Monday, January 28, 2013

Communal Representative, Personal Epiphany?

The sh'liach tzibbur - the leader of the community's prayers - faces a real challenge.

On one hand, the sh'liach tzibbur represents the community, and his prayers should be calibrated to match the community's needs. If people are in a rush to get to work, or if they are not accustomed to extended singing, or if it's Pesach night and they want to get home to start the Seder, he should not take his time and embark upon his own personal journey of spiritual and musical discovery, lest he frustrate the people and cause disgrace to the davening as they talk or leave. [Of course, rabbis are often cynical regarding cantorial song; see my 2009 post, "Cantors Behaving Badly", for an example.] And the reverse is true: if people are into singing, or they embrace a longer davening, he should not impose his own haste upon their pace.

On the other hand, the sh'liach tzibbur is still a private citizen, with a right to his own davening, and his own connection with Gd. Particularly when the sh'liach tzibbur is not a volunteer, but rather he agrees to lead services because no one else is available, he should not be denied the right to his own spirituality. If we may exercise an imagined right to impose upon him to lead, by what right do we remove his personal prayer?

And then there is a third hand: Perhaps the sh'liach tzibbur should be viewed as a leader, a source of inspiration, his music and his passion bearing the community aloft to spiritual heights even when they are not, initially, of such a mindset? Is he obligated to do so? And ought we to let ourselves go, abandoning our personal baggage and adopting the mood of the leader?

What do you think?


  1. ? The shliach tzibbur has his personal prayer just like anyone else. He's only a shliach for chazarat hasha"tz. And it's well established that the greatest rabbonim cut their prayers short so that they wouldn't "burden the congregation"; is J Random Cantor's prayer more significant than theirs?

  2. Very interesting article. My husband is the Shaliach Tzibbur at our Shul and I often wonder how he balances his own desire to daven with the needs of the Kehillah. My perspective is that he always puts the needs of the community before his own. It is one of the things that I admire most about him.

  3. imho in the words of tevye - there is no other hand.
    he is the representative - better question imho is what he is thinking about during the chazarat hashatz,his needs or the kahal's.
    Joel Rich

  4. As an occasional shliach tzibbur for weekday and Shabbat shacharit. I often find that the Rav's davening, which I can hear from the amud, is out of synch with me and seemingly the congregation too. What is the proper thing to do, particularly when the Rav arrives late (typically near or past the end of Korbanot) and is catching up?

  5. Isn't this what we're looking for in a rav, a cantor, or a shaliach tzibbur? Someone to inspire us? Maybe it's not fair to the individual who takes it upon himself to lead the davening, but most people need some inspiration here and there.

    And doesn't it inspire the shaliach tzibbur when he knows that he's inspiring others?

  6. > On the other hand, the sh'liach tzibbur is still a private citizen,

    This is why I try to stay away from the job. A shaliach tzibur up front is like a doctor on duty. The doctor is still a private citizen but when someone comes into the ER he has to take care of them no matter what. If he doesn't like that he shouldn't be at work.
    No one is forced to be a ShT (I realize that looks bad) but once they have taken on the responsibility they have to live with it.

  7. Joe in Australia-
    This is true, but the sh'liach tzibbur faces unique pressures even during his private shemoneh esreih. At least within my own experience, focussing when I am about to do chazaras hashatz is more difficult. And this still leaves my question regarding the impact he should seek during his repetition.

    Justine -
    Admirable, certainly. But I wonder: Should he, perhaps, seek to lead them in a particular direction?

    Why not the kahal's needs?

    I'd suggest that a private conversation with the Rav would be helpful here; different rabbonim and shuls have different preferences.

    I'm not sure everyone is seeking inspiration, especially during weekday tefillos, or on days with a long krias hatorah. Whether they should be seeking it is a different question, of course.

    You might take a look at "Not Me" is alive and well in Gabbailand...

    1. So I read the piece and I understand the gabbai's frustration. Now here's the other side of the story:
      1) You're tapped by the gabbai to lead Shacharis but as Nishmas draws to a close and you're about to go up the guy who did it last week goes running up to the amud, not because he was asked but because he wasn't asked not to.
      2) You're tapped to lead Mussaf and just before you go up the gabbai says "Oh sorry about that but there's a guy here who really wants to do it and I'm sure you're okay with that"
      3) You're tapped to lead Shacharis by one gabbai while the other asks another guy who then goes running up after you've started to walk towards the bimah and now look like a pretentious idiot.
      4) You get up to the bimmah and you hear one of the old men who would have preferred to be picked snort "Him again, he must think it's a yerushah for him"
      5) You ask to lead Shacharis and are told that because you did it last month they're trying to find someone else and then you realize that the only time you're asked is when no one else wants it. That scraping sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel and you realize it's you.
      So yeah, I understand the gabbai's point of view but I don't sympathize any more.

    2. I hear re: the other side - but in my experience, the accounts I put in that post occur more frequently...

  8. Thoughts on one foot. I think that the ideal Sh'liach tzibbur gauges the kahal(knowing that they are not homogeneous) and does his best to bring them to greater heights of kavvanah. If they are in a hurry, then perhaps the most that he can accomplish is a little nudge while keeping a pace that will not irritate. It means using tunes that people either know or will pick up(if one is going to be Chazzan a number of times, or if a tune is particularly catchy/moving, there obviously can be exceptions). If the Chazzan can increase his own kavvanah, it will be noted by the kahal, so it isn't a zero sum game-chazzan up, kahal down. It can be a win win scenario. However, if one part has to dominate, the needs of the tzibbur outweigh those of the person. If the chazzan doesn't think that the tzibbur deserve his putting his own needs second, perhaps he shouldn't daven for the amud.

  9. r'rh,
    my point-how many do?
    Joel Rich

  10. Noam-
    Very much agreed, on all points.