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“Tear Up The Harsh Decrees”: Reflections on Tkhines for the High Holidays

Eve Romm

The High Holidays, in addition to providing an opportunity for introspection, atonement and renewed commitment, are also a tour de force of Jewish liturgical creativity. In fact, that may be the one thing a five-hour service in a Borough Park shtibl has in common with an infamous 2017 Yom Kippur event held in a Washington, D.C. beer garden. 1 1 Josefin Dolsten. “Spending Yom Kippur in a beer garden.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 9/28/2017, https://www.jta.org/2017/09/28/united-states/these-young-jews-will-spend-yom-kippur-in-a-beer-garden. The traditional mahzor includes a huge corpus of piyyutim, medieval liturgical poems, which fill out the basic structure of the service, depicting God through an astonishing array of different metaphors and poetic forms. Although few contemporary poems are written specifically for the synagogue, most High Holiday services I’ve been to include “interpretive readings”: everything from contemporary poetry to folk songs to Hasidic legends to guided meditations. Although I happen to be the type of person who would take hours of Hebrew mumbling over even a short “creative musaf,” in theory, I am all for this kind of liturgical innovation. I think people should carefully consider the texts they want to use for prayer, even if those texts are not in the mahzor, not in Hebrew, or not even in the Jewish canon. It’s just that, personally, I don’t find Mary Oliver poems or Woody Guthrie songs a particularly helpful technology for worship. So for these Days of Awe, I dug back a little further in the Jewish vernacular corpus.

Mi ani, who am I, a sinful woman, that I should present myself to you and answer you for the sin I have committed? Who am I, a weak woman, that I should stand before you, great God, to whom the whole world is like a drop of water in the ocean, and who can turn it to tohu vavohu, void and waste, with the blink of an eye? But, Lord of all worlds, because I am so small and weak, may you have mercy on me… 2 2Rav Peninim, A Naye Shas Tkhine (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1916), 220-221.

This excerpt comes from a tkhine, part of a genre of women’s devotional literature which was popular in Yiddish-speaking communities for several centuries. Although I translated this particular prayer from a collection called Rav Peninim, published in New York in 1916, the tradition of tkhines stretches back to a text called Seyder Tkhines, published in 17th century Amsterdam and containing a collection of Yiddish supplications written for women, who were generally not taught Hebrew and so would have struggled to understand the synagogue service. 3 3 See Deborah Kay’s English translation, Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women, JPS, 2004. The prayers were written for specific liturgical and non-liturgical occasions, everything from the blowing of the shofar to a child’s first steps. While tkhines often incorporate the language and style of Hebrew prayers and psalms, they are only a translation from Hebrew to Yiddish in the broadest possible sense, mediating not only between languages, but between gendered worlds and modes of addressing the divine. In my own translations of the tkhines into English, I have attempted to preserve the largely unpunctuated and dizzingly paratactic style of the original Yiddish — for me, this is an important reminder of the texts’ primary purpose: to be recited orally, preferably with groyse kavone, great conviction.

Although I might be hesitant to describe myself as a “weak woman” in my own prayers, I am drawn to the specificity of the first-person voice in the tkhines for the High Holidays. This is in marked contrast to the traditional liturgy, which, with the exception of the Psalms, almost always speaks in the voice of the community. Even the Ashamnu, the confessional climax of the penitential liturgy, consists of first-person plural forms – we have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen. Not only are tkhines characterized by a singular speaker, that speaker is usually gendered feminine, often via a petition on behalf of “my husband and children.” Many Yiddish religious texts usually thought of as women’s literature were in fact also intended for the many men who were not wealthy enough to have been taught Hebrew. 4 4 See Weissler, Chava. “”For Women and for Men Who Are like Women”: The Construction of Gender in Yiddish Devotional Literature.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5, no. 2 (1989): 7-24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002108. With the exception of some later Hasidic adaptations of the genre, tkhines do seem to have been specifically crafted for female worshippers, both in their language and their content: many tkhines are meant to be recited while fulfilling commandments reserved for women, like making challah or lighting Shabbat candles. 5 5 More on this in Chava Weissler’s “The Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women,” an excellent window into the world of domestic piety in Eastern Europe.

The addressee of these prayers is just as telling as their speakers. Invariably, tkhines address God as du rather than ir, using the familiar informal form of the second person alongside such majestic epithets as riboyno shel oylem, ruler of the universe. For me, the intimacy of this address feels particularly fitting for the High Holidays, when, according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, “the king is in the fields” — God leaves the heavenly palace and becomes more accessible to earthly petitions. I was particularly struck by the wording of a tkhine meant to be recited before hearing the shofar, which implores “May you move from the seat which is entirely Judgement, and sit upon the seat of Mercy.” This plea closely echoes a Hebrew tradition in which God abandons kisei din, the throne of judgement, for kisei rahamim, the throne of mercy, but it differs in one small and crucial way: in the Yiddish tkhine God sits on an ordinary shtul, not a majestic throne.

For me, these small but profound features of language make tkhines feel earnest, tender, and richly human. Often, I find myself moved by their frank emotionality: another tkhine meant for recitation during the blowing of the shofar includes the beautiful line “…and may you accept my tears, for when all other gates are closed, the gate of tears remains open.” 6 6Rav Peninim, 81 Though it’s tempting to attribute the individuality, intimacy, and emotionality of tkhines to the fact that their audience was primarily feminine, it’s worth noting that these qualities also characterize the Hasidic tradition. A legend about Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhens relates that, wondering how he would face God on Yom Kippur given his many transgressions, he answered himself, “My broken heart will stand me in good stead on the day of judgement.” 7 7 S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe: A Treasure of Jewish Wisdom For Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal (New York: Shocken Books, 1995), 25-26. More compelling reasoning might associate this kind of liturgical text, whose diction strives to elevate the phrases and feelings of everyday life to the task of prayer, with vernacular rather than feminine forms of devotional literature – Hasidic communities also claimed Yiddish as a language with which to address God.

Indeed, I see tkhines as an important but largely forgotten part of a long para-liturgical tradition that stretches from the piyyutim of medieval Spain to the “alternative” services of today, a rich lineage of attempts to refresh, reframe, and rewrite the ancient language of Jewish prayer, which has often reached its heights at the High Holidays. Although their frequent references to superstitions like the evil eye may initially alienate contemporary readers, tkhines actually share many priorities with both the Eastern European khosid and the modern progressive Jew. They value kavone, the concentration or intention with which a prayer is recited. They strive to imbue the banalities of everyday life with a sense of the sacred, and affirm fear, sorrow, and despair as valuable expressions of religious conviction. They offer respite from the unrelenting maleness that alienates many from the Hebrew tradition, but, unlike the many new-fangled forms of egalitarian revision, they retain the familiar foreignness of the past, comforting as the smell of old books.

As I perused Rav Peninim, looking for new perspectives to enliven the Days of Awe, I was captivated by a tkhine for blowing the shofar, which imagines the cosmic reverberations of the shofar blast in rich detail:

Ruler of the universe, you have commanded us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, at which time may our good deeds appear before you and may the voice of the shofar come before you and tear up all the harsh decrees against us, and destroy all the malicious spirits which separate us from you and prevent our pleas from reaching you…. and teach us how we can break our enemy, Satan, who watches us and says “I will pursue and overtake the Jews,” therefore, dear God, may you with the voice of the shofar make him fall so that he cannot stand and speak evil of your people Israel… may Satan have no power and may he become a good angel, and may he speak well of us, and may you inscribe us for the coming year, us and all Israel, for profit, and for blessing, and for success… 8 8Rav Peninim, 108

This tkhine takes a very different approach than the individual, emotional tone that initially drew me to the genre. It is not about a personal kheshbon nefesh, a reckoning of spiritual accounts, or an internal commitment to improve in the coming year. Instead, it imagines the process of teshuva, repentance, as a metaphysical battle, with God, the patriarchs, and the angels arrayed against Satan and his retinue of “malicious spirits.” The shofar’s sound is the coup de grace which will, the worshipper hopes, vanquish the forces of evil that separate the people from their God. The sound itself, this text imagines, has the power to “tear up the harsh decrees,” to gather the scattered people into the promised land, and to ensure that Satan’s wiles cannot sway the heavenly court.

This tkhine is followed by a section titled “Seder T’kiyes,” “the order of blasts,” which tracks closely with the Hebrew shofar service, including the traditional Hebrew blessings with interlinear Yiddish translations. Short devotional passages, also in Yiddish, are interpolated with the four soundings of the shofar, and they go into more detail about the metaphysical mechanics of this liturgical moment. The last of these three passages reads:

U’v’khen y’hi ratzoyn, may it be your will, God, our God and the God of our ancestors, that the angels which ascend with the shofar and with t’kiyah sh’varim t’ru’ah t’kiyah and with t’kiyah sh’varim t’kiyah and with t’kiyah t’ru’ah t’kiyah, may they go before the throne of your glory and speak well of us, that our sins might be forgiven, amen. 9 9Rav Peninim, 112

What is remarkable, here and in the preceding tkhine, is the emphasis on angelic intercession. This theology of forgiveness, in which the shofar awakens the angels to advocate for Israel before God’s throne, has been historically controversial, considered dangerously close to polytheism. The Mateh Efrayim, a 19th century compendium of laws for the High Holidays, includes the passage:

Cantors who recite pleas to the angels and, even worse, adjurations, ought to be rebuked and restrained. Our rabbis, of blessed memory, said: ‘Scream not to Michael and not to Gabriel; call to Me and I shall answer you’…the cantor is permitted to use the language of supplication in his pleading…so long as he does not mention the names of the angels. 10 10 Agnon, Days of Awe, 57

Despite this and other rabbinic protests, appeals to the angels occur with reasonable frequency, both in the liturgical poems that made their way into the mahzor itself and in vernacular forms of devotion like the tkhine.

Far more widespread than angelic intercession, however, is the concept of z’hut avot (s’khus avos for Yiddish speakers), the merit of the patriarchs. One of the clearest examples of this is the Mi she’ana prayer, found in the penitential liturgy preceding the High Holidays as well as in the mahzor itself, which is a litany of supplications with the formula “May the one who answered [insert Biblical figure] in [insert situation] answer us.” 11 11 The full text of this prayer can be found at https://opensiddur.org/prayers/lunisolar/high-holy-days/yom-kippur/mi-sheanah-a-selihah-for-yom-kippur/.
Our tkhine takes a different angle on the same theme:

…with the first sound of the shofar may the merit of our father Abraham be remembered before you, and with the second sound of the shofar may the merit of our father Isaac be remembered, and with the third sound of the shofar may the merit of our father Jacob be remembered, and with the fourth sound may the merit of King David be remembered, the four sequences called “t’kiyah sh’varim truah t’kiyah,” may they offer the merit of our ancestors before you. 12 12Rav Peninim, 109

Although appeals to the patriarchs were as ubiquitous in the Hebrew siddur as in Yiddish devotional materials, they have a particular resonance with an unusual and fascinating Yom Kippur custom of women in particular: kneytlekh legn, the laying of wicks.

Beginning in the eighteenth century or earlier, women would prepare for the day of atonement by measuring the perimeter of the town cemetery with string that would later become the wicks for homemade neshome kneytlekh, “soul candles.” Some candles were associated with living members of the family, and were burnt in the home on Yom Kippur, while others, associated with deceased relatives, were used to light the synagogue. Laying wicks is the third of the three gates in Sore Bas Toyvim’s famous tkhine Shloyshe Sheorim, published in the mid 1700s, which describes the making of these candles as a way of summoning the merit of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, all the way back to Adam and Eve, rectifying their original sin.

Although I don’t know for sure, it’s hard to imagine that this custom made it all the way to the New York of the nineteen-teens. Only the first of the three sections of Shloyshe Sheorim can be found in Rav Peninim, the anthology I have been drawing on, and there is no mention of laying wicks elsewhere in the volume. However, the way in which the tkhine for blowing the shofar links each set of blasts to a Biblical patriarch invokes this long tradition of calling upon the ancestors on Yom Kippur. As these texts understand it, teshuva stretches backwards in time, pulling the good deeds of the past into the metaphysical drama of the present. They imagine the court of Heaven much like an earthly court, with prosecutors and defenders mediating the relationship between judge and defendant, the sound of the shofar like an earth-shatteringly brilliant closing argument.

This is by no means the account of Rosh Hashanah I learned in Hebrew school, and it is also not what I teach my seventh grade class. I tell them something similar to what I was told — the sound of the shofar jolts us out of our complacent routines, reawakens our hearts, rekindles our commitments. They already laugh at me for not having heard of the pop songs they like — I can’t imagine what gales of hilarity would ensue if I expressed the hope that we might all defeat Satan in the coming year. But as an adult, I find myself drawn to what some might call kindermayses, fairytales, images of angels and devils contending over the fate of God’s people. They help me to acknowledge the limits of my control over my own life at the same time as they insist upon the truly cosmic stakes of the internal work of teshuva. I love the idea that I might pray for my good deeds to advocate on my behalf while knowing they will not be sufficient, and that I will also need the help of the angels, the ancestors, and the shofar’s call in order to merit a place in the book of life.

Working with tkhines, I find myself setting aside the already dubious objectivity of the literary scholar. These texts were not meant to be read but recited, and I can’t help but imagine how it might feel to recite them with fervor and conviction. What if, when the shofar sounded, I thought about my predecessors in addition to my misdeeds? What if I looked forward to the coming year and resolved not to spend less time on Facebook or start going to the gym, but to transform Satan into a benevolent angel once and for all? What if I prepared for the holiday not just by cooking and cleaning but by taking the circumference of my ancestor’s graves? Perhaps more profoundly, what would it feel like to address God familiarly, in my mother tongue, the same way I might address my children, my neighbors, or my spouse? When I approach tkhines with curiosity and imagination, they offer me fruitfully unfamiliar modes of conceptualizing ritual practice. Although I didn’t lay wicks this Yom Kippur, when the shofar sounded I tried imagining din and rahamim, God’s judgement and mercy, not as ornate and lofty thrones, but as simple, wooden shtuls.

MLA STYLE
Romm, Eve. ““Tear Up The Harsh Decrees”: Reflections on Tkhines for the High Holidays.” In geveb, October 2019: https://ingeveb.org/blog/tear-up-the-harsh-decrees-reflections-on-tkhines-for-the-high-holidays.
CHICAGO STYLE
Romm, Eve. ““Tear Up The Harsh Decrees”: Reflections on Tkhines for the High Holidays.” In geveb (October 2019): Accessed Nov 11, 2019.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eve Romm

Eve Romm, a recent Yale graduate living in the Boston area, focused on Renaissance poetry and literary translation as an undergraduate but fell in love with Yiddish before her senior year. She is particularly fascinated by Hasidic and devotional writings, the history of the book, and the ways religious practice is mediated by language.