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Parshas VaEschanan - The Mother of all Prayers 9 Av 5783

08/11/2023 08:26:41 AM


It has now been over nine and a half months of saying kaddish for my father z”l. There are a few different affects which typically occur during the course of the eleven-month obligation to recite kaddish, ranging from being a burden, to an obligation, and, ultimately, to an honor. I personally take upon myself the task of reciting kaddish first as an honor and only second as an obligation. Throughout the experience of saying kaddish, I would never say it was a burden, but can rather be challenging when it comes to traveling, planning ahead as much as possible to assure that I have a minyan in order to say kaddish. I must admit that, due to travel, there were a few times  that I found it impossible to have a minyan, so I delegated the opportunity to my nephews to say kaddish for their grandfather. Other than that, I not only recited kaddish with a minyan but have been very successful in obtaining the ‘amud’ - the lectern - to lead the services. Leading the services is more advantageous, and therefore highly recommended, for a mourner as it gives greater comfort to the soul of the departed.

My most recent trip of two weeks was replete with minyanim at all hours of the day as I traveled to many different places. The most challenging feat is always to keep in sync with the speed and décor of the minyan, and more so to stay within the nusach (text) of the minyan, be it Ashkenazic in Israel, Sephardic, Nusach Sefard, Askenazic American, and so on. The halacha/rule is the shalich tzibbur must pray using the same tradition as the congregation, foregoing his own. The best is when there are instructions and rules that control the pace and speed of the davening. Ultimately, of course, I feel most comfortable when I return home and daven in my own shul.

Many people are stubborn, refusing to “give in” or acquiesce to the norms and customs of the Shul they are visiting, or even to the shul they attend regularly. It is fascinating to learn about the origins of the differences in customs within the davening. One of my many pet peeves (I know I haven’t shared one with you lately), is during the Shabbos davening to decide whether to sing a song together with the Chazzan or to say the song line by line. The two tefillos in question are L’Cha Dodi and Keil Adon. The majority of Ashkenazic, non- Yeshivish Shuls typically will sing both of these songs all together as one, while the more Yeshivish minyanim and nusach Sefard have the custom that the chazzan sing the first paragraph and the congregation sing/hum the song but only say the words afterwards. * This determination may no longer be of any concern to an existing group, but when a new congregation, shul, is formed, the customs and traditions must be formulated and decided upon. To my knowledge, there is no book or manual that lays out all the options of what should or should not be done. In fact, there are times in the history of a congregation that the customs were changed based upon certain extenuating factors.

I was recently perusing through a sefer titled Kisvei HaGaon by Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin Zt”l. In volume one, page 163 of the Eidus L’Yisrael section, Rav Henkin writes about who goes first – the ”chazan then congregation – or the congregation then chazzan”. Rav Henkin beautifully outlines a rule of thumb, clearly explaining why the custom may sometimes dictate that the chazzan goes first, followed by the Tzibbur (congregation), and at other times the reverse is followed. If the piyyut, the poem, is simple, meaning there is no refrain, then the chazzan goes first, followed by the congregation.  Rav Henkin offers a few examples: Keil Adon, Shema Yisrael, and Hashem Hu HaElokim (7x) at the end of Neilah on Yom Kippur, along with many others. In these examples, the chazzan is the leader and goes first. But if a  piyyut, a poem, has a beginning and an end, including a refrain - for example L’Cha Dodi, Malachei Rachamim, and Yisroel Nosha, sung on the High holidays, along with other examples,  the chazzan sings the main body of the poem and the congregation completes it. So, if the chazzan says Shamor v’Zachor in L’Cha Dodi, the congregation follows by ending it with the refrain of L’Cha Dodi. But, in principle, if the congregation had previously said Shamor v’Zachor first, then the chazzan, followed by the congregation, completes it with the refrain. We find the same principle holds true regarding  blessings that both the chazzan and the congregation will recite. The most famous example is reciting of Shehecheyanu on Yom Kippur eve. The chazzan will begin to say the blessing out loud, while the congregation is instructed to say it along with him in an undertone and finish the blessing before the chazzan so that the congregation can say ‘Amen’ to the leader’s Bracha.

Perhaps people are adamant regarding their own customs because of their emotional attachment to their heritage despite the intellectual and sound halachik basis to the contrary. I would like to suggest- and share - an original idea based upon the famous Midrash in Devarim Rabba as to perhaps where there could be a basis for the plethora of ways and customs the Jewish people have become accustomed to practice.

The Torah in this week’s Parshas VaEschanan states in Devarim 3:23: "ואתחנן אל ה' בעת ההיא לאמר"  “: At that time [Moshe] pleaded with God, saying, The Midrash Rabbah 11:10. From where do we know that at that time Moshe prayed five hundred fifteen times? (And, according to the Ba’al HaTurim, the number of 515 is the same as the word שירה  /song that Moshe sang in front of Hashem so his prayers should be heard?) As it states, our same verse of VaEschanan also has the numerical value of 515. Chaza”l describe Moshe praying with ten different לשונות  - either understood as languages or different forms and variations of prayer. I would suggest that the sources of all the various customs stem from these myriad of prayers and forms that Moshe Rabbeinu used in his plea to enter Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe’s manner of Tefilla set the stage for how future congregations determined their specific practices. Perhaps some of those Tefillos were long and drawn out while others were short and quick. Maybe some of them were accompanied by singing, repeating refrains out loud while other prayers were said silently and more seriously. Maybe some of the davening grew through ways of dancing and clapping, even including the use of some accompanying  instruments, while others were of a more somber note, davening quietly while standing still. Moshe Rabbeinu was, in essence, the choir leader of the Jewish people during his lifetime, setting the parameters of Tefillah for all future congregations and kehillos Yisroel for all time. May all  the Tefillos of Klal Yisroel everywhere in the world bang on the gates of prayer and finally answer our prayers for Yeshuos V’Nechamos and truly experience the comfort the Jewish people so desperately need in our time.    

*This analysis is by no means complete and across every congregation and custom, but rather strictly my observations alone.

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784