What should you say in a shortened High Holy Day service?

Many shul services will be abridged and many of us will be praying at home this year - so which prayers are essential?


From the moment King David embarked on authoring the earliest collection of Jewish prayer around 1000 BCE it took almost 2,000 years before the order of prayer with which we are familiar today was first crystallised in the form of our siddur and our machzor.

Over the last few months rabbis of all denominations, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi, both north of the Equator and in the southern hemisphere, have been working to truncate our order of prayer in the face of the Covid-19 onslaught.

Two thousand years of compositional genius, poetic brilliance and sensitivity to the human condition is being decimated to reduce the Rosh Hashanah risk to their congregants. These are tragic times in so many ways.

The common purpose which unites every rabbi across the globe this year is the need to reduce the length of services this year to minimise possible infection within crowded stuffy synagogues. Some will move outside and hope for benign weather.

Some will limit the service to two hours or even less, while all have an eye on government spokesmen to learn what the latest lockdown advice entails. All will be scratching their heads trying to come up with a set of rules for creating Covid- compliant mini-services.

It is in this challenge that we encounter the testing polarity between resonance and legal significance. This was dubbed by some American Jewish educators post- 1960’s as the Kav-Kavannah Continuum.

On the one hand we can emphasise prayers for their halachic status. These are the prayers which are kavua, fixed in the siddur, such as the Shema, Amidah or Kedushah whose primacy is enshrined in halachah.

At the opposite end of this spectrum are those prayers which are laden with kavannah, meaning and relevance for the contemporary congregant. Halachically less important, they are key landmarks on the spiritual journey of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days. These would include Yizkor and the relatively recent compositions such as Kol Nidre and Unetaneh Tokef.

Halachically it is acceptable to say Yizkor without a minyan and at home and should be one of the first casualties of the culling of less crucial prayers. Imagine however the dip in the career prospects of the rabbi who announces, “Yizkor will not be read this year.”

There would be a silver lining. It would solve social distancing issues in that particular synagogue. Nevertheless, some UK Orthodox synagogues will be offering Yizkor Online (before Yom Kippur) in a move to help members who are unable to make it to shul this year.

In addition to brevity safety measures enacted this year are looking to diminish transmission of the virus. Obviously social distancing features strongly but consideration has also been given to the effects of a potentially infected shofar blower launching a myriad of virus particles with every tekiah.

Thankfully, no-one has suggested putting a time limit on the tekiah gedolah but the Orthodox Union, the umbrella body for the American Orthodox mainstream, recommends placing a “surgical mask over the wider end” of the shofar. It also advocates “pointing the shofar towards an open window.”

Our own United Synagogue have more modestly suggested “blowing away from” the congregation. In a similarly minimalist suggestion our US are recommending that we blow only 30 from the usual 100 notes.

Across the water, in the other US, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who is the unrivalled spiritual leader of the modern Orthodox camp, is compellingly arguing for 60 notes. The Talmud instituted separate sessions of tekiot, each of 30, and Rav Schachter can see no reason to retreat from that requirement

Other safety measures are concerned with avoiding the usual huddle around on the bimah during kriyat Hatorah. Traditionally two gabbaim, the person who is called up for the current portion and the person who recited the blessings for the previous portion crowd around the Torah reader ready to pounce on any slight mistake.

The new rules give the ba’al koreh (Torah reader) respite from such stern surveillance. All the aliyot are to be read by the ba’al koreh himself with the gabbaim having to stand two metres away. Hagbah and gelilah should be performed ideally by father and son teams or at least by members of the same family

With social distancing swallowing a large part of the available space in our shuls, numbers per service will be reduced and extra “parallel” or “staggered” services will be needed. The problem is that some of the services are very time specific.

Innovatively, the United Synagogue has sanctioned Kol Nidre services, which will start as early as over an hour before sunset on the day before Yom Kippur and nearly two hours before nightfall. Neilah, however, is more problematic and the consensus is to prefer to limit the timing of this the final part of the Yom Kippur service to… the final part of Yom Kippur.

It is with great relief that I note that no one is asking rabbis to oversee a post-nightfall Neilah service populated by brave souls who have volunteered to extend their fast into the eleventh day of Tishri

It is so poignant that Psalm 27, which we read twice daily from the beginning of Ellul through to the end of Succot, includes the plaintive appeal, “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

Once again in Jewish history visiting the house of the Lord is a challenge. It is a challenge that is met by the halachah, which has paved the pathway which enables a safe return to our shuls while both retaining the integrity of our tefillot and yet promoting their relevance and resonance.

Wielding that authority, it is our rabbis who have managed to find a means of enhancing our lives, sending light into the desperate darkness of these times and reminding us of how things were and, with God’s help, will be once more.

Rabbi Pollak is secondary schools project co-ordinator for Pajes


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