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Friday, January 15, 2010


The first communal prayer “service” took place on the shores of the Reed Sea. The way they prayed on that day continues to resonate in our contemporary synagogues.

When the people were safe on the Eastern shore of the Reed Sea, when they realized they were finally and completely free, they spontaneously knew to praise their God who led them to freedom. "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song unto the Lord and spoke saying…” (Exodus 15:1).

But how did they sing? The particular, and somewhat odd, wording of the verse offers the sages the opportunity to speculate on the manner in which the song was sung. The details of their grammatical problem may lead us astray; it is sufficient to know that it led the sages to find multiple possibilities for how to recite this prayer. The sages, on B. Sotah 30a, suggest four models for reciting the Song of the Sea. Each of these models is recognizable in the regular synagogue service. I encourage you to consider how these methods fit in your own style of prayer.

1) A litany.
According to the Tosefta (T. Sotah 6:2) Rabbi Akiba teaches that the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, recited the song for Moses, much the way God spoke to Moses in other places. Moses repeated those words to the people. “How did they say that song? Like an adult who recites the Hallel [for the congregation] and they answered him with his opening refrain.” Moses, Akiba suggests, is the “adult” and the people are the responding congregation. They are the newly freed slaves who are not yet capable of, or obliged to act with, adult behavior. Moses recites the song like a litany that might be heard in a contemporary church service. As Moses recites the people respond to each new phrase with one set phrase, “I will sing to the Lord.” I can imagine the steady, repetitive voices of the people building in strength and emotion as Moses recites the dramatic verses of this song.

A contemporary version of Baruch She-Amar has the cantor singing through the prayer while the congregation responds to each line with the words, “baruch hu u-varuch shemo.” The sing-song rhythm builds and gives power to the words of the prayer.

2) Repeat after me.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yosi HaGalili suggests that “They proclaimed the song like a child who proclaims the Hallel [in synagogue-worship], responding to him with the foregoing phrase.” This is the way we traditionally recite the closing passages of the Hallel, the Songs of Praise recited on holidays. The reader chants the entire phrase and the congregation echoes those words. Particularly for one who is not fluent in the language of prayer, like the newly freed slaves, this method allows one to speak in an awe-filled moment.

3) Antiphonal chanting.
Rabbi Nehemiah offers a third alternative. “[They proclaimed the song] like men who recite the Shema’ in the synagogue-worship… for he first opens, and the rest reply following him.” According to Tosefot’s comment on this passage Rabbi Nehemiah envisions Moses reciting the first half of each verse and the people answering him with the second half of the verse. Each matches the other as the words of prayer grow and deepen.

This is the way we chant Ashrey, Psalm 145, with the reader and the congregation chanting alternate verses, each answering the other. In contrast to the models offered by Rabbi Akiba or Rabbi Eleazar, here the reader and the congregation are peers. Each side speaks their words independently, but they are connected one to the other. Both are necessary voices if the prayer is to express its full praise.

4) Individual prayer.
Without the commentary of Tosefot I would have assumed Rabbi Nehemia to say that
Moses sang out the opening words and then everyone continued individually. This describes many traditional services. The shaliach tzibur, prayer leader, chants the opening words of the prayer and each person proceeds on their own.

Rabbi Nehemia gives everyone more credit. He presents Moses as one who is accustomed to spend time in the synagogue and who knows the proper protocol. Once Moses indicates that it is time to offer these praises everyone takes responsibility for themselves. This is a band of equals who speak to God each on their own behalf.

As I noted above all of these modes of prayer exist in our contemporary synagogue service. Which fits you the best? Do you prefer to be led, or would you prefer to speak for yourself?

Some of the hottest trends in the Jewish world suggest that how we pray matters. Tablet Magazine recently ran an article titled, “Prayer Unbound”, which reviewed the trend toward niche siddurim (prayerbooks), the on-line wiki-like “Open Siddur Project”, with some comment on the proliferation of independent minyanim. They quote Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar: “When people are not satisfied by traditional prayer service, is it the words or the performance of the prayers that’s tripping them up?” For those who are creating their own prayerbooks or their own minyanim, how we pray matters.

The debate in B. Sotah 30b confirms that the way we pray has mattered from the start. The alternative modes of prayer described by Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yosi HaGalili and Rabbi Nehemia echo our modern debate of how best to construct prayerbooks and lead services. One hopes that within that debate, however, we do not lose track of the most important point: prayer is a tool to help us express praise to the One who brought us out of Egyptian bondage and continually renews the work of creation each day.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

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