August 7, 2018

Nusach Achid & Am Echad

Today, I would like to tell you a story about Jewish unity – or at least, the attempt to create a sense of unity – by one of the most fascinating Jewish scholars and leaders of the past century. It is a story that is known by some in part, but to my mind, has not been told in full. It is a story about history, liturgy, unity and identity. And it is a story that so beautifully captures the hopes of so many during the early years of the Modern State of Israel. But to understand this story, we must go back to those early years.

The early years

As we know, Israel is an immigrant country and during the first few years after the establishment of the State of Israel, almost 750,000 immigrants arrived to Israel from over 20 different countries from across the world.[1] Of those, some were Sefardim, others Ashkenazim, and others from Yemen.

During these early years, the many different immigrants toiled together to build and defend the fledgling state. Yet it was ironically in the synagogues – where Jews are meant to come together in worship – where friction was most evident. However, to explain this friction, I need to provide a little background to the history of the Sefardim, Ashkenazim and the other prayer variations that I will be alluding to.

On Sefardim & Ashkenazim

It is often thought that Sefardic customs originate from Spain because the Hebrew name Sefarad means Spain, while it is thought that Ashkenazic customs originate from Germany because the Hebrew name Ashkenaz means Germany. However, as numerous scholars have shown, the origins of Ashkenazic & Sefardic customs go back much further to the Talmudic & Geonic period, with Sefardic prayer rites being influenced by the Babylonian communities of the 8th century, and Ashkenazic prayer rites being influenced by the communities of Israel of the same period.[2] What this means is that the customs of Sefarad – Spain, and Ashkenaz – Germany are expressive of the customs of communities dating back over 1,000 years. At the same time, since then the Jewish communities in Spain and Germany, as well as other regions where Jews lived, added further customs and prayers to their services.

Some centuries later and in response to the Spanish inquisition, refugees from Spain travelled to Israel and made their home in the northern town of Tzfat. Soon after, the mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria – the Ari z’l was born. Significantly, the Ari z’l’s father was Ashkenazi, and his mother Sefardi – and it was these different influences – along with his deep understanding of the kabbalah – that led the Ari z’l to construct a unique prayer rite known as Nusach Ari or Nusach Sefard which – with some slight variations – was later adopted by Chassidim.

What this means is that for the past five centuries there have existed a variety of different nuschaot, or prayer rites – Ashkenazic (with various slight variations depending on the region), Sefard (including the Nusach Ari adopted by Chasidim), Sefardi (or sometimes called ‘Edut HaMizrach’) and Yemenite.

Having explained these differences let me return to those early years of the State of Israel, and the question is, what happened when Jews from these different parts of the world arrived in Israel and began establishing religious communities?

Naturally, many synagogues were established that reflected a specific nusach – either Ashkenaz, Sefard, Sefardi or Yemenite. However, many communities – especially those in small towns, yishuvim and kibbutzim – were made up from an amalgam of Jews from different backgrounds each praying according to his or her nusach, which meant that when the Ashkenazi chazan would sing Ashkenazi tunes, the Sefardim would groan, tutt, and at times even shout – and vice versa. In fact, it is noteworthy – yet unsurprising – that many questions concerning the customs that should be followed when a community is made up of members of different backgrounds can be found in the responsa of those Rabbis living in Israel during the early years of the Modern State.[3]

In terms of their responses, some believed that there was – and is – great value in maintaining the customs of our ancestors. Consequently, one should continue to pray in this manner. Others believed that each synagogue should make decisions based on the prayer rite of the majority of the community.[4] While others believed that the varied Ashkenazi & Sefardi prayer rites reflected the experience of diaspora Jewry, and that having returned to the Jewish homeland, now was the time to unify the Jewish people around a singular nusach.

For some people, this may sound bold and courageous. For others, outrageous. However, as I shall now explain, this concept had already been trialed by the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF Haggadah

As is well known, soon after the declaration of Independence in May 1948 the IDF had to defend the State of Israel from the many attacks of the surrounding Arab nations. Many soldiers had to remain on active duty and stay on base, and this meant that in April 1949, on the first Pesach after the establishment of the State, a large communal Seder was held for serving IDF soldiers.

At the time we must remember that many of the leading politicians and soldiers were not religious, and there was a strong sentiment that Judaism in Israel could now transform into being a cultural, rather than a religious expression. So while the Haggadah was still read by many on Seder night, the leaders of the secular kibbutz networks had adapted the Haggadah to reflect their secular ideology.[5] In their Haggadah God’s name was not mentioned, and there were no blessings – just songs.

Of course, the religious soldiers were upset by this, but this particularly enraged Rabbi Shlomo Goren – our protagonist – who was then the Rabbi to the IDF and present at this Seder.

“This is not how we’re going to hold Seders in the army!”[6] exclaimed Rav Goren to the then Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. “If you want the army to be uniform throughout Israel, and not an army of separate groups of kibbutz members and religious soldiers, this Haggadah has to be put away!”[7]

As Rabbi Goren later explained in his autobiography, the reason he responded in this manner was because Ben-Gurion was very sensitive about the unity of the army, and it was in response to Rav Goren’s protests that Ben-Gurion issued an order for Rav Goren to produce a uniform and inclusive Haggadah for all those serving in the IDF.[8]

And this brings us back to the differences between Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Yemenites etc. because was it really possible to produce a Haggadah that met the needs and reflected the customs of all these communities?

Before proceeding, I’d like to clarify that the bare bones of the Haggadah are very similar across these communities. Still, there are differences – with some being rooted in different halakhic approaches. As Rav Goren explains:

“I made some investigations and discovered that there were at least eleven versions of the Haggadah. I said that it would be impossible to publish separate Haggadot for the Yemenites, the Moroccans, and the Ashkenazim. The Pesach Seder is a communal seder for all the units.”[9] Therefore, “we decided on a unified nusah for the Haggadah… that could meet the needs of the army with all its various population groups. Ashkenazim start the Seder with “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate”… while the Yemenites and Sefardim start with “we left Egypt in great haste”. I wanted the IDF Haggadah to be suitable for all the ethnic groups, so I included both versions.’[10]

What we see here is that while some variations exist, the relatively small size of the Haggadah, coupled with the general similarities across communities, meant that such a unified Haggadah – which at times incorporated minor variations depending on custom – was achievable.

However, beyond creating an inclusive Haggadah – known as Nusah Achid (literally, ‘unified rite’) – that reflected these differing customs in order that all IDF soldiers could literally be singing from the same hymn sheet, Rav Goren was also driven by a deeper ideology.

According to him, the establishment of the State of Israel was – and is – undoubtedly the first steps to redemption. As we shall see, this ideology later inspired further projects, but in terms of the Nusach Achid Haggadah it led him to make the following change which he explains in his autobiography:

“There was a difficult issue concerning the nusah of the Haggada that really troubled me. The Haggada states, “This is the bread of affliction. This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free men. This year we are here, and next year we will be in the Land of Israel.” I asked myself how we could possibly begin the Haggada this way in Israel, when we have a state and are a free people. It was simply ridiculous. When the defense minister is sitting at the head of the Seder table in an army base, with the chief of staff besides him, as well as cabinet ministers, generals, and soldiers who bear the flag of freedom, and all this is happening in the State of Israel in Eretz Yisrael, how can we possibly say that we are slaves and next year we will be in Israel? We are already free and in Israel!”[11]

Given this, Rav Goren observed that “in the Cairo Geniza, which was discovered in the cellar of a synagogue in Cairo, a Haggada was found with a slightly different wording – “Yesterday we were slaves and today we are free men.” It turned out that that Haggada had been in use during the Second Temple period, after the Jews returned from Babylon, where they were slaves to Nebuchadnezzar. When they returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple, they used this wording. It solved our problem very well, and we adopted that Haggada to explain how they could say, “This is the bread of affliction”, on the one hand, and “This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free men,” even though they were in Eretz Yisrael. I reviewed the sources for the Haggada and found that the passage, “This is the bread of affliction” was recited at the very first Seder, in Egypt. We are simply reenacting what the Jews did in Egypt that first year when they made a Seder, and after that[12] we can declare, “Yesterday we were slaves and today we are free men.”[13]

As a conclusion to this part of the story, Rav Goren explained that once he completed this new Nusah Achid IDF Haggadah he brought a copy to Ben-Gurion who asked him how many different versions of the Haggada previously existed. Rav Goren answered that there were eleven. “Well,” he responded, “now there are twelve, because you have added another one.”[14]

Nusach Achid siddur

But now, having produced the Nusach Achid Haggadah, Rav Goren set his sights on a far more complex project which was to create a unified Nusach Achid siddur to avoid what was then common practice that on IDF bases each soldier from a different background would pray separately according to their own prayer rite – Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Sefard, & Yemenite. Like the Haggadah, Rav Goren hoped to find – and if necessary, create – some kind of compromise position that would come close to satisfying these different customs.

Now just for a moment, it is worthwhile thinking about the difference between the Haggadah and the siddur. As we know, the Haggadah is a collection of different texts, and though some communities recited these texts at different points in the Seder, they generally recited the same texts – which means that their difference was primarily one of structure and flow.

However, when we compare Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Sefard, & Yemenite siddurim we find many more differences – not in terms of structure, but of text, with some saying one thing, and others saying another.

For example, in an Ashkenazi siddur, the prayer in the Amida starts with the words:

שמע קולנו ה’ אלוהינו, חוס ורחם עלינו

Hear our voice, Lord Our God, have mercy upon us

Sefardim say:

שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ. אָב הָרַחֲמָן חוּס רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ

Hear our voice, Lord Our God, O merciful father, have mercy upon us

Whereas in Nusach Sefard they say:

אב הרחמן, שמע קולנו ה’ אלוהינו, חוס ורחם עלינו

O merciful father, Hear our voice, have mercy upon us

Certainly, they are all basically saying the same thing, but for Nusah Achid Rav Goren knew that he’d have to make a choice between them or create a new version based on all of them. So what did he do?

Rav Goren addresses this question in a responsum[15] where he writes:

“A solution to this problem of establishing the nusach is exceedingly difficult. Of course, there is no intention that this discussion will lead to choosing one nusach from all others and to force it onto those of differing customs. This approach will certainly be regarded as a failed one and, in fact, there is no justification for it to succeed since no individual nusach can regard itself as the bechor – the firstborn – over all others[16].”

However, he continues by explaining that:

“there is an inclination to establish Nusach Ari – which is accepted both among the Chassidic Ashkenazi communities, and also Sefardic communities – as the nusach that should be used for all communities. Still, even if we find within Nusach Ari the foundation for Nusach Achid, nevertheless we will not solve the problem through this, since there are many great differences between Nusach Ari and other nusachaot, and this too stirs up halachic problems concerning those other communities. A solution like this does not reflect the merging of the diaspora communities that we each come from and which reflects the vision of the ingathering of the exiles. Still, the intention underlying this effort is to somehow to synthesise the different nuschaot, and in doing so, merge the best and most beautiful of all the nuschaot. Yet, when it came to fulfilling this task, we confronted many halachic challenges that were difficult to solve since many differences in nuschaot are based on particular halachic positions that differ from each other.”[17]

Basically, what we see from here is that notwithstanding Rav Goren’s almost messianic vision, this vision was practically impossible to realise unless he was prepared to choose one nusach over another, and let’s not forget what he’d previously said, that ‘no individual nusach can regard itself as the bechor – the firstborn – over all others’. Still, unless choices were made, the entire project would have to be shelved.

Given all this, Rabbi Goren took a second look at the problem and tried to identify the nusach that was most similar to all others, and according to him, this was the prayer rite recited by the Vilna Gaon which, though I haven’t mentioned it until now, was a fusion of Ashkenazic liturgical custom along with numerous mystical sensitivities.


But why was Rav Goren so keen to meet this task? Naturally, one might think that Rabbi Goren was only driven by the practical needs of soldiers of the IDF[18]. However, it is noteworthy that he ends his responsum by adding that ‘the task is exceedingly difficult, but the framework of the IDF is the only one where it is possible – and necessary – to begin this task’[19]. What this means is that Rav Goren really believed that, in time, synagogues across the country would begin praying in accordance with Nusach Achid.

Over time, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Rav Goren changed his mind again and rather than concluding that Nusach Achid should be based on the prayer rite of the Vilna Gaon, he concluded that Nusach Sefard should be the one chosen for his Nusach Achid siddur, yet fascinatingly, he explains in his autobiography that the siddur was an amalgam ‘that took all existing versions into consideration and combined them’[20] – which does not seem to be the case.

Still, the question I’d now like to consider is whether Rav Goren’s attempt to unify Jewish liturgy was successful?

Well, though many rabbanim opposed the notion of Nusach Achid – either in principle[21] or practice[22], the Nusach Achid siddur was – and continues to be – produced by the IDF, and it has been adopted by numerous communities across Israel although, naturally, many Ashkenazi, Sefardi & Yemenite soldiers do not use this siddur and prefer to pray according to their families’ custom. What this means is that while the project was not the ultimate success that Rav Goren hoped for, it did make a marked difference both within the IDF and beyond.

Other considerations

Then, for the Yamim Noraim – the High Holy Days – Rav Goren attempted to produce a Nusach Achid Machzor. But unlike the Nusach Achid siddur, he admitted that this project was ‘only partially successful’ because each person felt that aside from certain prayers that they were missing, they were also missing out on certain tunes which – for them – captured the spirit, and of course the memories, of Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur.[23]

Over time, some people became more convinced with the value of Nusach Achid, and others less, but when the Ministry of Education proposed that Rav Goren produced a Nusach Achid siddur for all students, ‘the parent committees at the schools raised strenuous objections. The parents wanted to preserve the versions and melodies of their ethnic groups, and were afraid that the Sephardic versions of the prayers would disappear completely from the school books. There were also many rabbis who objected, so the project was shelved’[24].


Clearly, the Nusach Achid project led by Rav Goren was neither a complete success, nor necessarily a complete failure. However, I believe that there is much we can learn from this story which speaks volumes about the Jewish people.

There were some who believed that once Jews returned to Israel, they should disregard their diaspora past and build a new future together. Of course, this vision was and is deeply attractive as it offered the possibility of unifying Jewish liturgy and strengthening Jewish unity.

In terms of the Haggadah, which is recited in a unified manner, this was possible and the general consensus is that the Nusach Achid Haggadah was a success.

But in terms of Jewish prayer, especially Jewish high holiday prayers, it was far less successful, because while the Haggadah is recited together on Seder night and is part of a larger shared experience that goes beyond the words of the Haggadah, prayer is both a communal but also a private experience, where we find ourselves and forge our connection with God within the words of prayer.

Ultimately, what we learn from the Nusach Achid project is that our past experiences do impact our present, that we cannot forget where we came from, and that ultimately, unity is achieved not through saying precisely the same words, but through serving One God.


[2] See for example Jeffrey M. Cohen, Horizons of Jewish Prayer p. 79

[3] See Rav Yair Dreyfuss, Keviat Nussach Tefillah L’Minyan Hadash (Tehumin Vol. 8), and the response from Rav Yaakov Ariel, L’Achduta Shel HaKehillat B’Nusach HaTefillah (Tehumin Vol. 9)

[4] See for example Piskei Uziel No. 2

[5] With Might & Strength p. 312

[6] Ibid. p. 313

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. Fascinatingly, in the introduction to the IDF Nusach Achid Haggadah, Rav Goren lists 20 considerations that shaped the decisions he made concerning what was to be included.

[9] Ibid. p. 295

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p. 296

[12] Interestingly, in the actual Haggadah Shel Pesach L’Chayalei Tzava Hagana L’Yisrael (5718 edition), this line precedes the Ha Lachma Anya text

[13] With Might & Strength p. 296

[14] Ibid. p. 297

[15] Trumat HaGoren Vol. 1 No. 20

[16] It should be noted that numerous poskim challenged this claim, especially Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer Vol. 6 Orach Chaim 10), who regarded Nusach Edut HaMizrach as the ideal (although, in a footnote to his article on ‘Nuschaot HaTefillah’ (REFERENCE), Shimon Weiser says that R’ Ovadia once told him that Nusach Chabad should have been the one chosen by R’ Goren).

[17] Trumat HaGoren Vol. 1 p. 54

[18] This seems to directly conflict with the remarks of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Sheilat Shlomo Vol. 2 p. 25) who, citing R’ Goren, claims that the desire for creating a Nusach Achid was merely practical ‘because the IDF did not have the capacity to print and distribute three different types of siddurim’.

[19] Ibid p. 56

[20] With Might & Strength p. 313

[21] See Yabia Omer ad loc.

[22] See for example R’ Yuval Sherlow’s remarks –

[23] With Might & Strength p. 314

[24] Ibid.

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