Last week, Rav Herschel Schachter published a teshuva, a responsum, essentially stating that if there is a contradiction between “din” and “minhag,” between a strict halacha and a custom, that the “din” supersedes the “minhag.” He explained that during the 19th century cholera pandemic, Rabbi Akiva Eiger ruled that we should eliminate all piyutim from the tefillot of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to minimize the time that the community would pray together. That is why he ruled that if it is necessary for safety reasons, the Piyutim during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur may be omitted.
In a Facebook post, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz pointed out that Rav Schachter could have suggested another compromise if we need to minimize the time that we are davening together. Perhaps everyone should daven Shacharit individually at home and just come to shul for shofar blowing and Musaf with all its accompanying Piyutim. According to Rabbi Katz, the advantage of this approach would be that the recitation of Musaf together with Piyutim would create a more meaningful Rosh Hashana experience, and maybe the experiential aspect of Rosh Hashana should be considered more valuable than the halachic benefit of davening Shacharit with a minyan.
(As an aside, in our shul, our Rosh Hashana davening will probably last between two and a half and three hours. We will begin at Nishmat, we will cut out Mi She’bai’rachs during layning, and we hope to include most of the Piyutim in the Chazarat Ha’Shatz. At the same time, if anyone in my community feels uncomfortable davening for such a long time in a minyan then I invite him or her to have a conversation with me about when would be the best time for him or her to attend the minyan and what parts of the davening should be recited at home. As I’ve said before, some people want a shorter davening, some people want a longer davening and the most important point to keep in mind during this time from my perspective is to find your medical “Posek” to guide you in doing what you feel comfortable doing and then nobody should judge other people’s personal decisions in this regard.)
Clearly Rav Schachter is a first-rate Posek and I have deferred to his rulings throughout this pandemic which have balanced rigorous halachic analysis with sensitivity to human needs and I will continue to do so. At the same time, I would like to address this particular issue. Let’s say you decide that you want to have a two-hour Rosh Hashana davening and these are your choices: (1) davening Shacharit and Musaf with a minyan and skipping most Piyutim versus (2) davening Shacharit at home and only davening Musaf with a minyan without skipping most Piyutim. Rabbi Katz framed the debate as whether your goal is to score the most halachic points (what he refers to as “Halachic Man run amok”), which you would do if you davened Shacharit and Musaf with a minyan, versus whether your goal was to have a more meaningful, religious experience which would include the familiar haunting tunes of Piyutim that would create the appropriate tone and mood of the day.
I don’t view this debate as merely being strict halacha versus Jewish experience. I have not asked Rav Schachter this, and I could be wrong, but I would imagine that in a kiruv setting where most of the members of the congregation are not religious and have rarely attended shul during the year, then maybe he might agree to sacrificing Tefilla B’Tzibbur for a more subjective feeling of connection to God through the singing of familiar Piyutim if indeed that was the case, but I’m not sure. However, for congregations consisting of individuals who know the value of Tefillah B’Tzibbur, I believe that it is so important specifically during the Yamim Noraim when we are setting the tone for the rest of the year to make a statement as to the value of Tefilla B’Tzibbur. It is true that the Shulchan Aruch writes “yishtadel,” that a person should strive to pray with a minyan and there are times when one finds himself not in the vicinity of a minyan and in those instances he can pray alone. However, absent these circumstances, the default is that we always pray with a minyan. And that is an absolute halacha that I believe is so challenging for much of our community. Therefore, it is so important specifically on the days when we set the tone for the rest of the year to make a statement that if we find ourselves limited as to how long we can pray, we try to ensure that we daven with a minyan and we will try to make that experience as meaningful as possible.
Our Sages understood the value and power of performing a mitzvah, and certainly crying out to God, in a communal setting. The power and the beauty of prayer is that our prayer is far more effective when we pray as a community and even if we may have some imperfections, the fact that we pray in a minyan compensates for that. After all, the source of having ten men constitute a minyan is the fact that the ten spies are called a congregation, and they weren’t exactly perfect. The beauty of communal prayer is that even if we are lacking in some way, the merit of others with whom we pray benefits us.
The truth is that communal prayer does more than that. It connects us to each other and creates a community of people who pray. The Rambam writes in connection with tefilla, “tzarikh l’shatef et atzmo im hatzibbur,” that a person needs to connect himself to the community and “kol mi she’yaish lo beit haknesset b’iro v’aino mitpallel bo im hatzibbur nikra shakhen ra,” or anyone who has a shul in his town and does not pray there with the community is called a bad neighbor. Rav Soloveitchik points out that he is not called a bad person but a bad neighbor. Why is that? The reason is that we are supposed to work cohesively for the betterment of our people and the world at large. In a minyan, we are all working together. Some contribute their capacity for kavana, their intensity during davening, and some contribute their ability to lead the davening. Everyone contributes something and the final product is a group effort and that creates a community that becomes more attuned to the power and meaning of tefillah.
As such, I would not frame a debate of Shacharit with a minyan versus Piyutim as a debate between strict, dry halacha and a rich, meaningful Rosh Hashana experience. Rather, I believe that tefillah is not merely a reflection of our values, but it’s a reflection of what our values should be. We are challenged to “yishtadel,” to strive to come together as much as possible as a minyan to pour our hearts out to God as a community and whenever we have the opportunity to do so, we should grab it. Hopefully, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can set the tone for a year of increased Tefillah B’Tzibbur by our community at large for those who feel comfortable and are guided by appropriate medical authorities to participate in these minyanim. May it be God’s will that very soon we are able to return to full Tefilla B’Tzibbur without any restrictions.