Rabbi I Have a Problem

Isn't it better to cut the service rather than rush through the Hebrew?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: Our shul recently started speeding up its services but I am finding it increasingly hard to follow the Hebrew. Would it not make more sense to abridge the service but take the prayers more slowly than gabble through them?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Your question resonates very strongly with me as I'm sure it will with many readers.

I personally have stopped attending a particular synagogue in the mornings because the pace left me breathless and feeling spiritually depleted, and that was before my day even began.

Maimonides is unequivocal when he asserts that "prayer that is not mindful is simply not prayer", and the Shulchan Aruch writes that "it is better to recite fewer supplications with concentration than many without" . Both sources would support flexibility in terms of excluding certain prayers, especially when time is tight. However, there is a hierarchy of prayers; some are more important than others, so you should consult with your rabbi as to which prayers may be temporarily suspended or skipped.

It is much easier for an individual worshipper to skip some of the prayers than it is for an entire congregation but here, as well, rabbis can and ought to be flexible. Another idea synagogues might consider is not so much suspending or skipping prayers but altering the pace and shifting the emphasis. I refer here specifically to Shabbat morning services, which frequently race through some of the most uplifting and poetic sections of prayer (Pesukei d'Zimra) only to linger over multiple mi- sheberachs and a prolonged Musaph. I think it would be far more meaningful to set Pesukei d'Zimra to song followed by a leisurely and mindful recitation of the Shema and make up for lost time by keeping Musaph brief and amalgamating many of the overlapping mi-sheberachs.

If your synagogue is reluctant to change things, you can always try to arrive a little bit earlier so that you can pray at a more relaxed pace.

Finally, on occasion you might even consider not attending synagogue but instead worshipping at home. I realise this suggestion may come as surprise to many Jews who have been raised to think of synagogue attendance as the litmus test for religious observance but the fact is there is little value in attending a service that does violence to meaningful prayer. Some of my most uplifting prayer experiences occurred not in synagogue but alone, often on holiday and out in nature.

Our synagogues, order of services and the Hebrew prayers themselves can be extremely useful frameworks through which one can communicate with the divine, but only if invested with thought and feeling.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Why are services so long? This is partly because of the many repetitions, such as the Amidah or Kaddish, and partly because almost every generation added its own prayer, but never took away that of the preceding one.

The result was that over the centuries the service grew from its estimated length of an hour in the first century to the considerably longer version today. It is no wonder people come late or lose concentration.

This is purely a problem of our own making, as whatever one's view of the Bible - be it the literal word of God or the inspiration of God - there is no question that the siddur is entirely devised by humans and in our control.

The point of a service is to commune with God and share an uplifting experience with others, not zoom from page 1 to 150 as quickly as possible. Progressive synagogues have therefore shortened the service to a more manageable length so as to achieve those objects, and that remains an option for others.

Still, if the purpose of services is spiritual satisfaction, then why restrict the prayers to Hebrew ones? Even if the pace is slower, there will always be those who cannot understand them. Ideally, every Jew should be Hebraically literate, but services should be for real Jews, not theoretical ones. Why not marry the language of tradition with the English of modernity and have both?

This leads to another issue: when people read the English, they sometimes find that what flowed off the tongue in Hebrew sticks in the gut in English - such as prayers about animal sacrifices in the Shabbat Amidah, Temple rites in the last line of the Ein Kelohenu, or constant references to the physical resurrection of the dead. We should not say prayers we do not mean, which is another reason to edit the siddur so it is relevant for Jews today.

Omitting passages past their sell-by date also creates room for new ones, such as Lionel Blue's "My life is very short and Your universe is vast… I turn my thoughts to You. Help me to hear Your voice, to find Your image in my soul and to be at peace".

Prayers can be intensely personal, so they should be both comprehensible and meaningful, and the siddur tailored to ensure that. Whatever synagogue we go to, who do we benefit by having overlong services?

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