Oxford's Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer and the debate about synagogue melodies on the High Holidays in the 18th century

Sunday, 16 September, 2012 - 8:43 am

Oppenheimer.jpegRosh Hashanah - empowerment in Jewish Thought


Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the anniversary when according to Jewish tradition man was created. As parts of the world are being swept away by forces that reflect the power of the human being, Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that also reminds us of the empowerment of man to resolve to change oneself and the world for the better, thereby completing the purpose of creation of the world itself, and asking G-d in return for a good, healthy and prosperous year ahead.


This incredible power of man to affect change in society and in oneself is an essential aspect of Jewish belief found in Jewish philosophy and law. While according to Jewish tradition the Torah was given to the Jewish people by G-d at Mount Sinai - Torah from Heaven - man is an essential component in its development, extrapolation and application, according to the framework given at Sinai. The empowerment of man is an essential component of Jewish law itself.


This essay will attempt to explain this complicated and oft misunderstood aspect of the development of Jewish tradition and law through the work of the 18th century Chief Rabbi of Prague Dovid Oppenheimer, known in Oxford for the Oppenheimer collection of the Bodleian library.


Chief Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer: Scholar despite wealth


One of the main collections of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian library is the Oppenheimer collection that was acquired by the library in 1829. The library consists of 7,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 1,000 early printed works, considered one of the most important Hebrew manuscript collections that existed at the time of purchase until today.


While much is known about the collection, little is known about the collector himself, Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer. He was born in Worms in 1664 to a distinguished and wealthy family of court bankers. His father was a Parnes, Rabbi Abraham Oppenheimer, and his uncle, Samuel Oppenheimer, is of particular renown in the annals of Jewish court bankers, as court banker in Vienna, whose transactions for the States of Germany and Austria ran into millions of Reichs-Gulden (died 1703).


Despite his family’s wealth and influence, Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer did not follow the path of his family in commerce but studied diligently and was recognised as a great Torah scholar when he was still a student, as attributed to him by his colleagues. Not long after he married his wife Gnendle, daughter of court banker Lefmann Behrandt Cohen of Hanover, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Nikolsberg in 1689 and in 1702 he was appointed to the prestigious chief rabbinate position of his time, Chief Rabbi of Prague, until he passed away in September, 1736, three days before Yom Kippur (7th Tishrei).


During this time, he was considered one of the foremost Chief Rabbis and scholars in the Germanic world and as seen from the terminology used in the correspondence to him, he was given the informal appellation ‘king of the Jewish people’. Not only was he one of the most respected scholars of his time with his rulings considered always decisive, he seemed to have inherited considerable wealth that enabled him to support Jewish communities and scholars in distress who needed his assistance far and wide. Due to his philanthropy and leadership, he was appointed Nasi of the land of Israel, a title that was rarely given to a rabbi.


Despite his broad influence and what appears to be an overwhelmingly singular stature of greatness attributed to him as world leader of the Jewish people of his times, for no apparent reason Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer appears to be overlooked when late 17th and early 18th century Germanic Jewry is considered. Until today, his life is still not given due attention, beyond his library collection that is largely obscured in the vaults of the Bodleian library.


This essay is the beginning of a series, which looks at the writings of Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer as a scholar and leading Jewish legalist of his time from the works of his responsa that have been published in the Hebrew in the three volume work Nishal Dovid, most of these can be found in manuscript form in the Bodleian library.


Jewish Unity and Diversity in the Synagogue


The subject that we will focus on in this essay is the concept of Jewish unity and diversity and, as mentioned above, the importance of the power of the people in the development of Jewish law and tradition.


As we celebrate the High Holidays, Jews from all backgrounds and traditions attend synagogues around the world to pray to G-d for forgiveness and a happy and healthy New Year. Indeed, the Jewish community celebrates a profound sense of unity during this time of year, as Jews, whether religious or secular, Ashkenazic or Sephardic, pray in the synagogue that they are accustomed to.


However, below the surface of the unity of the Jewish people, there is also a multitude of customs and traditions within the framework of Jewish law that differentiates Jews from one background to another. This is the case within the Ashkenazic communities, where Jews of Polish and Russian origin will have different customs and subtleties of liturgy from Jews of German backgrounds. Chassidic communities have a different style of prayer to Lithuanian communities. The same applies to the innumerable varieties of Middle Eastern Jewish communities. There are no two communities that have identical customs and liturgies.


May melodies be changed in the synagogue?


One area of difference is the tunes that might be sung in one synagogue to what would have been traditionally sung, possibly for centuries, in another synagogue. A question that seemed to have arisen in the 15th century in Germany, where Jews had lived for centuries, is whether someone may introduce a new custom into the prayers of a local synagogue. In particular, can a leader of the prayers introduce a new tune or song into a synagogue that had not had this tradition before in order to enhance the service and allow for greater inspiration in the prayers?


This question was brought before Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer in September, 1701.


Notably, he was not the first to discuss this issue. Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer, as well as the questioner, would have certainly been familiar with the ruling of the greatest Jewish legal authority of the 15th century, Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Mölln, known as the Maharil (1365-1427). He famously wrote in his laws of Yom Kippur that “one should not change the custom of the place in a synagogue in any matter, even regarding the tunes of the prayers, with which the community will not be familiar.”


This opinion is subsequently quoted in the code of Jewish law by the great German Jewish legalist, Rabbi Moshe Iserles, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim (Ch. 619:1).


Maharil once was the prayer leader in the community of Ransburg for the High Holidays but used Austrian melodies, because that was the custom. 


He, however, wanted to add to the prayers the penitential prayer, "I, I am the One who speaks," which Rabbi Ephraim composed to be recited in the Musaf prayer, as he thought it was appropriate for the honour of Rabbi Ephraim, who was buried in that city. The leaders of the community protested saying it was not their custom. A year later, tragically, Rabbi Jacob’s daughter passed away on Yom Kippur, which he attributed to the fact that he changed the custom of the place the year earlier against the will of the community.


Interestingly, this question was presented to Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer in the 17th century to enquire whether he would be willing to use his position as a leading authority of Jewish law to what would have been the overturning of this edict of the Maharil.


The question is also of broader interest in certain communities, where a custom might have been established and there are members who wish to change the custom for whatever reason. Should this be permitted or is a local established custom sacrosanct in Jewish law? In addition, what if the custom that has been established does not follow traditional Jewish law? Does the custom itself carry the weight of Jewish law in its own unique circumstance.


These issues that were relevant in the 15th and 17th centuries are the subject of a responsa by Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer in Nishal Dovid (Orach Chaim Ch. 2). This essay will aim to outline the arguments put forward in this responsa.


Importance to preserve custom


Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer makes the following Talmudic observations and applies them to the 17th century question. The Talmud (Erchin 10a-b) states one may not have less than two flutes and not more than six in the Jerusalem Temple orchestra. They would not use a flute of copper but rather of reeds because its sound was pleasant. If the flute became damaged and they wished to make changes to the instruments to enhance the sound they were not permitted because no change was allowed to be made to the instruments.


The Talmud in Sanhedrin (101a) states that if someone wished to sing the Song of Songs at a party not according the notes that they are accompanied with it brings harm.


Even though the above statement is referring to the Scriptural readings of the Bible, whereas here we are merely discussing songs that have been adapted by a community to accompany the prayers, Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer sees no such distinction, quoting the principle that a custom of Israel counts as part of the Torah itself.


He therefore concludes that no change is permitted without the permission of the community even if it is meant to enhance the prayers.


One of the reasons to introduce songs into the prayers is an attempt to slow down the recitation of the prayers, since the songs will not allow for the prayers to be said in haste. However, Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer rejects this consideration, since in any case, he believes, those who are G-d fearing and wish to lengthen their prayers, will do so in any case, and those who wish to shorten their prayers, songs will not prevent this. Furthermore, it may not always be a positive thing for a community to lengthen their prayers, as suggested by medieval Talmudist Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (1235-1310), as in some places it is burdensome for the prayers to be lengthened.


However, the proviso that a longstanding custom must be upheld and cannot be changed is when one can be sure that the men who established the custom in the first place were scholars of the Torah and the custom would have surely been set up with considerations according to their knowledge of the Torah and the precepts of the commandments (Mitzvot).


This view is illustrated in the Talmud (Ta’anit 28b) which records a story whereby the greatest sage of the Talmudic era in Israel, Rav, visited the city of Babylon and observed the recitation of the Hallel prayer on the Rosh Chodesh (the new month). This was not in accordance with the law of his times and he thought to stop them until he saw they were omitting certain sections whereupon he said: “From this it is evident that there is a custom of their fathers that they are upholding”.


An interesting question arises if the custom seems to go against a stated law. Can an established custom of a community override a teaching of Jewish law? Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer argues it can in the case of a Rabbinical law. The power of a custom kept by the people over many years can override a law, as seen in the teaching of the Talmud (Menachot, Hakometz Rabbah), as long as the above proviso applies.


He thus concludes that the liturgy and tunes established by a community are sacrosanct and should not in any circumstances be changed without the permission of the community.


Why sing in the synagogue?


The idea of singing the liturgy during the prayer is in itself an interesting development in the synagogue. Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer raises the argument that surely one can concentrate without the singing of the liturgy and perhaps it should be seen as something negative and frivolous within prayer. He however defends the practice of singing in study and also prayer.


The Talmud relates (Tosfot Megilah 32a) that it is customary to study the Mishna with melody in order to help with memory. Indicating the importance of this custom in prayer, though it seemed to have once been a novelty, he quotes the responsa Shir hashirim asher le shlomo where it records that it was agreed by the great rabbis of Venice that one should indeed pray with melodies (neginah), concluding that this now established custom should not be changed.


Thus, Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer viewed practical Jewish law as a partnership between the established law through the framework of the Torah as given at Mount Sinai and the development of custom practiced by communities throughout the world. As long as the customs are established according the teachings of the Torah, a community can develop its own customs that become equally part of the Torah itself.


While Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer argues for the support of melodies in the prayers, the mere debate in his responsa reflects that this custom was still a matter of disputation and had not become firmly established as part of prayer according to Jewish tradition in the 17th century.


It is interesting therefore that the custom of melody in prayer upheld by Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer continues today and has become an established and essential component of woship in synagogues around the world, whether Germanic or Chassidic. This was likely due to the influence of the Chassidic movement which arose not long after the passing of Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer in 1736.


The founder of Chabad philosophy, Rabbi Schneur Zalman Liadi (1745-1812), explained that song in prayer is not only for the purpose of concentration but assists also with the elevation of the soul in the act of prayer.


It is however debatable whether the law against changing melodies in synagogues would be applicable today given the enormous migration of Jews due to persecution in Europe over the last century. Many communities would likely not have the same sense of tradition as they would have had in 18th century Germany.


Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer would possibly agree that if a new melody helps inspire a congregation in prayer during the High Holidays that would be admirable and to be recommended, as long as it does not cause confusion amongst the congregants.


As we celebrate Rosh Hashana, we are reminded by a foremost Jewish legalist of his times about the power of the Jewish people in bringing about the completion of creation and shaping Jewish tradition. May our prayers during the High Holidays be inspired and uplifting, granting us a happy and sweet New Year to come.

Comments on: Oxford's Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer and the debate about synagogue melodies on the High Holidays in the 18th century
There are no comments.