The High Holy Days: A Commentary on the Prayerbook of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
By Hayyim Herman Kieval
Edited by Prof. David Golinkin and Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg
The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
The High Holy Days are once again at our doorstep, and congregations have already begun to hold Selihot services and to sound the shofar every morning. This is always the right time to take the High Holy Day prayer books from the shelf, to shake them free of the dust that has accumulated over the past year, to page through them and even to hum some of the better-known melodies that usher the listener into the month of Elul and the 10 days of penitence between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Every Jew is meant to be engrossed in preparations for these days, but there is no doubt that it is the rabbis, the Torah readers, the shofar blowers, the cantors and the choir conductors who are the first to ready their pens or get their voices into shape. In this context, many will seek to understand the words they will soon utter in the synagogue, the significance of the prayers and their history, and the background to the customs and their meaning.
Rabbi Hayyim Herman Kieval's book, The High Holy Days: A Commentary on the Prayerbook of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, published in 1959, has for many years served as an aid for readers of English. In contrast to what the subtitle states, Rabbi Kieval provides a close reading only of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, proceeding according to the order of the standard Ashkenazi High Holy Day prayerbook. The text is accompanied by linguistic explanations, philosophical discussion, historical background and literary analysis.
The High Holy Days went out of print, but it is now being reissued by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. As it turns out, the 46 years that have passed since this book was first published have not taken a toll - almost everything stated in the book still holds in relation to new scholarly developments.
The publisher has also appended the second part of the book that Rabbi Kieval was never able to publish during his lifetime - that dealing with Yom Kippur Eve. Rabbi Kieval, who passed away in 1991, left behind the manuscript of Part Two, and with the assistance of his family, and primarily due to the commendable initiative of Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute, it now appears in print.
This addition features a comparison between the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and that of Yom Kippur, a history of the custom to recite Selihot, and an orderly discussion of the components of the Kol Nidre service of Yom Kippur Eve. It is regrettable that Rabbi Kieval did not have the privilege of completing his work on the entire Yom Kippur prayerbook, but even the portion available to us provides valuable assistance to anyone for whom just saying or singing the words is not enough.
Included too are explanations and discussions of everything that happens in the synagogue on Kol Nidre night, such as the history of the Kol Nidre declaration and its melodies, the reason it is permissible on Kol Nidre night to pray with those who have transgressed (referred to in a declaration whose origin, in contrast to accepted opinion, is 13th-century Ashkenaz, and not in the Spain of the Conversos), an explanation of the public recitation of the words "barukh shem kvod malkhuto l'olam va-ed" (in contrast to the custom to recite them in undertones throughout the year), and an analysis and interpretation of the Selihot recited on this evening, such as the liturgical poem beginning "Like clay in the hand of the potter..."
While it is impossible, in this short survey, to encompass all the wealth hidden in this volume, let it suffice to state that the discerning eye of Rabbi Kieval, his knowledge of the field, his fine literary taste, and his educational-philosophical approach, are reflected on every page. The book will doubtless add an important, necessary and useful element to every person who prays - and not only to prayer leaders - to truly fulfill the wish "that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our Father in Heaven."
The book may be purchased by going to: www.schechter.edu, or calling the Schechter Institute: 02-6790755, ext. 111.
The writer is a professor of Hebrew Literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.