Synagogue Bnei Jacob in Champagne, Illinois, has caused a bit of stir in the Orthodox Jewish community. The board announced that it would encourage congregants to scream out loudly if a mistake was made when the Torah is read during the service.
The reader of the Torah during the service, referred to as the “Ba’al Koreh” reads an entire chapter from the Bible on the Sabbath. While Hebrew in a standard prayer book is equipped with a series of vowels making it easier to read, the Hebrew written in a Torah scroll is on parchment and contains no vowels. The Ba’al Koreh not only has to memorize the correct pronunciations, but a series of musical notes that accompany each word as well. The reading of the scroll is commonly known as “laining” and requires a lot a time and study as every word must be read correctly.
When mistakes are made, it is common for congregants to shout out the correct pronunciation of the word as they can follow along in prayer books that have the vowels attached making it easy to read. The practice however, seems quite strange since two men known as “Gabaaim” stand on either side of the reader there to help. That doesn’t seem to matter to Bnei Jacob as they have fully endorsed the congregation joining in. Rabbi Max Schneiderman claimed, “It’s been a tradition for years, that people who have not studied the reading get to scream out to the reader and make him feel like an idiot. We are a very traditional shul and want to keep that going.”
Some synagogues have recently embraced a policy of allowing the two Gabaaim to handle it, as they are usually more than capable, and can do it quietly right next to the reader, but Bnei Jacob has not embraced that practice. Long-time member Sharon Weiss had this to say: “I sit in the Women’s Section and don’t hear much of it anyway, so I don’t really care. My husband Morris goes in and out of naps during that period of the service, and when people scream when a mistake is made, it usually wakes him up, so I know he doesn’t like it either.”
Some however, feel that it is appropriate and makes people better. Bar mitzvah age boys as young as thirteen are eligible to read from the Torah, and often feel pressure, but many feel that it is good for them. Marty Weiss, Executive Director of the Youth Department said, “Look, it’s fun and all to see how much you can rattle a kid if he makes a mistake, and some might think it’s insensitive, but I saw the movie Whiplash, and sometimes being tough is the best way to make sure the kid will do a better job in the future.”
While there have been a few cases of boys getting visibly upset, most congregants are sensitive enough to save the real scorn for the adults. Weiss went on to say,” Its not just letting the reader know that he’s made a mistake, but we get to talk about it afterwards at the Kiddush. ‘Did you hear Saul today? He stunk up the joint!’ That’s where the real fun comes in. We’re not gonna do that to a kid. So it’s always more fun when an adult does the laining.”
While most synagogues have leaned towards letting the Gabaaim handle corrections in recent years, Bnei Jacob says will continue the long tradition of congregants shouting out.