| Second Thoughts |

The Old Woman and the Siddur

I am writing this a few days before Mrs. Cooperman’s Shabbos, and you are reading this a few days after that Shabbos. I have written elsewhere about it, but if you never heard of the Cooperman Shabbos, read on.

Mrs. Cooperman was an elderly widow, a loyal member of my father’s shul in Baltimore during the 1950s. She was genuinely religious, was filled with chesed and goodness, and gave generously to Jewish causes and needy individuals.

However, one facet of her piety was less than perfect. Although she scrupulously kept all the mitzvos, she was Jewishly unlearned and unlettered, and never knew the meaning of any of the words she so carefully davened. As a result, she was unable, for example, to distinguish between prayers that are read only on Shabbos, and those that are read only when Shabbos coincides with Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Tov, or Chanukah. Thus, on every single Shabbos of the year, she would recite every single prayer on every single page of the Shabbos davening.

My mother a”h, who always sat next to her in shul, would gently remind her: “This you don’t say today, because today is not Rosh Chodesh.”

To which she would reply with a smile, “Nu, so what is terrible if I say it? These are holy words, and I’m talking to G-d in His holy language, so what could be bad?” Her faith was simple and undiluted.

We three preteen brothers found it ludicrous that this old lady could not differentiate between Shabbos and Yom Tov. The mere thought of her reading Shemoneh Esreh or Bircas Hamazon straight through without distinguishing one section from the next was for us a source of great hilarity.

In one particular year, Rosh Chodesh Teves coincided with the Shabbos of Chanukah, which meant that we recited yaaleh v’yavo, full Hallel, al hanissim, and the special Rosh Chodesh Mussaf in addition to the normative Shabbos davening. Suddenly it dawned on us boys that on this one Shabbos of the year, you simply opened the siddur and kept going, reciting everything, omitting nothing.

“Today is her day!” We laughed. And thus it was that the wondrous — and occasional — conflation of Shabbos, Chanukah, and Rosh Chodesh became known among us as Mrs. Cooperman’s Shabbos.

That such a Shabbos occurs only once every few years simply intensified the anticipation of that magical moment in time, and we looked forward to it for many years with wicked glee.

Many Chanukahs and many Mrs. Cooperman Shabbosim have flown by since then. She is no longer among the living, nor are her favorite rabbi and rebbetzin. We boys have grown older and have passed the story down to our children and grandchildren, and whenever that special Shabbos comes around, all of us remember the lighthearted mirth she unwittingly created for us when we were young.

Now, however, we appreciate her for what she really was. She may have been Jewishly unlearned, but she possessed something not always present in contemporary religious life: devotion, surrender, and innocent, childlike trust before the Presence of G-d. Bizarre as her davening was, she brought to it a total submission before her Creator, a love so consuming that she could not pass over a single word of His holy siddur.

When she said Baruch Atah, she knew that her personal Maker was listening. She praised Him for the Chanukah miracle every Shabbos of the year, she ushered in the New Moon every week of the year, her davening was a seamless web that did not distinguish one kind of holiness from another. G-d was her Divine friend, and, as the very embodiment of the Talmud’s “Rachamana liba ba’i — G-d desires the heart”(Sanhedrin 106b), her deepest joy was to engage Him in conversation.

Yes, her davening was halachically out of joint. Yes, the holy words of the siddur may not be shifted and shaped according to our momentary whims. There must be discipline and form in addressing the Almighty.

But in today’s restless society, when our davening is often robotic and mechanical, and when a synagogue’s worth is often measured by the rapidity with which it races through the davening, and when insufficient velocity is considered to be sufficient cause to break away and form a shtibel of one’s own, the thought of Mrs. Cooperman lovingly caressing every syllable of prayer is a striking reminder of what davening can be — even when following the correct order of prayer.

If for some reason you were not aware that this past Shabbos was her day, do not despair: It will roll around again in the year 2021. There is still time to put your davening in order as you get ready.

 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 792)

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