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68:1. There are some congregations that interrupt the blessings of the Shema in order to say Piyutim, but it is proper to avoid saying them, because they constitute an interruption in the middle of a blessing. {Rema: But some authorities rule (1) that there is no prohibition against this kind of an interruption (Rabbi Yitzchak, end of the 5th Chapter of Tractate Brachos [known as “the Ri”, one of the main authorities of the Tosefos (a standard Talmudic commentary), late 12th cent.]; the Rashba [Rabbi Shlomo ben Avraham Aderet, late 13th, early 14th cent.; and the Tur [Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, early 14th cent.]) and the practice in all communities is to say them. If one is lenient and does not say the Piyutim he has not lost anything, but he should not engage in any other matter, even words of Torah, (2) while the congregation is reciting the Piyutim, and certainly should not speak about non-Torah things. However, one is permitted to learn Torah mentally, by looking in a book and thinking, since thought is not like speech. Nevertheless, (3) as a result of one doing this others will come to speak and interrupt their blessing. Therefore, (4) one should not separate oneself (5) from the congregation in a place where the practice is to say Piyutim, (6) and one should say them together with the congregation. See below in Siman 90, Par. 10. (Maharil [Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi Molin, late 14th – early 15th cent.] and Darkei Moshe [commentary on the Tur by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the “Rema”, who is also the author of this commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (i.e., he’s referencing another work of his), mid 18th cent.])}

MB 1: That there is no prohibition – Because when our Sages said (Tractate Brachos, 11) that one is not permitted to shorten a long prayer or lengthen a short prayer, this referred only to the following situations:

1) With long blessings which begin with the word “Baruch” (Blessed) [referring to “Blessed are You, L-rd” and end with the word “Baruch” [followed by words specific to the particular blessing – LC], one may not omit either the opening or closing formula. [An example of this type of blessing is “Yotzer”, the first blessing before the morning Shema. -LC]

2) With short blessings, which lack either an opening formula [such as “Ahava Raba”, the second blessing before the morning Shema, which does not require an opening formula because it immediately follows a blessing which has one -LC] or a closing formula [such as the blessings recited before eating food, e.g., the HaMotzee blessing for bread -LC], one may not lengthen them by adding an opening or closing formula.

[Simply put, the prohibition refers only to adding or ommitting “Baruch Atah H’ [Blessed are You, L-rd], etc.”. — YM]

This is because through this omission or addition one alters the basic form of the blessing as it was ordained by the Sages [lit., one deviates from the coin minted by the Sages]. But regarding the remainder of the wording of the blessing, the Sages did not require (after the fact) that a particular number of words be said. The Rambam [Maimonides, 12th cent., in his major work on Jewish law, section on the Reading of the Shema, 1st Chapter, Law 7] writes that one who changes the basic form of a blessing as ordained by the Sages must repeat the blessing in its proper form. The Kesef Mishneh [commentary on the Rambam by Rabbi Yosef Karo, also author of the Shulchan Aruch, mid-16th cent.) in the first chapter of Brachos (Law 6) writes that the Rambam is referring to one who adds or omits an opening or closing formula beginning with “Baruch” (as noted above in this Mishnah Brurah), but not to one who changes the wording of the blessing, even if he leaves out several words, provided that he mentions the Divine Name and the fact that He is King, as well as the essential words of the particular blessing. The latter person fulfills his obligation after the fact [i.e., he should definitely not make such changes intentionally -LC]. Examples of essential words [without which the blessing is invalid even after the fact] include the Covenant (i.e., between the Jewish people and G-d) and the Torah in the Grace After Meals, and “Who makes the wind blow and the rain fall” (“Mashiv haRuach u’Morid haGeshem”) in the Silent Prayer (during the winter months). All of this is found in the Magen Avraham [commentary on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Avraham Abeli Gombiner, late 17th cent.], sections 64 and 187. In the Biyur HaGra [commentary on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (“the Vilna Gaon”), mid-late 18th cent.], the author writes that the Rambam, in the 1st Chapter of Brachos (Laws 5 and 6) retracts his opinion noted above and states that even if one does not complete the end of the blessing as ordained he fulfills his obligation after the fact. This accords with the first opinion mentioned in Siman 187, Par. 1 (see there). [That opinion states that one who omits the closing formula from the first blessing of Grace After Meals (which is long) fulfills his obligation. -LC]

[The Mishna Brura above makes a very important point. People often make note of the differences in Ashkenazic, “Sephard”/ Chassidic, and “Sephardi”/Sephardic Siddurim – and some have used this as a justification for wholesale changes in modern Jewish liturgy. Without debating the value of these changes, to use the differences in traditional Siddurim as a basis is erroneous. All traditional Siddurim fulfill the basic requirements as delineated by the Shulchan Aruch – and proponents of each variation would agree that one can fulfill his obligation with all the others, as will be seen in MB 4 below. — YM]

MB 2: While the congregation – Even when one has completed the Piyutim and the blessing along with the congregation, and one is between blessings, it is likewise forbidden to interrupt.

MB 3: As a result of one doing this – That is, when others see him looking in a book they will come to talk. However, it is possible that one may be lenient concerning merely thinking words of Torah, and see in the Pri Chadash [commentary on the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Chizkiya Da Silva, late 17th cent.]. However, while the communal prayer leader (Chazan) is saying Kaddish, even thinking about words of Torah is forbidden, since one must exert much effort to have the proper intention when responding to Kaddish. [Note the Mishnah Brurah’s well qualified language (“it is _possible_ that one may be lenient”), which suggests that ideally, one should focus one’s full attention on the communal prayers at all times. -LC]

MB 4: One should not – Rabbi Chaim Vital [renowned Kabbalist, late 16th cent.-early 17th cent.] writes in the name of the Ari [Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, Rabbi Chaim’s teacher, mid-16th cent.] that he [the Ari] did not say any liturgical poems (Piyutim) or liturgical songs (Pizmonim) except those written by the early composers, such as the Kaliri [Rabbi Elazar haKalir, the most renowned and perhaps the most prolific of Piyutim and Pizmonim composers], which were composed with absolute correctness and understanding. He would also not say the poem Yigdal [a standard (but optional) part of our morning liturgy. -LC] Nevertheless, Rabbi Chaim Vital’s son testified that when his father served as communal prayer leader for the High Holy Days, he would say all of the confessions and Piyutim. Listen to the wise man, and from him you will derive wisdom and moral guidance, and a practical lesson not to alter established customs. [My understanding is that this refers to Rabbi Chaim Vital, who did not change the custom even though his great teacher, the Ari, did so. –YM]

In the Shibolei Leket [a collection of responsa by early authorities, by Rabbi Tzidkiyahu ben Avraham Anav, 13th cent.], the author writes in the name of the Ge’onim [great Jewish legal authorities after the Talmudic period and before the early authorities (Rishonim), approx. 8th – 10th cents. -LC] that it is a commandment to say Piyutim. However, [in contrast to the differing opinions regarding the saying of Piyutim], with regard to practices concerning the basic prayers, all authorities agree that no one may deviate from his local community customs. For example, one may not change from the Ashkenazic traditional wording to the Sephardic traditional wording or vice versa. [The traditions differ somewhat between communities whose European roots are in Germany (Ashkenaz) and those from Spain (Sepharad). -LC] Nevertheless, Ashkenazic Jews who pray with a Sephardic congregation or the reverse [both common occurrences these days -LC] fulfill their obligation for prayer. All of the above (regarding local community customs) concerns only those practices relating to the basic prayers. However, concerning those words mentioned in the Talmud or those words of the universally recognized legal authorities that were derived from the Talmud, those are binding on all Jews, and no individual [or community -LC] has the authority to follow his practice where it conflicts with those words. [The Babylonian Talmud, regarded as the most definitive source of the Oral Law (given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Law – the Torah, and which is essential to understanding the laws of the Torah), is the preeminent source of and last word in Jewish law. -LC]

MB 5: From the congregation – See in the Magen Avraham that on Passover, when the communal prayer leaders (in those congregations that recite the special Piyut for the holiday) draw out their tunes considerably, it is better to say the Piyut prior to beginning the blessing “Yotzer Or” [the first blessing before the morning Shema]. This is because most of the content of the Piyut deviates from the subject of the blessing, and is therefore regarded as an interruption if one spends as much time with the Piyut as it would take to recite the entire blessing. Therefore, at least ideally it is proper to say the Piyut prior to the blessing (as in Siman 65, MB 4 above, see there). If one forgot to say the Piyut and remembered only after completing the blessing, he is forbidden to go back and say it, since saying the Piyut is no more obligatory than saying the prayer “Al haNisim” (“for the miracles”) on Chanukah and Purim. [This is a special addition to the Silent Prayer and the Grace After Meals on holidays of Chanukah and Purim, and the rule is that if one forgot to insert it one does not go back to say it. -LC]

MB 6: With the congregation – An individual praying on his own should not say any Piyut in the middle of a blessing [later authorities (Achronim), who date from the time of the Shulchan Aruch (mid-16th cent.) to the present time]. As a side point, I felt it worthwhile to mention here the incorrect practice of many unlearned people, who err on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur when the Chazan sings an extended Piyut at the beginning of the blessing “Yotzer Or” [the first blessing before the morning Shema]. They begin their blessing from the Chazan’s conclusion, rather than starting at the beginning of the blessing – and it is worthwhile to caution them about this.