Transform our Synagogue Communities into Singing Communities

The Gabbai of my shul told me that since my mother’s yahrzeit is next week, I will lead the davening for Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv on Friday night.  I thanked him, and at the same time, I wonder whether I should be the one to lead the davening.

It is no secret that the Shabbat davening experience can be a major challenge for many in our community.  Shabbat morning davening can be long, we say the same prayers each and every week, and it can be especially challenging when many of us do not understand the meaning of what we say.  As a result, we rush through Pesukei D’zimra, without any appreciation of the beautiful Psalms that we are reciting. Friday night davening is not as long as Shabbat morning, but some of the above issues apply to the Friday night davening, as well.  Some of us feel disconnected from God, making the service feel foreign or even uncomfortable.

As a community, we try to address this challenge primarily through education.  We try educating our community about how to pray, why we pray and what the structure of tefillah is.  We provide all different types of siddurim, some with beautiful translations, some that are transliterated, and some with beautiful essays on the nature of tefillah.  We hope that with these tools at our disposal, many will utilize prayer as an opportunity to explore our experience and relationship with God and will appreciate what it means to pray within a community and the power of communal prayer.  There are countless books and articles that speak to the power of prayer; how it is considered food for the soul, how it connects us to our past, and how it helps build our emunah, our faith. There are beautiful explanations for seemingly rote prayers like chazarat hashatz, the repetition of the shemona esrei, by Rav Soloveitchik, who explained that the purpose of chazarat hashatz is that it’s a communal prayer led by the chazzan, and the entire congregation actively participates by standing quietly, feet together, focusing on the words and answering “amen” to each other.  Yet, even with all of these tools at our disposal, so many in our community remain uninspired.

Perhaps one solution is to eliminate some of the tefillot that are recited in shul.  The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Hayyim 1:4) states that it’s better to recite fewer supplications with appropriate concentration than many prayers without concentration.  Would shortening the davening make it less onerous? Would congregants be able to concentrate better for a shorter period of time? At some point, does too much davening result in diminishing returns?  No less a Torah giant than the Rambam abolished the recitation of chazarat hashatz because those who davened silently would talk to their neighbors during this time – sound familiar?

While reducing the number of tefillot is one suggestion, to the best of my knowledge, it is not the practice in our communities.  Frankly, it may be a dangerous precedent to toy with the customary prayers by eliminating them.  Rav Soloveitchik asserted that the first change the reformers made in Berlin was the abolishment of the first of the two Yekum Purkan prayers, arguing that the prayer refers to the holy societies that are in the land of Babylon and Babylon no longer existed.  Then they abolished the second Yekum Purkan because there was no need for this prayer in Aramaic as a similar prayer was recited in Hebrew right afterwards. As we know only too well, the reformation of the liturgy and Jewish rituals, for that matter, didn’t stop there.  As such, I would be very wary of eliminating some tefillot where I might find halachic justification to do so in an effort to shorten the time of tefillah because it may lead to further trivializing tefillah and ritual, in general.  Additionally, I’m not sure if eliminating certain parts of davening will solve the core problem. Instead, it might just transform Shabbat morning davening from two hours of uninspired davening to one hour of uninspired davening.

The ultimate goal for tefillah is to have kavanah, or concentration, and to feel a sense of connection to God, to the Jewish people and, frankly, to ourselves.  For many of us though, we are accustomed to settling for less. We are happy even when people who are uninspired still show up to shul out of a sense of obligation, since we know that many others simply stay home.  And in truth, we should applaud that commitment. At the same time, we must reject the notion that davening is not a place where we can all and should all be inspired.

In today’s day and age, I think many people are inspired through song.  People love to sing, and people love to be active participants in their spiritual growth.  If we sing more during davening, more people will find that active connection. We all see that it works.  During the Yamim Noraim, so many of us feel so inspired and connected by beautiful melodies and congregational singing.  Why can’t we do that during the rest of the year? I was in Los Angeles about a month ago in a particular shul, and during Pesukei D’Zimra the chazzan sang the last line of every Perek of Tehillim to a familiar tune.  It added very little time to the davening, but it was probably the most inspiring Pesukei D’Zimra that I ever experienced.

What does a shul with more congregational singing look like?  First of all, we may need to sacrifice who has the right to lead the davening, which is obviously a very touchy issue considering the longstanding tradition of allowing certain people with Yahrzeits the coming week to lead the davening.  (I’m just referring to Shabbat davening for these purposes.) Secondly, while I see the value of having house minyanim for Friday night as a convenient way to perhaps encourage more people to daven with a minyan, perhaps we should eliminate them once in a while to have a community-wide Friday night ruach-filled davening which is conducive to inspiring congregational singing.  Finally, we need to incorporate more congregational singing in our tefillot. Some shuls ignore the noise during chazarat hashatz and allow the chazzan to daven while many in the congregation are simply talking to each other and are not paying attention to the chazarat hashatz. Other shuls will stop whenever there is talking until there is silence. But there is a third option.  We can create appropriate tunes for the chazarat hashatz so that the congregation will sing together with the chazzan and will feel inspired from the singing just as they are inspired during the Yamim Noraim davening.  We won’t need to stop the davening or ignore the talking because everyone will be singing with the chazzan. Practically, how we get shuls on board with this concept is a bit tricky.  Maybe we hire a chazzan to come periodically to teach these new tunes. Maybe we bring in five inspiring Yeshiva students like what is done by Torah Tours to create ruach in the davening for a number of Shabbatot until the community is used to and appreciates this change.

I think that in many praying communities we have accepted the fact that those who get inspired through studying about prayer will be inspired and those who don’t get inspired through studying about prayer will not be inspired.  We are satisfied if people come to shul even if it is only out of a sense of obligation.  But I believe that we should aim higher. Continue the education about tefillah, but do so in tandem with much more congregational singing.  When we sing the words of tefillah, there is a greater likelihood that we will think about why we are praying. We may even think more about the words that we are saying. This will create more inspired prayer communities. If this means that I am not the right person to lead the davening for Kabbalat Shabbat on the Shabbat before my mother’s yahrzeit, so be it.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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