Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

The Book, the Prayer, and the Heart in Tension

November 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Prayer

The Book, the Prayer, and the Heart in Tension

by Nathaniel Helfgot

It has become a widespread phenomenon in many Modern-Orthodox asheknazi kehillot (as well as a number of haredi ones as well) to experience Tisha Be-Av morning (and its mourning) in a different fashion than had been practiced for decades and centuries.  I refer to the fact that instead of simply reciting all of the kinnot printed in the kinnot booklets, from a-z,  congregations recite selected elegies, often accompanied by short or lengthy explanations. This phenomenon is certainly a legacy of the famous kinnot sessions in Onset, MA and then later in Brookline that maran ha-Rav zt”l led from the mid-1950’s through the early 1980’s in which he recited selected kinnot and engaged in lengthy and profound examinations of their themes and meaning. Tisha be-Av became a day of limmud ha-kinnot and recitation of only 15-20 elegies printed in the book. This model which the Rav popularized certainly fell in line with the admonition of the Shulchan Arukh in OH-#1 that “Tov lomar m’at Tachanunim in Harbeih kavanah, milomar harbeh im m’at kavanah-It is better to recite a few petitionary prayers with a lot of devotion and intent than recite many with a little devotion and intent”. In a word, the halakha here mandates that less is more. While this model is certainly rooted in classical halakhic sources, it still represented a departure from the classical Germanic-ashkenazic tradition of saying everything in the book, whether it came to selihot, yotzrot, piyutim or kinnot.

 While this model of “ less is more” has clearly come to dominate in many kehillot when it comes to kinnot, the same cannot be said when it comes to the selihot of erev Rosh Hashanah, at least from my experience.  Curiously, at least outside of Israel, in most kehillot, the very lengthy and difficult selihot of erev Rosh Hashanah are recited in their entirety, often at breakneck speed, with little time for devotion and no explanations offered at all.  While the Rav himself directed his minyan (as I confirmed with veterans of the Maimonides minyan) to engage in the same process of recitation of only a portion of the selihot printed for erev Rosh Hashanah, this model does not seem to have taken off when it comes to erev Rosh Hashanah (A rabbinic colleague informed me that this too was the practice of Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l in Yeshivat Chaim Berlin.  According to the story, in response to a person who critiqued him for shortening these selihot, Rav Hutner responded with his typical sharp sarcasm- tov lomar me-at  bli kavanah, mi-lomar harbeh bli kvanah!).

I have been told that in a few kehillot, including in Alon Shvut, this indeed has become the practice, but it clearly does not have the kind of widespread reach that the kinnot phenomenon has achieved.  A rabbinic colleague has told me that he believes that he feels that despite the fact that most laypeople simply “daven it up” quickly with out any real understanding, the constant rhythmic repetition of the 13 attributes of mercy is a powerful experience that should not be revised in any shape. I personally am not sure whether repeating the 13 attributes ten  times  as happens in the selective model times as opposed to reciting them twenty times really undercuts the achievement of that goal. On a number of occasions, both during my semicha studies twenty years ago and in more recent years I have been privileged to lead minyanim where the same hour and a half or so devoted to the recitation of all the selihot was devoted to saying half of them with explanations, background and to the saying of those selected selihot  more slowly with devotion. In all those settings, I know that the words of the Shulchan Arukh really rang true in my religious experience of connecting to the selihot and the approaching Yom ha-Din.

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