Against Change: Organs in French Shuls

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by R. Gil Student

I. The View From Turkey

In 1856, France’s Chief Rabbi Salomon Ulman presided over a gathering of rabbis to discuss synagogue reforms. The conference’s conclusions include changing the prayer services to reduce the number of liturgical poems (piyutim) and permitting the use of an organ in synagogue played by a gentile on Shabbos. In Germany, these and other reforms had been hotly debated starting in the second decade of the 19th century and were slowly being introduced into Reform synagogues.

Some traditionalists in France, presumably upset by this reformist move of the Chief Rabbi, solicited the view of Rav Chaim Palaggi of Izhmir, Turkey. While today it does not seem noteworthy for French Jews to inquire of a Sephardic authority, this took place approximately a century before the great Sephardic migration to France. At this point in time, France was an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic community. The inquiry seems to have been intended to draw an unsuspecting Rav Palaggi into controversy. He obliged, with an 1860 responsum (Lev Chaim, vol. 2 no. 9) that begins by asking why they did not ask their local rabbis.

I find Rav Palaggi’s responsum fascinating because he was far removed from the polemic against Reform. Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, he does not quote the many responsa on this subject published in the 1819 book Eileh Divrei Ha-Beris, the 1820 Tzeror Ha-Mor and other related literature. In other words, his responsum omits the socio-political context and focuses solely on the black letter law. I do not mean to imply that the socio-political context is irrelevant or that the considerations it raises should be ignored. Quite the opposite, I believe they are very important and often decisive. However, in Rav Palaggi’s responsum, we can easily see what would happen if we peel away that layer of analysis.

Additionally, while Rav Palaggi spends a good deal of time arguing that we cannot change customs, he does not ignore the fact that customs have, in fact, changed over time. He offers a theory of change, accounting to some degree for the reality of Jewish experience.

II. Customs

Rav Palaggi begins addressing the omission of piyutim by quoting a large number of authorities who forbid changing lost-established customs. He then makes an interesting argument, quoting the Maskilic forgery, Besamim Rosh. In responsum 19, the forger attributes to the great 14th century authority, Rabbenu Asher (Rosh), the view that a community with a long-standing practice following a minority view should not be criticized. Rav Palaggi then quotes Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida; Tov Ayin 18:28) who points out the problematic nature of the book. Chida also says that according to this alleged view, only a community that has been following from long ago its own rabbi should not be criticized. However, even this alleged view of the Rosh would agree that a community that changes its custom to follow a minority view should be criticized.

Therefore, Rav Palaggi argues, no one may change the text of the prayers. While there exists a long-standing minority (he claims) Ashkenazic rite, only those of Ashkenazic descent may use it and they may switch to the majority Sephardic text (not “Sephard,” the awkwardly named Chasidic version).

Rav Palaggi offers four reasons why we may not change customs in addition to the inherent problem of negating a custom. First, it causes disunity and arguments. Inevitably, some people prefer the old way. Those who wish to change cause disagreement. Additionally, doing so insults our ancestors by deviating from their cherished practices. Perhaps most importantly, change begets change. People do not distinguish. Once you permit changing a small thing, you invite changes to rabbinic and biblical prohibitions. Sadly, history has proven this pattern time and again.

Additionally, changing a custom demonstrates arrogance. What was good for previous generations, and for others in your generation, is not good enough for you. If someone puts a different custom into practice whenever he wants (or sees it mentioned in a book), everyone will arrogantly create their own, self-defined version of Judaism which differs or even contradicts that of his neighbor.

III. Public Conformity

Rav Palaggi says that even the greatest scholars in history have been careful to follow established custom in public. Rav Chaim Vital, the great Kabbalist, privately took care to say the mystical piyutim of R. Elazar Ha-Kalir and not the more popular, later piyutim that contradict Lurianic Kabbalah. However, his son testifies that when Rav Chaim Vital led the congregation, he recited all the piyutim so as not to deviate from the synagogue’s custom. Rav Palaggi quotes from Pachad Yitzchak in the name of Rav Ya’akov Chagiz who said that he wished he was Ashkenazic so he could recite two blessings on tefillin, which he thought was correct. However, since he was Sephardic, he could not deviate from his custom.

Rav Palaggi quotes his grandfather, Rav Yosef Raphael Chazan, the famous author of Chikrei Lev, as challenging the unusual text of his community’s Shabbos Mussaf prayer. He concludes that he cannot justify the custom and therefore in his private prayer follows the standard text. However, he does not change the community’s custom. (Rav Palaggi adds that in Izhmir, some synagogues followed one text for the beginning of Mussaf (Tikanta Shabbos, like most have it today) and others followed a different text (Le-Moshe Tzivisa, like Rambam has in Mishneh Torah, after the end of Ahavah). When he leads services in a synagogue that differs from his personal custom, he follows his custom in the silent prayer and the community’s custom in the reputation. (Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 2, no. 29) later ruled differently but others disagree.)

IV. How Customs Arise

Rav Palaggi describes how when he was a child, a great local rabbi tried to move Hoshanos earlier, from after Mussaf (as is common among Ashkenazim) to after Hallel. The rabbi obtained permission from everyone in the synagogue except for one holdout, who refused to allow the change. Because of this one objector, the rabbi refrained from changing the custom. Rav Palaggi adds that years later, he found support from the Zohar for the Ashkenazic custom to recite Hoshanos later.

Rav Palaggi quotes the Masa Melekh who believes that a custom should be abolished if it might prevent the performance of a biblical mitzvah. Rav Palaggi disagrees. Rosh (Responsa, 55:10) says that a custom that entails the violation of a prohibition should be abolished, even if it only might lead to a violation. However, Rosh refers only to a prohibition, not a positive commandment. Rav Palaggi suggests that perhaps Masa Melekh refers to a custom that was initiated by the masses, not by rabbis. Such a custom should be abolished if it conflicts with a mitzvah.

In this interpretation, Rav Palaggi concedes that new customs arise, sometimes initiated by rabbis and sometimes by the public. However, he does not address how this conforms to his portrayal of unchanging customs. If we cannot change a custom, how can new customs arise? First, I believe that we must distinguish between changing an existing custom and instituting a new custom. The former is forbidden, generally speaking, while the latter might be permissible if the custom is consistent with, and even advances, Torah values.

Additionally, as Rav Palaggi explains, we have to be realistic. Sometimes customs emerge from popular practice, without sanction from the rabbinate. Therefore, Rav Palaggi warns local rabbis to quickly examine new practices and swiftly and forcefully quash improper customs before they become entrenched. If rabbis fail to do so, every day a new custom will emerge and the Torah itself will be completely negated. (Sadly, the chaos of the past 200 years has proven this.)

However, sometimes rabbis have to save their political capital for more important issues, whether kashrus, Shabbos observance or otherwise. Rav Palaggi quotes his contemporary, Rav Ezra Malki (Responsa Ein Mishpat, Orach Chaim 1), who explains that sometimes new practices take root over rabbinic objections because rabbis lack the power to control public behavior and other times rabbis choose to remain silent in order to pick their battles wisely. At any given time in history, an observed custom could have been established by great Torah scholars but it could also have been designed and set in place by rich laymen or presumptuous cantors (see also Bach, Orach Chaim 267, s.v. ve-ein lomar) .

IV. Changing A Custom

But even the objection that we may not change customs is not absolute. If halakhically necessary, rabbis can change a custom. One could even argue that rabbis have the right to abolish piyutim and establish a new custom, if the existing custom violates a positive commandment. However, Rav Palaggi counters that this only applies to a custom that is established in general contrary to a mitzvah, which means it is not consistent with Torah values. But if in certain circumstances a custom incidentally conflicts with a mitzvah, sometimes the custom takes precedence. In the case at hand, the proposed new custom inherently conflicts with the halakhic issues mentioned above. Therefore, rabbis lack the authority to abolish piyutim or insert organ music into the synagogue.

Rav Palaggi’s next step is backwards, adding a dose of realism and pragmatism. Three centuries earlier, Rav Shmuel de Modena (Maharshdam; Responsa, Orach Chaim 35) distinguished between prayers and poems. Maharshdam says that a community may change piyutim but not the text of prayers, because the fewer piyutim, the better. Rav Palaggi cautions against extrapolating from Maharshdam’s permission because he only allowed removing piyutim when a group insists on it, and a rabbi has to choose whether to side with the group that wants change or the group that wants continuity, presumably in order to maintain communal peace. This does not permit rabbis to unilaterally remove piyutim.

Rav Palaggi then provides a stunning quote from his grandfather, Rav Yosef Raphael Chazan, the famous author of Chikrei Lev. According to Rav Palaggi, Rav Chazan often said that if he was certain that shortening the prayer service would yield pure intent in prayers. However, he has no proof that the change will work and therefore did not implement it.

Rav Palaggi quotes the Besamim Rosh mentioned above, who permits a community to retain a long-standing custom that follows a minority view. In addition to the authorial questions, or perhaps because of them, we can make a strong point. Even Besamim Rosh does not permit changing prayers and customs. He only permits an existing custom to say shortened prayers. To the opposite, Rav Palaggi argues, we search for ways to justify an existing custom. If we expend effort to justify a lenient custom, we must also uphold a strict custom. Even if we do not understand a custom, we should still follow it if holy generations of the past practiced it.

Rav Palaggi concedes that a community may change certain customs. However, he quotes Masa Melekh (2:2; 5:2) and others that even a single individual can prevent the community from changing a practice — even if there is a halakhic reason to change the custom.

Since in the case under discussion — removal of piyutim and introduction of an organ into shul — individuals object to the change, and halakhah is on their side, there is no room to permit those changes.

V. Music in Shul

Rav Palaggi also addresses the underlying claim, that music in synagogue enhances prayer. While it is true that music accompanied the sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, in ancient times, Rav Palaggi sees in this an argument against using music in contemporary synagogues. He asks when in history was music accompanied into the synagogue service? The First Temple was destroyed in biblical times but we do not find that any prophets incorporated music into the prayers. Nor do we see anything resembling that from Talmudic or Medieval scholars, even though we have plenty of observances designed to commemorate the Temple’s practices.

On the one hand, prayer — like all worship — should emerge from happiness. “Serve the Lord with gladness” (Ps. 100:2). On the other hand, the Mishnah (Berakhos 30b) says that we must begin praying with a sense of seriousness (koved rosh). One opinion in the Gemara (ibid.) learns this from Chanah’s prayer, for which she is described as being “of bitter soul” (1 Sam. 1:10). Another learns it from Ps. 5:8, “I will bow down to Your holy temple in fear of You.” Another changes one letter in Ps. 29:2 to read it as, “Worship the Lord in fear of (be-chedras, instead of be-hadras) holiness.” The Gemara concludes by deducing it from Ps. 2:11, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.”

Which is it? Should prayer be recited in joy or in fear? Rav Palaggi answers: both. We should be happy that we have the privilege to speak directly to the King. However, when approaching the King, we do so with fear, awe and tears. The heart is happy but but the eye cries bitterly. Rav Palaggi points out that Eliyahu Rabba (ch. 8) says that Chizkiyahu was punished with illness because he prayed about Sancheriv with insufficient fear and submission to God. Therefore, music has no place in prayer. Any custom that mixes music with prayer must have arisen due to errant cantors or wealthy laymen. (I suspect he does not mean traditional cantorial music that sets a proper tone for prayer.)

Furthermore, so many generations of great rabbis over many centuries have not included musical instruments in their synagogues. If music is so necessary for prayer, why didn’t they use it for this holy purpose. Rav Palaggi says that we can only conclude that this approach of using musical instruments in the synagogue is mistaken.

Therefore, concludes Rav Palaggi, we may not change the prayers or introduce and organ into synagogues. And if a congregation does use an organ, we should try with all our power to get them to stop.

VI. Conclusion

Overall, I find that Rav Palaggi reached the same conclusions and used most of the same arguments as the German and Polish rabbis actively fighting against Reform. Even without that political context, he covered the same points, albeit perhaps with some more nuance. In my opinion, this puts to a lie the claim that the German and Polish rabbis stretched their argument for polemical reasons. They did not use halakhah to justify their political goals. Rather, they utilized classical sources to the best of their abilities to address complex questions. If we find their arguments farfetched, perhaps this is due to our own lackings and not theirs.

Regarding the issue of organs in French synagogues, we find an interesting historical postscript. As mentioned at the outset, many synagogues in France introduced an organ into their services with local rabbinic approval, starting in the 1850’s, despite Rav Palaggi’s later objections. In his recently published memoirs, Thirteen Steps: Orthodox Judaism in America Comes of Age: My Life and Times (pp. 117-118), Rabbi Joseph Karasick discusses his interactions with the French rabbinate in 1969. With the radical changes in the Jewish community following mass migration from North Africa, the French rabbinate and the Orthodox Union were collaborating in sharing American knowledge of community building and leadership training with French colleagues. However, on learning that French synagogues has mixed gender choirs and organs, and other religio-political concerns, Rabb Karasick insisted “that the OU would not be associated with the French Jews unless they restructured their choirs and removed the organs… The Jewish Press announced: ‘In a historic and momentous decision which will determine for decades to come the direction and cast of the Jewish religious community of France, the Consistoire de Paris, the representative religious organization of the Paris Jewish community, has dispensed with the use of the organ and the mixed choir in the Great Synagogue on Rue de la Victoire.’”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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