The Rare Oxford Machzor Vitry: A Rosh Hashana essay

Tuesday, 27 September, 2011 - 6:55 am


One of the important Hebrew manuscripts in Oxford’s Bodleian library is the Machzor Vitry, which includes laws, prayers and liturgical poems, as well as the liturgy for the High Holiday prayers. It is authored by Rabbi Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry (d. 1105), who was a French Talmudist of the 11th and 12th centuries and disciple of the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105). His son Samuel married Rashi's granddaughter and he was the grandfather of the famous Tosafist, Isaac of Dampierre. They both died in the same year.

The Oxford text is one of only three manuscripts of the Machzor Vitry that exists. The oldest, according to Abraham Berliner (1833–1915) in his additions to Hurwitz's introduction to the Machzor Vitry (p. 172), is from Reggio, Italy, currently in the JTS library, which is in a poor state of preservation. The Reggio manuscript contains the Machzor Vitry proper without any additions. A second manuscript is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Neubauer, Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS. No. 1100), with marginal annotations by Eleazar ben Judah Rokeach (c. 1176 - 1238), also known as Eleazar of Worms, author of the Sefer ha-Rokeachand a leading Talmudist and mystic. He is considered the last major member of the Chassidei Ashkenaz, a group of German Jewish pietists. The third manuscript is in the British Museum (Cod. Add. Nos. 27,200 and 27,201), with many additions, some indicated by the Hebrew letter Tav. These additions include texts from the Sefer ha-Terumah of Baruch ben Isaac and from the Eshkol of Ravad.

This third expanded manuscript with the additions served as the basis for S. Hurwitz's edition of the Machzor Vitry published by the Mekitze Nirdamim Society (Berlin, 1893), who’s aim was to publish old Hebrew works and manuscripts. The Mekitze Nirdamim Society may have chosen the London manuscript over the others, as Sir Moses Montefiore and Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Nathan Adler, both involved in the establishment of the publishing society, resided in London, despite the Oxford and Reggio copies being closer to the original work.

The Machzor Vitry

The Machzor Vitry work is, as mentioned above, not just a prayer book but also includes many laws and commentary. It consists of three portions: the halakhic legal portion, the liturgical formulae, and commentaries to the prayers taken from the aggadah. The Reggio manuscript, considered the closest to the original, includes the following topics: weekday prayers with their relevant laws; the night prayer; the order of prayers for the Shabbat and its conclusion; the Sanctification of the Moon; Chanukah; Purim; Passover Haggadah; Ethics of the Fathers with a commentary; commentaries on the Kaddish and the Ten Commandments; service for Rosh Hashanah; the Day of Atonement; Sukkot and the Hoshanot with a commentary; the order of service for Simchat Torah; and much more. In addition, there are many piyyutim and aggadot.


The main sources of the Machzor Vitry are the decisions and customs of Rabbi Simcha’s teacher, Rashi. The author Rabbi Simcha apparently based himself on the prayer book of Rashi, known as Siddur Rashi, published by Mekezei Nirdamim in 1910, authored by an unknown student of his. The text of the Machzor Vitry is often identical with Rashi’s prayer book. An important difference however is that Rashi’s prayer book is not actually a liturgical prayer book, as it excludes all the texts of the prayers, but rather a compilation of Talmudic and halachic material on a variety of topics relating to the prayers. It is these decisions and customs that are often identical in the prayer book of Rashi and the Machzor Vitry.

In the halakhic legal portion of the Machzor Vitry, the sources are both Talmudic and from the Gaonic literature, especially the Halakhot Gedolot and Halakhot Pesukot of Rabbi Yehudai Gaon, who was the head of the academy in the Babylonian centre of Jewish scholarship, Sura, from 757 to 761. Another principle source is the prayer book of Rabbi Amram Gaon (d. 875), which is often quoted verbatim, without giving the source. Amram Gaon was the first to arrange a complete liturgy for the synagogue, requested by the Jews of Spain, though no early manuscript of this prayer book survives that can be accurately attributed to the original work.

The earliest surviving transcript of the weekly prayers that provides a complete version of the liturgy is that of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (d. 942). Although the entire text of this manuscript doesn’t exist, there is a near complete manuscript of Saadia’s prayer book at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Fragments have also been found in the Cairo Genizah.

A study in the Machzor Vitry

In this essay we will look at two distinct teachings found in the Machzor Vitry regarding the liturgy in the High Holidays service, in particular, pertaining to the laws of the sounding of the Shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah. The first subject relates to the reason why the blowing of the Shofar is sounded in the later part of the holiday prayers that in some synagogues will be conducted only after midday. The second subject relates to the liturgy of the blessing recited on the sounding of the Shofar that appears to be different than the one recited in the prayer books today. As the author draws his sources from Rashi’s prayer book, it is likely that the liturgy was indeed the one used by French Jewry of the 11th century.

Why do we delay the blowing of the Shofar?

The custom of sounding a Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is from the book of Leviticus (23:24): ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of Israel through the Shofar blast, a holy occasion.’ The question posed by many Jewish legalists is: why is the sounding of the Shofar in the synagogue delayed until after the Shacharit morning prayers and the reading from the Torah scroll has been completed, taking place only before and during the Musaf (additional) prayer? Why is the Shofar not sounded earlier in the day during the morning prayers?

This question is first posed in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) based on the premise that one should ‘show eagerness in the performance of Mitzvot’ and therefore should be observed as early in the day as possible. The Machzor Vitry quotes the Talmud’s answer that the custom to sound the Shofar during the later Musaf prayer was instituted during a period of governmental decree by the Romans attempting to force Jews to abandon their faith.

The Machzor Vitry elaborates that the Romans decreed against blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and would send spies during the first six hours of the day to ensure the ban was enforced. The Jews therefore instituted to delay the sounding of the Shofar until the Musaf prayer, by which time the spies would have departed. The Machzor Vitry text concludes that although this is no longer relevant, the custom remains.

It is interesting that the wording of the Machzor Vitry here follows almost the exact wording of his teacher Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud. The Talmud itself merely states that the custom ‘was instituted during a time of governmental decree’. Rashi in his commentary to the Talmud adds that the Romans would post spies until six hours into the day to ensure the ban was enforced. However, it is interesting that while Rashi’s disciple offers a rationale for the continuity of the custom after the Roman period, Rashi himself omits any rationale for the continuity of this custom. What is then the rationale according to Rashi to continue to sound the Shofar so late in the day when there is no danger? The principle of being eager to perform a Mitzvah as early as possible surely should be applied!

The Tosafist commentary on the Talmud explains that although the decree is no longer in effect, there is a concern that it may revert. It is therefore advisable for the custom to sound the Shofar later in the day to remain. A more legalistic reason is offered by Medieval Talmudist Rabeinu Asher, known as the Rosh, in his commentary to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 4:4). He writes that once the custom had been instituted it would require another Jewish court to annul the custom even though the initial rationale for the custom is no longer relevant. As this had not occurred, the custom remains in effect as part of Jewish law.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 4:8) offers a different explanation all together for the custom. The reason for the custom to delay the Shofar blowing was due to an episode in a particular community where they sounded the Shofar in the morning, startling an enemy who thought it was a call to battle. The enemy advanced and massacred the community. It was then instituted that the Shofar should be sounded well into the service, after the morning prayers and the reading of the Torah, by which time the sounding of the Shofar would not raise alarm, as it would appear merely a part of the liturgy of the prayers and a tradition in the synagogue. This concern of the Jerusalemite Talmud would justify from a practical point of view why the custom continued even after that particular tragic episode occurred. This reason is also quoted and preferred by the Medieval Tosafists.

Another reason for the delay of the Shofar

The Machzor Vitry continues with this subject by suggesting a second reason for the sounding of the Shofar later in the day. He writes that since during the morning prayers one is ‘adorned’ with the performance of Mitzvot (commandments or good deeds), including the wearing of the Talit (prayer shawl), the recitation of the Shema (about the unity of G-d), as prescribed according to Jewish law to be recited in the morning and evening, and the reading from the Torah, the person is already so to say spiritually protected, thereby serving to avert Heavenly prosecution on the Day of Judgment. However, since the Musaf prayer has no special Mitzvot attached to it, it was instituted to sound the Shofar during the Musaf prayer to avert possible prosecution during this prayer. Rabbi Simcha concludes that this reason seems correct, for otherwise the principle to be eager in the performance of the Mitzvot would in fact require the sounding of the Shofar earlier in the day at the earliest opportunity.

This second reason provides a more positive rationale for continuing the delay in sounding of the Shofar in the synagogue. It is not merely to continue a tradition that arose from a time of persecution and oppression or tragedy but, as explained, it positively supports the person in his prayers asking for G-d’s blessing for the coming year. The possible intention of Rabbi Simcha in bringing this second reason may be to offer an explanation for the omission of any rationale by his teacher Rashi. It would seem that Rashi does not agree with the logic that a custom that arose in tragic circumstance is sufficient to delay the sounding of the Shofar in perpetuity unless there is also a positive reason for the delay. By omitting the reasoning of Rabeinu Asher and the Tosafists, he is hinting to a broader concept that is relevant in this case. This is articulated in the writing of his disciple Rabbi Simcha. 

Machzor Vitry and Rashi

I would like to argue that this positive rationale is in fact based on an explicit teaching of Rashi on a related subject. In the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah (16a), the following question is posed: why do we sound the Shofar when we are sitting and then again when we are standing - during the Musaf prayer? The Talmud answers: ‘In order to confuse the Satan’. Rashi explains that the Talmud means to say that the ‘Satan will be confused and unable to successfully prosecute when it hears how Jews endear G-d’s commandments (by sounding the Shofar a second time in the Musaf prayer).’

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides (1194-1270), explains in Drasha L’Rosh Hashanah that the Talmud is not saying that confusing the Satan is a reason for the soundings in the Musaf prayer but on the contrary it is the reason why the Shofar is sounded before the Musaf prayer, in addition to the later soundings during the Musaf prayer. Nachmanides is suggesting that the Talmud is arguing that by the sounding of the Shofar already before the Musaf prayer, Satan will become confused and will not proceed to prosecute during the Musaf prayers.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 - 1812), in his Shulchan Aruch, laws of Rosh Hashanah (592:7), ignores Rashi’s explanation in the Talmud and appears to follow the interpretation of Nachmanides.

The different between the two explanations, is that Nachmanides is not suggesting a positive element in the earlier sounding, whereas Rashi is suggesting a positive aspect in the sounding of the Shofar during the Musaf prayer, in that it allows the person to be spiritually bolstered by the Shofar sounding, thereby averting negative viewing by the Satan during the Musaf prayer. It would seem almost certain that this provides for the positive rationale pertaining to the delay in the sounding of the Shofar to allow for an enhanced standing before G-d in the person’s prayers for a good year.

Napoleon and early Shofar sounding

The reasons for the custom to sound the Shofar later in the day may have had a part to play in a major dispute that broke out in the 19th century in Europe. When Napoleon invaded Russia on 24 June, 1812 a dispute emerged amongst the rabbinic leaders of Russian Jewry whether to support Napoleon or the Tsar. The great Chassidic masters Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, Rabbi Yisrael, the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Riminov thought it would bring liberation for Russian Jewry which had been subject to pogroms, poverty and limited rights. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi on the other hand forcefully opposed Napoleon and instructed his followers to actively help the Tsar in his campaign against Napoleon. According to French historian Sir Colin Lucas, the debate was concerning the benefits of liberation versus authenticity.

As shortly after the invasion came the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a time of year when in Jewish tradition one’s fate is decided for the year ahead, Rabbi Schneur Zalman and the Maggid of Kozhnitz resolved that the great spiritual power of the sounding of the Shofar may determine this dispute and whoever would endeavour to sound the Shofar first would influence the outcome of Napoleon’s war against Russia. The Maggid of Kozhnitz arose well before dawn, began his prayers at the earliest permissible hour, prayed speedily, and sounded the shofar. Rabbi Schneur Zalman however departed from common practice and sounded the shofar at the crack of dawn, before the morning prayers. According to the legend, when the Maggid of Kozhnitz came to the time of sounding the Shofar, he said: The Litvak, the Lithuanian, as Rebbi Schneur Zalman was affectionately called by his colleagues, bested us.

It would appear that the consideration of the Maggid of Kozhnitz and Rabbi Schneur Zalman whether one may stray from the custom to blow the Shofar late may have hinged on the two principle reasons suggested in the Machzor Vitry. If the reason is merely not to stray from an established custom, then when the circumstances demand an earlier sounding of the Shofar, especially to avert a looming threat posed, in the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, by Napoleon, it would be permitted to sound the Shofar early. If we view the reason for sounding the Shofar late is to enhance our prayers, then it would not make sense, possibly self defeating, to sound the Shofar early only to leave the prayers lacking, without the accompaniment of the sounding of the Shofar, later on.


A different blessing on the Shofar

Machzor Vitry.jpgAnother discussion that appears in Jewish law relating to the sounding of the Shofar is the liturgy of the blessing over the Shofar. Rabbi Simcha writes in the Machzor Vitry (p. 385/593): ‘The leader of the congregation should take the Shofar and rise and recite the following blessing: Blessed are You, G-d, Lord of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us concerning the blowing of the Shofar.’ Rabbi Simcha’s opinion is to recite the blessing that G-d commanded us not on the hearing of the Shofar but on the blowing of the Shofar. This view is significant, as it goes contrary to most opinions, as well as the accepted opinion in most communities today.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135-1204), writes in his work Mishneh Torah (laws of Shofar 3:10): ‘The following is the commonly accepted custom for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah in the communal services: After the Torah is read and returned to its place, the congregation is seated. One person stands and recites the blessing: Blessed are You, G-d, Lord of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sounding of the Shofar.’ Similarly, the 16th century Rabbi Joseph Karo, writes in Shulchan Aruch (laws of Rosh Hashanah 555:2), writes: ‘Before blowing he should recite the blessing to hear the sounding of the Shofar. This is quoted also by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in Shulchan Aruch Harav (585:4).

The reason for the opinion of Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488 - 1575) and Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is as explained by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1340), in his work Arba'ah Turim, known as the Tur, that the description of the Biblical commandment to sound the Shofar is not concerning the blowing of the Shofar but rather hearing of the Shofar. This is illustrated by the following (Shulchan Aruch 587:1): ‘if one blows the Shofar but only hears an echo from a pit, rather than the actual sound, one has not fulfilled the Biblical commandment of hearing the Shofar.’ The reason is because hearing the sound of the Shofar is more important that blowing the Shofar.

Although the majority of the opinions in Jewish law do not follow the Machzor Vitry, Rabbi Simcha’s opinion is respected. Rabbi Abraham Abele Gombiner (c. 1633 – c. 1683), in his Jewish legal work Magen Avraham (laws of Rosh Hashanah) quotes the view of Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561–1640), as recorded in Bayit Chadash, commonly abbreviated as Bach, that if one recites the blessing ‘on the blowing of the Shofar’ it is still valid.

The source of the opinion of the Machzor Vitry pertaining to the blessing on the Shofar is Rabeinu Yehudai Gaon, the head of the Sura academy in Babylon in the 8th century. Rabeinu Asher (1250 or 1259 – 1327), commonly known as Rosh, writes in his commentary to the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 4:10) that the opinion of the great Tosafist Rabeinu Tam (c. 1100–c. 1171), born Yaakov ben Meir, one of the most renowned French Tosafists and foremost Jewish legal authority of his generation, is to say the blessing ‘on the blowing of the Shofar’. The reason is because it is the action of blowing that performs the commandment to hear the Shofar. It would appear that the custom of French Jewry and perhaps more broadly Ashkenazic Jewry was indeed to recite the blessing ‘on the blowing of the Shofar’ as oppose to ‘hearing the Shofar’.

Maimonides argued the Sephardic opinion forcefully in 12th century, followed by Rabbi Joseph Karo in 16th century. They stated that the blessing on the Shofar should be ‘on the hearing of the Shofar’. In a responsa on this subject (Ch. 43), Maimonides does not appear conciliatory to the opinion of French Jewry. He addresses the questions what the difference is between the blessing on the blowing of the Shofar and hearing the Shofar, and responds that the difference between them is ‘very, very great’.

He elaborates that ‘the commandment is not to blow the Shofar but to hear the Shofar is sufficient. If the Mitzvah were the blowing of the Shofar then every person would need to blow the Shofar on their own, as people needs to sit in a Sukkah. It is not something one can do on another person’s behalf. This view seems to be supported by the law, that if one blew the Shofar but did not hear it, one has not fulfilled one’s obligation at all. The definition of the Mitzvah is to hear the Shofar not the blowing, just as the commandment is to sit in a Sukkah and not to build it and to shake the Lulav and not merely gather it. For this reason one must recite the blessing to hear the Shofar, just as one makes the blessing to sit in the Sukkah.’

It is however questionable whether one can completely separate the hearing from the blowing. Although Maimonides is forthright with his view, Maimonides himself maintains the importance of the blowing with correct intentions. This would imply that one cannot separate the blowing from the hearing; they are an inseparable part of the same Mitzvah. Maimonides (laws of Shofar 2:4) writes:

‘A person who occupies himself with blowing the Shofar in order to learn does not fulfill his obligation. Similarly, one who hears the Shofar from a person who blows it casually does not fulfill his obligation. If the person hearing had the intention of fulfilling his obligation, but the person blowing did not have the intention of facilitating the latter's performance of the mitzvah, or the person blowing had the intention of facilitating his colleague's performance of the mitzvah, but the person hearing did not have the intention of fulfilling his obligation, the person hearing did not fulfil his obligation. Rather, both the person hearing and the one allowing him to hear must have the proper intention.’

In the work Mikroei Kodesh (Yomim Noraim p. 22), it in fact argues this point. The fact that the one blowing the Shofar must also have intentions to fulfill the obligation of the Divine commandment of sounding the Shofar on the Festival indicates that the blowing is also a part of the Mitzvah. This would explain the accepted opinion in Jewish law that if one were to make a blessing ‘on the blowing of the Shofar’, as the opinion of the Machzor Vitry, it would indeed be a valid blessing. This is another example of the important role that the Machzor Vitry would have played in articulating Jewish practice of French Jewry based on the teachings of his teacher Rashi and the earlier Gaonim brought over from the academies of Babylon.



Comments on: The Rare Oxford Machzor Vitry: A Rosh Hashana essay

L Y Raskin wrote...

According to Machzor Vitry, it seems that one who is deaf r"l would be obligated to blow Shofar!