IN EARLY RABBINIC PRAYER
Stefan C. Reif
University of Cambridge
Scholars invited to explore the expanses of rabbinic prayer in search of the finest samples of a theological product widely defined as “restoration” might be forgiven for making the 'amidah their first port of call. Given that the “standing prayer” is generally regarded as the most ancient, central and characteristic of the liturgical formulations promoted by talmudic Judaism, they would rightly expect to find there the most authentic creations of the particular spiritual territory being scoured. Having been safely garnered and packaged, such goods could then be displayed among the variety of wares made available to the consumer in the market for religious notions of such a genre. And the 'amidah would not disappoint such expectations; for there, at the centre of this famous anthology of benedictions, in the eleventh example, one encounters a text that apparently promises precisely what one is seeking and that advertises its potential relevance by the use of the introductory word, namely, “Restore”.
Any researcher worth an academic tenure would, of course, be aware that one cannot simply pluck a version from any rabbinic prayer-book and discuss its relevance to the history of Jewish religious ideas in the first Christian millennium. One should rather take as one's starting-point the earliest siddurim, or formal collections of liturgy, acknowledging that these date from the last centuries of that millennium but hoping to find there at least some reflections of the kind of ideology that had established itself among the rabbinic teachers and worshippers of the earlier talmudic period. The prayerbook with the soundest textual witnesses from among these pioneering archetypes is undoubtedly that of R. Sa'adya Gaon, who flourished as the head of the rabbinical school of Sura at the beginning of the tenth century.1 His version of the eleventh benediction would
1 The standard edition is I. Davidson, et al. (eds.), Siddur R. Saadja Gaon
(Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1941; 2nd ed., Jerusalem, 1963). For more recent
work, see N. Wieder, The Formation of Jewish Liturgy in the East and the West (2
vols.; Jerusalem: Ben Zvi, 1998) 2.561–658 (Hebrew); R. Brody, “Saadya Gaon
on the limits of Liturgical Flexibility,” in J. Blau and S. C. Reif (eds.), Genizah
Research after Ninety Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
40–46; and R. Brody, “The Conclusion of Se'adya Gaon's Prayerbook,” Tarbiz
63 (1994) 393–401 and “Note on the Conclusion of Se'adya Gaon's Prayerbook,”
Tarbiz 68 (1999) 279–81.