Machzor Blog: The Rhythm of the Page

Jan 4, 2013 by

The rhythm for the conversation was clear to me from the start.  As we began to pilot the new CCAR machzor, my congregation’s diverse volunteer group would discuss specific passages and the general tone. Topics would include the positioning of the Hebrew on the page and the very numbering of the pages.  I could predict the conversation’s rhythm, but not that our attention would be drawn to the very rhythm of certain pages.

The setting of the Al Cheit prayer was among those very pages.  Considering the list of sins in this prayer, we knew we would discuss content, but we also found ourselves pondering layout.  My congregants have been impressed equally by the machzor editors’ openness to considering items as diverse as the translation of Al Cheit Shechatanu and of the very rhythm of that prayer’s page.

Currently, most Reform synagogues use Gates of Repentance, first published in 1979 and updated in 1986.  I have had the honor of worshipping in over a dozen synagogues over the years, as a child, student, rabbi, and even just an adult worshipper.  The style of these synagogues has differed greatly in the music, the balance of Hebrew and English, and the general level of formality.  However, all of these Yom Kippur services have followed the basic rhythm for reciting Al Cheit, and some other prayers.  We have alternated the two languages

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continually down the page.  We have followed what I would call the “rhythm of the page,” whether we have read, sung, or alternated our way through Al Cheit. Sure, other prayerbooks, including the Reform Judaism’s earlier Union Prayer Book, don’t have this alternating rhythm.  Sure, there are Reform synagogues that don’t move back and forth between the two languages.  However, clearly what I have experienced is not uncommon.  Reform congregations tend to work our way through the prayer’s pattern by following the rhythm of the page.

The Al Cheit is a great window into the creative process of our editors.  At one early moment, we faced a very different rhythm of the page.  The page’s layout challenged our worship.  We could read or sing the Hebrew and then read or skip the English, but it was awkward to alternate in our familiar pattern.  My volunteers immediately understood one of the issues at play.  Our current machzor includes just Hebrew and English.  The pilot book juggles Hebrew, English, and transliterated Hebrew.  At one stage, the page presented itself as

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though in fuller form.  How might we balance these three aspects of the prayer on one page? How might we honor familiar modes of Reform Jewish worship? Yet, how might we challenge ourselves to pray in new ways?

How pleasant it was to discover a different, yet more familiar, rhythm of the same basic prayer in a later version of the machzor.  Here, all three versions of the words are included.  We preserve a layout that enables us to pray as we have for decades.  We are granted the opportunity to recite these prayers in other ways, if we so choose.  There is nothing sacred about a rhythm of

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However, there is something beloved and familiar.  Reform Jews have a remarkable ability to critique our very manner of worship.  Yet, those same worshippers enjoy a certain level of comfort in the practices of our synagogues.  A new machzor will encourage exciting new approaches and tones to our communal and personal prayers.  However, the editors of the ever-evolving CCAR machzor clearly are valuing the touchstones that shape our services. 

We can’t just talk about layout when developing a new machzor. We must also discuss the choices of what to include and how to translate each passage.  However, layout matters.  My congregation and I have learned that we are in search of a certain rhythm of a page, the very layout itself, that will enable us to connect and consider our lives as we recite Al Cheit and other prayers.  The machzor’s challenge is clear, yet even broader, because other prayers might call for other rhythms on the page.

Rabbi Andrew Busch serves Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information on piloting the machzor, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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