Review of J. L. Kugel, Prayers that Cite Scripture

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

James L. Kugel, Prayers that Cite Scripture (Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies; Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 2006). Pp. 119. Cloth, US$27.50. ISBN: 0-674-01971-7


In this collection, James Kugel presents six essays that examine the use and function of Scripture in prayer. The essays in this collection are arranged in chronological order according to topic and  represent a cross-section of the history of Jewish prayer life. The collection is clearly centered on Jewish prayer, and Kugel is conscious that this focus neglects the Christian prayer tradition (p. 4 n. 9). However, this seems to be not so much a lacuna as it is a suggestion for future research. It would be fascinating, for example, to compare how Jewish and Christian prayer traditions employed the same biblical texts and to what end.

Judith Newman opens the collection with an overview of the phenomenon in its earliest form. In “The Scripturalization of Prayer in Exilic and Second Temple Judaism” (pp. 7-24), Newman examines four representative prayers: 1 Kings 8:23-53; Neh 9:5-37; Jdt 9:2-14; and 3 Macc 2:2-20. While the latter three prayers date from the post-exilic period, Newman takes 1 Kings 8:23-53 as an example from the exilic period that witnesses to an early stage of scripturalization by combining Priestly and Deuteronomic traditions of the relationship of the people vis-à-vis God (pp. 10-11). Newman’s analysis of the remaining prayers demonstrates how scripturalization functions hermeneutically (Neh 9:5-37), typologically (Jdt 9:2-14), and exegetically (3 Macc 2:2-20), all the while providing glimpses into the theological concerns of the texts’ intended audiences.

In “Scripture and Prayer in the ‘Words of the Luminaries’” (pp. 25-41), Esther Chazon examines the “modes of composition” employed in the creation of the “Words of the Luminaries” in order to address what biblical texts were reused, how they were deployed (quotation, allusion, or free use), and to what end (pp. 26-27). She identifies four modes of composition: modeling, florilegium, pastiche, and free composition, focusing on the prayers for Thursday and Friday to illuminate each method (p. 28). Chazon concludes that, despite the range of modes employed, the “Words of the Luminaries” is the product of a single author who creatively used a variety of methods to generate a cohesive, yet mosaic, liturgical work (p. 41).

In “The Role of Biblical Verses in Prayer According to the Rabbinic Tradition” (pp. 43-59), Shlomo Naeh highlights the fact that the use of Scripture in prayer was a point of tension in early rabbinic circles. Through his discussions of the berakhot mentioned in the Tosefta (pp. 44-49), the use of Isa 45:7 in the yotser ’or (pp. 49-53), and an analysis of the Talmudic injunction not to recite a blessing that is comprised of an unadulterated biblical text (y. Ber. 1:4 and y. Ta‘anit 2:3) (p. 59), Naeh demonstrates the extreme sensitivity the rabbis exhibited concerning the difference between written and recited prayer, and between liturgical and non-liturgical texts. He concludes that, for the rabbis, Scripture could not be manipulated into prayer, but rather that both genres had to remain distinct.

Moving to later rabbinic texts, Robert Brody investigates the “Liturgical Uses of the Book of Psalms in the Geonic Period” (pp. 61-81). Like Naeh, Brody also draws attention to the tension present in rabbinic circles concerning the correct use of Scripture in prayer, which centered on whether or not it was appropriate to generate one’s own prayers or whether only the Psalms could provide the words suitable for addressing God (p. 72). Brody examines the eighteenth chapter of the Palestinian Massekhet Soferim (Tractate of Scribes) and concludes, contra Ezra Fleischer, that it is an authentic, though highly edited, witness to the use of the Psalms in the liturgies of the period – a conclusion that opens the door for more detailed investigation and comparison with other liturgies, including sectarian and Christian traditions.

Shulamit Elizur looks at the use of Scripture in liturgical poetry (piyyut) in “The Use of Biblical Verses in Hebrew Liturgical Poetry” (pp. 83-100). She identifies three techniques employed by the poets: biblical verses that accompany a poem, verses ornamenting a poem, and verses imbedded within the poem. Focusing on ornamental verses, Elizur demonstrates how classical and medieval poets played with and manipulated Scripture to such an extent that, in some cases, the original meaning of the Scripture became absorbed into the construction of the poem. The tension between the proponents of this kind of manipulation of Scripture and those who felt Scripture should remain unadulterated is not a central concern of the essay, but, read in tandem with Naeh’s and Brody’s contributions, the reader can ably surmise this fact.

Joseph Yahalom also looks at poetry in “From the Material to the Spiritual: Scriptural Allusions and their Development in Judeo-Arabic Liturgical Poetry” (pp. 101-119), and demonstrates the extreme skill with which liturgical poets drew from Scripture. He charts the development of this tradition from the wake of the Arab conquest, (p. 102) to the European poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – whose manipulation of scriptural language became so adept and so particular to the Hebrew language that the cleverness of their art became isolating (p. 118). 

In sum, Kugel presents a diverse and fascinating collection. Despite its brevity, the volume would have benefited greatly from an index of Scripture passages, as well as a general bibliography. However, every essay in this collection suggests multiple directions for future study, and this is the real strength of the compilation as whole.

 Andrea K. Di Giovanni, University of St. Michael’s College