When in Rome (Don’t Call Yourself Roman)

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 28, 2009, issue of November 06, 2009.
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From down under in Melbourne, Australia, Lauren Wiener writes:

“Could you please explain how ‘Nusach Sfard’ came to be the Nusach of some Ashkenazi Jews and why the family name Ashkenazi exists mostly among Sephardic Jews?”

Let’s take part two of the question first. Although on first thought it may seem illogical that Sephardic Jews should be called Ashkenazi, on second thought nothing could be more logical. After all, suppose you were an Ashkenazi Jew named Chaim living somewhere in Germany or Eastern Europe in the 17th century and you moved to somewhere else in Germany or Eastern Europe: Since you still would be living among Ashkenazim, your being an Ashkenazi yourself would hardly attract attention, and no one would think of calling you “Chaim Ashkenazi” to distinguish you from another Chaim. But if, on the other hand, you moved to a country inhabited by Sephardic Jews, such as Egypt or Morocco, your Ashkenazic background would stand out, and “Chaim Ashkenazi” might well become your moniker.

This is true of all family names formed from place names. As I once pointed out in this column, a family named Berliner is a family in which the ancestors left Berlin; one named Lubliner had ancestors who left Lublin. And should it be objected that there are also Ashkenazim named Ashkenazi, this, too, is easily explainable. Here we are dealing with Ashkenazim whose ancestors moved to a Sephardic country, were given the name Ashkenazi there and then, taking it with them, moved back at some point to Ashkenaziland.

The name Ashkenazi also has to do with the first part of Ms. Wiener’s question about “Nusach Sfard” (from Hebrew nusaḥ S’farad), the so-called “Sephardic liturgy” used in prayer by certain Ashkenazic congregations, particularly Hasidic ones. (I say “so-called” inasmuch as “Nusach Sfard” — the term itself is an Ashkenazic one — differs from the liturgy used by most Sephardic Jews, even though it is partly based on it.) This is because of the enormous influence on Eastern European Hasidism, which developed in the 18th century, of the thought of 16th-century Palestinian kabbalist Yitzhak Ashkenazi Luria, better known in Jewish tradition as “the Ari” (an acronym, also meaning “lion” in Hebrew, for ha-elohi rabi Yitzhak, “the divine Rabbi Yitzhak.”) Luria — who, though born in Jerusalem, came, as his name indicates, from an Ashkenazic family — and the circle of kabbalists that gathered around him in the city of Safed developed their own liturgy that blended Sephardic and Ashkenazic elements and was eventually adopted by the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. In the course of time, this liturgy split into two different versions, one known as Nusach Sfard, and the other, used primarily by the Hasidim of the Lubavitch or Habad movement, as Nusach ha-Ari.

Although the differences between Nusach Sfard and Nusach ha-Ari — and between the two of them and Nusach Ashkenaz, the standard Ashkenazic liturgy — are slight and consist mostly of small variations of phrasing, these can appear significant to devout Jews who take every word of their prayers seriously. As an example of them, we might take the prayer at the very beginning of shaḥarit, the morning service, that starts, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and cavities.” In Nusach Ashkenaz, this continues, “It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that were one of them to be ruptured or blocked, it would be impossible to survive or stand before you.” Nusach Sfard has, “… it would be impossible to survive or stand before you for even a single hour.” Nusach ha-Ari has: “… it would be impossible to survive for even a single hour.”

Over such things, congregations have gone to war. My father, an observant Jew but hardly a Hasid, grew up in a Habad family and followed the Nusach ha-Ari and its version of the Grace After Meals, which in the final paragraph omits the verse (taken from the Book of Psalms) “Na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti,” “I have been young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging for bread.” Habadniks liked to boast that they were too honest to say anything so patently untrue, and even joked that “Na’ar hayiti,” “I have been young,” should be Yiddishized as “narr hayiti,” “I have been a fool,” though if one avoided everything untrue in the prayer book, one would have to avoid a lot more than just that. My father, in any case, loved to flaunt this omission: If we were reciting or singing the Grace with guests around a Sabbath or holiday table (or even if we were someone else’s guests), he would loudly skip from the verse before “Na’ar hayiti” to the verse after it, and smile with satisfaction at the disruption he had caused. What would become of Judaism if we all agreed about everything?

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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