Reinterpreting Anachronisms

Reinterpreting Anachronisms

By Eugen Schoenfeld | One Man’s Opinion

On Shabbat, per my custom, I went to the synagogue. It was early enough to participate in Birchoth Hashachar, the morning blessings. They are a series of statements in the form of blessings recited by the rabbi or the chazzan, to which the congregation responds with amen.

I couldn’t find any reference to why we include these recitations in our morning service.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

There is a mystical belief that we have to respond daily to 100 blessings with amen. The responses to these morning blessings give us credit for 90. But as soon as the first of these blessings was recited, my mind shouted, “Anachronism!”

This blessing states: “Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, who gave the rooster an understanding to differentiate between day and night.” What else could one say: What an anachronism; why are we reciting it?

Here I go again. Some of my readers have complained that I often use words that are unfamiliar to them. No problem. An anachronism is a thing, a person or a belief that is out of place in time; it belonged to an earlier age and is incongruous in the present.

Why are we thanking G-d for the crowing rooster? It surely is an anachronistic belief. Perhaps once we believed that the rooster’s ability to foretell the coming of dawn was a miraculous gift. But whatever reason we had in the past, this blessing does not have any significance today. If we need any help to wake up, an electronic device will do it most efficiently.

The fact is that many prayers in the siddur (prayer book) are incongruous. They were essential to an earlier belief system but no longer have meaning today. In my view, the Mussaf service — that part of the Shabbat or holiday service that comes after the Torah reading — is not only unessential, but perhaps can be perceived as a way through which we retain a primitive perception of G-d and retain Judaism as a primitive faith.

When the Temples were destroyed, our ancestors were in a conundrum. The main function of the Holy Temple was the offering of sacrifices. This was the way, we believed, that we could appease G-d and erase our sins of omission and commission.

Even a brief view of Leviticus will tell the reader the many forms of sacrifices that were believed to be the ultimate way to please G-d through meals and pleasant aromas. Incense burning was designed to appease G-d through aroma therapy.

One can understand how important this function was to the primitive individuals. But the prophet Isaiah already began to challenge the need for animal sacrifices.

One can justifiably ask: Is the recitation of sacrifices and our primitive view of G-d necessary today? Does it not force us to retain our primitivism? Right after the Second Temple was destroyed, the most famous rabbi of that time, Yochanan ben Zakkai — I could call him the savior of Judaism — told his disciple that the practice of gemilath chassodim (kind acts) is more efficacious as the means for alleviating sins than the slaughter of animals.

Still, the rabbis refuse to alter their views about our ancient but primitive practice of animal sacrifice. We continue to pray for G-d to restore the sacrificial offerings in His sanctuary.

On the surface we may see the above practices and prayers as anachronisms, but the principles that they stand for are not. We must be sure that as we change, we do not throw out the kernels with the chaff or, as we say today, throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some of these ancient acts reflect important universal and eternal principles.

Is it possible, for instance, that when we bless G-d because he gave the cock the ability to distinguish between night and day — that is, between light and darkness — we implicitly say how much more so we humans should understand the symbolic meaning of night and day? Night and day are symbolic references to light and darkness, which represent the differences between knowledge and ignorance as well as between good and evil.

Instead of throwing out the prayer, we need merely to alter it. It would make greater sense were we to bless G-d who instilled into us the intelligence to differentiate between knowledge and ignorance, goodness and evil, the desirable and the undesirable — an idea that we already express in the Havdalah service.

Similarly, the ancient animal sacrifices are symbolic. Perhaps the most important element in sacrifice is to refute our natural tendency for egoism. Sacrifice demands that we share with others that which is precious to us.

This is the foundation on which morality is founded — the need to control the human tendency to be egoistic. No good society can exist unless we are willing to sacrifice, to share that which is ours with others who need it.

This is what Rabbi Hillel taught: If we are only for ourselves, then what are we? An important function of religion is to implant into us the idea of selflessness and the principle that our individual needs can be met only when we first meet our collective needs.

That idea is central in our ancient belief in Klal Yisrael.

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