Litvak Prayer Rituals
Until the invention of the printing press, the prayer ritual or Nusah used in the various Jewish communities varied a great deal. There were certain general traditions, for example, Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Italian, Yemenite, but nearly every town had its own uniqueness. Since printing had already been invented by the time the Jewish communities in Lithuania developed, there was little variation in the order of the tefillah or prayer services between the towns. One could go from one place to another and expect to find the same pattern and order of prayers followed in the synagogue service. As most of the Lithuanian Jews had migrated from the west where the Ashkenazic ritual was used, that was the prayerbook ritual used in the vast majority of the communities.
By the beginning of the 19th century in Eastern Europe, however, three different versions of the prayerbook or three different Nus-haot (Nusah is the singular) had come into general use:
(1) Ashkenazi - This rite was used in almost all of Lithuania, White Russia, and all the other areas that were not under Hasidic influence.
(2) Nusah Ari - This ritual based on the practices of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the famous mystic of Safed, was generally only used by Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidim.
(3) Nusah Sefard - Nusah Sefard was one of the Hasidic innovations that took place in the first generations following the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760). It combined elements of the Spanish (Sefardi) ritual with that of the Ashkenazic prayerbook. All the various Hasidic groups used this prayerbook in their synagogue services.
The use of these three different prayerbooks by the various communities clearly set each of them apart. A person who was used to one minhag or custom was loyal to it and would not join in the prayer service of a different group. If the community were large enough, there would be various minyanim (services), each faithful to one of these rites. In Lithuania, where Hasidim were few in number, it would have been rare to find a minyan using the Nusah Sefard.
With regard to spoken Hebrew, all of the communities in Eastern Europe used the Ashkenazi pronunciation. The Sefardi pronunciation of Hebrew -- not to be confused with the Sefardi ritual in prayer -- became widespread only after the creation of the State of Israel. Even within the Ashkenazic community there was a great variation in the way Hebrew was pronounced among Ashkenazi Jews, and thus one’s country of origin could easily be identified by one’s accent.