Rabbi Angel composed this beautiful article based on a shiur he delivered as a scholar-in-residence at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.
Over the centuries that they lived apart from each other, Sephardim and Ashkenazim developed different prayer liturgies. It is valuable to learn about the finer differences that emerged between Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgies, to see how rabbinic interpretations and cultures shaped the religious experiences underlying prayer. This essay will briefly survey a few aspects of Sephardic and Ashkenazic liturgy.
Connection to Tanakh
Although many rabbinic prayers draw inspiration from Tanakh, Sephardim generally prefer an even closer connection to Tanakh than do Ashkenazim.
For example, the Pesukei de-Zimra offer psalms of praise to get us into the proper religious mindset for the mandatory prayers—Shema, Amidah, and their blessings. On Shabbat morning, Sephardim read the psalms in order of their appearance in Sefer Tehillim. Ashkenazim read the psalms in a different order, presumably arranged for thematic reasons. Rabbi Shalom Carmy recently wrote an article offering a conceptual explanation for the Ashkenazic arrangement. To understand the reasoning behind the order of the Sephardic liturgy, however, just open a Tanakh.
In a similar vein, in Shabbat Minhah, Sephardim and Ashkenazim usually recite three verses beginning with tzidkatekha after the Amidah. Once again, Sephardim recite these verses in their order of appearance in Sefer Tehillim (36:7; 71:19; 119:142). Ashkenazim reverse the order, requiring explanation. Perishah (on Tur Orah Hayyim 292:6) suggests that God’s Name does not appear in 119:142; Elokim appears twice in 71:19; and God’s Name appears in 36:7. Therefore, Ashkenazim read the verses in an ascending order of holiness. Others suggest that Ashkenazim arranged the verses so that God’s Name is the last word before the Kaddish. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/2/ - 14cf805330f29ff7_14cf7a68709d804d__edn2
The Talmud (Berakhot 11b) debates the proper opening to the second blessing prior to the Shema in Shaharit, whether it should be ahavah rabbah or ahavat olam (Sephardim and Ashkenazim both say ahavat olam in the blessing of Arvit). Ashkenazim chose ahavah rabbah, and Sephardim chose ahavat olam. Mishnah Berurah (60:2) explains that Ashkenazim selected ahavah rabbah to parallel Ekhah (3:23): “They are renewed every morning—ample is Your grace! (rabbah emunatekha).” In contrast, Rif, Rambam, and Abudaraham explain that Sephardim preferred ahavat olam since that formula is biblical: “Eternal love (ahavat olam) I conceived for you then; therefore I continue My grace to you” (Yirmiyahu 31:2).[iii]
Piyyut is an area where Sephardim and Ashkenazim diverge more significantly, since these poems were composed in the respective lands of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, rather than in earlier periods. Sephardim generally incorporated the piyyutim of Sephardic poets, and Ashkenazim generally incorporated the piyyutim of Ashkenazic poets. True to his Tanakh-centered approach, Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 5:1 levels criticisms against several Ashkenazic paytanim, including the venerated Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, whose piyyutim are used widely in Ashkenazic liturgy: (1) Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir speaks in riddles and allusions, whereas prayers should be comprehensible to all. (2) He uses many talmudic Aramaisms, whereas we should pray in Hebrew, our Sacred Tongue. (3) There are many grammatical errors in Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir’s poetry. (4) He uses derashot that are far from peshat, and we need to pray in peshat. Ibn Ezra concludes that it is preferable not to use faulty piyyutim at all. In contrast, he idealizes Rabbi Saadiah Gaon as the model paytan.
Kaddish and Kedushah[ii]
Sometimes, minor text variations reflect deeper concepts. For example, Rabbi Marvin Luban notes a distinction between the Kaddish and the Kedushah.[iii] In the Kedushah, we sanctify God’s Name in tandem with the angels. In the Kaddish, we cry over the absence of God’s presence in the world.
Tosafot on Sanhedrin 37b refer to an early Geonic custom where Kedushah was recited only on Shabbat. Although we do not follow this practice (we recite both Kaddish and Kedushah on weekdays and Shabbat), it makes excellent conceptual sense. Kedushah conveys a sense of serenity, setting a perfect tone for Shabbat. In contrast, Kaddish reflects distress over the exile, which is better suited for weekdays.
A relic of this practice distinguishes the Kedushah read by Sephardim and Ashkenazim for Shaharit on Shabbat. Ashkenazim incorporate the language of Kaddish into the Kedushah:
From Your place, our King, You will appear and reign over us, for we await You. When will You reign in Zion? Soon, in our days, forever and ever, may You dwell there. May You be exalted and sanctified (titgaddal ve-titkaddash) within Jerusalem Your city, from generation to generation and for all eternity. May our eyes see Your kingdom, as it is expressed in the songs of Your might, written by David, Your righteous anointed. (ArtScroll translation)
In contrast, Sephardim keep the Kaddish and the Kedushah separate. They insist that there is a time and a place for each type of prayer.
[i] Macy Nulman, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, pp. 11-12.
[ii] This section is taken from Hayyim Angel, A Synagogue Companion (New York: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2013), pp. 340-341.
[iii] R. Marvin Luban, “The Kaddish: Man’s Reply to the Problem of Evil,” in Studies in Torah Judaism, ed. Leon Stitskin (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1969), pp. 191–234.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.
By Rabbi Hayyim Angel