moment, and when He is pleased there is life. One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but at dawn there are shouts of joy.

The verse in Hebrew: כִּ֤י רֶ֨גַע ׀ בְּאַפּוֹ֮ חַיִּ֪ים בִּרְצ֫וֹנ֥וֹ בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃ 

Ki rega b’apo; hayyim birtzono. Ba’erev yalin bechi; v’la’boker rina.

That first word, ki, can be translated at least 13 different ways, according to the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon of Biblical Hebrew (henceforth BDB). כִּי (conj) heb that, for, because, when, as though, as, because that, but, then, certainly, except, surely, since thayea, indeed

  • when (of time) 
  • when, if, though (with a concessive force)
  • because, since (causal connection)
  • but (after negative)
  • that if, for if, indeed if, for though, but if
  • but rather, but
  • except that
  • only, nevertheless
  • surely
  • that is
  • but if
  • for though
  • forasmuch as, for therefore

The first translation I gave you, from Siddur Sim Shalom, ignores the word ki altogether in the translation. The next one translates it as “Surely,” and the other two as “for.” The tone of the verse changes dramatically with that choice of how to translate what is basically a conjunction.

The word yalin, which sometimes is rendered “may linger” or “may lie down” can mean several different things, and the tense of it is imperfect, which is why it is translated here as “may…” but it could also be “will…”

לוּן (v) heb

  • to lodge, stop over, pass the night, abide
  • (Qal)
  • to lodge, pass the night
  • to abide, remain (fig.)
  • (Hiphil) to cause to rest or lodge
  • (Hithpalpel) to dwell, abide
  • to grumble, complain, murmur
  • (Niphal) to grumble
  • (Hiphil) to complain, cause to grumble

My best attempt at a word for word translation of this verse is:

Ki – for

Rega – a moment (momentary, lasts a moment, but a moment)

b’apo – in God’s anger (is God’s anger)

hayyim – life (life is granted, lifetime)

birtzono – in God’s will (at God’s will, at God’s pleasure, at God’s favor, in God’s favor)

Ba’erev – In the evening (At evening time, at night)

Yalin – will abide/dwell (may abide, may spend the night, may stop over, may lodge, will stop over, will lodge)

Bechi – weeping

v’la’boker – but in the morning (and in the morning)

rina – joyous song (joy, shouts of joy, joyful noise)

[will abide/dwell, will come] is implied poetically

And that’s just one verse. Every translation must be an interpretation. I do like some better than others, and I can’t say I love the Siddur Sim Shalom translations. I’d much prefer that we used the Lev Shalem siddur, which I think was translated beautifully and masterfully.

The Psalms were written in Hebrew, and I do think that there is a value in reading them in the original, because in the original, you have all the intertextual associations of those specific Hebrew words. Assuming you are reading and understanding in Hebrew. And have familiarity with other texts. I wouldn’t call either of the translations that I read a “loose” translation—but it is absolutely the case that every translation is an interpretation.

Also, you could read Psalms with a word by word translation like I just gave you: For / a moment / in His anger / life / in God’s will; / In the evening / will dwell / weeping / but in the morning / joyous song.

But if you did so, it would not be particularly intelligible, and more importantly, it would not be prayerful. The authors of the siddur are trying to give those reading the English an experience which is prayerful and uplifting, and in keeping with the spirit of the psalm.

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

Alas! One of the things that we’ve done to our Shabbat morning service in Covid times in order to make it take less time is we’ve asked that people do Psuekei D’Zimra at home, and we pick up with Shacharit. So, that is why we did not start with Psalm 30, or with Baruch She’amar. If you come to our weekday services (8:30a on Sunday, 7:15a the rest of the week), we do Psukei Dzimra at that service, including Psalm 30. Psukei Dzimra is actually a part of the Shacharit service—it is the warm-up section.

Structure of Psukei Dzimra

  • Morning Blessings (same on weekdays and Shabbat, except for the differing Psalms of the Day) -- Sim Shalom (SS) pages 2-43
  • Psalm 30 (same on weekdays and Shabbat) and Mourner’s Kaddish -- SS pgs 50-53
  • Baruch She’amar and psalms/verses (same on weekdays and Shabbat) – SS pgs 54-59
  • Psalm 100 (only done on Weekdays) – SS pgs 60/61 at the top
  • Psalms 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, 93 (only done on Shabbat and Festivals) – SS pages 60/61 bottom – 79
  • Assorted Verses, Ashrei (psalm 145), Psalms 146-150 (same on weekdays and Shabbat) – SS pages 80-89
  • Song of the Sea and introduction (same on weekdays and Shabbat) – SS pages 90-95 (at the top)
  • Weekday service continues on page 94/95 with Yishtabach, Hatzi Kaddish, and Barchu; Shabbat service continues on page 334/335 with Nishmat, Shochein Ad, Yishtabach, Hatzi Kaddish, and Barchu

Because the Full Sim Shalom has both weekday and Shabbat services, and in an effort not to repeat prayers in the book too much, they have ask you to simply skip on weekdays from the top of page 60/61 (psalm 100) to page 80/81, whereas on Shabbat you skip the top of page 60/61, but read all the parts from the bottom of 60/61 through 78/79, and continue with 80/81 as on weekdays. That’s why at the bottom of page 63 is says shabbat.

Rabbi Spitzer’s Response:

In general, what makes a “service” a “Service” is the presence of the Amidah. So, Shacharit is a service and Musaf is a service. Technically, the “Torah Service” is not a “service,” and as I mentioned above, Psukei-DZimira is actually a part of the Shacharit Service.