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Modern Judaism 23.3 (2003) 243-263

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The Liturgy of Bloch's Avodath Ha-Kodesh

Seth Ward


Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) composed his Avodath Ha-Kodesh: The Sacred Service in 1930–1933. 1 It was written for a Reform synagogue in San Francisco, Temple Emanuel Congregation, whose cantor, Reuben R. Rinder, arranged for the commission by Gerald Warburg (1907–1971), son of financier and Jewish leader Felix Warburg and cellist in the New York Philharmonic and Stradivarius Quartet. Bloch was also enabled to write the piece thanks to the generosity of the Rose and Jacob Stern family, whose endowment to the University of California in 1930 freed the composer from teaching and other commitments. 2 Among the best-known complete settings of a Jewish service, it has been called "a high-water mark of 20th-century synagogue song," 3 and is likely the most often performed full setting of any Jewish service. 4 The Sacred Service was premiered in Turin, Italy, in January 1933. It was performed elsewhere in Italy, and in London and New York, before it was first presented in Temple Emanuel, in March 1938.

The Sacred Service is based on the Sabbath Morning Service of the Union Prayer Book, the prayer book of the Reform movement within American Judaism. 5 This article briefly addresses a question that may be of interest to many studying, hearing, conducting, or performing The Sacred Service, whether they are familiar with contemporary Reform or traditional Jewish prayer or totally unfamiliar with Jewish worship. 6 How does this work fit within the liturgical context of the congregational worship of the Union Prayer Book of its time? Biblical sources for the prayer texts will also be identified (these are not given in the score editions of which I am aware, nor were they, for the most part, to be found in the Union Prayer Book). 7 Comments will also be made about differences from the traditional Jewish services and how the piece relates to Jewish music, drawn in part from Bloch's recorded ideas regarding the composition.

As we shall see, Bloch envisioned The Sacred Service to be performed as an integral whole, without breaks for reading from Scripture, a sermon, and so forth, as would be the norm in a synagogue service. Nevertheless, the synagogue context was very much part of [End Page 243] the conceptualization of the piece and of Bloch's lectures, letters, and commentary about its construction.

The Union Prayer Book

The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship—Seder Tefilot Yisrael was a "union" that brought together major strands of liturgical reform in American Judaism. 8 These included Isaac M. Wise's attempt to create a unique ritual for the United States, Minhag America: The Daily Prayers of the American Israelite (1857) 9 ; the work of I. S. Moses (1847–1926), one of the leading forces in creating the Union Prayer Book 10 ; and David Einhorn's Olat Tamid (1856), usually considered its most important model. Many of the U.S. Reform prayer books drew in turn from some of the innovations made in Berlin and Hamburg in the second decade of the nineteenth century. 11 There were three main editions of the Union Prayer Book; the first edition was dated 1894–1895. 12 Bloch used the next major revision, which was done in 1922. 13 Its last revision was dated 1940; certain sections had somewhat more Hebrew or had Hebrew texts differing from those of the 1922 edition, upon which the text of The Sacred Service was based. 14 All these editions had a Hebrew title, Seder Tefilot Yisrael. In 1975, substantial changes were introduced, and its Hebrew name was changed: Sha'arei Tefila—The Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book 15 ; few if any Reform congregations use the classic Union Prayer Book today. 16

The liturgy of the Union Prayer Book follows the broad outline and structure of traditional Jewish prayer, but there are numerous differences in text and details. The Reform liturgy was shaped by the use of the vernacular, the avoidance of repetition, provisions for variety...


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