Prayer Percolates At Midnight


Serious coffee drinkers know that coffee preceded Starbucks. Arthur Godfrey sold it on black-and-white TV in the 1950s, and they say that it was first discovered in ninth-century Ethiopia. By the 16th century, it had reached Jews in Israel, where it helped revolutionize Judaism.

Prior to coffee, people went to bed early. Once they became wired on coffee, however, they stayed up late, a challenge that led kabbalists to invent nighttime rituals, like midnight prayers. To this day, Ashkenaz Jews gather on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah for Slichot. Traditionally, the service is held at midnight. And yes, I kid you not: it is the result of coffee! At least the midnight placement of that service is. (As far back as King David, mystics would rise early, or stay up all night in prayer, meditation and study). Sometimes held at sunrise, the idea of a preparatory penitential service was held earlier in the night, as Jews learned to identify the night as rife with spiritual potential.

If the impact of coffee helped popularize Slichot’s move to midnight, perhaps spiritual and moral lessons may be found in other breakthroughs as well. One chasidic rebbe said he learned from the telegraph that every word is counted and charged. The rebbe learned from the telephone that what is said here can be heard there.

So I wonder: what might we learn from technology today? Here’s my short list to take into Slichot this Saturday night.

From e-communication advances like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, I learn how prescient Judaism was way back in the sixth century BCE, when it taught (during Babylonian exile) that all human beings are children of one God; that our future is indelibly interwoven together. “Why does the Torah provide the story of Adam and Eve?” the Sages asked. Answer: To teach us that all humanity is descended from a single set of parents.

From Twitter, I learn that in hardly any words at all, it is possible to bring great joy, but also enormous hurt. I love the way our most central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, opens with, “God, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise,” and the way it concludes: “My God, keep my mouth from speaking evil and my lips from spouting deceit.” Like God at the moment of Creation, we, too, bring whole worlds into being by what we say. Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty, harmony and promise; or pollute us all in a haze of violence, filth and despair.

From the I-cloud, by which I save pretty much everything I ever write, think or record, I conclude that what we say and how we act do not so quickly disappear into oblivion. Generations after us will draw on the moral foundation that we leave behind. According to Shakespeare, when Marc Antony eulogized Julius Caesar, he said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Rabbis, by contrast, believed it is the good that lives on. The very name of those we memorialize can be a blessing, according to the Yerushalmi, because “The words of the wise are an everlasting memorial.” Long before computers, Judaism directed us to preserve our people’s wisdom as a legacy for tomorrow.

These are not new lessons to Judaism, it turns out.

Rosh HaShanah was already the most universal of holy days: a time to celebrate God’s rule over a marvelously diverse yet interconnected human family.

We human beings are uniquely “creatures of speech,” the Rabbis say, who can use our gift of speaking to fashion a world rich with promise.

Throughout the Days of Awe, especially, we are urged to leave our own personal legacy of lessons that will be a blessing.

From the Slichot warm-up to the end of the Yom Kippur, we get time to marvel at the way old lessons become truer over time, and how they call us to make life matter. n

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Quote: ‘Just a few words can augment the world’s beauty.’

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:32 p.m.
Torah: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Haftorah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Havdalah: 7:31 p.m.