Hiddur Mitzvah: The Proops Machzor (c. 1750)
By: Ben Kreshtool, Ritual Director
There are few texts more moving in Jewish ritual practice than the liturgy of the High Holy Days. Year after year, the familiar melodies and beautiful, ancient words inscribed within the machzor evoke within us feelings of awe and humility.
Perhaps more than any other ritual object in a synagogue’s collection, machzorim - especially older editions - embody the idea of the idea of l’dor va-dor, used by generations of Jews to guide their teshuva (repentance). There is something very special about old books; the way the feel when their pages are turned, as they have been turned thousands of times before, is a tactile connection to our Jewish heritage.
Beth El has just such a machzor in its collection. Everyday, people walk by its display case where it sits, unassuming, ready to remind us of the meaning of the High Holy Days with the word HaMelech, the King, emblazoned on its page. While its cover is slightly warped and the leather has begun to fade, its binding is still strong. All in all this book is in remarkably good condition for being almost 300 years old.
According to its title page, the Proops Printing House published this machzor in 1750 in Amsterdam. Rabbi Shlomo Proops began printing books 1690, and his family continued to print machzorim and other ritual books until 1849. The Proops machzor in Beth El’s collection was printed in the Ashkenazic tradition and features on its title page the hebrew words Kavanat HaPaytan, which is a yiddish commentary on the prayers within. Make no mistake, the Proops Printing House intended this machzor to guide readers through a personal transformation. Also inscribed in beautiful calligraphy on its title page is the name of its one time owner Lipman Rintel, as well as as an endorsement from Rabbi Aryeh Leib, the Av Beit Din (“Chief Justice”) and spiritual leader of the Ashkenazi Jewish Congregation.
Flipping through the pages of this machzor is a glimpse into the past, but also a striking parallel to the present. The pages are ancient, and the commentary is in Yiddish, but the prayers themselves are the same prayers we say today. From the austerity of the Unetaneh Tokef, to the stirring and uplifting language of the Musaf Amidah, and the beautiful sentiments of many liturgical poems, the prayers in Proops Machzor are the exact same as those in the machzor we use during High Holy Day services at Beth El. Indeed, this machzor makes connects us to generations of Jews who have come before us, like its former owner Lipman Rintel, for surely, he too was a man with dreams, feelings, and the hope for blessings and sweetness for a new year.