Saturday, April 3, 2010

And a child shall lead them - or not?

[This week's Pesach Haveil Havalim is here]

I’m conflicted about assigning youths to lead davening and to lein certain Torah readings in shul. I can see the sides all too well; I don’t know that I have a conclusion, other than the fact that when I ran the shul I always let them fill most roles.

Here are some of the arguments I see:

1. The role of leading davening, particularly in moments of real supplication or special emotional freight, should be assigned to people who know what they are doing, and who are suited for the task.

I know what you're thinking - or, at least, what I'm thinking: There you go, Torczyner, off on another rant. But, really: How can a teenager express the world-weary soul-searching of a Kohelet, how can a yeshiva boy know the anxious heart that cries when praying for rain at Geshem, how can a glib kid sing Shir haShirim without having experienced the depth of love and loss that drives the narrative?

More: How can a grandparent, a cancer patient, a woman dealing with a painful divorce, feel that this child is her representative?

We have halachic precedent for limiting certain roles to leaders, to people with family; perhaps we should apply the principle to a greater set of roles?

2. Does a youngster have the maturity to know and feel what it means to lead a community, and to be responsible, at least in part, for the success of their prayers?

Which is greater in the manchild's mind, his own on-stage role or his obligation to appeal to Gd on behalf of the community? "Look, Ma!" or "I hit the note!" is not what I want my baal musaf to be thinking. [Yes, I'm being a curmudgeon. And, yes, this goes back to my general mistrust of chazanim. Sorry.]

3. To go back the other way, though: We are obligated to train our children and young adults for leadership positions! Don’t we risk souring them if we render these roles off-limits until some undetermined date when they have seen enough of life, suffered enough that we feel they understand? "Sure, kid, you can do that when you're thirty."

4. And to provide another argument in favor: It's not as though our adults are such princes. Most younger people harbor greater innocence, having experienced less but also having sinned less. The yeshiva boy’s sins tend to be more personal, more confined to a certain sphere, and less publicly known, and he is less likely to have offended the community he leads. Perhaps we are better off having the young lead.

5. And another reason not to regulate these roles: Observant Judaism is already tiresomely heirarchical, and we have enough limitations on who can do what, where, and when. Should we create another set of barriers and rules, declaring still more honors off-limits – and with a fairly arbitary system of managing these honors?

I can see it now: "Ritual committee, here you go: Design a whole new playbook of who gets to lain Maftir Yonah, the Tochachah, the death of Moshe, Miriam's tzaraat... and while you're at it, go through the shul membership list and check off people who are qualified to daven maariv each night."

I am torn. I lean toward the latter three points, especially #5, but I’m really not sure.


  1. Our shul is a rather large one, davening with 6 different minyanim on Shabbos and 2-3 more for the Yomim Naroyim. One of those minyanim is a "teen" minyan, where the younger males lead the tefillah and do most of the leining. They get the practice they need as well as seeing up close and personal how to be a baal tefillah. When they "graduate" to the other minyanim many of them are well prepared to assume the role of baal tefilah if called upon.

    So many boys are taught to lein for their bar mitzvahs and then are given no chance to do so again until they are much older, when much of what they learned is forgotten, or they haven't been allowed to develop the desire to lein or to daven for the omed. Shouldn't one of the things that Klal does be to have in place a way to include the younger generations and to inculcate the desire to be active participants in davening?

  2. As with all things you need to crawl before you can run. Beginning leiners should start out with Mincha on Shabbat or on Monday/Thursday mornings. Rosh Chodesh is also a good place for them to start and a service to the community as this needs to be done often.

    By the same token Sunday or civil holiday mornings are a good time for an "amateur" baal tefilah to do Pezukai Dazimrah or Shacharit, when there is a bit more time and people are a bit more relaxed as the new ones tend to go a bit slower as they are unsure of themselves. Or again, average day Mincha or Ma'ariv.

    Once there is success here you can graduate to Shabbat and at some point to Yom Tov. You need to begin and perfect the craft in the minors first before you get to go to the big leagues.

  3. I agree with your points of principle; and after all is said, I too lean towards #5. In an ideal world I'd like to see everyone davening like I remember the yeshiva on Yom Kippur. Aint gonna happen soon.

    I well remember a rather large shul I attended years ago. Official policy said that only the hazzan can lead davening, and only Mr. M may do layning. Needless to say, the youngsters were frustrated and turned off. So was I, actually. When a successful teen minyan was started upstairs, the board forced its closure pretty quickly. We were keeping the teens from hearing the hazzan. That's the sort of thinking we're up against in some places...

  4. Another thing to consider is that some of the adult men I've heard lead davening aren't all that skilled themselves, only recently having learned the service. ...and the flipside of that is that many of the men familiar with the service daven so fast, I believe they are doing by rote and not with true Kavannah. A boy who is instructed to really make it meaningful would do no worse -- and perhaps add something.

    On the other hand, I do agree that some parts may be awkward for adults to hear from a youngster.

  5. I think your answer will depend on what you think the main point of davening is.

    Is it primarily to affect the people praying, and their emotions and future actions?

    Or is it primarily an offering to Hashem, to replace the ancient Temple sacrifices?

    You can then make your points in relation to the ultimate goal.

  6. what changed since s"a o"c 4:24?
    Joel Rich

  7. No doubt,
    there are some parts of the prayers and layning that are not suitable for teens to do.

    eg Kol Nidrei!
    or the curses
    or the ten commandments

    (my sons lein regularly in shul and I am not against not letting them doven)

  8. ProfK-
    You bet; chinuch is, on some level, a communal activity.

    Anonymous 11:12 PM-
    Sounds like a reasonable path to me, yes.

    R' Mordechai-

    Yes, that's what I meant when I noted that many of the adults are no prize either.

    And not both?

    Personal sensitivities have changed, I suspect. Or he may have just been writing for an ideal rather than real world situation.


  9. I think the key is proper management and balance. There are two extremes: having only one chazzan do the davening (as in Mordechai Scher's case), in which case no one else can participate and therefore become frustrated, and having only congregants lead, with the result that the nusah suffers and there is no knowledgable person to teach the next generation (as in Fruma's case). When I was growing up in Allentown, we had a hazzan who would do only parts of the davening and different ones each week (e.g. one week Shacharis, the next week Musaf) and would spread the wealth around by asking knowledgable laymen and kids he himself trained to daven the rest.
    In my case, I was trained in the nusah of pesukei de-zimrah before bar-Mitzvah and was given the chance to lead it even then. As time went on, the chazzan trained me in the more complex parts of the service (e.g. Musad, Shacharis) which I was able to do once I was bar-Mitzvah. The system was good because even "amateur" kids could become skilled ba'alei tefillah by being taught, without sacrificing the beauty of the davening (incidentally, many distinguish between a chazzan, who is a trained professional, and a "ba'al tefillah" who is a trained layperson able to lead the davening well). And if a system is in place, there is no reason to have to choose between kids and adults: anyone can train within the system for whatever davening he wants and can eventually lead.
    On a different note, I appreciate your attempt to get away from your initial dislike of hazzanim, but I really don't understand why your initial reaction to chazzanim is as negative as it is. Your initial reaction to chazzanim (as you intimated) is based on judging an entire category of people by focusing on the worst of them - it would be like me judging all rabbis as arrogant based on the fact that learning "necessarily" leads to arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Obviously, this does happen, but I would think that most rabbis are sincere in their desire to learn. Why do you always assume that chazzanim who feel music in their souls, so to speak, and feel the need for the davening to have that beauty are just in it to hear themselves sing? For many, "hitting a high note" makes the davening so much more beautiful and intricate than an an untrained layman rushing through a paragraph. Why shouldn't he be proud of that accomplishment? Unless you assume it's wrong for a yeshiva bochur or even a rabbi, to be proud to have been able to finish a masechta...