Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Great Synagogue

I have written here and there about the shaliach tzibbur (communal emissary) and the importance that that role has in the experience of Jewish prayer. If you go back and read my post about Yom Kippur, I wrote that the shaliach tzibbur for musaf did not have the most magnificent voice, but that his presence, passion, and command for the t'fillah far surpassed any his vocal shortcomings. To draw a contrast, last night I attended kabbalat Shabbat at The Great Synagogue, pictured above.

The chazzan, accompanied by an award winning choir, delivered rousing renditions of the Friday evening t'fillot. It was an impressive display of what I think comes to mind when people think about classical European chazzanut. Any attempt at recounting the beauty of the music would fall woefully short of its true grandeur. At one point, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to be transported to the "old world," where daveners would pack the shul to hear the magnificent voices of Europes finest chazzanim.

I would be remiss if I did not inform you that it was not a participatory experience. There were very few opportunities to sing along. As such, many of those in attendance, tourists and daveners alike, turned to side conversations which detracted from the power of the music. Unlike my Yom Kippur experience, which was highly participatory, this was perhaps akin to a concert, which while beautiful did not fulfill my desire to sing the Psalms of kabbalat Shabbat.

I hope this helps others in considering what kind of davening they wish to seek and build.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Personal Reflection: Memorization

Memorization is a powerful tool. Usually we associate memorization with preparation for tests. I want to associate it with prayer. For now, I am going to leave aside the potential halakhic problems that may arise from memorizing prayer, which is fair game for a later post, and instead share my own memorization journey.

Last year, when I began learning at Yeshivat Hadar, I had a conversation with one of my teachers about the memorization of prayer, specifically the Amidah. I was staunchly against memorizing the pillar of Jewish prayer (I consider the Shma a statement, not a prayer). I felt as if my own words would be somehow cheapened if they were committed to memory, almost like I would be performing the prayer rite with less than total focus. I felt comfortable with the siddur (prayerbook) in my hand, and I was certainly not going to let it slip from my grasp.

Sometime later, I found myself having unintentionally memorized the Amidah. Simply, if you say something enough times, it becomes easier to recall. One could certainly make the argument that because our prayers are fixed, and the possibility for memorization exists that there is a problem to be found here. I'll leave that aside for now as well. Finally I decided to attempt to recite the entire weekday Amidah without any siddur assistance. I found that I actually was more focused and concentrated because I did not have the words printed before my eyes. I did not have the luxury of rushing through words or running syllables together. Without a siddur, I had to provide all of the punctuation and enunciation. It was truly a watershed moment.

I don't want to put forth the idea that the entire could or should be memorized, because there are certainly pitfalls if the davener is not careful. Rather, selective memorization has the potential to be useful, and not just for standardized test preparation.

I would be curious to hear the opinions and experiences of others with regard to Amidah memorization.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Transitional Silences

Transitional moments within davening are generally opportunities to keep the t'fillot at hand moving along without delays that would cause a lapse in concentration or disrupt the atmosphere of holiness. As an aside, halacha takes into consideration this fact, and prohibits the burdening of the congregation.

I learned last year at Yeshivat Hadar, that sometimes singing or prayer is enhanced by the inherent contrast between voices and the silence that exists before and after. I agree wholeheartedly with the concept when discussing the moments following the conclusion of a niggun (wordless melody), but I've been wrestling recently as to how this might apply to t'fillah.

Among the moments within davening where there are "transitional silences," none is more powerful for me than that heading into and out of the silent amidah. Regardless of which service of the day, the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) has a vocal role before the amidah begins, whether in the form of a bracha or half-kaddish. Once the shaliach tzibbur concludes however, there is hopefully a silence that pervades as all present begin the personal amidah. The transition allows individuals the opportunity to gather his or her thoughts before commencing the t'fillah. It is undoubtedly tempting to rush into the amidah, a temptation to which I have succumbed on numerous occasions. In the last week, I have found my personal amidah to be far more meaningful and moving when I take those few seconds, absorb the quiet, gather my thoughts, and only then begin the amidah.

On the other hand, there is a certain shattering of the silence when the shaliach tzibbur begins the repetition of the amidah. Though this week of experimenting, I have come to think of the whispered words "Hashem sfatai tiftach u'fi yagid t'hilatecha" (God open my lips that they should declare Your praise), as a warning to the kahal that the silence is about to end and the repetition will shortly begin. Yes, the aforementioned quote from Psalms it's own meaning, paralleling the "y'hi ratzon milfanecha..."(So may it be Your will...) at the conclusion of the amidah. For the purposes of this t'fillah element, I am relying on my own understanding.

I would be curious to hear/read about others' thoughts an/or attempts at the method that I have suggested.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mixed Davening Epiphany

No, it's not what you think. This past Kabbalat Shabbat, I was in a youth hostel in Jerusalem, where all of the guests who are so inclined gather together, and hope to assemble enough people and know-how to create a smooth and meaningful davening. Since we are in Jerusalem, the numbers were not the problem. However, the assembled group was almost evenly divided between those who daven nusach ashkenaz (prayer arrangement that developed in Eastern Europe), and those who daven nusach sfard (prayer arrangement that developed in Western Europe and North Africa). Leaving aside specifics, suffice it to say that there are difference in the two davening traditions.

So what's the epiphany? It did not matter one bit that half of the kahal (assembled community) was working with one text and the other half working with a different text. I cannot honestly tell you that davening was not the best or smoothest that I have experienced. What I can tell you is that all of those who were present came together to welcome Shabbat, each in the way that is customary for him or her.

Why bother talking about it? Often you hear "Oh, in nusach sfard they do X and in nusach ashkenaz they do Y." For the sake of community and the ushering in of the Shabbat bride, it did not matter whose customs were whose. My broader point is that prayer is a communal undertaking, requiring the participation and commitment of all.

Thanks for reading, chodesh tov. I apologize for the long absence. I haven't forgotten about the second half of amud ettiquete.