Does Halachah, Jewish Law, allow changes to be made to the Siddur? The Siddur is one victim of the religious turmoil that has existed in the Jewish world since the enlightenment of the 1700’s. The traditionalist camp insisted on maintaining the Siddur’s status quo, while the progressive camp insisted on changing it. The more the reformists added to, subtracted from, and changed its language and content, the deeper the traditionalists dug their feet into their position of opposing any change whatsoever. What happens, though, when circumstances really do change, and part of the existing prayers either loose relevance or accuracy? One time this question becomes particularly relevant is Tisha B’av.
The text of the special prayer that is recited as part of Mincha on Tisha B’Av contains the following passage:
“Console the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mournful, ruined, scorned, and desolate: mournful without her children, ruined without her abodes, scorned without her glory, and desolate without inhabitant.”
For close to two-thousand years, Jerusalem did sit desolate. But in the twentieth century, the city changed dramatically – particularly after the Six Day War in 1967 when the Israel Defense Forces recaptured the Old City along with the Temple Mount and the Western Wall from Jordanian hands. The city has since experienced a drastic rebirth. Jerusalem is no longer without her children, nor is she desolate without inhabitant. According to the 2007 census, 64% of the city’s 747,600 residents were Jewish. Jerusalem is no longer ruined without her abodes, nor does she seem to be scorned without her glory; the city’s various neighborhoods occupy over 48 square miles. Is this prayer still relevant? If not, is it possible to change it?
Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi (1924 – 1998), a former Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, records in his series of published rabbinic responsa entitled “Asei Lecha Rav,” that he was asked this question. In his answer to the question, this Orthodox rabbi takes the position that this particular sentence is no longer relevant. He goes on to point out that the Sephardic version of the text, which only mentions that Jerusalem is, ruined, scorned, and desolate without her children, is less problematic than the Ashkenazic text quoted above that goes into more detail. He concludes that since Jerusalem has come under Jewish sovereignty and sees throngs of thousands upon thousands of Jews visit on numerous holidays, that it would be simply false to utter these words in a prayer before the Almighty. He writes that when he personally recites the prayer, he avoids this complication by adding one Hebrew word, shehayta (“that was”), and by changing the tense to past instead of present. The prayer then effectively asks for less; by referring to Jerusalem as the city that was once desolate, it acknowledges that it is now already populated and vibrant but still requests that it be returned to its full former spiritual glory.
R. HaLevi’s approach is logical and reasonable; one weakness that blunts its strength is the blaring omission of analysis of textual sources or rabbinic precedents relevant to the issue. More significantly, the fact that every Siddur, to my knowledge, that has been published in the last fifty years has kept the original text of the prayer intact without even any minor changes, proves that R. HaLevi’s approach has not been adopted as Minhag Yisrael (standard Jewish practice). This may be due to the reluctance mentioned above to make any changes to the Siddur, even when they are seemingly justified. It is also possible that there is a deeper reason. Our sages viewed the destruction of the two Holy Temples of Jerusalem as due to the nation’s spiritual shortcomings. That is, although one would of course not have detected any deficiency in the physical and material situation of the nation prior to each destruction , its heart was imperceptibly failing. The Talmud says that any generation that has not seen Jerusalem and the Temple rebuilt does not merit their return. Jerusalem’s contemporary rebirth is nothing less than miraculous and an obvious major historical milestone. Until the Jewish people itself accomplishes its own rebirth, in a spiritual and moral sense, Jerusalem will not have truly returned to its former glory – no matter how beautiful it may superficially appear.