What Is This Book Called a “Mahzor”? Originally published September 14-15, 2018.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we set aside our prayer books – our siddurim – and pray with mahzorim instead.  Why does this book have a different name?

Actually, there are mahzorim for each festival as well as for the High Holy Days.  We wrote about the oldest and most comprehensive mahzor, the Mahzor Vitry, several months ago (one may type “Vitry” into the search on our website), compiled by Rabbi Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry in the 11th century.  Rabbi Simhah apparently included everything.

Today mahzorim contain special hymns and poems (“piyyutim,” פִּיּוּטִים), as well as additional liturgy special for the holiday.

In 15th-century Italy (the time of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo*, Gozzoli, and other Renaissance creative forces, when folks were turning their liripipes into capuchons – but that is a story for another box), mahzorim were designed as personal prayer books, stressing the daily prayers, even containing a Haggadah.  From the 1300s, they had been producing books small enough to carry, but with only a few simple illustrations to decorate the words of the liturgy.  The Ashkenazi scribe and illuminator Joel ben Simeon created three known such books of the fancier variety, one of which seems to be created for a woman (based on bibliologists’ interpretation of the illustrations).   The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has the 1492 Rothschild Mahzor from Florence, which was illuminated in three different styles and techniques:  an elaborate first page, illustrations to each section, and tinted decorations on each page.  Other prominent mahzorim are the Leipzig Mahzor and the Worms Mahzor.  Leipzig and Worms are both cities in Germany, and the style of these books is reported to be very Germanic.

The word “mahzor” means “cycle,” from hazar,”  “return.”  We cycle through the book year after year.

The prayer book we use weekdays and on Shabbat is called a “siddur,”  related to the word “seder,” both of which mean “order.”  The order of the service is laid out for us in the siddur.  Thus one might say that on a daily basis we go straight ahead and on the holidays we cycle back. 

May you be written for a happy, healthy, bibliophilic year.

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*Michelangelo did a beautiful statue of David, but should have thought to employ a Jewish model.