August 10, 2010
When I was a kid in yeshiva, we played a game during davening (prayer services) called siddur (prayer book) baseball. We mostly played this at Orthodox summer camp during Shabbat services — because it was baseball season, and because Shabbat services were much longer than the daily service.
It was a game that demanded no skill. When it was your turn to bat, you closed the siddur and opened it up to any page. If the first letter on the page was an aleph, you had hit a single; if the was a bet, it was a double; a gimmel meant a triple; and a daled was a home run. Entire rows of kids — we sat on long benches — could be seen opening and closing their siddurim and mumbling something like “man on first, two out.”
We did this because we were bored out of our minds. And remember, we knew what the words meant. We had studied the siddur and Hebrew all our lives.
We were bored for a number of reasons, chief among them being that the davening was so long — usually more than three hours.
According to studies that I have been told about (but cannot confirm), most people are able to pray with meaning for a maximum of one hour. And, indeed, among the monotheistic religions, Jewish services are by far the longest. Christian services are usually an hour and fifteen minutes, and the longest Muslim service is about an hour (including a sermon).
I am convinced that most Orthodox Jews agree with this assessment. First, many Orthodox Jews do not arrive at shul when services begin. Second, while there is less talking than there used to be in Orthodox shuls, there is still a fair amount of talking during services, while others can be seen reading the Chumash (Torah book) or some other religious text. Third, many Orthodox Jews now attend what are called hashkama minyanim, (early) services that are completed in under two hours. One Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan reads the portion of the Torah before davening. And those who attend such services boast of how quickly their minyan gets through the service.
There is, of course, a major problem with getting through the service in two hours. It means davening at such a fast speed that Evelyn Wood, creator of speed-reading courses, would be impressed. Few mortals can pray with kavanah (meaning, proper intent) while reading at a speed that does not allow for reflection.
This problem is apparently worldwide. I remember visiting the major synagogue of Beirut, Lebanon, many years ago and seeing only one sign, which was in Hebrew: “Asur l’daber bish’at hatefilah” — “It is forbidden to speak during services.”
The most obvious solution to this problem is to shorten the length of the service. Which is exactly what many do by speeding up the davening, eliminating the sermon and having little music or singing. But those solutions raise other problems, of which speed-reading the davening is only one. Another is that elimination of a sermon means little or no learning or religious inspiration takes place. And little or no music poses a third problem, given how inspiring music is.
The real answer lies in cutting out some of the prayers. Why, for example, is the Amidah repeated (twice on Shabbat!)?
And if the Shabbat davening is too long, we simply lack the proper word to describe the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. The traditional machzor (holy day prayer book) is replete with piyutim (religious poetry) written in a medieval Hebrew that no Jews I know, including Israelis, understand.
And while we’re considering changes, how about a lot less standing? Most Jews, while standing, are thinking more about when they can sit again than about any prayer they are reciting. I challenge any rabbi who differs to ask his congregation to stand during his next sermon. If standing focuses the mind, why not have the congregation stand during the rabbi’s sermon?
I fully recognize that some Jews love all the prayers, find standing meaningful and regard the length of the prayer service as sublime. But I believe they constitute a minority even among that minority of Jews who regularly attend services. Nor do I believe that all of them find the prayer service particularly inspiring. Rather, they enjoy the familiarity of the service and the camaraderie of fellow Jews (neither of which I in any way disparage).
For all these reasons, my ideal service has much less davening, much more learning and much more music. Speaking solely for myself, I find that studying or teaching the Torah enhances my faith more than prayers do.
I have tried to put my ideals into practice. I have led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the last three years here in Los Angeles, and I am doing so again this year. The 300 people who attend — many of whom have rarely or never attended High Holiday services — seem to respond quite favorably. And my services are not much shorter than others; it is the davening that is shorter.
I do not offer my suggestions as definitive, or even as necessarily original. I am only certain that there is a shul crisis and that the shul service, with its overlong davening, is one reason. Adults do not play siddur baseball; they just don’t attend.