Does the Underlying Reason Matter?

Having received, by email, the personal recommendation from a friend whose opinion I value in the highest, I just ordered the book Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer, by Rabbi Bernard (Barry) Freundel.  If it is as it’s described (“the book is fascinating, incredibly well researched, and is so different from anything I have read about prayer”) then I am looking forward to it immensely.

But not just because of the high praise.  Because of the subject matter.  For instance, from the book description on Amazon:

”Why We Pray What We Pray” details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer (Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish) has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

I have recently, or not so recently, come to think about the origins and evolutions of things.  Whether that’s the prayer/liturgy/ritual we perform or the bible itself (one has a hard time avoiding such questions reading Kugel’s How to Read the Bible) (DovBear posted something tangentially related earlier today.)

For instance, and this is only one example, the alphabetical acrostic.  This poetic form is all over our liturgy, from ancient Psalms to modern-day kinos, to the point where the alphabet itself is revered and the acrostic given holiness of form.

But was it always so?  I have my doubts.  See, in the time of oral transmission, the acrostic was a mnemonic device.  It’s much easier to remember the words if you know the words, or the sentences, are alphabetical.  The alphabetical acrostic made remembering and transmitting the composed prayers much easier.

Which gets me to my question in the headline: let’s assume for a second that a particular liturgical form or particular ritual activity was created or evolved the way it did for a specific reason.  Does the removal of the underlying reason remove the holiness of the activity?

This calls to mind the old story told of the shul that everyone ducked their head as they walked into.  A guest came to town as asked his host why this was, and the host told him that it was always that way.  Finally, not satisfied, he asked the oldest member of the shul, one who had been there since childhood.  Who responded, “I remember, when we first started, the room we used to daven in had a low header.  Almost every adult except the shorted had to duck to avoid getting hit.  By the time we moved into a new building, everyone was so used to ducking as they came into shul, they kept doing it, even with the taller doorway.  I guess it stuck.”

So if the only reason ancient composers used alphabetical acrostics was as mnemonic devices, does that mean the holiness we’ve ascribed to the form is wrong?  Does that mean in modern times, in modern compositions (post-printed era) there’s no need to adhere to the form?  Or has the added significance given to the form since its advent now become the new reality?


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