Sunday 1 November 2020



The Portuguese Synagogue or Esnoga of Amsterdam, completed in 1675.


Tefilah betzibur, or praying together with a community - in a minyan - has long been considered a Halachic virtue. But what happens when a member of the community arrives at the synagogue late?

In such a situation, Halacha prescribes a basic ‘order of priority’ in which some ‘lesser’ prayers and psalms may be left out so that the latecomer can recite the more important Shmoneh Esrei, or Amidah, together with the congregation.

Over time, however, a new mystically-based practice emerged whereby the latecomer simply followed the full order of the davening – so as not to ‘disturb the spiritual channels of the prayers’. On this view, the davening is only effective when one follows their precise and complete order. Still today, some groups of Chassidim for example, continue to follow this practice (and I must say, so did I).

In this article, based extensively on the research of Professor Matt Goldish[1], we shall explore the origins of this practice, which appears to fly in the face of the normative Halachic protocols for prayer.


Our story begins in the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in 1706, where a certain R. David Mendes da Silva arrived late for the prayer service. David Mendes da Silva continued his davening in the usual order without omitting parts of the ‘less important’ pesukei de zimrah and thus did not recite the Shmoneh Esrei together with the other congregants.

While this may not appear to have been a major catastrophe - and in many synagogues today such a practice would hardly be remarkable - for that close-knit Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in 1706 which took its communal practices very seriously, it was considered a radical (if not subversive) departure from known and expected Halachic standards.

Another congregant present at that service, Nathan Curiel, witnessed this event and was clearly troubled by it. He questioned the recalcitrant worshipper as to the reasons for his divergent course of action. This was the era of conversos and secret Sabbatians who had infiltrated the mainstream community and any strange religious actions would have immediately aroused some suspicion.

David Mendes da Silva didn’t hesitate to respond that his actions were indeed better than the prescriptions presented in the popular law of the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575). He explained that the reason why it was more important to keep to the full order of the prayers was because that was what the Zohar prescribed - and this held true even if one had to forgo the opportunity to pray the Shmoneh Esrei with the community.


Nathan Curiel duly brought the matter to the attention of R. Yitzchak Sasportas, who although holding no official position in the community, was a respected Kabbalist and Halachist. He was also the son of the famed and fierce anti-Sabbatian R. Yakov Sasportas, who had previously exposed much disruptive Sabbatian activity and had been associated with that same Portuguese synagogue.

The details of this unfolding controversy are recorded in the book Siach Yitzchak written by R. Yitzchak Sasportas. He made every effort not draw individual names into the public arena and therefore used the pseudonyms Reuven and Shimon (instead of David Mendes da Silva and Nathan Curiel whose letters of correspondence are reflected in the work under those pseudonyms).


The debate that started in the Portuguese synagogue in 1706 took an interesting turn when R. Yitzchak Sasportas noted that he had never come across this alleged view of the Zohar that it is proper to follow the full order of the prayers even if it means that one will not recite the Shmoneh Esrei with the congregation.

R. Sasportas also made mention of the principle that no mystical teachings from whatever source, may ever get in the way of Halacha. Halacha is not supposed to be derived from Midrashic or mystical material [although this is not always the case, see A Mystical Side to R. Yosef Karo].

Soon, this event and the ensuing discussion flamed into a full-blown controversy that was to perpetuate for the next fourteen years. R. Yitzchak Sasportas records in his book that the lay leaders of the community eventually decided to settle the matter by submitting to adjudication by the ‘sages who sit in judgement’ and they sided with him. It seems that the ‘sages’ was a reference to R. Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, known as the Chacham Tzvi – the father of R. Yakov Emden, one of the most prolific anti-Sabbatians and exposes of their infiltration within the mainstream Jewish communities. The Chacham Tzvi had so many altercations with suspected Sabbatian elements in Amsterdam, including its rabbi, Shlomo Aailion, that he (the Chacham Tzvi) was eventually forced to leave the city [see Nechemia Chiyun].

This case is also apparently recorded and corroborated in the responsa of the Chacham Tzvi referring to an incident which took place in Holland in 1706:

Two people came to the synagogue while the cantor was reciting the introductory psalms. One skipped through the introductory psalms as the posqim of blessed memory recommend, in order to recite [the 'Amidah] with the congregation. The other began with the start of the morning blessings, reciting [the psalms] in order, and did not recite [the 'Amidah] with the congregation, claiming that this was the opinion of R. Shimon bar Yohai in the Zohar, Parshat Be-midbar. Tell us, teacher, which is preferable.”[2]

Again, interestingly, no names are mentioned but Goldish is convinced that this responsum is referring to our case in the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in 1706.

In the meantime, the main player in the story, the latecomer David Mendes da Silva found himself - after a series of many warnings - excommunicated for a period of two weeks as a result of his insistence on following the ‘full order of the prayers and not joining in with the community. This disproportionately severe measure was obviously an indication of something far larger at stake.[3]


Goldish explains that there are many examples of cases similar to the da Silva-Curiel controversy, where Kabbalah is pitted against Halacha. A well-known case in point would be the debate over wearing Tefillin during Chol HaMoed, where again traditional Halachic norms find themselves challenged by the newer innovations of the Zohar. In that debate, Chassidim take their cue from the Zohar and do not wear Tefillin during the intermediate days of a festival, while traditionalists do.

The Tefillin on Chol haMoed case, however, does have an explicit and clear source in the Zohar (which is not necessarily a license to override Halacha). But the apparent ‘source’ in the Zohar for David Mendes da Silva’s actions regarding the ‘full order of the prayers’ overriding the Halachic injunction to pray as a community, is rather tenuous, to say the least.


Let us now look at David Mendes da Silva’s source in the Zohar, where at the end of Parshat BeMidbar, the structure of the prayers is said to correspond to a cosmic structure within the universe:

Man, in entering the synagogue, first cleanses himself by the [recital of the regulations concerning the] sacrifices; then he accepts upon himself the heavenly yoke by the recital of the hymns of King David. Then comes the prayer said sitting, which corresponds to the arm-phylactery, followed by the prayer said standing, which corresponds to the head-phylactery. So prayer is made up of both action and speech, and when the action is faulty speech does not find a spot to rest in; such a prayer is not prayer, and the man offering it is defective in the upper world and the lower.[4]

While the Zohar does describe prayer as comprising both an “action and speech” and emphasises that without either it is considered “defective”, it does not unequivocally pronounce on the idea that the entire prayer service must be recited in its exact order even at the expense of missing out on reciting the Shemona Esrei together with the congregation.

Furthermore, R. Yitzchak Sasportas points out that no one prior to David Mendes da Silva had ever suggested that this Zohar permitted people to renege on the requirement to say the Shmoneh Esrei together, just so that they can say Pesukei deZimra in its order.

According to R. Sasportras, the only time we find an opening to perhaps follow a teaching from the Zohar as a Halacha, is where either the Talmud or earlier Halachic authorities remain silent or undecided on a matter. This was not the case here, as Halacha clearly prescribed leaving out some of the prayers so that the Shmoneh Esrei can be said together as a community.


Goldish shows that Sasprotas’ last point of the supremacy of Halacha over Kabbalah was by no means universally accepted and that some Spanish rabbis believed in the supremacy of the Zohar under all circumstances, no matter the prescribed Halacha.

This is why David Mendes da Silva actually had a point when he wrote:

"Anywhere the posqim differ with R. Shimon bar Yohai [i.e., the Zohar], and no compromise can be made between them, we follow R. Shimon bar Yohai."[5]

David Mendes da Silva goes even further by bringing a surprising prooftext from the Beit Yosef  which was written by R. Yosef Karo himself who later went on to author the Shulchan Aruch:

"... we do not abandon the words of the Zohar for the words of the posqim."[6]

At first glance, this seems like a powerful support for David Mendes da Silva as even the author of the Shulchan Aruch agrees that we follow the Zohar over codified Halacha!

However, Sasportas is quick to note that da Silva omitted to quote the particular context and the full sentence from R. Yosef Karo which began:

"Since this law is not stated explicitly in the Talmud, we do not abandon the words of the Zohar for the words of the posqim." [7]

In other words, David Mendes da Silva had quoted out of context and only quoted half a sentence which anyway related to another matter entirely. Thus, Sasportas concludes that under normal circumstances where we do know the Halacha, we do not rule by the Zohar if it contradicts that Halacha.

On the other hand, the question of leaving out the psalms section of the davening, known as Pesukei deZimra, is not dealt with in the Talmud. It is first spoken about much later, during the Gaonic Period (589-1038). This means that technically – because it is not discussed in the Talmud – it might be possible to argue that we can choose to follow the Zohar on this matter. The problem is that, as mentioned, the Zohar does not explicitly suggest that a latecomer must recite the full Pesukei deZimra and miss out on saying the Shmoneh Esrei with the community. The Zohar discusses the cosmic importance of prayer in its proper order but it does not actively prescribe the setting aside of the communal Shmoneh Esrei for such ends.


More than a century before David Mendes da Silva, the Siddur of the Ari Zal (1534-1572) cited the very mystical work, Maggid Mesharim of R. Yosef Karo:

"The maggid [heavenly teacher] warned the Bet Yosef [i.e., R. Karo][8] to come to the synagogue very early, so that he would be able to pray in order and without omitting, because the one who does so confounds the conduits [of heavenly influence].”

Perhaps this could serve as a source for the custom?

Here again, the cosmic order of the prayers is indeed emphasised but there is no instruction to actively invalidate the injunction to recite the Shmoneh Esrei as a community. On the contrary, according to this account, R. Karo was specifically told to come to synagogue early in order to say the Shmoheh Esrei with the congregation.

This is significant because, notwithstanding ‘confounding the heavenly conduits’, R. Yosef Karo still went on to rule that Halachically a latecomer must shorten the prayers because it is more important to say the Shmoneh Esrei as a community.


David Mendes da Silva held fast to his own argument that the Zohar was the source for this important practice. He persisted to say that R. Yosef Karo never saw that section of the Zohar that he (da Silva) claimed was the source of the practice to complete the prayers in their order and not recite the Shmoneh Esrei together with the community. Either that or, alternatively, da Silva suggests that R. Yosef Karo saw it but forgot it.[11]


Notwithstanding all these theoretical principles, Goldish cites Jacob Katz who notes that practically, the principles relating to the derivation of Halacha from the Zohar are not as clearcut as we might imagine. In reality, these guidelines are very much disorganized, or as Katz put it, “haphazard[9]

"At times the religious precept, rite, or custom interpreted by the kabbalist seems to have been his own creation, as no obvious source of a halakhic nature is in evidence to support it."[10]


R. Yitzchak Sasportas was very worried about David Mendes da Silva’s innovation becoming widespread. He wrote:

"If he [da Silva] found a pomegranate, he discarded the inside and ate the shell."

Goldish explains:

“Sasportas is saying, in effect, that da Silva has chosen a dangerous teacher, the kabbalah, but instead of accepting the useful teachings and avoiding what is dangerous, he has done the opposite….

He explicitly states his concern that da Silva will cause the masses to be lax in synagogue attendance and punctuality.”

Sasportas was particularly concerned that this innovation which he rightfully feared would become a popular practice, originated from an unlearned individual. David Mendes da Silva was not known as a Kabbalist or a Halachist. Goldish describes him as a minor local rabbi.

Sasportas does not attempt to hide his disapproval of the personality of David Mendes da Silva, who he says has disingenuously ‘wrapped himself in tallit that is not his’ by assuming undeserved Halachic authority:

“You thought to wrap yourself in a tallit which was not yours and to act arrogantly before the common people, as if an amazing secret were hidden under your tongue, until the point where you convinced even yourself and scorned the honor of our rabbis of blessed memory.”[12]

Sasportas continues his attack by chiding David Mendes da Silva for no longer attending the classes of his former teacher because he insolently claimed that he no longer had anything to learn from his teacher.[13]

Intriguingly, Goldish points out that the initials of David Mendes da Silva’s teacher are given as ש״א which Professor Yosef Kaplan has suggested might be either Shlomo Oliveira or Shlomo Aailion, both important Amsterdam rabbis in this period. If R. Shlomo Aailion is indeed identified as his teacher this would shed a complexly different light on the discussion as Aailion was well-associated with the secret Sabbattians! This would also explain why R. Sasportas and the Chacham Tzvi - known anti-Sabbatian protagonists - were so concerned with opposing David Mendes da Silva’s mystical innovations.[14]

(Scholem [Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah,1973:893] writes that in Amsterdam, Shabbatai Tzvi’s followers

used to meet in the house of their leader, Emanuel Benattar, the hazzan of the Portuguese Synagogue, and seem to have been unmolested by the Jewish authorities, possibly because they had the very pious and very wealthy Abraham Pereyra…)

R. Yitzchak Sasportas responds to da Silva and tells him that:

"[T]his is not the way and this is not the city [for such innovations]”.[15]


David Mendes da Silva’s innovative practice gained much traction amongst elements of the wider community and continue to this day.

Goldish makes this point very strongly:

Despite the factitiousness of da Silva's interpretation and the clearcut condemnations of his view, the practice of reading the psalms in order and forgoing the communal Amidah when late for services has persevered and become very widespread.”

And this practice is even popular within the non-Chassidic world as well. According to the Halachic work,  Mishna Berura, published in the late nineteenth century by R. Yisrael Meir haCohen:

"Many righteous men have the practice of praying in order for this reason [fear of damaging the upper and lower worlds] even when they arrive late to synagogue."[16]

והרבה אנשי מעשה נוהגים להתפלל כסדר מטעם זה אפילו אם אחרו לבוא לבהכ"נ


The Zohar and the Ari Zal do speak about the importance of the order of the prayers, but they do not specifically suggest that that order be maintained at the sacrifice of tefilah betzibur or the communal Shmoneh Esrei.

Nevertheless, the vague and loose interpretation of a Zoharic concept by ‘a minor local rabbi’ at best, or possibly an individual with Sabbatian ties at worst, has now - in some circles - become ‘codified’ as law.


[2] She'elot uTeshuvot Chacham Tzvi, #36.

[3] It is most likely that David Mendes da Silva was suspected of being a secret Sabbatian considering the time, place and all the individuals involved in the event. However, Goldish believes the concern was more with the former conversos (who, coincidently, also fell prey more readily to Sabbatin influences). He writes: “The fact that da Silva's practice concerned synagogue activities, and especially the question of communal prayer, also had a special significance in the world of the former conversos. In Amsterdam and the rest of the marrano diaspora outstanding reverence was paid to the synagogue and its rites. The former conversos, who grew up under Catholicism, had become accustomed to a dichotomy whereby religion had minimal impact on daily business activities, but demanded strict honor and discipline inside the place of worship. The Amsterdam Portuguese synagogue and service were the focus of all congregational religious fervor, as we see reflected in the communal rulebooks. Seating in the synagogue was strictly regulated, being carefully ordered according to status and wealth. The honor of being called to the Torah was a matter for more rules, and often a source of disputes. Talking during services and Torah reading was strictly forbidden, as was leaving while the Torah was out of the Ark. One was permitted to sit or stand only at specific stages of the service. Nobody was allowed to raise his voice on the synagogue grounds, and one who struck a fellow Jew there, or even entered with a weapon, was subject to excommunication. These are only a few of the laws meant to preserve the sanctity of the synagogue and the service. This excessive attention given to synagogue ritual, which was not the norm in most Jewish communities, goes far to explain why our case hit a sensitive nerve.

[4]  Zohar (Mantua, 1558-60), p. 120v; Translation by Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, 2nd ed. (London/New York, 1984), 5:175-176.

[5] See Da Silva's letter at the end of Siyach Yitzchak, p. 5v.

[6] Siyach Yitzchak, p. 4r.

[7] Siyach Yitzxhak, p. 20r.

[8] Parenthesis mine.

[9] Jacob Katz, Post-Zoharic Relations, p. 294-5.

[10] Ibid., p. 286.

[11] Siyach Yitzchak, p. 5r; da Silva's letter, p. 16r-v.

[12] Siyach Yitzchak, p. 37v.

[13] Siyach Yitzchak, p. 41r-v.

[14] Goldish does not go so far as to accuse da Silva of engaging in Sabbatian activity, although he does mention that (his possible teacher) R. Shlomo Aailion was “a Sabbatean throughout his life as far as we can gather from extant sources”. However, Goldish continues: “In our case, it was not suspicion of Sabbateanism in da Silva's practice which raised the hackles of Sasportas and Ashkenazi, but the general atmosphere of discomfort with any unusual interpretation of the Zohar, which was the hallmark of Sabbatean kabbalism.”

[15] Siyach Yitzchak, p. 23v.

[16] Mishna Berura Ch. 52.


  1. How then so we understand the Misha Brura? It seems he paskend like kabbala over halacha?!

  2. Although the Mishnah Berura points to, and seems to laud the custom of Anshei Ma'aseh to always daven in order even when they arrive at shul late, he nevertheless goes on to state that 'every one' agrees that if one comes to shul late, one must skip some davening to say Shmoneh Esrei with the community.
    Technically, it hard to say the Anshei Ma'aseh are following a custom of Kabbalah or the Zohar (or the Arizal) because although they all encourage davening in order, they do not actively state that one should forfeit Shmoneh Esrei with the Kehillah. If anything, they encourage one to arrive earlier at davening, and that way to keep the order in tact - but not to skip the communal Shmoneh Esrei. That was a custom and an innovation of David Mendes da Silva.

  3. I searched this subject a lot and found a book written by a german (if I am not mistaken) rabbi in the late 1800's where he supposedly analyzed each part of the morning tefilah and explained when each part was added. It's referenced somewhere in google books.

    When you get to read R. Saadia Gaon's sidur you just wonder at why and who added so many pages and pages of the tanakh, tehilim and other texts to our current sidur if it just turns out to be voided of kavana ? Rabbis say you have to read it all but clearly there a lot of recent additions to our sidurim.

    This translates to unnecessary and fastidious reading (who has the time to even understand the 13 rules of interpretation, or the Akedat Itshak or even the morning korbanot, which I still do read but not with any kavana..).

    I arrive at shul at 7:45 when the tsibur is about to begin hodu and race with the hazan (which seems to read to himself only and surely without really pronouncing most of psukei dzimra, it does not even matter who the hazan is for that matter..) just to finish each morning the tefilah at 8:20 with or without the torah reading! Hundred pages of reading condensed to only 35 mins, what kavana or even basic understanding can you give to Hm by "praying" like that?!

    The speed, the long texts where I can barely put my mind because of the collective rush, day after day, what is this all supposed to be about in the end?! I am no slow guy by any means but for example I often find my self beginning the 3d paragraph of the shma when the hazan and most of the guys are standing up to begin the amida.

  4. Also Rambam's original siddur, not the one ascribed to him in MT, was also much shorter, besides the fact that he had issues with the content of some of the tefillos which reference angels (and even with Aleinu)!

  5. The halacha was stated with regards to chasidim vs ashkenazim. But what about sefardim? I believe they pasken to not skip. See ben ish chai rav poalim

  6. It would be interesting to see if any older Sefaradic sources concur with the Ben Ish Chai who passed away in 1909. We would need something from before 1706.