Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Titles vs. Substance, and Prayers for Shavuot night

Common sense dictates that marketing is no substitute for substance, but that doesn’t stop people, including rabbis and synagogues, from investing far too much of their time and energy into advertising instead of into תוכן (content).

Example: Fledgling rabbis often give their shiurim provocative or mystifying titles, as a way of drawing an audience. The problem is that if the class isn’t as fascinating as the title, the result is (1) a dissatisfied audience, and (2) an audience that won’t trust your titles in the future.

I learned that lesson early on. In my second year in the rabbinate, I gave a talk before Rosh HaShanah on the 13 attributes of Divine mercy. I wanted a title that would be more engaging than “13 attributes of mercy,” so I billed it as “Diamonds and Water Polo.” The talk did have something to do with each of those (viewing the 13 as 13 facets of a single diamond, or as individual members of a team, a la 13 players on a water polo team, oriented toward the same goal), but it really was not all that relevant, and I recall one couple who were turned off by it.

I was reminded of this when a friend showed me satiric tefillot for Shavuos night; among the practices they pick on is that of the hyper-dramatic and misleading title.

There is a standard prayer upon entering/exiting the beit midrash (Berachot 28b - translation from here):
“It should be your will, the Lord my God, that no mishap should occur because of me, and I should not err in a halakhic matter and my colleagues will rejoice over me, and I should not declare the impure pure or the pure impure, and my colleagues should not err in a halakhic matter and I will rejoice over them."

What does he say when he leaves? "I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction.

These prayers for Shavuot night are a comedic riff on those tefillot, with segments of Tefillat haDerech (the wayfarer’s prayer) interspersed as well; the translation is my own:

Before study:

May it be Your will that no mishap should occur because of the gabbaim, that the drinks should be hot and the borekas should be excellent all night, and save me from poor and unidentifiable borekas lest I err and declare the cheese potato and the potato cheese, and lest I stumble and be seduced to attend a shiur with a provocative, promising title like, “Was Goliath a dwarf?” only to reveal that Goliath was actually a giant.

And save me from shiurim which often come into this world, the titles of which end with the word, “Really?” as in, “Yosef the Tzaddik: Really?” the contents of which are not like their exterior, which, counter to their title, are actually frighteningly dull.

And lest I accidentally enter a shiur with an explosive title like, “The historiography of the book of Kings II in the light of deterministic research,” taught by a rabbi who is also a professor or a professor who is also a rabbi, the content of which is like their exterior, and not only is their title incomprehensible, but so is their content.

And may I merit to enter shiurim in which one can sleep from the first sentence to the last, such as, “The laws of borer on Shabbat,” or, “The view of the Ritva in the discussion of Pesach which occurs on Shabbat.” And make available to me a tall person who will sit before me and hide me while I sleep, and I will rejoice over him, and arrange a shorter person behind me, and he will rejoice over me.

And after study:

I am thankful to You, that You have have placed my lot among those who dwell in the back of the beit midrash, and not with those who sit in the first row, for I sleep and they sleep, I sleep for half of the shiur, including snoring, and they sleep for half a second and immediately nod to the speaker as though they are listening. I eat and they eat; I eat whenever I am able to escape to the dining room, and they eat the remnants that I leave for them. I am bored and they are bored; I am bored and read the advertisements in the Shabbat bulletins, and they are bored and they are bewildered by the boring source sheet before them.

And save me today and every day from a bad chazan who sings melodies at 4 AM, and from a bad friend who pokes my shoulders whenever I sleep, and from an abnormal prayer in the Carlebach style. And return me home in peace, speedily in our days, and make my wife’s cheesecake sweet in my mouth, Amen.


  1. Good stuff!

    I've never yet had occasion to teach on Shavuot night, but if I ever do, I plan to use lots of visual and tactile aids.

  2. Yawn.
    We have a shiur in our house Shavuot afternoon.

  3. Will the programming tomorrow night be as entertaining as your post?

  4. Isaac-
    I assume "tactile" is a paddle for the sleepers, but what will you use for the visual?

    I've always wanted to have an afternoon reprisal of the Shavuot night shiurim, but I've been concerned that it would seriously erode the nighttime audience.

    I can only take responsibility for 3-5 AM.

  5. rickismom, Anonymous 5:12 AM, Tzipporah-
    Thanks, but if you mean the prayer, I'm just the translator.

  6. Around here, That Guy I Married is responsible for cheesecake prep.

    And an excellent job he does, at that.