Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book review: The Koren Sukkot Mahzor, The Gross Family Edition, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Koren Sukkot Mahzor, The Gross Family Edition
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016

Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Over a thousand years ago, Rav Amram Gaon set out to organize the corpus of Jewish prayer, and he created what we now call the Siddur (which means, quite simply, order) or Seder of Rav Amram. Subsequently, and over the course of generations, many new siddurim have been fashioned, and, in addition to the daily and weekly ritual cycles, a separate “order” was created for the annual festivals and holy days. This organized corpus of festive prayers is known as the mahzor, from the Hebrew word for cycle.

Koren Publishers recently released a beautiful Mahzor for Sukkot, the latest volume in a larger set of Mahzorim produced for all of the holidays. Like the others in this set, the Mahzor for Sukkot features an elegant introduction, translation and commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As in all of Koren’s publications, the eponymous font is clear and easy to read, but what makes this series special is the meticulous and illuminating translation and commentary.

Translating a text of this sort is much more difficult than most people imagine. Finding the right words to convey both the meaning and tone of the original, whether the text is biblical or rabbinic, and even more so in the case of piyyutim, poses a challenge. Rabbi Sacks is uniquely capable of meeting this challenge. His eloquent English rendition conveys the solemnity of prayer in a modern yet serious tone, which, remarkably, retains the feel of the original. Even readers who are well acquainted with the mahzor have much to gain from reviewing the prayers and learning the words and their meanings from Rabbi Sacks. I imagine many people say the Hoshanot year after year without really understanding the meaning or message of this powerful prayer. With this new Mahzor, both the definitions of the words and the larger message being conveyed by the prayer become clear – and therefore more meaningful.

I do have one or two suggestions for improvement: The editing is somewhat uneven with regard to sources and citations. While the sources for most ideas are cited with precision, others are more vague. Thus, for example, on p. 372, the citation reads, “Zohar;” no page, chapter or section are cited. Pages 492-495 attribute an idea to Rabbi Soloveitchik, but no specific source is cited. On p. 499 an explanation is given in the name of the Malbim which distinguishes between the concepts of sasson and simcha (“Simcha, joy, refers to inward emotion. Sasson, gladness, refers to the outward signs of celebration.”) There is no citation of the precise source in the Malbim (this idea is found in the Malbim’s commentary on Isaiah 35:1). It should also be noted that other commentaries came to the opposite conclusion (see commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Esther 8:16, and Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik’s comments in Reshimot Shiurim Sukkah 48b: “Sasson in Hebrew denotes an inward feeling, and simcha notes an outward action, as the verses indicate - sasson in Psalm 119:162, and simcha  in Isaiah 55:12”).

Another suggestion involves the internal structure of this new mahzor. As anyone who is familiar with the generic, “everyday” siddur knows, a mahzor is not really necessary; the prayers for most holidays are included in the vast majority of siddurim. The problem is one of convenience: Using a “regular” siddur would require us to flip through the book several times during the course of holiday prayers.  We would begin with weekday prayers, switch to Shabbat prayers at a certain point, move back to weekday prayers, flip pages toward the end of the book in search of the correct Amidah, jump to Hallel, search for the Torah reading, look for the shir shel yom, and so on.

Theoretically, the purpose of a mahzor is to simplify the technical side of praying on holidays. In general, the mahzor is organized according to the sequence in which the various prayers are recited. While this may sound simple, prayers on Sukkot present a unique challenge. Although the Koren Sacks Sukkot Mahzor is almost 1500 pages long, it cannot easily contend with the variety of choices that the user must make. For example, Ma’ariv, which appears on p. 1336, is recited both at the end of the first day of the holiday (i.e., on Chol HaMoed), as well as on Shabbat Chol Hamoed, and again at the close of the entire holiday. Upon opening the mahzor to the correct page, the reader is forced to make several choices: Do I say morid hatal or mashiv haruach? Should I add Ata Chonantanu? Is Yaaleh v’Yavo appropriate? The Hoshanot present a similar challenge: Calendric variations produce various possibilities for each of the days of the festival. While the Koren Mahzor offers clear instructions, the overall user experience is not all that different from using a “regular” siddur.

This problem did not go unnoticed or unaddressed by the publisher, who devised an innovative though partial solution: Whereas a table of contents is usually a simple device that informs the reader what is in the book, starting with the first page and proceeding through the book in numerical order, the Koren Sacks Mahzor uses the table of contents to contend with the unique challenge of prayers that are repeated at various junctures over the course of the holiday. The Table of Contents does not list the numerical order of the pages; instead, it lists the sequence in which the prayers are said on each day of the holiday, providing a guide to finding the right page.

On the other hand, would it have been wise, despite the repetitiveness and the massive size and weight of the volume, to include the same “weekday Ma’ariv” three times? I imagine that some readers would prefer this repetition – each Ma’ariv appearing in its precise location, complete with its particular nuances -  at the expense of omitting some of the less utilitarian features of the present edition, such as the entire tractate of Sukka, or the piyyutim which have fallen into disuse in many communities.

Carrying one’s four species as well as a 1500 page mahzor can be unwieldy. Given this reality, I would strongly encourage the publisher to produce a “smart” siddur/mahzor version, which can be used on a smart phone or tablet. This would solve many of the problems I have raised, and the prayers would be presented in their proper sequence. Obviously, this solution would only work for Chol HaMoed, and not Shabbat or Yom Tov; it would nonetheless make the prayer book/Mahzor much more efficient and user-friendly.

A final suggestion is closely related to those I have already raised: The “smart” table of contents notwithstanding, some prayers are found in completely unpredictable places: For example, the prayer recited before leaving the sukkah at the end of the holiday is found on page 186/7, together with the Ushpizin, in a section labeled “Meditation in the Sukkah.” In most mahzorim, this prayer is found – quite logically – at the end of the book. Moreover, explanation is sorely lacking in this section, regarding the particular Ushpizin recited on each of the days of the festival, as well as the ways in which the unique spiritual personality of each of these “guests” impacts our experience of the holiday. Why, for example, do we invoke the “skin of the Leviathan?” What does this creature have to do with the festival of Sukkot?

The Koren Mahzor will enhance your holiday. It will elevate your prayer experience, and enrich your knowledge and understanding of the festival and its liturgy. Rabbi Sacks, who has emerged as the preeminent spokesperson for Judaism today, is to be congratulated for this latest volume. I wish him many more years of health and productivity. May he continue to lead, with both his spoken and written words. I look forward to his next project.

Rabbi Ari Kahn is an author of books on Torah and Jewish Holidays.

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