Amidah antics -OR- The way Reform Jews should think about prayer

The following is a follow-up of sorts to William Berkson’s excellent post about commandedness in the Reform movment.

A Shabat morning with Chavurat Lamdeinu, progressive non-denominational minyan extraordinaire, is always full of oddities, whether it’s just the assortment of people or the comments made throughout the service. This week was no different, except that this week’s major oddity was a fantastic education in obscure litrugical rules and a perfect example of what bothers me about the way we Reform Jews threat our prayers.

When I arrived to services this morning, Tanach study had just wrapped up so a few people had just left. Unfortunately, not enough showed up to replace them. I was the ninth person to arrive for services, making today’s crowd a small one, even for us.

In accordance with standard rules about how to daven with no minyan, we skipped Kadishes and the Barchu. In the middle of our silent, minyan-less Amidah, two more people showed up, putting us over the top at eleven pray-ers. I did not know it, but apparently we were then faced with a dilemma.

Though we now had the requisite number for a minyan, we hadn’t declared ourselves so, making a bit of backtracking necessary. As I learned this morning, one of the purposes of the Barchu is to declare that the community is complete and has at least the minimum number of people for a minyan. So we went back to the Barchu.

After the Barchu, a little bit of splitting up was required. The two new arrivals needed to do the stuff they’d missed, so they continued silently at breakneck pace with Yotzer Or, trying to catch up to those of us who’d shown up on time. The rest of us returned our attention to the Amidah.

In a more ritually conservative community, the Amidah is recited once by the congregation silently, followed by an out-loud repetition by the Chazan. Normally at Chavurat Lamdeinu we use a medieval invention called (I’m gonna get this wrong because I just learned about it this morning and have never seen it spelled out) a Heyga Kadisha (dear God, someone please comment and correct me). This little innovation involved saying just the first three parts of the Amidah (Avot v’Imahot, G’vurot, Kadisha) out loud, and then reading the rest silently.

Unforunately, we could not do that this week. Having already recited the Amidah silently when there were only nine of us, we were locked into the system of a silent Amidah followed by an out-loud chazan repetition. Luckily, amongst us was a single man who, although I don’t know his full story, must have some amount of training in traditional Ashkenazi chavanut. He belted out a fantastically loud, operatic repetition of the Amidah.

All of this done, we could continue with a full Torah service.

Why do I say that this story exemplifies my issue with Reform treatment of liturgy? Because in Reform synagogues, people often go on with full service even if there’s only nine people. Because in Reform synagogues, even if you lack a minyan and you’re actually behaving that way, if a tenth person shows up in the middle of the Amidah, you would never go through any of this.

Now before anyone goes off thinking what I initially thought upon learning all of the above this morning, let me stop you right there. I thought that this Heyga Kadisha (or whatever it’s called) was the norm in the Reform movment for a moment. Until someone stopped me and pointed out that although Reform Jews often do the first three aloud, followed by th rest silently, they also often sit down after the first three or go on to song Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav aloud, or go off on some cantorial solo for R’tzeih.

We seem dead set in this movement on toying with the words of the service, sprinkling our prayers with poetic readings and whatnot. On the contrary, I hold that the real poetry of the service comes from its structure and from the laws and the details that we often disregard as silly Orthodox stuff, throwing it out the window along with our tefilin and the 10% donation to the poor. It is attention to this stuff and educating ourselves and our peers about this stuff that will truly make people not just enjoy services as an aesthetic experience, which often seems to be our chief liturgical concern, but really understand the grand-scale meaning of the service.

Amen. Selah. Shabat Shalom.

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7 Responses to Amidah antics -OR- The way Reform Jews should think about prayer

  1. Elf's DH September 27, 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    I did not know it, but apparently we were then faced with a dilemma.
    In more liturgically conservative (lower case c) congregations, the dilemma is whether to wait for a minyan before Shacharit (usually at “shochen ad”) or not. The procedures of what to do without a minyan are pretty well set. A repetition is started only when the silent amidah started with 10 in the room. If there was none at that time, there is no need to go back and make sure that a repetition is done. When you get a minyan, continue with taking out the Torah. You’ll make up barchu when people are called up for aliyot.

    Good point about the structure of the service being important.

  2. Elf's DH September 27, 2008 at 9:12 pm #

    One correction: some would start the repetition, as normal, if there were at least 7 in the room at the time of the start of the silent Amidah.

  3. davidamwilensky September 28, 2008 at 8:39 am #

    Thanks as always for you comments, DH.

  4. davidamwilensky September 28, 2008 at 8:42 am #

    When I have a question about liturgy, I know I can always rely on Dr. Richard Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought at HUC, to answer my question. So I e-mailed him a link to this post wondering if I actually knew what the hell I was talking about in this post. Here’s his response:

    The “heikhi kedushah” custom to which you refer is North American Conservative, though based (if I recall correctly) on SOME medieval opinions. I have never seen this done in Orthodox minyanim, since halakhically speaking, there is never any abbreviation of the reader’s repetition of the Amidah, for either Shaharit or Musaf. (The issue of Mei’ein Sheva on Friday night is different: there is never a reader’s repetition of the Amidah in the evening service, but this is compromised ONLY on Erev Shabbat, allowing for an abbreviated reader’s repetition: Magen Avot, preceded–following Babylonian custom–with an abbreviated Avot and followed by the last paragraph of Kedushat Hayom.) The “heikhi kedushah” custom originates (again, as far as I know) in Conservative congregations more recently as a way of dealing with the double repetition of the Amidah at Shaharit and Musaf. The Shaharit Amidah is handled traditionally (recited silently, then a full reader’s repetition); the Musaf Amidah is not. Instead, the entire congregation recites Avot and Gevurot together with the Sh’liah Tzibbur, followed by the Kedushah. At that point, the congregation is seated and the rest of the Amidah is chanted by the Sh’liah Tzibbur; what is omitted is the silent recitation. This mimics traditional “choreography” because after the silent Amidah, the congregation again stands for the reader’s repetition through the Kedushah, and then sits down (since the halakhic obligation, once the Amidah has been recited silently standing, is to stand only for the Kedushah–which cannot be recited silently because it is a communal rather than a private obligation).

    Reform custom has varied from place to place and time to time. Most recently in the US, the Union Prayer Book had the congregation stand ONLY for the Kedushah—but all of the Amidah was recited (mostly by the service leader) or sung out loud. Only the “silent prayer” was recited silently. GOP has the congregation stand for Avot, Gevurot, and Kedushah, and then be seated. But there, too, it is not the case that the rest of the Amidah is to be recited silently. The book never gives such a direction and it was always understood by the editor that the rest would be recited out loud. MT, of course, gives no directions about standing or sitting during any part of the Amidah, preferring to leave that to local custom.

    There are indeed Reform congregations in which some parts of the Shabbat Amidah after the congregation sits after the Kedushah are recited silently. Such a practice runs against all liturgical logic. Kedushat Hayom, the liturgical centerpiece of the Shabbat Amidah, should always be recited out loud–because that’s what the Shabbat Amidah is all about!! A mixture of silent and communal recitation of the Shabbat Amidah makes no sense at all. (It is more common in a Reform weekday service to see the first three benedictions recited/chanted out loud, and then the rest of the Amidah recited silently, on account of the length of the petitionary sequence. That practice is liturgically defensible as a compromise—-but NOT on Shabbat. I always tell our students here NEVER to have the Shabbat Kedushat Hayom benediction recited silently.)

    Reform congregations, rabbis, and other service leaders indeed need to be thoughtful about their performance practices, so as not to violate the logic of the liturgical structures themselves.

    Shavua tov and Shanah tovah,
    Richard Sarason

  5. Elf's DH September 29, 2008 at 8:53 am #

    I don’t know Reform custom, but, I have seen Orthodox congregations/groups use the heiche kedusha. I’ve personally seen it used because (1) The congregation is running out of time for z’man tefillah, has a minyan, and wants to get in a kedusha in the amidah and the minyan also holds the opinion that one must either finish the entire Amidah or the kedusha by the end of z’man tefillah, and (2) Or, the congregation has limited time for another, unrelated, reason (yes, even with the link below).

    A good, referenced, discussion of heche kedusha in halacha is in the mail-jewish archives.

  6. davidamwilensky September 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm #

    This post was also posted over at The posts there have taken a turn for the interesting thanks to Larry Kaufman:


  1. Amidah antics -OR- The way Reform Jews should think about prayer | RJ Blog - December 5, 2011

    […] David A.M. Wilensky (First published on The Reform Shuckle)(A follow-up of sorts to William Berkson’s post about commandedness)  A Shabat […]