Tag Archives: monty python

A High Holy Days Time Turner: Harry Potter and Jewish Liturgical Competence

An image showed up in my Facebook feed this past week, and caught my attention. High Holy Days Time Turner

It was posted by my friend and colleague, Aviad Stollman, Judaica Collection Curator at the National Library of Israel, via a Facebook page, Jewish Harry Potter.

As it is often the case in sub-culturally-specific domains, the image interlaces two very distinct areas of knowledge: the Harry Potter saga by J. K. Rawlings, and  the Hebrew liturgy for the Jewish High Holy Days.

In the image, Hermione Granger shares with Harry Potter a “time turner,” a magical objects that allows to travel back in time, as featured in the third volume of the saga, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjPb3ziyYYo]

But in this context, Hermione says to Harry: “I will bring you back in time by 3 minutes, and this time do not forget [to say] ‘ha-melekh ha-qadosh [the holy King].'” Jewish Hermione’s recommendation requires a more in-depth explanation.

The words, ha-melekh ha-qadosh replace the standard text (ha-el ha-qadosh) of the third benediction of the ‘amidah prayer (the central daily prayer in Jewish liturgy, centered around 18—well, really 19—benedictions, which are reduced to 7 on the Sabbath and on certain holidays) only on the High Holy Days. It is such a slight (yet fundamental) textual variation—the standard text says ha-el ha-qadosh—that is easy to forget it. Hence, the magical “time turner” that allows one to go back in time and fix a liturgical “mistake.”

The change of wording in the High Holy Days ‘amidah prayer is a rather complex feature, which our outdated, yet extremely useful, textbook (Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, 1932), explains while examining the Services for the High Holy Days (chapter XVI):

The services for the High Holydays [sic] may well be considered the climax of Jewish worship. In them the most important Jewish ideals are expressed: The sovereignty of God over all creatures, the brotherhood of the human family, the revelation of the divine spirit to man, the providence of God, the concept of reward and punishment, the restoration of the Jewish people and the sanctuary in Zion where a center for enlightenment for mankind shall be created. In addition to these ideas, the idea of renouncing one’s own sins, seeking forgiveness, and vowing to lead a clean life is emphasized on the Day of Atonement. […] For these reason, these days are dedicated entirely to worship and meditation. For this purpose, the service was elaborately built up of laudations and prayers, hymns and poems, meditations and petitions. The Talmud already calls attention to the length of the prayers on these days. […]
In accordance with this outline, several prayers are common for both holidays: New Year and the Day of Atonement; while several others are especially for the one or the other day. […] (p. 205)

Idelsohn then describes the “standard prayers” for the High Holy Days:

The standard prayers are elaborated with special insertions in the Amida and with the blowing of the Shofar [ram’s horn]. […]
In its structure, the Amida is similar to that of Sabbath and the Festivals; that is, it has seven beneditions of which the three introductory and the three concluding are the same. It has the following insertions: […]
In the third benediction: The following short paragraphs are inserted:
[…]
Qadosh atah — There is only One God and none other.
The passages are important enough to have their translation reproduced:
[…]
“Holy art thou, and dreaded is thy name, and there is no God beside thee, as it is written, And the Lord of hosts is exalted in judgment, and the holy God is sanctified in righteousness. Blessed are thou, O Lord, the holy King.”
The last paragraph used to be recited daily in the old Palestinian ritual, at least the first sentence; while the Babylonian ritual adopted it for the High Holydays [sic] only.
This benediction concludes with hamelekh haqadosh—“The holy King”—instead of with “The holy God” as in the daily prayers. […]
In the Italian and Yemenite rituals, the first sentence of qadosh atah is missing. This version follows that of Maimonides.

An in-depth analysis of the structure of the prayers that compose the Jewish Prayer Book is by default complex, since the structure itself is extremely complex, containing a number of variants which, as we have just read, depend on specific liturgical occasions as well as on the variety of customs across the Jewish Diaspora. At times, it may feel that liturgy is almost too complex

Had Monty Python devoted some of their talents to Jewish liturgy, I am sure we would have some additional fine examples of comedy. Along the following lines.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd8qzqfPfdM]

What fascinates me about the exchange between the Jewish Hermione Granger and the Jewish Harry Potter above is that it takes the quasi-absurd complexity of Jewish liturgy into account. It states how the inner workings of liturgy are not only difficult to analyze, but also extremely difficult to perform, and to commit to memory, by their practitioners. Forgetting what texts to use at a given liturgical time, and trying to remember how to correctly perform them, is part of the liturgical experience itself. By using a time turner, the two characters grant themselves the ability to travel back in time and correct their inevitable mistakes.

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