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Thoughts on Encountering a Different Prayer Nusach

The word “nusach” which in modern Hebrew means a formula, a version, or a rite, with regard to the prayer service, is used in two different ways. Cantors speak of the appropriate nusach for chanting each service, the melodic mode characteristic of that service, the appropriate melodies for the prayers according to various traditions. One can often tell which service a cantor is chanting from the nusach, the melody, even if one does not catch the words. Though I try to keep to the appropriate nusach for each service that I lead, I really do not know much regarding the technical aspects of the music used. I leave discussion of that kind of nusach to cantors to discuss. However, I just know that I find it jarring when someone chants part of the Shabbat morning service to a melody that belongs in the evening service.


The other usage of the word “nusach” refers to the liturgical tradition of a particular prayer community. Though many prayers in Jewish liturgy are universal, there are quite a number of variations in the wording or the order of prayers in different parts of the Jewish world. We usually think of Ashkenazic and Sephardic nusach, but that leaves out the unique nuschaot of North Africa, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern communiies, as well as the Italian nusach and some other European groups. Italian Jews will tell you that historically they preceded the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, so they are neither and, indeed, I’ve found their liturgy to be quite elegant.  A tiny bit of research will uncover many more nuschaot than one might imagine, some no longer practiced and others absorbed into neighboring traditions. The advent of the printing press also tended to homogenize these traditions.

Looking at other nuschatot than our own Ashkenaizic version, we find that some of these traditions add prayers or biblical readings not found in out nusach. Some leave out sections that we may be used to including in our prayerbook. I was reminded of these kinds of variation when I attended Shabbat services during my recent visit to California. I went to a morning service held at the home of the local Chabad rabbi in Huntington Beach. The service was outdoors in the backyard of Rabbi Yossi  and Yiska Berkowitz. I sat under a lemon tree, with a cool breeze coming in from the Pacific Ocean a few blocks away. The service followed Nusach Chabad, which is a version of the prayerbook prepared by the first Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of LIadi (1745 – 1812), based on his study of some 60 prayerbooks to determine what he considered the “correct” version based on the Kabbalistic teachings of the 16th century Rabbi, Isaac Luria, known as the Ari. 


Though most of the prayers were familiar to me, some were in a different order than one finds in the Ashkenazic prayerbook on which our Conservative siddur is mostly based. For example, the service began at 10:30 with the prayers of P’sukei D’zimrah, the preliminary service, mostly comprised of Psalms. The assumption was that one had already recited the introductory Birchot Hashachar, the morning blessings, which begin our service here. When I was a student in Israel, I encountered this practice as well in Ashkenazic services that I attended, where they began with Psalm 30, Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit L’David, a mourner’s kaddish, and then the blessing of Baruch Sheamar. The earlier prayers were to be recited on your own and that way, one would fulfill the mitzvah of saying the Sh’ma at its proper time and then say the rest at a more convenient time. 


The Chabad prayerbook follows Sephardic tradition with regard to P’sukei D’zimrah, reciting the lengthy passage of Hodu Ladonay Kir’u Bishmo first, before getting to the 30th Psalm. This practice is characteristic of what is known as Nusach Sepharad, not to be confused with the actual Sephardic nusach. In this tradition, Baruch Sheamar is deferred until after the recital of a whole series of Psalms which Ashkenazim add immediately after the blessing, on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Some of those Psalms they put in a different order from our Ashkenazic version and to these, they add Psalm 98, that we say in Kabbalat Shabbat and Psalms 121 -124, from the Shirei HaMaalot, that some recite after the mincha service on Shabbat during the winter months. Only then, do they get to Psalms 135 and 136, that we recite as the Hallel HaGadol. One more prayer precedes the blessing of Baruch Sheamar. It appears in our Lev Shalem Machzor on Yom Kippur. It is the litany of HaAderet v’HaEmunah, (Power and Faith) an alphabetical acrostic containing a series of paired terms, from alef to tav, each followed by the words “l’Chay Olamim, to the One who gives life to the world.


Once one completes all of these Shabbat additions, one finally comes to the opening blessing of P’sukei D’zimrah, Baruch Sheamar. I believe that postponing the blessing to this point in the service, may have been done in order to shorten the interval between the opening blessing and the closing one of Yishtabach during which one is not supposed to interrupt with conversation since the rabbis linked the two blessings together. So now, having recited Baruch Sheamar, they recite the Shabbat Psalms 92 and 93, the collection of verses of Y’hi K’vod, which leade into the core of P’sukei D’zimrah, the Ashrei and Psalms 146 – 150, the conclusion of the book of Psalms. This section is followed by the four verses of Baruch Adonay L’olam, and the late Medieval additions from Chronicles and Nehemiah which introduce the Song of the Sea and afterward the prayer of Nishmat Kol Chay.


From this point, we continued toward the closing blessing which, as in Ashkenazi tradition is introduced on Shabbat and holidays by Shochen Ad and Uv’makhalot.. I noticed a few extra words added to the blessing in this tradition. Yishtabach was preceded with the word “uv’chen” “and therefore (may Your name be praised)”. Toward the end of the blessing, enumerating God’s praises, two more unfamiliar phrases were inserted, “Borei kol haneshamot” “Creator of all souls” and ‘Ribon kol hama’asim” “Master of all deeds.” Following the blessing, the service continues with the Chatzi Kaddish, Barchu and the Sh’ma and its blessings. As is often the case with us, they too had to skip over the Kaddish and Barchu for lack of a minyan until later in the service. Four young men arrived in time for the Torah service to make the minyan. Whenever the Kaddish was recited, they added right after b’alma divra k’irutei, following the Sephardic practice, ‘v’yatzmach purkanei v’kareiv mishichei,” Thus after praying that the name of God be magnified and sanctified in the world which He created according to His will,” they add the words, “may salvation sprout and may His Messiah come soon.”  The congregation again responds, “Amen.”


The next section of the service is pretty familiar though there were a handful of variations in the wording that I noted in the blessings preceding the Sh’ma. Most notable in the first blessing, the blessing of Yotzer Or, is that they follow the practice of Rav Saadiah Gaon, in his 10thcentury prayerbook, by omitting the line “Or chadash al Tziyon tair.” The idea is that praying for a “new light over Zion” does not really belong in the blessing thanking God for creation, even though we do praise Him specifically for light and darkness. This metaphorical light refers to redemption and we have a separate blessing for redemption, they would argue. 


The second blessing which Ashkenazim begin “Ahavah Rabbah,” Nusach Sefarad and Chabad begin as at Maariv with “Ahavat Olam,”” eternal love” rather than “great love.” There are a few “extra” words added to this second blessing as well. If you are familiar with the original version of Carlebach’s V’haer Eineinu, which we generally sing on Saturday morning, you may notice that this version  he usesd, in whicht not only do we pray that we not suffer embarrassment, lo neivosh, but also lo nikaleim v’lo nikasheil, that we avoid shame and stumbling as well. Carlebach grew up in Chabad and I was told that my host was a cousin of his, so this addition was expected. The rest of the blessing includes a couple of significant additional phrases as well, Before continuing with V’havieinu, this prayerbook adds the prayer, “May Your mercy and Your abounding kindness never forsake us. Hasten and speedily bring upon us blessing and peace.” Only at this point do we continue with “v’havieinu, bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth.” Before the next phrase, v’tolicheinu, this version adds the words, “break the yoke of the nations from our neck” and only then continues, “and speedily lead us upright to our land.” Our version of “that we may praise You and proclaim Your oneness in love” is modified to “proclaim Your oneness and love Your name.” The three passages of the Sh’ma from the Torah then follow this second blessing as usual. They remain the same, of course.


The blessing after the Sh’ma, the Geulah, redemption, blessing, has a few minor variations as well from our familiar text. Most noticeable, however, is the conclusion where we do not find the Tzur Yisrael passage which we are accustomed to singing just before the Amidah. The line, “Tzur Yisrael, kumah b’ezrat Yisrael, uf’dei k’numecha Yehudah v’Yisrael,” Rock of Israel, arise to help Israel, and redeem as You have said, Judah and Israel,” is omitted. We say: “v’neemar” and then coniinue “goaleinu Adonay Tzvaot sh’mo k’dosh Yisrael.” “As it is said: Our redeemer is the Lord of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel,” as in our Ashkenazic nusach, followed by the blessing of Ga’al Yisrael.


In the Amidah, which follows, the opening two blessings are identical to our version (no matriarchs added, however). The Kedushah is mostly the same except for the opening passage and the conclusion. To introduce the angelic chorus from Isaiah, Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, we have a line that begins somewhat like the Ashkenazic version for Musaf, “Nakdishach v’na’aritzach” We will hallow and adore You, in the sweet words of the assembly of the holy Seraphim, who thrice repeat ‘Holy,” and from here we continue as in our Ashkenazic nusach until the last paragraph where instead of L’dor vador, the reader chants the version of Kedushah which we say during the silent Amidah, “Ata kadosh v’shimcha kadosh…” In the middle blessing of the Amidah, the Kedushat Hayom, the opening paragraphs are the same. It is only in the ‘V’lo n’tato” passage that the ending is different, opening with the familiar line from Musaf, “Yism’chu b’malchutcha, shomrei Shabbat v’korei oneg.” “Those who observe Shabbat and call it a delight, shall rejoice in Your kingdom.” Then the passage concludes as we do in our version, “Am m’kadshei sh’viyi, etc.” The closing paragraph is almost the same except for the replacement of “samcheinu” with “v’samach nafsheinu,” “make us rejoice” becomes instead “make our souls rejoice.” The final three blessings of the Amidah are identical to the Ashkenazic nusach.


After the full Kaddish, what we recite as the concluding Psalms, the Psalm for Shabbat, the special Psalm for Rosh Chodesh on the new moon, and the Psalm for this season of the holidays, l’David ori v’yishi, are recited, a custom followed also in some Ashkenazic services as well. This was the practice at the Jewish Theological Seminary when I was a student, saying these Psalms prior to the Torah service, instead of at the conclusion of our prayers.


The opening of the Torah service does not include all of the same verses we say, (“Ein Kamocha ba’Elohim Adonay” does not appear), but instead the Chabad nusach uses verses reminiscent of Simchat Torah, “Ata horeita ladaat,” and then the Vay’hi vinsoa ha-aron. The rest of the Torah service was the same as we do, until I was surprised when it came time to put the Torah back, that after Y’hal’lu, the Torah was immediately returned to the ark and neither Mizmor L’David, Psalm 29, nor Etz Chayim Hi was sung. A d’var Torah followed and then on to Musaf.


For Musaf, again the chatzi kaddish was chanted and the Amidah read silently. In the repetition of the Amidah, after the opening two blessings, we again find a different version of Kedushah. The opening paragraph, introducing the three-fold kadosh from Isaiah, is a very grand introduction, from the Sephardic tradition, “Keter yitnu l’cha…” “A crown is given to You, O Lord our God, by the angels, the supernal multitude and by Your people Israel who assemble before. All of them together thrice repeat” kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. The ending of the introduction to the Ezekiel verse, Baruch k’vod, is slightly different as well.  However, it is the Hu Eloheinu line that is expanded and elaborated on and sung with great gusto.  After hu Eloheinu, hu avinu, hu malkeinu, hu moshieinu, that we are familiar with, comes the following: Hu yoshieinu v’yigaleinu sheinit b’karov, He will soon again save us and redeem us and in His mercy will let us hear in the sight of every living thing, as follows, ‘Behold I have redeemed you from this final exile as from the first, to be your God.’” The congregation responds as in the Ashkenazi nusach, “Ani Adonay Eloheichem, I am the Lord your God.” Again, at Musaf, l’dor vador is replaced with atah kadosh.


The middle blessing of Tikanta Shabbat has some slight variations as well. I noticed that the first word tikanta, in nusach Chabad has a kuf for the k sound while the Ashkenazic nusach has a kaf. Both are translated as “You established,” though with a kuf, it seems to me to reflect the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for the Messianic Shabbat and with a kaf, I’d take it to mean that this was His initial creation of Shabbat, but clearly the Alte Rebbe had some intention in mind by changing that one letter. The other change later in the paragraph can also be found in some versions of the Ashkenazic nusach as noted in a footnote of Siddur Aliyot Eliyahu. The rest of the Amidah, it seems, is pretty much the same as the Ashkenazic version we know.


When we get to Ein Keloheinu at the end of the Musaf, following the Ata Hu verse, a different paragraph is added leading into the selection about the incense offering in the ancient Temple: “You will save us. You will arise and have mercy on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her, the appointed time has come.” Only then do we come to the line of Ata hu…shehiktiru l’fanecha et ketoret hasamim.” As we saw some time back, the line is omitted in the Reform prayer book and is linked to the passage on incense that we do not read.


After that, they do read the passage on the incense, followed by the Kaddish d’Rabanan, and then chant Aleinu, and recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. 


After this, (it was now 1:00 pm) the tables were rearranged and a lovely kiddush and lunch were served, including a variety of salads and a pot of cholent as well. This group made a point of utilizing familiar melodies in the service wherever possible for prayers like the Sh’ma and Alenu, but also included a few Chabad melodies which I had learned years ago on a visit to Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn, when the Rebbe Menachem Mendel was still active, when I was a student. Brand new editions of the prayerbook with translation and commentary also made the service more welcoming and intelligible for visitors, I’m sure.


I always find it interesting to participate in the various traditions of Judaism. I have in the past had opportunities to join congregations that followed the Sephardic and Italian nuschaot, as well as the Yemenite tradition and as a student of liturgy have always found them of great interest. This Chabad service was not my first, but after devoting so much study to our prayerbook in the past few years, not only did I enjoy the davening, but I found the variations enlightening as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman

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